Cardinals vs. Chiefs: How Can Ken Whisenhunt, Arizona Better Todd Haley and KC?
Every week is a big week in the NFL.
However, this one somehow feels bigger than most.
Former Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley will be leading his surprisingly impressive Chiefs team against his ailing former team, led by his one-time mentor Ken Whisenhunt.
It is a matchup with no clear favourite. Both teams play very similar football, have similar strengths and weaknesses and are coming off multiple-game losing streaks and humiliating divisional losses.
For both teams, a win keeps them in the hunt for a playoff berth; a loss is a major setback in increasingly tight divisions.
Certainly, KC is performing better than Arizona overall, and a KC loss is only a setback, whereas a Cards loss effectively ends their season. However, the game is still wide open, with both teams possessing the talent to win, and lack of discipline to throw away, the game.
It's a big week for my family too. I am a diehard Cards fan, my brother a huge Chiefs fan. This week, my Cardinals-stacked fantasy team, Team Teamerson, faces off against his Chiefs-rich Red 25.
Clearly, there is an awful lot riding on this game.
So, if the Cardinals are to secure a vital win and give me bragging rights in my house and fantasy league, what must they do?
Be Patient, Disciplined and Consistent
The Arizona Cardinals have not looked at all consistent this year.
At times, they look fantastic and unbeatable, able to put up points on a whim, and then, the following drive, they look lost and helpless, unable to even make a first down.
It happens both sides of the ball too. One drive Arizona's defence looks devastating, pressuring the opposing QB, stifling runs, causing fumbles and returning interceptions for touchdowns. The next they allow 15-plus yards per carry and give up points to the opposition like Christmas has come early.
But it's hard to expect any different when Coach Whisenhunt has shown so little patience or
He has been making changes at quarterback practically every other week. Defensive schemes which were working seem to be abandoned in favour of ones which seem to all but guarantee huge gains for the opposing offence.
Discipline has also been bad, and Arizona is one of the more penalised teams in the league. It's not that the team is particularly dirty or plays particularly violently; they're not the Oakland Raiders. The majority of their penalties have been mundane procedural penalties or stem from silly lapses in concentration. But that's all the more infuriating.
Finally, Arizona has shown horrendous patience. They change plays, players and strategies at the drop of a hat. The whole game seems to be played in hurry-up offence, which would be fine if Coach Whisenhunt trusted his QBs to make calls at the line of scrimmage. Since he does not, it leads to needless interceptions and all too many three-and-outs.
However, this must be a key if Arizona hopes to have success in 2010.
Don't Abandon the Run Game: Wells, Hightower and Stephens-Howling Will Be Key
If we are agreed that we must be more patient and not abandon any part of our game plan too quickly, if at all, then the rush is one place we definitely need to stick with.
I know the stats don't say so, but here is the simple fact of the matter: Our ground game is one of our biggest, best weapons.
Beanie Wells, if finally fit, is a fantastic, powerful runner, Tim Hightower can make exciting things happen on the outside and LaRod Stephens-Howling...well. Let's talk about LaRod Stephens-Howling (pictured).
I want to highlight something for you here.
This year star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has four touchdowns.
Hightower, the starting running back for most of the season and the player with the most Cardinals touches, has three.
Wells has two, Steve Breaston one.
Stephens-Howling has three so far, yet the Cardinals give him the ball, on average, twice a game.
Now I know two of those touchdowns came from kick returns, and Stephens-Howling does get extra touches on the returns. Also, no one wants to risk injuring such a valuable asset by overusing him.
However, to be honest, I'd much rather see us able to get first downs and touchdowns on more than just special teams. After all, if you're returning a kick, chances are the opponents have just scored on you.
Stephens-Howling brings something particularly special to the Arizona running game. His fantastic speed gives him the ability to bust off huge gains.
Wells and Hightower are brilliant and, if used properly, should be dependable to get first downs and more, but Stephens-Howling reminds me of another double-barreled running back—Maurice Jones-Drew.
Both are undersized but quick and surprisingly powerful. If they find a seam, both can exploit it to huge effect, and both are powerful enough to break tackles when caught and turn big gains into devastating ones.
Kansas City has a pretty solid run defence, and the temptation will be to abandon it early, but this couldn't be a more wrong tactic.
Running the ball allows you to dictate the pace of the game, and ensuring that the Chiefs offence is off the field as much as possible greatly limits their threat.
Arrowhead is not an easy place to play; the fans are very loyal and very vocal about their newly reinvigorated team. Pounding out long, drawn-out drives also takes the fans out of the game and reduces the risk of momentum-changing turnovers.
I'm not saying any one of these men is the sole key to this offence, but together, if the running game is not thrown out in the first quarter, these could be a fantastic running back trio, something which is increasingly common in the NFL today.
Make Use of the Pass: Great Running Frees Fitzgerald, Breaston to Do Their Thing
I know that I just said that the running game must be key, but the thing is, great running means that the pass can become an even more dangerous weapon.
Derek Anderson and Max Hall have both been picked off more than is acceptable at this level, but should this surprise us given that teams have been free to sit back and defend solely against the pass?
My feelings about both Hall and Anderson as franchise quarterbacks are fairly well known. I don't think either will be the Cardinals QB in 2011 and don't think either really possesses the skills to excel at this level.
At best, Hall is a backup with a lot of upside if you end up needing to play him, and Anderson, unfortunately, feels like he has just blown his last chance to remain an NFL QB but could find work in the UFL, CFL, Arena Football or the new USFL.
I feel, at this point, the best course of action is to give John Skelton (pictured), the Cardinals' fifth-round draft pick out of Fordham, a chance to show us what he can do.
