Andre Ellington (right) and the Cardinals host the Houston Texans Sunday.
How will the Cardinals be able to extend the Texans' losing streak to seven games? Let's take a look at the potential game plan for some answers.
Offensive Game Plan
1. Limit J.J. Watt
Defensive end J.J. Watt has been wreaking havoc in the league the past couple of seasons. This season, he has 38 tackles, 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble in eight games. Last season, he terrorized opposing quarterbacks to the tune of 20.5 sacks.
With the Arizona defensive line being historically weak, it will have to come together and find a way to shut down Watt. Watt traditionally plays the left defensive end position, so tackle Eric Winston and guard Paul Fanaika will have to be up to the task on the right side of the line.
Let's take a look at how Watt was able to record a sack in his last game against Indianapolis.
On this second-quarter play, Watt (red circle) is lined up wide against Indianapolis right tackle Gosder Cherilus (yellow box). Cherilus will get no help on this play, and he needed it. Watt explodes off of the snap and drives at Cherilus. When they make contact, Watt throws him aside and has a clear run at Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck. With the other offensive linemen tied up, Watt has nothing between him and Luck. Watt winds up going low and gets a hold of Luck's ankle to draw an in-the-grasp call and the sack.
Keep in mind that the Colts had five linemen to block four defensive linemen, so the numbers were in their favor. Watt's technique like that will challenge the right side of the Arizona offensive line even when it thinks it has him slowed down.
Houston has folded in the fourth quarter several times this season, which doesn't please Watt. He was quoted by HoustonTexans.com about that lack of finishing:
Play better. There’s no simple answer. If there was a simple answer, I’m sure we’d have it, but there isn’t a simple answer. We need to finish. We need to play better at the end of the game. Obviously, this week was a little bit different situation, but we just need to play a full four quarters of clean football. I think that’s one of the biggest things we do is play clean football. We need less penalties, less mistakes, just little things, little things that turn into big things.
Help will be needed to keep Watt in check on Sunday.
2. Use a Conservative, Quick Passing Game
Houston leads the league with the fewest yards allowed through the air. This should be reminiscent of when the Cardinals played Seattle before the bye, and Arizona should have the same plan in place.
This is going to be a game with short, underneath passes from quarterback Carson Palmer. He should distribute the ball evenly like he did against the Seahawks when he recorded a season-high 30 completions.
In this play from the Colts-Texans game, let's see how Luck uses a short pass to beat the blitz and put points on the board.
The Texans are bringing all eight men in the middle on an all-out blitz. That leaves man coverage on the outside for each receiver, including T.Y. Hilton (yellow). The outside Colt receiver on the bottom of the screen runs a square in while Hilton runs a corner route after a five-yard vertical. The crossing leaves the defender a step behind, and Luck hits Hilton for a touchdown.
The lesson to learn from this is when Houston blitzes, Palmer needs to make the quick read and get the ball out of his hands rapidly. If he does, he can have success like Luck did on this play. If not, he's going to be getting swarmed under by the Texans.
Spreading the field can also help. Sending someone close to the line on an underneath slant, crossing or drag route can give Palmer an easy option instead of receivers running 20 yards downfield.
3. Rotate Running Backs Effectively
It's no secret that Andre Ellington is more of the home run running back while Rashard Mendenhall is the plodding kind. Arizona head coach Bruce Arians needs to effectively use both of them in order to keep the ball moving against the Texans' weak run defense.
How Arians will divide up the carries remains to be seen, but he needs both running backs in situations that play to their strengths. Ellington is better suited for first downs and passing situations. Mendenhall might come in on second downs and be better at trying to pick up short-yardage situations. This is a big opportunity for the running game to shine.
Defensive Game Plan
1. Limit Andre Johnson
The wide receiver went off in the first half, recording 190 yards and three touchdowns before halftime. With Patrick Peterson covering him, Johnson won't be able to do that again. After Johnson, the Houston receivers drop off in terms of talent with DeAndre Hopkins and DeVier Posey.
Tight end Owen Daniels is still out with a leg injury, so Johnson is the heart of the passing game for Case Keenum and the Texans against Arizona. If Johnson is limited, Houston becomes one-dimensional.
2. Plan on Ben Tate as the Feature Back, Not Arian Foster
Foster has been dealing with hamstring and back injuries that have been frustrating to work with. He's played in the first series against both the Chiefs and Colts before shutting it down for the day. Despite playing with four cracked ribs, he still carried the ball 22 times for 81 yards last week against the Colts.
Tate is likely to get the majority of carries this week, and the defensive line will need to prepare for a way to stop him.
3. Be Prepared for the Unexpected
This has been a tough week for the Texans. Head coach Gary Kubiak suffered a mini-stroke during halftime and will not coach the team this week. He's expected to return in Week 11, though, according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.
Rick Dennison will be calling the plays on offense, and interim head coach Wade Phillips will be in charge of the defense. With a slightly different chain of command, there might be some unusual play calls that Arizona isn't prepared for. Adjustments like these will have to be made on the fly, but Arizona should be prepared for an unexpected wrinkle or two.
Phillips knows there are some key differences as the interim coach, according to this quote on HoustonTexans.com:
The head coach’s in charge of making all of the game decisions, strategy decisions basically, whether to kick a field goal, whether to go for it, fourth downs what to do with it. A lot of it is offensive, but there a few calls. Like in the game last week, at the end of the ball game, it’s fourth-and-10 and, well, we’ve got two timeouts, do we want to punt the ball or try one play and try to make a first down? The percentages were against I felt like and I felt like we could get the ball back again. So we punted it. We could have had the ball on the 50, but we did have a penalty. But we still had a chance to tie the ball game. It’s just game-time decisions. There are all kinds of scenarios that come up and that’s a good thing that I’ve been in the league that long. I think I’ve seen a lot and hopefully can make the right decisions.”
When you have different people calling plays, it can lead to creative havoc that makes it a little harder to prepare.
We'll find out what happens when the Cardinals host the Texans Sunday afternoon at 4:25 p.m. ET