Rookie QB Ryan Lindley
This week’s three keys to an Arizona Cardinals victory over the New York Jets include a warning to both head coaches, an amazing statistic considering the current state of the Cardinals’ franchise and a not-so-bold prediction sure to have fans up in arms.
It is safe to assume the Cardinals (4-7) will not make the playoffs this season. For what it's worth, neither will the Jets (4-7).
ESPN has its Playoff Machine up and running, so feel free to mess with it to see what it would take for Arizona to sneak into January football. It’s fun to dream.
Here is a screen grab of what it looks like and one scenario that allows Arizona to get in. It (obviously) would take them winning out and finishing 9-7. It also requires the Chicago Bears to go 1-4 over the final five weeks, including a Week 16 loss at University of Phoenix Stadium—as I said, it's fun to dream.
But there is more at stake this week than just a crazy playoff scenario. We will dive right into it in the first key.
Here are your three keys to a Cards victory over the Jets.
This has plagued the Cardinals since Todd Haley left for the Kansas City Chiefs head-coaching job. The offensive play-calling has been questioned by countless fans, media pundits and the like on a weekly basis for three straight seasons.
There are always one or two plays each week that draw the attention of someone in a “C’mon Man”-type moment, and that cannot happen this week.
After rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley had taken over for a struggling John Skelton in Atlanta, the only aspect of the offense that worked was the run game. LaRod Stephens-Howling broke big gains on multiple occasions.
On one such occasion, the Cardinals began a drive at their own 6-yard line. Lindley handed off to Stephens-Howling on first down, and the 5’7” scatback took it 52 yards to the Atlanta 42.
Four straight pass plays were then called—a 17-yard pickup to rookie receiver Michael Floyd, then three straight Lindley incompletions—and the drive had effectively been wasted. Kicker Jay Feely connected from 38 yards out to give Arizona a 16-13 lead near the end of the first half.
That is just one example of the play-calling ineptitude the offensive coaches have displayed since the 2010 season. There are too many to point them all out.
When something works it should be called until it works no longer. For example, if the opposition continues to give an offense the middle of the field on first down runs—as was the case in Atlanta—that is what needs to be called on first down—every time.
The losing head coach from this game may find himself out of work next season. Ken Whisenhunt and Rex Ryan have been given ample talent with which to work and, despite each enduring injury-plagued seasons, both are likely candidates to be replaced with no playoff appearance this season.
Both teams have seven losses. Eight all but guarantees big screens, sofas and seven-layer bean dip for the playoffs instead of shoulder pads, helmets and cold-weather football games.
Take Advantage of Line Play
If you haven’t noticed, the Cardinals’ main website has a new writer on its staff, and he seems to be a numbers guy very similar to yours truly.
Massie told Weinfuss he saw the stats indicating he was the worst-rated tackle in the NFL, and his entire mindset changed.
Just got tired of it, man. Just getting beat like that. It ain’t cool. It ain’t a good thing to be the worst tackle in the league, man. It hurt, man. I don’t like that. I try to be the best at whatever I do, so I corrected it.
He is not the only Arizona offensive lineman who has improved in recent weeks. The line has improved across the board. So much so that over the past three games the unit has allowed only five sacks—against the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons and St. Louis Rams—and was ranked as the No. 3 pass-blocking unit in the league the past two weeks (yes, provided by PFF).
Even free-agent addition Adam Snyder, who had been terrible while playing through an elbow injury and had sat out two games—three weeks including the Week 10 bye—while recovering, has not allowed a single quarterback pressure in three straight games while earning a positive PFF rating in all three (the first three of his season).
Rich Ohrnberger will start at center in lieu of Lyle Sendlein, who is out for the remainder of the season with a torn MCL. That could complicate things at first while the line acclimates to a new leader among them, but it may not take long with how the unit has been performing.
Taking advantage of better pass protection means Lindley has to make better decisions. He was pressured a total of seven times out of 54 drop-backs last week, and he was unable to do anything with the time he was given.
On Arizona’s three scoring drives, Lindley completed 16-of-19 for 179 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions for a 105.9 QB rating. All other drives totaled 15-of-33 for 133 yards, no TD and four INT for a 17.2 rating.
