Heading into this weekend’s game against the New Orleans Saints, the Arizona Cardinals’ secondary has had some rough moments through two weeks of the season. According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson has the highest burn rate on the team.
On 10 targets, Peterson has allowed eight receptions for 134 yards and two touchdowns. Additionally, wide receivers have managed to rack up 85 yards after the catch, and opposing quarterbacks have a quarterback rating of 158.3 when they throw into his coverage area.
Peterson’s poor performances remind us that even the best of players go through unavoidable slumps. Yet he’s not the only member of the Cardinals’ defensive backfield that underperformed in Weeks 1 and 2.
Safeties Yeremiah Bell and Tony Jefferson struggled in coverage, as well. As a team, Arizona has the 21st-best pass defense in the NFL. Quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Matthew Stafford carved up its secondary for 572 yards, four touchdowns and 25 first downs.
Can defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ defense recover after two shoddy showings? Or will All-Pro signal-caller Drew Brees chew up and spit out the back end of the Cardinals defense? That is the million-dollar question.
One would have to think Brees is the hands-down favorite to have his way with Bowles’ defense for four quarters. However, it’s never wise to overlook and underestimate a talented team experiencing an early-season slump on one side of the ball.
Let’s go to the tape and take a look at what the Cards need to do defensively to keep Brees and New Orleans’ offense at bay.
On this second-quarter play versus the Detroit Lions, Arizona’s defense deployed a 2-3-6 look. Four players total were rushing the passer and seven were in coverage. The three cornerbacks were in man coverage and the three safeties were in zone. The lone linebacker who wasn’t rushing was assigned to cover the tight end.
Stafford had time in the pocket, but no one was open. The deep safety on the right side of the field was corralling the sideline, and the safety in the middle of the field was making sure neither the tight end nor the right wide receiver broke free up the seam.
The end result was a sack by Calais Campbell. But Campbell doesn’t deserve all the credit. The sack happened because of top-notch coverage in the secondary. Stafford didn’t have a viable receiving option thanks in large part to Rashad Johnson (No. 26) and Jefferson (No. 22).
Jefferson took away Calvin Johnson over the top, and Johnson eliminated any throw over the middle of the field. Tip of the hat to Bell, as well. He single-handedly wiped out running back Reggie Bush in the flat.
Keeping two safeties back at all times will be crucial if the Cardinals don’t want to surrender any deep throws down the field. Against precision passers like Brees, it’s better to keep all of the action in front of the safeties.
Make him nickel-and-dime you. The odds of creating a turnover this way are much higher.
Moreover, All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham has the necessary speed and agility to get behind a defense. In two games, he has four receptions of 20 yards or more.
Even though the Saints snuck out a Week 2 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bucs seemingly had Brees’ number more often than not.
On this first-quarter play, defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan kept the 13-year veteran on his toes when he mixed in a Cover 4 look.
Cover 4 means every player in coverage dropped straight back to defend the deep pass. The right and left cornerbacks guarded the sidelines, the safeties protected the middle of the field and the linebackers erased any throw underneath.
As the play progressed, Brees had two options. He could have either made the safe throw to Pierre Thomas (option No. 1) in the flat, or he could have made the high-risk throw to Lance Moore (option No. 2). Fortunately for the Buccaneers, he tried to thread the needle and hit Moore on a curl route.
Linebacker Dekoda Watson (No. 56) played Brees like a fiddle and picked the ball off with ease. Watson did an exceptional job of baiting the quarterback into making the high-risk throw. He acted like he was going to come up and cover Thomas in the flat. Then, as soon as Brees released the ball, he dropped back and undercut the throw.
Sure, the pressure upfront wasn’t the greatest, but Tampa Bay didn’t need pressure to confuse Brees. Confusing a seven-time Pro Bowler isn’t easy to do, yet he is human and does make mistakes when a defense executes a well-disguised defense.
These are the types of things Bowles' defense will have to do to Brees on Sunday. The Cardinals won’t be able to solely rely on zone or man coverage. They will have to effectively mix up their coverage schemes to keep the Saints' offense honest.
Head coach Bruce Arians knows they have the ability to score at a moment's notice. Here’s what Arians had to say about Brees and New Orleans’ high-powered offense, via NewOrleansSaints.com:
That offense is always high octane. Anytime you play Drew (Brees), especially at home, he’s one of the best there is at a home stadium (with) the energy of the crowd. Offensively they’re just a play or two away.
Will the Cardinals defense carry the team against the Saints?
On offense, Arians will need to devise a game plan that helps support the team’s defense. If Arizona wants to chew up clock, sustain drives and keep the ball out of Brees’ hands, it will need to establish a formidable rushing attack.
Despite the fact defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense has been awful against the run, the Cardinals run game hasn’t exactly taken the league by storm, either. As it sits right now, they are averaging 3.4 yards per carry on 51 carries. Furthermore, they’ve only scored one touchdown on the ground.
To come away with a win on Sunday, Arizona will need to outdo New Orleans on offense, defense and special teams. On paper it sounds easy, yet we all know how far this team has come in one short offseason.
Head coach Sean Payton, Brees and the Saints are one of the toughest teams to beat in front of their home crowd.