It has been a wild start to the season for Ken Whisenhunt's Arizona Cardinals. Who could have imagined that they would have started the season 3-0? Not to mention the back-to-back victories over the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles.
At this point, the only team I thought they would have beaten is the Seattle Seahawks. Yet their defensive presence has totally dictated and set the tone in all three games. And I look for the same thing to happen this Sunday when Coach Philbin's Miami Dolphins come to town.
Even though the Cardinals offense hasn't yet found the same rhythm as the defense, things are looking up. Kevin Kolb has showed real heart and toughness the last two games, and I think we can finally say he is actually playing with some confidence.
As we all know, Kolb's confidence and toughness came into question during the preseason after Tommy Kelly and the Oakland Raiders beat him into the ground. Even though the preseason is overly meaningless, bouncing back from adversity is never an easy task.
For the Cardinals to win their fourth straight, it's important that they don't overlook this struggling Dolphins club, and that they have the best game plan possible prepared. With the help of NFL Game Rewind, let's draw up a game plan that will be most effective for the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
When the Cardinals Are on Offense
Coach Whisenhunt's offense with Kolb under center has been nothing to write home about. Yardage-wise, they are currently the 31st-ranked offense in the NFL. And everyone knows that a majority of their success has come from the league's 10th best defense.
However, there are two things this offense did well last week, and there's a good chance they could show up again this week against the Dolphins. Ryan Williams ran the ball effectively, as he churned out 83 tough yards on the ground on 13 carries. His elusive running style helped him force five missed tackles and allowed him to average 4.5 yards after contact.
With Beanie Wells shelved for the next eight weeks, it was definitely the type of breakout game the Cardinals offense was looking for on the ground. Through the air, Larry Fitzgerald finally had a coming-out party, as he caught all nine of his targets for 114 yards and one touchdown. Through Weeks 1 and 2, Fitz had only caught five passes for 67 yards.
Given that the Dolphins have the 29th-ranked pass defense, look for Arizona to utilize the quick-passing game again this week. To get No. 11 isolated against the Eagles, the Cardinals sent him on slants, crossing routes and drag routes. Not to mention that the Eagles manned him up, the type of coverage he always prefers.
With the type of coverage Miami plays, I'm definitely expecting Fitzgerald to see man coverage again this week. The Dolphins might not be bold enough to play straight man against him with one player. My guess is that Sean Smith will draw primary coverage with a safety—most likely Chris Clemons—over the top.
Erik Frenz, the lead writer for the AFC East, put together a nice little breakdown of how the Cardinals beat the Eagles' tight coverage on the back end. In the screenshot above, you can see Philadelphia has a definite advantage in the secondary, as they have five players back deep and Arizona only sends two receivers out on routes.
But Kolb does a great job of selling the play-action fake to freeze the entire Eagles secondary. With everyone frozen, Fitzgerald starts to make his way up the seam on a go-route. The last line of defense to defend the deep go-route is the safety, but as you can see, his eyes are focused on Michael Floyd. By the time he realizes Nnamdi Asomugha is getting burned by the All-Pro receiver, it is too late.
The end result is a 37-yard touchdown pass.
Arizona needs to execute offensively the same way this week.
Even though they are facing an even more vulnerable Miami pass defense, the Dolphins still have talent on the back end. Fitzgerald is the biggest moving part to the Cardinals offense—the things he does after the catch and in the run game are huge. It was a welcome sight to see the Cardinals get their best player involved—now they just need to keep it going, and a win will be theirs in the near future.
When the Cardinals Are on Defense
For the second time in the first four games, Ray Horton's defense will be squaring off against a rookie quarterback. They already welcomed Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to the NFL in an unpleasant way in Week 1, and I'm expecting this week to be no different, as first-round selection Ryan Tannehill makes his first appearance in the desert.
Considering the Dolphins' lack of talent at the wide receiver position, it's safe to assume we will be seeing a heavy dose of Joe Philbin's No. 4-ranked rushing attack. Currently, Miami is averaging 175.7 yards per game on the ground and 5.0 yards per carry on an even 35 attempts.
Through the first three games, the Dolphins have proven to be one of the NFL's most balanced teams. They have run a total of 211 offensive plays—105 running plays and 106 passing plays.
For two straight weeks, they have called 40-plus run plays. I think Week 1 was a wake-up call, mainly because the Dolphins only ran the ball 19 times, which allowed the Texans' pass rush to tee off on Tannehill. At game's end, Wade Phillips' defense had a total of 17 quarterback pressures, including three sacks.
Here is an example of how the Texans had the Dolphins' run game in a vice grip early on. You can see that the Texans used an eight-man front to eliminate Miami's heavy rushing attack. Safety Danieal Manning started from the deep part of the field and, just before the ball was snapped, snuck up close to the linebackers.
This forced an overload. Miami couldn't block everyone, as they were trying to block all the Texans' defenders one-on-one. Arizona should be able to load the box the same way because Tannehill and the Dolphins' passing game has been unimpressive through the first three weeks of the season.
It comes down to the fact that Miami has no one who can take the top off the defense. So if I were the Cardinals, I'd play Miami the same way I played Seattle—make them beat you deep. Man-to-man coverage in the secondary should be all it takes to keep the likes of Davone Bess and Brian Hartline in check.
With Horton's defense playing at the highest level I've seen in years, the Cardinals should have no problem finding their way to 4-0. The biggest concern will be the absence of Darnell Dockett, but Calais Campbell is dominant enough to anchor the defensive line by himself. There is no "easy" game in the NFL, but the Cardinals sure have made it look easy in Weeks 1, 2 and 3.