The Cardinals, with an optimal time to get a bye week, come across the nation to face Carolina this week. The Cardinals are 3-8 east of the Mississippi in the tenure of Ken Whisenhunt, and 12-10 overall. Carolina has already handed the new coach one loss at Arizona, beating the Cards 25-10 on Sunday after picking up starting QB Vinny Testaverde up on Tuesday (after Testaverde spurned the Cardinals for a backup position that same week).
Deangelo Williams had 121 yards and a score on 10 carries. Deshaun Foster had 43 yards on 17 carries. Steve Smith had two reverses for 15 yards and 10 rec for 136 yards (1 TD). Other receivers gained a total 70 yards on ten more receptions. Smith's deep balls were just a matter of going up and getting them over Cardinals DBs, nothing exotic. Carolina faced Tim Rattay (12/24/159/0 TD/3 INT) after putting Warner out of the game early, and Larry Fitzgeraldhad 6 receptions for 97 yards. Edgerrin James had a 23 yard TD and a total of 80 yards on 22 carries. The game was a battle of conservative play and field goals, other than the TD plays on both sides, with field goals making the greater portion of scoring for Carolina (John Kasay hitfrom 33, 43, 24, and 45). Carolina parlayed good field position from the INTs and two fumbles recovered into points to take the game in hand.
Carolina draws another strong passing game to stop after shutting New Orleans down last week. The AZ offense revolves around their passing game - ranking 4th overall in the league because of a 4th rated passing game.
The passing game is the trick to stopping the Cardinals, and that 4th rated pass offense faces the Panthers' 2nd rated pass defense (a defense that also rates by football outsiders as #1 in the league versus the #1 receiver). A matchup that should be sure to be a battle, the Panthers are setup to be strong where the Cards are strong (on the edges) and weaker where theCards are weaker (rush). The Panthers' middle pass defense is very strong, and the Cardinals are weak there. The top three WR account for 65% of the receptions, and after that are the two RBs (total 24 receptions, 7% of receptions) so the TEs won't be getting much this week.
Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald are possibly the best receiving duo in the league, and gave the Panthers fits in 2005, the last time they were together v/s Carolina (Boldin didn't play in 2007). In that contest, the Panthers shut down the Cards' attack after making a mid-game adjustment of having Ken Lucas cover Fitzgerald every down. This is still their ideal matchup, but Carolina rarely does this. Lucas against the athletic Fitzgerald and Chris Gamble against Boldin would still be ideal for Carolina, and nickel Richard Marshall is a good match on 3rd WR Steve Breaston.
Kurt Warner is completing passes at 70%, and is as accurate as ever. He has an accurate deep ball, enough on his deep outs to keep them from hanging, and the experience to make the right throws. His detriment so far have been fumbles, and at times, lack of mobility. Warner is most likely to target rookie FS Charles Godfrey, the weaker link in the secondary; they targeted Deke Cooper a lot last year (Cooper had 7 tackles, 2 PD, and 2 INT in his best game as a Panther by far). Chris Harris probably won't spend much time toward the line, as the Cards' run offense isn't a threat, and the TEs don't get a lot of throws. Leonard Pope (6'8, 260) isn't a great blocker and hasn't used his size advantage over many people this year (5 receptions; 44 in three years).
Their run game, at 24th, hasn't followed in line with the offensive scheme as the Steelers had; their line talent is somewhat poor, bolstered by former 1st round pick Levi Brown and not much else. The Cards have been ahead in games so more attempts have come than usual - the yardage number, even at 24th, is misleading because of a 31st overall yard/attempt average.
RB Edgerrin James (363 yards/3.6 per attempt/3 TD; 10 receptions, 7.3yards/catch) has been solid, but not playmaking. Rookie backup, 5th rounder Tim Hightower, leads the team with 5 TDs, andhas 3.0 yards/carry. He has 121 yards on 14 receptions.
Julius Peppers had 1.5 sacks, 7 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, and a recovery in last year's game. He faces Mike Gandy (6'3, 305) this week - the veteran is in his second year in AZ. He gave up 2 sacks last year, 1 so far this year, but gave up 12.5 two years ago. Brown, a second year RT, faces Tyler Brayton and Charles Johnson (1.5 sacks apiece on the year); Brown has given up 5.5 sacks already this year, and gave up 8 last year. Inside Brown is Deuce Lutui (6'4, 330), a third-year mammoth RG that the Cards like to run behind, but struggles in pass protection - he's given up 2 sacks already this year and four last year. Center Lyle Sendlein (6'4, 300) is a second year pivot that does a solid job with calls, but is physically limited. LG Reggie Wells, a homegrown product of six years' work in AZ, is a steady but unassuming lineman that doesn't make mistakes but won't put you on your ass. He'll face Ma'ake Kemoeatu, who could overpower him.
It's a smart enough line for a young group, and it won't get fooled easily by stunts or tricks. It should concentrate on Peppers but might not be enough to stalemate the rest of the Panthers' D.
