The Cardinals emerged victorious last week against the Seattle Seahawks. They did so after a hot start from starting quarterback John Skelton, his subsequent cool-down period otherwise known as the third quarter and an additional hot start from backup Kevin Kolb following Skelton’s injury-cart exit.
Sprinkled in between all this was a masterful performance from the defense, whose 284-yard, three-sack day was dwarfed by yet another opportunity for journalists to expound upon a potential quarterback controversy in Arizona.
With Kolb reportedly set to start Sunday—according to Adam Schefter’s league source—the basics will be essential.
The three keys to a Cards victory over the Patriots are as follows:
Set the Edge
Arizona’s run-blocking was horrendous against Seattle. Ryan Williams started in place of Beanie Wells, who was held back some because of the offseason knee surgery he had, and there were no running lanes through which he could burst.
Wells’ day was no different.
The two combined to carry the ball 15 times for 23 yards, a pitiful 1.53 yards per carry. Seven of those runs came off either side of the center's rear for 17 yards.
The 2.43 off-center YPC is better than the overall number, but nearly half the carries directly up the middle with backs who excel on the edge is a mistake in coaching, not in player execution—though some blame can be diverted to the offensive line.
New England features a strong defensive line, and the inside linebacking combination of Jarrod Mayo and rookie Dont’a Hightower is quickly becoming one of the best in the NFL. Mayo is a top talent already, but the game Hightower had against the Tennessee Titans was spectacular.
Continually running the ball up the middle only plays into New England’s hands. Getting Wells and Williams out on the edge so they can use their athleticism to make plays is in Arizona’s best interest.
Whether they do that or not is another issue completely. Offensive coordinator Mike Miller and head coach Ken Whisenhunt are stubborn play-callers; the fanbase has been frustrated with the offense’s play selection for years.
Use Running Backs in Passing Game
Screen passes, swings and flares are a staple of many NFL offenses. The Arizona Cardinals are not among those who use them to their advantage.
They run them, yes. But they are used as an escape route of sorts—a last-ditch effort at attaining a few yards as the play falls apart.
That needs to change, and it needs to change now.
Last week, Skelton missed an incredibly wide-open Ryan Williams at the goal line because his progression began on the opposite side of Williams’ route.
By the time Skelton threw an incomplete pass to a covered Larry Fitzgerald, the pressure had gotten to Skelton, and there was no time to look all the way to his left.
With the athleticism Wells and Williams have—and this is also part of setting the edge—it would be a great idea to run those plays specifically for them, not just as safety valves.
Getting Wells on the outside as quickly as possible gives him a unique opportunity for a one-on-one matchup with a defensive back—a matchup he will win every time.
Williams, shifty as he is, can maneuver his way around most any player within the secondary, and his quickness and drop-of-a-hat acceleration make that matchup a win on most occasions as well.
And again, doing this against the Patriots’ strong front-seven increases the chances at offensive success.
Keep the Pressure Coming
According to ProFootballFocus (paid information), defensive end Darnell Dockett was the best 3-4 DE from Week 1, hitting Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson three times and generating seven QB hurries. Those two stats tied him for the most among all defenders.
Getting such production from a 3-4 defensive end is great. Rare, but the Cardinals will take it when they can get it.
They may get it again this week.
According to the Patriots’ official team website, Dan Connolly was limited in practice Thursday, making it the first time all week he was able to work with the team. Should Connolly (head injury) not be able to go Sunday, that would leave Nick McDonald as the probable choice to replace him.
Dockett manhandled rookie right guard J.R. Sweezy so much last week that he’s now serving as the backup to 2011 third-round draft pick John Moffitt.
While Dockett did not record a sack (though he should have had two), there were three total on the day—all from the starting inside linebackers.
The edge rush will be big this week. Outside linebackers Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield totaled three hurries and just one hit on Wilson last week without a sack between them.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s pass rush comes from everywhere, but getting those two involved is a must. They have to be productive and do what they are on the field to do. Getting to Brady this week helps the team’s cause, and the offensive line of New England is not as good as they have had in the past.
Acho and Schofield have a good chance to do some damage.
Matchup to Watch: Cards Pass Rush vs. Pats Pass Protection
As just mentioned, Acho needs to have a big day for the Cardinals. Patriots left tackle Nate Solder allowed one sack and three QB hurries last week to Titans DE Kamerion Wimbley in 35 pass-blocking attempts.
That’s one pressure every 8.75 pass-block attempts—not very good.
Brady’s blind side has been well-protected throughout the majority of his career, and he is one of the best quarterbacks in football because of it. When under pressure, however, he tends to make mistakes.
Last week, Tennessee blitzed just five times. Brady was able to get off five passes, completing three of them for 26 yards. That’s 5.2 yards per attempt, far below his game average of 8.0 when not blitzed.
If the Defense Can Contain Tom Brady, Do the Cardinals Stand a Chance Against New England?
It’s the same story every year for Brady. When opposing defenses bring five or more pass-rushers, his numbers dip across the board.
But it’s not just Acho who will be blitzing. Horton will bring it from everywhere. You better believe the Cardinals will blitz Brady more than five times.
With the likelihood that Skelton sits and Kolb starts, this game will come down to defense and the run game for Arizona. Expect more runs to be called early to try and establish a solid ground attack.
If that doesn’t work, it will be a long day for Cardinals fans.
Fitzgerald will have a big day. Patriots CB Devin McCourty will have help, but it won’t be enough as he reaches the end zone and goes over 100 receiving yards for the first time during the 2012 season.
That won’t matter, however. Brady will do enough despite a solid Cardinals pass-rush, and his two touchdowns—one each to tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez—will be the difference in this close-at-first-but-not-so-close battle of opposites.
Final Score: Patriots 27, Cardinals 17