This week’s three keys to an Arizona Cardinals victory are brought to you by the number four and the letters G, L and S. As in, the Cardinals are on the verge of a four-game losing streak.
Dropping a fourth-straight game would be bad enough, but doing so to the arch-rival San Francisco 49ers in front of millions of viewers would send the wrong message to football fans.
The last time the Cardinals and 49ers met on Monday Night Football, ESPN cameras caught former Cards quarterback Derek Anderson laughing on the sidelines during the 27-6 blowout loss.
When Arizona Republic Cards beat writer Kent Somers asked him during the postgame presser what was so funny , what we got was a classic outburst that led to the end of Anderson’s career in Arizona.
Cardinals fans everywhere thank you, Kent.
The rivalry has heated up since the NFL re-aligned the divisions in 2002, putting Arizona in the NFC West. But, the 49ers have owned the Cardinals since 2009, going 5-1 in that time with an average score of 25-11. They are 12-8 overall over Arizona since the re-alignment.
Both teams are off to a good start, but the Cardinals are in dire need of a victory. Here are the three most important keys in order to snap the three-game losing streak and move into a tie for the division lead.
Last week, the Minnesota Vikings took away the deep routes run by Arizona receivers. Quarterback John Skelton did not even attempt a throw 20-plus yards downfield (he threw one following an offside penalty that was intercepted at the goal line).
San Francisco will attempt to do the same Monday night, double-teaming Larry Fitzgerald and leaving the other receivers with one-on-one chances. Fitzgerald has no problem beating double teams, but someone has to make a play in order to ease the pressure on him.
Andre Roberts had a great game in Minnesota, with seven receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown. He and rookie Michael Floyd have to make the most of their opportunities, or Fitzgerald will be as useless as he was in his home state—Fitz caught four passes for just 29 yards.
Using the middle of the field to set up deep passing may be how to do it.
During last season’s 21-19 Week 14 victory over the 49ers, Skelton went 19-of-28 for 282 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Both interceptions were passes to the middle of the field, but all told, he completed 16-of-22 for 243 yards and all three touchdowns.
It happened to them again this season when they traveled to play the Vikings. Christian Ponder completed 12-of-16 for 108 yards and a touchdown on his way to beating San Francisco, 24-13.
Cramming the middle of the field seems unenviable with the corps of linebackers the 49ers possess. Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman are likely the best inside linebacker tandem in the NFL. But doing so successfully will force safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson to take a step up toward the line, cheating to try and take those routes away.
Once that happens, Skelton must make them pay with a vertical route. Tight end Rob Housler has been open up the seam all season; getting him behind the secondary could be deadly.
Succeed in Using Play-Action
Before Kevin Kolb was injured during a loss to the Buffalo Bills, he had accumulated the third-highest quarterback rating out of play-action, according to our friends at ProFootballFocus (paid info). Kolb completed 14-of-26 for 233 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions—a 122.8 rating.
Skelton has had issues, however.
If he were to qualify, Skelton would rank dead last among all starting quarterbacks at QB rating out of play-action. He has completed 4-of-9 for just 49 yards and an interception for a 22.2 rating (the INT came against Seattle; he tried to throw the ball away but failed to get it out of bounds).
That must change Monday for the offense to be successful.
Say what you want about needing to run the ball—and continuing the progress LaRod Stephens-Howling showed last Sunday is important—but play-action passing is essential for all successful offenses, and it leads to victories.
The five best play-action teams in terms of QB rating are a combined 20-12 this season (SF, MIA, AZ, CHI, DEN). The five worst are 15-17 (BAL, IND, NYJ, PHI, KC).
Whether the run game is successful or not, that is irrelevant; play-action has to be executed—especially to help the vertical passing game.
Use Nate Potter as an Extra Lineman
It happens a lot throughout the NFL. Teams use an extra lineman—mainly to help the run game—in order to gain an advantage over the defense. The New York Jets do it. So do the Detroit Lions. And so does the very team Arizona will face Monday night.
We are going to look at one way an extra lineman can help an offense, courtesy of the aforementioned Lions. This play took place repeatedly throughout the night last Monday during Detroit’s matchup with the rival Chicago Bears.
As you can see, rookie tackle Riley Reiff is on the field (having to report as an eligible receiver) and is lined up as a tight end. Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford sends him in motion moments before the snap.
He is now lined up behind left tackle Jeff Backus and left guard Rob Sims. This play is a simple dive run by Mikel Leshoure with the added wrinkle that Reiff pulls into the “A” gap—the gap between the center and guard—to block.
Reiff executes a perfect cut-block on Bears defensive end Julius Peppers to spring Leshoure for a 15-yard gain.
While that is just one example of what can be done to aid the Cardinals’ injury-riddled and struggling offensive line, using an extra lineman in any capacity would almost certainly take pressure off the tackles.
Since rookie tackle Nate Potter would be an eligible receiver, he would have the ability to line up anywhere he is needed. He can be used to help D’Anthony Batiste with Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. Or, if need be, he can be used to help Bobby Massie with Ahmad Brooks.
He can even line up in the backfield, next to Skelton when he is in shotgun, to help with the pass rush.
At this point, if Arizona does not use an extra lineman, they may be forced to use rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley. The health of a quarterback behind Russ Grimm’s offensive line is always in question; doing this at least lowers the chances of hospitalization.
Matchup to Watch: Cards WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. Niners CBs
In two games against San Francisco last season, Larry Fitzgerald had 10 receptions for 190 yards and two touchdowns, including a 149-yard outburst during the Week 14 win.
That 100-yard affair was the sixth such game for Fitz against his NFC West rivals—the second-most by any receiver against the 49ers.
Only St. Louis Rams great Isaac Bruce (seven) has more.
Another performance like that would tie Bruce atop the leaderboard, but it also would give Arizona a good shot at winning. Arizona is 4-2 in games in which Fitzgerald goes for 100-plus and just 4-6 when he does not.
Stat of the Week: Seven receivers have accounted for 200 or more receiving yards in a game against the 49ers. San Francisco is 2-5 when that happens. It has happened three times since 2003 (Torry Holt, 2003; Terrell Owens, 2008; Roddy White, 2009), and the opponent went 2-1 in those games.
Prediction: 49ers 16, Cardinals 13
**Breast Cancer Awareness Update**
Fitzgerald has vowed to donate to breast cancer awareness $1,000 for every reception and $5,000 for every touchdown he scores during the month of October. Through three games, the numbers look like this:
Week 5: Eight receptions
Week 6: Six receptions, one touchdown
Week 7: Four receptions
Up-to-date total: $23,000