NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
Entering the 2012 season, the Arizona Cardinals were considered a team in the midst of a downward spiral. Their division rivals were being lauded for improvements at key spots: San Francisco had upgraded their offense by signing Mario Manningham and Randy Moss at wide receiver, Seattle had added not one but two potential starting quarterbacks in Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson, and the St. Louis Rams had begun a complete organizational overhaul under highly-regarded head coach Jeff Fisher, who brought in talent at wide receiver (Brian Quick), along the offensive line (center Scott Wells), and especially on defense (tackles Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford, cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, and Trumaine Johnson.)
However, the Cardinals are tied for first in the division after a 20-16 week one victory over the more highly-touted Seattle Seahawks in which Arizona made a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback behind second-string quarterback Kevin Kolb.
How much of a threat do they pose to a New England team coming off of a dominant 34-13 victory at the Tennessee Titans?
1. How will Arizona quarterback Kevin Kolb perform as John Skelton’s injury replacement?
After a series of relatively impressive preseason performances, former fifth-round pick John Skelton was named the starting quarterback for Arizona’s season-opener at Seattle over second-year Cardinal Kevin Kolb, acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles for a second-round pick prior to the 2011 season and given a six-year, $65 million contract. Skelton finished the game on 14/28 passing for 149 yards and an interception; the performance earned him a quarterback rating of 51.0. However, it was not Skelton’s contributions but Kolb’s which led the Cardinals to victory; Skelton injured his ankle in the mid-fourth quarter and Kolb led the offense down the field on 6/8 passing in the no-huddle offense, including the clinching touchdown throw to Andre Roberts. The Arizona Republic‘s Kent Somers reported that the Cardinals expect Skelton to miss extended time, which means that New England will be preparing for Kevin Kolb. If New England can pressure Kolb, they should be able to limit his effectiveness: Kolb completed 62% of his passes without pressure last season, but just 48.8% when his protection broke down.
2. Can the Patriots replicate their week-one success against the running game?
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of New England’s victory at Tennessee was their work against Chris Johnson and the Titans’ rushing attack. Tennessee ran the ball just 16 times for a total of 20 yards; Johnson was limited to 11 carries for 4 yards and made his only substantial contributions in the passing game (six catches for 47 yards.) The matchup against Johnson was especially encouraging given his ability to stretch defenses horizontally; as mentioned in last week’s preview, the Patriots traditionally defend the run from the inside out. Fortunately for the Patriots, Arizona’s rushing attack was one of their weak points vs. Seattle: six different players received a carry but totaled just 43 yards on 20 carries, with third running back La’Rod Stephens-Howling scoring a one-yard touchdown. The Cardinals are expected to divide their carries between former first-round pick Beanie Wells and 2011 second-round pick Ryan Williams; Wells is considered more of a power back, while Williams was highly regarded for his burst and balance at Virginia Tech. Neither player is expected to find much success against New England, though; Wells looked flat on seven carries for 14 yards, while Williams was even less effective, rushing eight times for nine yards.
3. How will New England match up against Larry Fitzgerald and Arizona’s receivers?
Larry Fitzgerald is unquestionably Arizona’s biggest offensive weapon; the $128.5 million man has topped 1,000 yards in six of his eight professional seasons, and every year since 2007. He caught four passes for 63 yards in the opener against Seattle’s highly effective secondary, which includes cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, and two elite safeties in Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Devin McCourty played well against Tennessee, but Fitzgerald is a significantly more talented receiver than any of the Titans’ targets; look for McCourty to receive a lot of help over the top as head coach Bill Belichick attempts to remove Fitzgerald from Arizona’s offense and force the Cardinals to win the game with their secondary options. The most notable receiver aside from Fitzgerald is Andre Roberts, who rushed once for 15 yards and caught five passes for 54 yards last week, including the game-winning touchdown. Arizona also employs Early Doucet, first-round pick Michael Floyd, and veteran tight end Todd Heap, although none of those players are game-changers at this point.
4. New England’s biggest defensive advantage lies in the trenches
Arizona’s offensive line is ragged at best, which should translate to impressive performances along New England’s defensive line. Left tackle Levi Brown, who was given a five-year, $30 million contract extension after surrendering 11 sacks in 2011, will miss the 2012 season with a torn triceps. The rest of Arizona’s line is a combination of average starters and journeyman. D’Anthony Batiste has taken over for Brown at left tackle; the Cardinals are his sixth team in six seasons. In week one, Batiste surrended one sack and five pressures while also being called for two penalties. The rest of Arizona’s starters, from left to right, are Daryn Colledge (left guard), Lyle Sendlein (center), Adam Snyder (right guard), and rookie Bobby Massie (right tackle.) Colledge and Sendlein are both adequate, but Snyder is regarded as one of the poorest guards in the league and Massie has struggled to acclimate to the NFL. Arizona’s lack of quality starters along the line should come as a relief to New England’s defensive front after matching up against Titans standouts Michael Roos, Steve Hutchinson, Leroy Harris, and David Stewart. As mentioned above, Cardinasl quarterback Kevin Kolb has historically struggled under pressure, and Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, and Rob Ninkovich should be able to provide plenty of anxiety on Sunday afternoon.
5. Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton a disciple of Steelers legend Dick LeBeau
Ray Horton enters his second season as Arizona’s defensive coordinator after having spent time with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh as well as in Cincinnati. Like LeBeau’s, Horton’s defenses favor an aggressive, blitz-heavy approach out of three-man defensive fronts, with zone coverage shells; last season the Cardinals compiled 42 sacks on defense, good for seventh in the league. In order for Arizona to upset New England, the Cardinals must overwhelm the Patriots’ protections and pressure Tom Brady into making mistakes; look for Horton to call for a blitz on nearly half of Arizona’s defensive snaps. Horton will rely on Arizona’s front seven for the majority of the pressure; Darnell Docket, Dan Williams, and Calais Campbell occupy the defensive line, while the Cardinals’ linebacker corps is composed of outside linebackers O’Brien Schofield and Sam Acho, with Daryl Washington and Paris Lenon on the inside. The Patriots allowed just one sack in the season opener; if New England’s offensive line can make Tom Brady comfortable, the Patriots should come away with their second win of the season.