The Arizona Cardinals are going to have a tough challenge on their hands when they host the Atlanta Falcons Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium.
What do they need to do to post a win over Atlanta and head into their bye week at 4-4? Keep reading and we’ll tell you in this week’s Arizona game plan.
1. The offensive line has to be ready for the blitzes
Let’s take a look at a blitz from last week’s Falcons-Buccaneers game that resulted in a fumble returned for a touchdown by Atlanta.
Atlanta is going to bring eight players on the blitz, while Tampa Bay has seven to block. There’s an extra defender somewhere, and the Falcons will bring the pressure with him.
At first glance, it looks like linebacker Paul Worrilow is about to bust right up the middle (yellow arrow) and get Tampa Bay rookie quarterback Mike Glennon for a pounding into the turf. The extra blitzing defender is safety William Moore (yellow arrow at right).
This leaves the Tampa Bay running back (red circle) with a tough decision on which player to block. He correctly heads to the middle and blocks Worrilow’s path. That leaves Moore with a clean path to the quarterback. Glennon reads this and rolls away from Moore’s pressure (white arrow).
Where it went wrong for the Bucs was when the two players on the right side of their line failed to hold their blocks for the entire play. Cliff Matthews (left yellow arrow) was able to break free of his man and find Glennon on the 30-yard line. Moore found him at the same time, and Glennon coughed up the ball.
Thomas DeCoud (black line) was able to beat his man, scoop the ball up and run it back 30 yards for a touchdown.
Arizona needs to be able to have its linemen hold their blocks until the whistle. The blitzes are going to come from all directions. The offensive line is fresh off a miserable performance against Seattle, as they allowed quarterback Carson Palmer to be sacked seven times.
According to Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com, Atlanta head coach Mike Nolan is not yet pleased with the production he’s getting out of his defense. The key thing to take away can be summed up in one line. If the Falcons were getting enough pressure from their front four, Nolan wouldn’t be calling as many blitzes.
This will also put pressure on any tight ends or running backs who stay in to block to make the right decisions and buy Palmer a little more time to make a play.
2. Arizona needs to mix short and long passes and distribute the ball
The Cardinals came out of their loss to Seattle with some interesting numbers in the box score, as seen on Pro-Football-Reference.com. Palmer completed 30 of his 45 passes on the night, and nine different receivers caught at least one pass. Tight end Rob Housler led the way with seven catches for 53 yards against the Seahawks.
The best thing Arizona can do is mix it up between the short passing game and the long passing game. Stretching the field vertically hasn’t worked out so well for Arizona, but stretching it horizontally did. There’s a relevant analogy from the Civil War that applies with this game in Atlanta.
Union General William Sherman made a long slow march out of Atlanta, Ga., to Charleston, S.C., destroying everything in its path. It took about five weeks, and they destroyed everything on the way between the two cities.
The Cardinals could stand to learn from that in their game plan. It doesn’t matter if it’s 23 yards on a play or three yards on a play. All that matters is getting the ball downfield and into a scoring position. If Sherman could march his troops to the sea, Palmer could march his troops down the field to the end zone.
3. Convert on third down
It seems easy to say, but it’s been tough for Arizona to convert on third downs this season. According to ESPN, Arizona has converted the fewest number of third downs this season with 28. Their conversion rate of 31.8 percent is slightly better than the St. Louis Rams (30.9 percent) and the winless Jacksonville Jaguars (29.6 percent).
Arizona also needs to be more productive on first and second down to try and make third down with as few yards as possible. A 3rd-and-2 situation can be much easier to convert than a 3rd-and-12.
4. Put Your Best Foot Forward
It should be without saying, in the NFL, you put your best foot forward every time you take the field. This game is very important to do that. When kickoff rolls around, the team will be 10 days removed from the loss to Seattle. After the game, the Cardinals have their bye and don’t play again until November 10 when they host the Houston Texans.
This is their only game in a 24-day span. Arizona needs to make sure it can put forth its best effort so they can look good heading into the second half of the season. A clunker from Palmer here could have fans calling for Drew Stanton to come in and play quarterback.
1. Stop tight end Tony Gonzalez
This is fairly obvious. The Cardinals have been ripped apart by tight ends this season and allowed seven touchdowns to that position in seven games. Jared Cook, Vernon Davis and Jimmy Graham each scored twice against Arizona, and now, it’s time for Gonzalez to take his turn. The graphic on this post by Darren Urban on the Cardinals' official website shows how frightening tight ends have been.
Last week, against Tampa Bay, Gonzalez was held to two catches for 30 yards. Tampa’s coverage took him away from quarterback Matt Ryan as an option. Instead, the Bucs gave up 149 yards and a touchdown to wide receiver Harry Douglas.
The Cardinals will have to focus on Gonzalez because of injuries to the key Atlanta wide receivers. Julio Jones is on injured reserve, and Roddy White is plagued by an ankle injury. When those two go down to an injury, Gonzalez becomes a pretty big target for opposing defenses in their scheme. If Arizona can’t shut Gonzalez down, it’s going to be a long two weeks between games.
2. Prepare for everyone
This refers more to the Atlanta injury situation. White has been hobbled with an ankle injury that’s limited his effectiveness for the first seven weeks of the regular season. He didn’t practice yesterday, and his status for Sunday is unknown, according to McClure. Keep in mind, the injury was bad enough to force White to miss a game for the first time in his career.
Running back Steven Jackson returned to practice and thinks he could be ready to go for the game against the Cardinals. Jackson has sat out since getting hurt in Week 2, against St. Louis, with a hamstring injury. Hamstrings can flare up unexpectedly so his situation bears watching.
If White can’t go, Douglas becomes the top threat at wide receiver. If Jackson sits out, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling will split the running back duties.
These are key skill positions, and the Cardinals need to prepare to stop all of them Sunday regardless of who actually takes the field.
3. Melt Matty Ice
Arizona needs to bring pressure on Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. Giving a quarterback of his caliber time to make a read and go through his progressions is a recipe for disaster.
The NFC Offensive Player of the Week, per a report by D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is able to pick defenses apart and make clutch throws in key situations. He’s thrown 13 touchdown passes this season and has at least two of them in every game.
Ryan wasn’t sacked in last week’s win over Tampa and has been sacked only nine times this season, according ESPN. That places him alongside Peyton Manning and Matthew Stafford for point of comparison. Carson Palmer has been sacked 20 times this season.
Arizona has to take away Gonzalez and the top wide receiver threat. Ryan has a quick release, and Arizona must counter that with sacks, hurries and knockdowns.
Who wins this week?
If the Cardinals can do what’s outlined in the game plan, they’ll be a pleasant 4-4 heading into the bye. If they fail, the rest of the NFC West can distance itself farther from Arizona.