At 6-4, the Cardinals present the biggest challenge to Indianapolis (7-3) since their win against Denver in Week 7. With less-than-dominating wins in the three games since that Week 7 matchup, the Colts are vulnerable. The Cardinals, on the other hand, have three straight wins, but their wins came against the Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars.
While the game won't count for much when it comes to tiebreakers and whatnot, both teams need to keep pace with their conference foes in the playoff race. Indianapolis looks to stay in the driver's seat for the No. 2 seed in the AFC while the Cardinals try to keep up with Carolina and San Francisco.
Between a dominant defense and an Arians-led offense, the Cardinals are a fun team that can be competitive in any game. The Colts can't afford to come out with a slow start in this one, as the Cardinals No. 1-ranked defense (by DVOA) won't let them come back as easily as Houston and Tennessee did.
So how can the Colts attack the Cardinals defense while attempting to shut down Carson Palmer and the Arizona offense? Find out in this week's game plan!
Offense: Coby Fleener Continues to Step Up
While the Colts' attempts to run the ball consistently and get T.Y. Hilton involved are going to be a weekly occurrence, there will be certain games where one player or group of players has a chance to step up and be a key part of the pregame attention.
For Indianapolis, that award goes to Coby Fleener this week.
The Colts are facing the Cardinals defense this week, who, as mentioned earlier, are pretty good. The Cardinals rank first overall, while being in the top five for each of the last five. The Cardinals have looked especially good against opposing receivers. Cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and (former Colt) Jerraud Powers lead the way, with rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu playing extraordinarily.
Using the same DVOA numbers from Football Outsiders, the Cardinals are exceptional at keeping opposing No. 1 and No. 2 receivers in check, holding them to the second and fifth-worst DVOA in the NFL, respectively.
The one area where the Cardinals don't excel is covering opposing tight ends (20th-best by DVOA).
When the Cardinals lost games, they struggled to cover the opposing tight ends. Check out the big games by starting tight ends in the Cardinals' four losses this year.
In Arizona's six wins this season, no tight end has eclipsed 80 yards or scored a touchdown.
So, the Colts need to get Fleener involved early and often. How should he be involved though? It can't merely be as a possession receiver. Fleener needs to be used as a downfield target to get the Arizona linebackers running all over the field. Look at the different ways San Francisco used Vernon Davis, for example.
When they used him in short out routes or shallow crossing patterns, he wasn't very productive. The Arizona linebackers are quick enough in short spaces to close on such patterns quickly, and broke up this pass and several others in the game. When they didn't break up the pass, they brought down Davis quickly, never in danger of missing a tackle in the open field.
But when San Francisco let Davis run the field, especially on deep routes crossing the field, they saw all kinds of success, like this 61-yard touchdown down the middle of the field.
If the Colts can get Fleener into deep routes to stretch the defense, they should be able to move the ball. If not, well, it could be a long one.
Defense: Stop Big Plays
Despite Bruce Arians' reputation as an offensive guru (and the current input of Tom Moore), the Cardinals offense is pretty inefficient.
Whether it's points per drive, drive success rate, average third downs or something else, the Cardinals consistently are in the bottom 10. They're not a very good offense right now.
A big part of it is the poor offensive line, which makes the passing game worse and the running game nonexistent at times. Carson Palmer hasn't been great, which exacerbates the problems. Then you have stubborn coaching, like Arians' refusal to make Andre Ellington a bigger pert of the Cardinals offense.
The one thing that Arizona does have going for them is big plays. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is always a threat, and Michael Floyd has been terrifying opposing defenses lately. Then you have running back Andre Ellington who can take it to the house at any time.
The Colts defense has struggled with big plays lately, and it's helped them fall back in deep deficits. Indianapolis will need to shade a safety to Fitzgerald's side, but at the same time can't ignore Michael Floyd or the threat of Ellington out of the backfield.
If the Colts are disciplined and communicate, they can avoid big plays and should be able to keep Arizona from getting into too much of a rhythm.