Cardinals vs. Patriots: Sketching out a Game Plan for New England

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Cardinals vs. Patriots: Sketching out a Game Plan for New England
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
The Patriots are going to have to find a way to slow down Larry Fitzgerald if they want to hold court at home.

The Arizona Cardinals do not have the look of a team that will hand the New England Patriots their first loss in a home opener since 2001. They could, however, give the Patriots a run for their money. 

Their weapons on offense may be limited (one: wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald), but their defense is an underrated unit that puts pressure on the quarterback.

Let's take a look at how New England could be gearing up for its first out-of-conference foe of the 2012 season.

 

Patriots Offense vs. Cardinals Defense

Courtesy Pro Football Focus.
The Cardinals defense is underrated but got off to a hot start against the Seattle Seahawks. Since they will face each AFC East team this season, beginning with the New England Patriots on Sunday, it seems right to do an early scouting review of the unit.

The first thing that jumps out about this unit is that they blitz—a lot. On Sunday, they blitzed 23 out of 43 snaps (53.5 percent). Last season, they blitzed 275 out of 647 (42.5 percent). The Patriots will have to find ways to beat the blitz; fortunately for them, quarterback Tom Brady is almost just as good against the blitz as he is against a four-man rush.

Let's take a look at a pair of the blitzes executed by the Cardinals in Week 1.

On 3rd-and-5 with the ball on the 32-yard line, the Cardinals show a blitz out of the base 3-4 look, with linebackers Quentin Groves and Reggie Walker cheating down to the line of scrimmage before the snap.

The Cardinals blitz six and only drop five into coverage, but the Seahawks only have three receivers running routes. The pocket is clean for Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in the above screenshot but doesn't stay that way for long.

The pressure gets to Wilson just moments after he throws a pass he has no prayer of completing, with wide receiver Sidney Rice surrounded by three red jerseys—cornerback Patrick Peterson, safety Kerry Rhodes and linebacker Daryl Washington are all near the play.

Of course, if Wilson had looked to the left at all, he would have seen the two receivers on the left in single coverage.

On 1st-and-5 with the ball on the 22-yard line, the Seahawks come out in an I formation with 21 personnel—two backs, one tight end, two receivers.

In the 3-4 base, the Cardinals stack the box with eight men; the extra is a safety cheating down at the second level. 

This blitz is mild in comparison to the last one, with the Cardinals sending "just" five blitzers this time. Wilson sets up play-action, and linebacker Paris Lenon shoots the B gap between the right guard and right tackle.

Wilson pulls the ball back and looks like he's ready to unload to Rice, who is coming open on the right side of the screen, but Wilson hesitates and pulls the ball back in, eating it for a five-yard sack.

Brady is among the league's elite in recognizing coverages and blitzes and getting the ball to his open man quickly. It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals respond to tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski and whether that could dictate fewer linebacker blitzes as a result.

If the Cardinals do elect to blitz, the Patriots could take advantage with some misdirection, whether it's screen passes or draw plays. Look for the Patriots to try to capitalize on the aggressive style of play.

It will also be up to New England's offensive line and running backs in blitz protection to recognize those blitzes and respond accordingly. If right guard Dan Connolly misses the game and/or right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is limited as he was last week, the Cardinals may look to take advantage of communication issues on the right side.

 

Patriots Defense vs. Cardinals Offense

The talking point all week has been wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The defensive backs will have their hands full, and they know it. McCourty said, according to Mark Daniels of the Boston Herald:

I mean, what's the best word that describes the toughest challenge? For us in the secondary, it's going to be an incredible challenge to go out there and compete against him. I think the biggest word for us is compete. Without a doubt, he's going to make some plays but we have to try to go out there and challenge him each play. I think we know what he's capable out (sic). It's just going out there and trying to contain and compete with him.

He may be a difficult matchup, but he's known to boom or bust on the stat sheet. He has been held to fewer than five catches in 10 of the last 17 games, and he's been held to fewer than 70 yards receiving in nine of the last 17 games. Most importantly of all, he's been held without a touchdown in 10 of the last 17 games, as well.

Defending him is not impossible. Bleacher Report NFC West lead writer Tyson Langland says that McCourty should be one of at least two guys on him.

If New England wants to keep that same success they had in Week 1, they have to make sure Fitzgerald has two defenders eyeing him at all times. From a matchup standpoint, I like what Devin McCourty brings to the table. He has the perfect size and skill set it takes to man up on Fitz.

Two similar corners who played Fitzgerald well last year were Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb and Rams cornerback Josh Gordy. Both are 5'11'' and around that 190 pound mark like McCourty.

The Patriots best bet may be to put a heavy rush on quarterback Kevin Kolb, who will be the starter this week, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN. The Cardinals field a below-average offensive line, with a unit that ranked the lowest of any team in the NFL in both pass blocking and run blocking in Week 1 according to Pro Football Focus

Left tackle D'Anthony Batiste may be the weakness of the offensive line. According to PFF, he gave up five pressures and a sack in 64 snaps (9.4 percent of snaps). With Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones crashing the line from that side, Kolb could be under duress on Sunday.

On 1st-and-10, the Cardinals line up with 20 personnel—two running backs and three wide receivers. The Seahawks line up in the sub package with four down linemen and two linebackers.

Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons is known for his speed, and he gets upfield in a hurry against Batiste who doesn't engage the defender until it's far too late.

Clemons gets around the edge and knocks the ball out of an unsuspecting Skelton's hands.

FOX Sports analyst Heath Evans said this on the call of Sunday's Cardinals-Seahawks game:

We knew the tackles were an issue. The coaches spoke about it all throughout our meetings. We've got to protect John Skelton. This is what you want—again, this Seattle defense changing the course of this game.

Chandler Jones changed the course of the game against the Titans with a strip sack of his own, which was recovered by Dont'a Hightower for the touchdown.

 

He did it much the same way Clemons did it; although Clemons is known more for his speed than Jones is, Jones still got a strong upfield rush and knocked left tackle Michael Roos' hands out of the way before getting around the edge and knocking the ball loose.

Perhaps, the best way to take Fitzgerald out of the game is to get a good four-man rush. The Patriots have struggled with that in recent years but did a great job out of their Cover 2 shell last week against the Titans. If they can build off that, while playing sound on the back end, they should be okay.

 

Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand. 

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