Struggling teams will often ask questions of themselves, as introspection is often the guide to clarity. The Arizona Cardinals, however, should allow the Baltimore Ravens to lead them down the path of righteousness Monday night.
Sometimes, it's just easier to go with the grain.
Arizona has not played well in two of its last three games, but the 1-5 Ravens could provide a heady tonic. Baltimore has kept all six contests close this season, but its weaknesses are both blatant and exploitable.
Let's take a look at how the Cardinals can attack Baltimore and get back on track in the process.
Offensive Game Plan
The instinct following Arizona's Week 6 loss to Pittsburgh would be for the Cardinals to re-establish the running game against Baltimore. Against the Steelers, Arizona called twice as many pass plays as run plays, and Carson Palmer, to an extent, threw the team out of the game.
That's the wrong instinct, at least as far as Monday's matchup is concerned. Here are Baltimore's numbers against the run this season:
|Baltimore's run defense|
|Yards per game||94.5||10th|
|Yards per carry||3.6||7th|
And here's how the Ravens fare against the pass:
|Baltimore's pass defense|
|Yards per game||286||27th|
|Yards per attempt||8.2||29th|
As important as the ground game has been to Arizona's success thus far, there's no reason to get cute (and introspective). The Cardinals have a significant advantage through the air, and they should look to exploit it from the first quarter through the final whistle.
I'll double-down on that statement if starting Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb misses the game. He's listed as questionable.
Jimmy Smith will loom large over Larry Fitzgerald, but John Brown (also listed as questionable) and Michael Floyd should meet little resistance. As San Francisco, of all teams, proved last week, the big play is available against this Ravens secondary, with Kyle Arrington looking particularly vulnerable.
Baltimore's front three is big and nasty, so don't expect Chris Johnson to have much room to run.
Defensive Game Plan
Baltimore's offense doesn't exactly resemble Chicago's or San Francisco's, but it plays on a similar theme. Like the Bears and the 49ers, the Ravens offense is built around a kind of self-aware modesty.
While the offense is in the capable hands of Joe Flacco, the Ravens simply don't have the kind of weaponry needed to take advantage of his arm strength.
Instead, Baltimore looks to establish a solid running game behind Justin Forsett and a possession-based passing attack, with tight end Crockett Gillmore and fullback Kyle Juszczyk getting plenty of targets. Wide receiver Steve Smith St. remains Superman at the age of 36, but he can't do it alone down the field.
The impetus, therefore, will remain on Arizona's front seven to control the line of scrimmage and choke off Baltimore's running game. Kevin Minter and Deone Bucannon can really set the tone for the rest of the defense by camping out in Baltimore's backfield.
If Arizona had the pass-rushers, defensive coordinator James Bettcher would be wise to turn them loose against an offensive line that struggles in pass protection, but such players don't populate the Cardinals roster. Still, Arizona can bait Flacco into turning the ball over. He's thrown seven picks this season.
Key Players and Matchups
Larry Fitzgerald vs. Jimmy Smith / Steve Smith Sr. vs. Patrick Peterson
Both of these battles will be fun. Even if the matchups don't prove crucial to the final score, the narrative is an exciting one: two productive, aging receivers going up against younger, more athletic corners. Who ya got?
Both Arizona players will have their hands full. Steve Smith Sr., in the last year of his career, is averaging more than 100 yards per game this season, while Jimmy Smith is finally turning into a playmaker in the secondary. He has two interceptions on the season.
The rookie outside linebacker was OK last week in his first career start. He made some plays and some mistakes. He in fact looked a lot like a player who wasn't quite ready to make an impact right now but who could well make an impact at some point in the future.
Arizona wouldn't mind it if the future arrived sooner than later, preferably this season. The Cardinals need to generate a pass rush, even when regular starter Alex Okafor is healthy.
Baltimore's offensive line will allow some pressure. If Golden can make a statement against Baltimore that the defense can count on him, the Arizona coaches will be happy as they eye the second half of the season.
This is perhaps reductive, but he may be the key player in Monday's game. Palmer has been largely fantastic this season, but he was not so fantastic last Sunday.
If Arizona airs the ball out as expected, this is Palmer's game. Frankly, no one should be more primed for a big night than him.
Good teams beat lesser opponents at home.
Arizona has already given away one such game, losing to St. Louis in Week 4, and it won't be quick to do it again. Baltimore is no pushover, but it's not playing winning football. There's no reason for Arizona to not control this game for 60 minutes.
Palmer won't have the greatest game of his career or the greatest game of his stint in Arizona, but he's going to put forth an authoritative statement. When he's on, he is one of the best quarterbacks in the league and one of the few capable of carrying a team deep into the playoffs.
That's the kind of play his teammates should expect Monday.
Elsewhere, the Cardinals hold the talent advantage on both sides of the ball. They're playing at home in front of a national audience. The team has played "notice us" football several times this season, and it will add another such performance against Baltimore.
Final score: Arizona 28, Baltimore 13