The Cardinals show up with a number of looks on defense - 4-3, 3-4, and they blitz from both. DC Clancy Pendergast does a solid job of keeping the two sets from being telegraphed by personnel, and his defenses don't very a lot in how he administers them from one scheme to the next. It's not that he goes to the 3-4 to blitz, or the 4-3 because it's a running down. They don't have an effective nosetackle, and that hurts them. They're a completely one-gap styled team regardless of personnel or scheme, and their DL is aggressive and somewhat undisciplined. DTs Darnell Dockett and Gabe Watson don't stay at home as much as they could, but do make plays consistent with the ones that show the Panthers giving up around 3-5 stuffed run plays on offense. Ends Bertrand Berry and Antonio Smith are solid, with Smith being primarily a run stopper - banged-up backup and bonus baby Travis LaBoy gets a lot of the pass snaps. Last year, Smith and Dockett had the two AZ sacks.
Karlos Dansby (42 tackles leads the team; has two sacks) is their all-around best LB, excelling at both run and pass; Chike Okeafor balances between 4-3 OLB and 3-4 OLB. He excels at the outside rush, but doesn't do much against the run and can give up contain if he's lined up on the line. Gerald Hayes, the MLB, is second on the team in tackles and is primarily a run-stopper. In some 3-4 sets, he's teamed with former Steelers LB Clark Haggans. We can drop TEs behind the linebackers, with the Cards being ranked 27th against the TE; they're 22nd against RBs as well. Actually, footballoutsiders doesn't have them listed well against any receiver - 26th against the primary WR, 19th against the 2nd, and 15th against the 3rd.
The Cards can be spread against the pass or run, which limits their coverage and blitz options; they can be hurried to the line to keep substitution from being valid. Get them into nickel and they'll be stuck with LaBoy playing the run the next down. If you can play hurry-up in 3-4, and then spread, you could get Haggans against a RB in space in the slot. The Cards' multiple-front defense is still able to be manipulated, and their intentions become much clearer at that point.
Counter plays will probably work well with the eager AZ defense, and misdirection won't be easily figured out, but the team will probably have enough success running without it as well. The Cards come in ranked 8th against the run - up a few spots from last week, but have had very few carries (2nd in the league) and clock in at a more pedestrian 16th yards per carry. They were gashed by the Redskins for almost 200 yards with Clinton Portis, mostly up the middle.
Left corner Rod Hood goes up against Muhsin Muahmmad - the physical 5'11 corner had 5 picks for almost 200 yards and 2 TDs (and 21 defensed passes) as an incoming free agent last year, but has been quiet this year. Right corner Eric Green has solid man-cover technique, but loves to jump routes and gets abused on double moves. He'll have time to do that, though, since Steve Smith will get a lot of attention from young FS Antrel Rolle. A converted CB that struggled there, Rolle is struggling at safety as well. Rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was drafted as a new centerpiece the AZ backfield but doesn't start - like fellow rookie Aqib Talib, he's a nickelback so far.
Adrian Wilson (6'3, 230), a physical specimen at the position, is the backfield's best player and a beast when brought into the box. He covers TEs well and stops the run as well as any LB on their roster. The High Point native will probably be a good indicator of the Cardinals' intentions - it's going to be a basic judgement call for Pendergast - stop Steve Smith or stop the run. Certainly, that tips off whether playaction will be successful as well.
Last year, the Panthers put Vinny Testaverde into a lot of shotgun situations, it being something he was comfortable with after having not played in the months prior. While this isn't a necessity against the Cards, it would still be comfortable - assuming backup C Geoff Hangartner is in, it would give Jake Delhomme a center familiar with the snap (Ryan Kalil had a number of high snaps this year, luckily none too high). It's a good look against an active Cards front to force them into pass sets, where they're less flexible with their calls, and fits in with the ideals of spreading them out.
Kalil and Jeff Otah probably won't start again this week - the Panthers put the same OL on the field for two weeks in a row (something they haven't done with their starters). Jeremy Bridges starts at RT, Hangartner at C; Jordan Gross will face Berry, Bridges whoever lines up at end/OLB that the Cards decide to throw at him. Travelle Wharton will face as tough a test in pass blocking as he has this year in Dockett.
K Neil Rackers was a beast last year and continues to be one of the better kickers in the league. P Dirk Johnson is 22nd in the league in net (36.7) and 27th in gross (42.7). An average punter, Johnson doesn't do a great job directionally or away from home.
Other than one broken JJ Arrington return (93 yd TD), the Cards average 22.6 yards/return, which isn't great - with the broken return, they average 24, which still isn't that good. Breaston, the primary kick and punt returner, averages 8ypr on punts, and 21.2 on kicks.
Backup WR Sean Morey and backup SS Aaron Francisco are the ST captains. The Cards blocked a punt to win the Dallas game, and Carolina has a total of 3 blocked punts against them.
The Cardinals are a study in NFL History. Never a Super Bowl, in all these years, the Cardinals have a storied history of losing; as one of the first and certainly one of the oldest franchises, they were around when there wasn't an NFL (1920); when there were only 8 teams (1932); they've moved twice and been named four different city or state combinations: that doesn't even include when they had to merge with the Steelers during the war (they were the Chi/Pit Card/Steelers). They couldn't even put together a winning record under Curly Lambeau. But this team is a potent team, and Whisenhunt doesn't seem to have allowed the past to haunt him. While this isn't the best team the Panthers will have played all year, it's still a good team, one that tells you what it's going to do and still dares you to beat it.
It should be a battle, one that may come down to the Panthers being at home, or may come down to the Panthers being built to stop teams like the Cardinals. But it must be on its game, and without mental mistakes, to make sure that this potential playoff team goes home without a win.