6. Can New England limit the effectiveness of Arizona’s elite three-man line?
With perhaps the league’s best pair of five-technique defensive ends in left end Darnell Dockett and right end Calais Campbell, Arizona’s line is a force to be reckoned with. The pair combined for four quarterback hits and ten pressures in week one and represent one of the most difficult tests of the year for New England’s offensive tackles, Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. Solder allowed Tennessee Titans right end Kamerion Wimbley to record one sack and two quarterback pressures in the season opener; Campbell, who has averaged seven sacks per year since 2009, could be on Tom Brady’s mind all afternoon if the play at left tackle fails to improve. On the interior, Cardinals 2010 first-round pick Dan Williams is beginning to emerge as a legitimate starting nose tackle following a season in which he started ten contests; Williams’ size (6’2″, 327 pounds) will likely force New England to double-team him at times rather than leaving that responsibility solely on center Ryan Wendell’s shoulders. Arizona’s stout defensive line should make it very challenging for New England to replicate the success their running game enjoyed last week.
7. Will Wes Welker play a more critical role in New England’s offensive gameplan?
Wes Welker’s 42 offensive snaps in week one fueled speculation that New England’s franchise player may have a more limited role with the team this season; however, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels suggested that Welker’s quiet day was directly tied to the team’s offensive gameplan. The receiver should be featured more prominently in week two against a Cardinals defense which appears thinner at cornerback than the Tennessee Titans, whose right cornerback, Alterraun Verner, was well-suited to cover Welker. Patrick Peterson, Arizona’s left cornerback, is one of the most physically talented players in the league and could prevent Patriots wide receiver Brandon Lloyd from being as productive as he was last week; expect Peterson to cover Lloyd for most of Sunday’s contest. New England may consequently shift the focus of their passing game further towards Welker; Cardinals right cornerback William Gay and slot cornerback Michael Adams are far from elite in coverage and figure to be tested often by Tom Brady and the Patriots.
8. New England must keep tabs on playmaking Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson
Arizona strong safety Adrian Wilson is considered one of the top defensive backs in the NFL; he is expected to play a vital role in Arizona’s defense despite being listed as questionable with an ankle injury. Wilson’s size (6’3″, 230 pounds), athleticism, and well-rounded skillset led the Cardinals to sign him to a contract extension in July; the $16.5 million deal runs through the 2015 season. Wilson enters the game with 27 career interceptions and 22.5 sacks; he is the NFL record-holder for most sacks by a defensive back in a season with eight (2005.) Over the past three seasons, he has deflected 36 passes with eight interceptions. Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton will attempt to confuse Patriots quarterback Tom Brady by utilizing Wilson’s diverse talents in a variety of ways: in deep coverage, as an inside or outside blitzer, in the box, and perhaps in man coverage on one of New England’s tight ends. Brady must make a point of knowing where Wilson is on the field at all times on Sunday in order to succeed against Arizona’s defense.
9. Daryl Washington the lone standout in an inconsistent linebacker corps
Cardinals 2010 second-round pick Daryl Washington has quietly developed into one of the top inside linebackers in the league. Washington, renowned for his speed and quickness, occupies the weak inside linebacker position in Horton’s defense and enters his third season as a starter; his production leapt from 78 tackles, one sack, and one interception as a rookie to 107 tackles, five sacks, and two interceptions as a sophomore. On September 6th, he was rewarded with a six-year contract worth $32.5 million. Washington recorded 10 tackles and one sack in the season-opener against Seattle and figures to be one of Arizona’s primary defensive weapons against the Patriots. Look for him to be a major factor in all facets of the passing game; he is equally adept in zone coverage and as a blitzer. Fortunately for New England, the rest of Arizona’s linebackers are less worrisome: 2011 fourth-rounder Sam Acho recorded seven sacks last season from the outside linebacker position but failed to get consistent pressure, while fellow outside linebacker O’Brien Schofield and inside linebacker Paris Lenon are considered replacement-level players.
10. Arizona’s outstanding special teams units cannot be overlooked
Bill Belichick constantly stresses the importance of quality special teams play, and the Arizona Cardinals may possess the best special teams units the Patriots will face all season. Patrick Peterson may be the most dangerous punt returner in the league; his 99-yard game-winning punt return in overtime against the St. Louis Rams was just one of four punts he returned for touchdowns as a rookie last season. Cardinals kick returner La’Rod Stephens-Howling has also scored three times in the return game and holds a career kick return average of 25.2 yards per attempt. New England must also be careful in the kicking game, as Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell leads a unit which is renowned for blocking a high volume of opposing attempts. Campbell blocked three field goals last season, including a Josh Brown attempt at the end of regulation last November which set up Peterson’s game-winning punt return touchdown in overtime.