All three scoring drives came in the first half when the Rams were not blitzing Lindley much. They added pressure in the second half—the rookie crumbled.
Bring the Heat to Sanchez
Mark Sanchez is a bad quarterback; that much we know. But his performance when under pressure is what sets him below most other quarterbacks.
He has completed the second-lowest percentage of passes while under pressure this season—just 40.2 percent (33-of-82 with no TD and two INT). His accuracy percentage—PFF’s awesome statistic that gives quarterbacks the benefit of the doubt, adding receiver drops as completions—is the lowest in the league at just 50.0 percent (41-of-82).
Of his 108 drop-backs while under pressure, 25 have ended in sacks. That means he goes down 23.1 percent of the time he is under pressure—the sixth-highest percentage in the NFL.
The defense must also get their hands up at the line, because Sanchez will shy away from throwing passes in the direction of a defender who swats passes.
On this play during the Jets Week 5 loss to the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football, Sanchez has a wide-open Chaz Schilens on a 4-route (that’s a curl, also called a button-hook) with cornerback Kareem Jackson playing 10 yards off the ball.
As he looks toward Schilens, he sees swat-master J.J. Watt ready to get a hand on an attempted pass. Cornerback Brice McCain blitzed Sanchez' blind side.
If he targets Schilens there is a chance Watt misses it, avoiding a sack. At worst, it’s a swatted pass and an incompletion. Instead, Sanchez looks elsewhere, giving McCain time to wrap up the maligned quarterback.
Matchup to Watch: Cards WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. Jets CB Antonio Cromartie
With Darrelle Revis on the shelf with a torn ACL, Antonio Cromartie has had to step up to fill the shoes of the best corner in the game. He has done an admirable job in doing so—his confidence never wavering. He even went as far as to say he now is the best corner in the game since Revis went down according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News (with a h/t to Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk).
I have said that I’m the second-best corner in the NFL. I’m not backing off what I said. I don’t care what anyone else believes […] It’s my confidence in myself. I know what I’m capable of when I’m at the top of my game.
He is good, but he isn’t that good.
Opposing quarterbacks are completing just 45.6 percent of passes against Cromartie, good for sixth league-wide. By that same token, Larry Fitzgerald has hauled in just 50.5 percent of passes intended for him this season, the 14th-lowest percentage in the NFL.
Based on that, it could be a long day for Fitz and a great day for Cromartie. Things are not certain, certainly, but with a rookie quarterback and these numbers provided by ESPN NFC West blogger Mike Sando (also in the picture to the right), it looks like it could be a gloomy day in the Big Apple for Fitzgerald.
This could be the NFL’s first 3-0 affair since Week 12 of the 2007 season when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins played a Monday night game on the beautifully muddy Heinz Field turf. The game was scoreless until Steelers kicker Jeff Reed booted a 24-yard field goal with 0:20 left in regulation.
Don’t be surprised if this game comes down to something similar.
We may also witness the third game this season in which both starting quarterbacks complete less than 50.0 percent of their passes. Sanchez and the Jets were already involved in such a game during Week 3 against the Miami Dolphins.
Should coach Whisenhunt be fired if the Cardinals lose an eighth-straight game?
Cromartie will shut down Fitzgerald, who will have another subpar performance. Fitzgerald’s last two games have included a total of four receptions for 42 yards and no touchdowns.
The running backs will “shine” in this game. Expect roughly 60 yards from Beanie Wells and less than 50 yards from Shonn Greene.
Final Score: Jets 3, Cards 0
This will be the beginning of the end for Whisenhunt. The weight of the team’s eighth straight loss may begin showing in the seats at University of Phoenix stadium the rest of the season. Fans not showing up would be devastating to team president Michael Bidwill and may be the last straw for his coach.
Whisenhunt will finish out the season, but he won’t make it to New Year’s Day. His decision once again to start a rookie quarterback too early will be what people look back on as the turning point in his tenure.
It might be time to start looking at potential draft picks for Arizona with how this season is shaping up.