In his limited playing time in preseason, Skelton appeared, at least to me, to be the best player at his position. However, reported difficulties learning the playbook saw him slip to third on the depth chart.
Skelton has now had nine weeks on the bench to learn the playbook inside and out, and as he is a player in the mould of current starter Derek Anderson, he should be able to slide into his position without too much interruption.
It is no secret that the Chiefs have a pretty terrible secondary.
Skelton would have terrific weapons at WR to offload the ball to, and his big arm makes him a constant threat down the field, where players like Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston perform best, especially against Kansas City. If defenders are forced also to defend against the run, both men, as well as Early Doucet and Andre Roberts, should regularly find themselves in plenty of space.
Play to Your Strengths Defensively: Pressure QBs, Keep the Running Game in Check
At times, the Cardinals defence looks like one of the most dominant in the NFL. At others, often within the space of a few drives, it looks like the softest.
I'm really not sure what it is either. Skill-wise, everything is in place.
Offseason acquisitions like Kerry Rhodes (pictured) have bolstered a defence that was already on the verge of becoming very dominant.
Rhodes and Adrian Wilson, Darnell Dockett, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Joey Porter are all former Pro Bowl selections, and the rest of the team certainly possess more then enough talent to shut down more than a few offences in this league.
Their players can dominate offences, shut down even the best running games and pick off top quarterbacks with ease.
The Cardinals have built a defensive unit that is what I like to term a boom or bust defence, who play with a bend but not break attitude. They will give up yards, that is for sure, maybe even a few points along the way, but that's part of the plan.
They will give up six or seven yards on passing plays so the opposing quarterback is lulled into throwing that pass which he really knows he shouldn't, and before you know it, it's gone for a touchdown the other way. They will sell out on the blitz to drop a running back behind the line, even if it means giving receivers a bit too much space, so the offence thinks twice before running that play again.
When it matters, they will shut any team down in the red zone.
Or at least that's how it's supposed to work.
The problem is that this style of defence requires corners and safeties to be able to chase down and tackle any receiver or running back, and this year, that hasn't quite been the case. Far too many receivers seem to have gotten the drop on the Arizona defensive backs and are breaking their tackles just a little too often.
They are getting interceptions, for sure, but when they do not, as we saw last week against the Seahawks, WRs like Mike Williams are getting first downs just about each and every catch.
To make matters worse, as players start second-guessing themselves and more players hang back to ensure that receivers are wrapped up, stopping the run game becomes next to impossible, and quarterbacks have more than enough time to complete even bigger plays down the field.
Arizona need to remember the type of football they play and not change that just because it didn't work on a single drive. It comes back to point No. 1: They need to be patient.
Playing a team like Kansas City will give the Cardinals a lot of chances to make big defensive plays. KC should be fairly predictable, Whisenhunt should know what Haley is going to do next better than most and drawing up the correct plays at the correct time should be easier than against most other opponents.
The Chiefs will, understandably, lean on their exciting rushing duo of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, but that is okay. Arizona can shut down even the best running teams if they keep their heads in the game. When KC does throw, Matt Cassel should give our talented secondary lots of chances to make big plays.
That's not to say that they need to become predictable defensively. There is more than enough variety within the Cards defence to keep even the best offence guessing, but under no circumstances must the game plan change just because it hasn't worked on one or two plays.
It is a high-octane defence and needs to remain that way throughout the entire length of the game. One or two quarters is not enough at all.
Keep Your Head Up: Accept That 2010 Must Be Considered a Rebuilding Year
The reality is, on paper, that it is possible that the Arizona Cardinals can make the playoffs in 2010, but football isn't played on paper.
Normally I'd follow that particular idiom with "It's played on the field." But in this case, I feel that isn't really true either.
In the case of the 2010 Cardinals, more games have been lost in the heads of the players than on the gridiron.
You can see it in their eyes. They are beaten sometimes before they even take the field. They don't believe that they can win.
As soon as they go behind, their heads drop, they lose focus and the game is already over.
That problem goes all the way to the top.
Ken Whisenhunt still doesn't know what he wants out of this year. That much is clear by how often he swaps his starting quarterback. He can't decide if he wants to win a few games this year or if he wants to build towards the future, and until he decides, the players can't be expected to know either.
I believe the players need to be given permission to lose before they can hope to win.
It sounds counterintuitive, but stick with me.
If, and I know how difficult it will be when two wins can put you back at the top of the division, but if Ken Whisenhunt can do the brave thing and accept that 2010 must be a learning experience...
If he can allow one quarterback, any one quarterback, to make the team his own and not fear for his job if he makes a mistake...
If he can give his defensive players freedom to stick to their plan, even when it doesn't pan out...
If he does these things, then the Arizona Cardinals may just win this division yet.
If, on the other hand, players are continually in and out of jobs, worrying that one mistake will cost them their jobs, worrying that one blown assignment will completely change the defensive scheme for the remainder of the game, if receivers don't know who will be throwing them the next pass, then how can the team be expected to succeed?
By telling the team that 2010 is a learning year, that they will have a few more chances to prove themselves, that they can learn as much from their mistakes as they can their victories, then the weight is removed, players' heads lift and they are reinvigorated.
Say it in a press conference. Don't promise wins, but promise the kind of high-flying, exciting football Arizona fans have come to expect and that win or lose, you're in for a great game, and you may just get the fans back on side too.
All of a sudden, you are released to try big plays. You're freed to try difficult passes, to force fumbles and make interceptions. You're free to try onside kicks when the textbook says you should kick it deep, and free to go for it on 4th-and-3, and when they pay off, perhaps you get a win, perhaps a couple in a row. And then...
Well, let's take it one game at a time.
And our next game is against the Kansas City Chiefs.
See you on Sunday.