The Arizona Cardinals host the Carolina Panthers this Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium. Carolina is coming off of its bye week, while Arizona picked up a 13-10 win on the road last week at Tampa Bay.
The Cardinals will have a revamped offensive line after left tackle Levi Brown was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers Wednesday. According to Marc Sessler of NFL.com, Arizona will receive a conditional draft pick in exchange for Brown. The deal is contingent on Brown passing a physical.
Left tackle was a sore spot earlier in the season, and it’s up to Bradley Sowell to ensure it doesn’t become one again. Sowell will start this week against Carolina, according to Darren Urban of the team's official website.
Carolina comes in with a strong running game but is weak through the air. Mobile quarterback Cam Newton will pose challenges for the Arizona defense. Running back DeAngelo Williams is 11th in the league in rushing yards with 291 yards in three games. That works out to an average of 97 yards per game, which is third best in the league behind LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles and Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings.
Let’s take a look at the offensive and defensive game plan Arizona should use to beat the Panthers and improve to 3-2 this season.
Offensive Game Plan
1. Protect Palmer’s Blind Side
This is going to be a huge point of emphasis all game. Arizona traded Brown, and Sowell will have to step up and fill the void. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Sowell will be getting attacked by the Carolina pass rush.
Arizona would likely have to keep a tight end on the left side of the line or hold a running back in for additional protection of Palmer. Greg Hardy is the Carolina defensive end lining up opposite Sowell. Hardy recorded three sacks in Carolina’s 38-0 rout of the New York Giants. He will be hungry for more this week, and the Cardinals have to secure that side of the line.
2. Run Play-Action Passes Effectively
Carolina is likely to be bringing pressure often on the Arizona offensive line. The Panthers also have a tough trio of linebackers in Jon Beason, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Kuechly leads the team with 29 tackles, while Davis has 25 in three games.
Knowing that, this game sets up to be a difficult one for running the football for Arizona. Running back Rashard Mendenhall will get his carries, but it could be tough trying to find running room with those linebackers closing in on him.
Last week, Arizona ran the ball up the middle or off-tackle a majority of the time. According to the box score on Pro-Football-Reference.com, they only had two carries over the guard positions while the remaining 15 carries were as described. The Cardinals need to run play-action passes to freeze the linebackers. They also need to throw passes to the backs on the outside where possible for the chance of bigger gains.
3. Run Less of the Offense Under Center
The Cardinals need to have Palmer line up in a shotgun formation more often. Partially it’s to make the defenders rush a few extra yards to try to get a sack. The rest of the reasoning behind it is to stretch the field further against the defense.
By moving Palmer back, it’s going to open up holes between the defensive line and the linebackers. That creates more opportunities for the tight ends to get open and make short gains. It also can open up quick slant routes to the wide receivers as they have extra space to work in.
Even if it’s not the traditional seven-yard distance in the shotgun, lining Palmer up in a pistol formation might also help him too. In that formation, he’s set up four yards behind the line of scrimmage. It’s far enough to help him read coverage but not too far to make him vulnerable to big losses if the line doesn’t hold up.
Defensive Game Plan
1. Crash the Middle
The Arizona Cardinals did a magnificent number on Tampa running back Doug Martin last week. He was held to 45 yards on 27 carries. Arizona recorded 11 tackles for loss last week against the Buccaneers, according to this ESPN.com box score.
Let’s break down a play where Martin wound up taking a five-yard loss.
Martin (white circle) is going to run to the left. The fullback (yellow) is going to set a lead block while the left tackle, guard and tight end (black arrows) are going to throw blocks as well.
After the snap, the Cardinals defense (red arrows) reads the play and forms a wall on the left side of the picture. Martin is forced to circle back and runs into nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu (pink circle) for the loss.
On this play, the Cardinals crashed to the left side of the Tampa line and wound up making a great play. If they can crash the middle effectively, they should be able to limit the Carolina running game.
Carolina has the third-best rushing offense in the league, and that caliber of effort will be needed again. The good news is that Arizona welcomes back nose tackle Dan Williams (family) and Pro Bowl linebacker Daryl Washington (suspension) to the lineup this week. That should make it easier to pile up the tackles for losses for the Arizona defense.
After reviewing the first three games for the Panthers on Pro-Football-Reference.com, Williams shows balance in his carries. His carries are nearly evenly split between going left of the center, right of the center or up the middle.
When Newton runs, most of his runs have been up the middle. Carolina hasn’t tried often to get Newton to the outside where he can do more damage. By crashing the middle. Arizona can bottle up the Carolina running game and force more action to the outside where they don’t run as often.
2. Keep Greg Olsen in Check
The Carolina tight end needs to be accounted for on every play, and his effectiveness must be limited. Olsen is Newton’s favorite target when wide receiver Steve Smith is covered. Smith should be getting blanketed by Patrick Peterson all day, so Newton will look Olsen’s way.
Olsen leads the Panthers in yards after catch with 66, so Arizona should cover him with a man-to-man look instead of a zone defense.
The other thing to watch for is that Olsen seldom lines up as a true tight end. He’ll line up in the backfield or as somewhat of a slot receiver, which can make him difficult to track.
As we see here, Olsen started the play lining up in the backfield before moving to the position he’s in designated by the yellow lines and circle.
On this play, the Giants run a stunt (red and black arrows) and the linebacker (brown arrow) rushes toward Newton. Fullback Mike Tolbert (orange arrow) comes over to try to block the defensive lineman (white arrow). Both Tolbert and Olsen fail to block the lineman, and he finds Newton (pink arrow) for a 10-yard sack.
Olsen lined up in a couple of different places on the field and had issues blocking on this play. He's best used as a receiver.
3. Force Newton to Beat You With His Arm
Newton should have difficulties in the passing game against Arizona. Peterson will minimize Smith, and Olsen should have a tight man coverage on him most of the game. That only leaves Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. as the wide receiving options for Newton. The Panthers are 30th in the league in passing yardage. The defense should use that to its advantage and force Carolina to play in 3rd-and-long situations as often as possible.
Who wins this game?
If the Cardinals can execute on this game plan, they can post a second consecutive win. Arizona would improve to 3-2 and have momentum heading into next week's divisional game against the San Francisco 49ers.