This week’s three keys to an Arizona Cardinals victory over the Atlanta Falcons are the product of much thought and brain-wracking. After all, the bye week did provide a full 10 days to ponder what has to be done to upset the 8-1 Falcons.
Five consecutive losses coming into this matchup are threatening to derail what should have been an NFC West-winning season, and there are a myriad of tough games left to play. A sixth straight loss is an unpleasant thought, but if it becomes reality, the team will have a difficult time climbing back into contention.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt still insists personnel changes will be made if necessary. We saw two occur during the team’s Week 9 visit to Lambeau Field, as rookies Nate Potter and Michael Floyd both replaced struggling veterans (LT D’Anthony Batiste and WR Early Doucet, respectively).
They performed well. Potter did not allow a sack—the team allowed only two all day; both by LG Daryn Colledge—and Floyd caught five passes for a career-high 80 yards.
Upsetting the Falcons and handing them their second consecutive loss will be a bear of a task, but if they are going to do it, this is how it will happen.
Make Them One-Dimensional
Falcons running back Michael Turner is not having a great season. He has carried the ball 140 times for 529 yards and four touchdowns—his 3.8 yards-per-carry average, a career-low.
He is also coming off his worst game since arriving in Atlanta. Turner carried the ball 13 times for just 15 yards in last week’s loss to the rival New Orleans Saints. His 1.15 YPC was also a career single-game low.
But low numbers have not stopped the Cardinals defense from giving up big yardage on the ground to teams this season. It has been gashed at times, surrendering chunks of yardage up the middle, especially.
For the defense to keep the team in this game, it must take Turner away. Getting to him behind the line of scrimmage is a must, because if he gathers a head of steam, his 5’10", 240-pound frame is extremely difficult to bring down.
That means standing him up upon contact and hanging on for dear life until help arrives. No big hits and highlight-reel attempts will work on Turner (here’s looking at you, Adrian Wilson).
Be Better Against Play-Action
Taking away the run game can also limit what quarterback Matt Ryan can do out of play-action.
As you can see from the chart below, Ray Horton’s defense is very good when it knows a pass is coming. When there is a play-fake, however, they are more often than not fooled into giving up completions—and a higher percentage of touchdown passes.
(All stats are gathered from ProFootballFocus and require a paid subscription.)
When an opposing quarterback drops back to pass against Arizona’s defense this season, he has thrown a touchdown once every 25 pass attempts. Out of play-action, that number drops all the way to once every 13 attempts.
In the three games the defense has allowed a play-action touchdown—Miami, Minnesota and Green Bay—it has allowed an average of 32 carries for just under 143 yards per game (4.5 yards per carry). The other six games, it has allowed an average of 29 carries for just over 117 yards (4.0 YPC).
When broken down into wins and losses, the play-action problem becomes more of an overall passing game problem for the defense.
Weeks 1-4 provided four consecutive wins. When opposing quarterbacks used a straight dropback, they completed 54.9 percent of passes for an average of 215.5 yards with two total touchdowns and four interceptions (67.3 rating). Out of play-action, they completed 64.0 percent for an average of 63.75 yards with one TD and no INT (111.3).
During the Cardinals’ five-game losing streak, the opposing quarterbacking has been much better—notice the difference in efficiency.
On straight drop-backs, they completed 60.0 percent for an average of 99.6 yards with seven total TDs and three INTs (94.2). When using play-action, they have completed a whopping 74.1 percent for an average of 60.8 yards with three total TDs and one INT (132.3).
What is the message from all that?
They must be better at recognizing play-action. Matt Ryan and his targets are too good for mistakes to be made—Ryan is the No. 4 passer out of play-action this season with a 121.6 rating, six TDs and one INT.
Must Have Offensive Sustainability
Offensive sustainability has eluded the Cardinals this season. They have put together some nice drives at times, but never have they rattled off three or four consecutive good drives. The flashes they have shown are promising, but consistency is key.
That means running the ball more effectively, holding onto passes placed in good spots, putting passes in better spots more consistently and getting the blocking to do all of that.
The root of the dropped passes problem—Doucet—has been taken care of. He will step aside and let a rookie take his snaps; Doucet has dropped 29.6 percent of catchable passes intended for him this season (per PFF).
He is not the only receiver dropping too many passes, but he is the only one who can be replaced on the depth chart as of now—PFF has tight end Rob Housler with two drops on the season, but it may be more than that.
Potter will make his first start Sunday in Atlanta, and if he plays as well as he did in Green Bay, the offensive line could start to make a turn toward the positive side of things.
The other rookie starter, right tackle Bobby Massie, has already begun his ascent out of the bottom of the ranks. He still has allowed the most sacks in the NFL (13), but opposing pass-rushers have netted just one over the past two games against the 6’6”, 316-pound mass(ie) of humanity.
As for the run game, LaRod Stephens-Howling has been inconsistent since taking over the bulk of the rushing duties in lieu of Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams.
He has averaged just 2.3 yards per carry in two games since rushing for a career-high 104 yards on 20 carries (5.2 YPC) against Minnesota. All LSH needs to do is hold down the fort one more week until Wells returns to face the St. Louis Rams.
That is no easy task this week, as both defensive end Kroy Biermann and defensive tackle Vance Walker have been good at defending the run.
Making them miss is a good thing.
Player to Watch: Rookie Receiver Michael Floyd
As noted here and by Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com, Floyd will be the beneficiary of some ill-timed drops by Doucet. He played as the No. 3 receiver in Green Bay and produced a career-high 80 receiving yards, including an acrobatic 37-yard reception on fourth down that kept a drive alive.
While in the game, Floyd plays mainly on the outside, giving Arizona two big options along the sidelines. Starter Andre Roberts slides to the slot, where the Cardinals feel he can be of better use as a quick, shifty option. His slot play will likely increase, though he already has run 41.1 percent of all his routes from the inside (per PFF).
Watch to see if Floyd gets in an early rhythm with John Skelton. If that happens, he could end up having a breakout game.
Prediction: Falcons 20, Cardinals 16