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Saturday, October 25, 2008

V/S Arizona 10.26.08

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.

Defense

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.

Offense

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.

Special Teams

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.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Scalping The Chiefs

It's not politically correct to beat on the Chiefs like this anymore, so Carolina took to running the ball on 4th down inside field goal range. Possibly trying to take it easy on former teammate Herm Edwards, John Fox called off the dogs early in the 4th quarter and started playing backups. Only backup C/G Mackenzie Bernardeau failed to play, and with our line depth concerns right now, that may have been a smart idea.

Games like these are fun - when you're a young player, sometimes this is the only time you get in early on. I'd have liked to have seen the starters come out earlier and get more balls to backups in the passing game. Still, this isn't the type game that many things go wrong - you'd always like to get your stars a TD, or a milestone, but coaches aren't worried about that.

Deangelo Williams got three TDs, and once Muhammad got his, there was no reason to score again, so while Steve Smith could've had 100 yards and a score, or Jonathan Stewart could've gotten his 100, there was no reason. Would've been fun, though.

Carolina just dominated. Even with some backups playing, they were taking it to the Chiefs. So, in lieu of an overview, or a grade (let's just go ahead and give them an A across the board), and all the positives coming out, I'll focus on the downsides.

*Jake Delhomme missed a few opportunities. He could've placed a pair of balls better than caused Steve Smith to get hit hard, and both of them would've been big gains. Smith was covered well, but placing it correctly, Delhomme would've had 4 TD and a 350 yard day.

*Steve Smith dropped a deep TD and didn't seem to be himeself.

*The smoke routes were called at bad times. The corners were getting beaten handily, and KC's youth doesn't look to have a significant upside there either. But they were playing somewhat close to the line, and those should be called when they're 100% completed, not 50%. The receiver should have time to catch the ball, settle in, and get upfield. Anything less will be dangerous.

*It's hard to find fault in the OL. Delhomme was only hit once, and he got 15 yards out of it. The running game was there most of the day. But bad execution at times hindered that, and this can't happen against good teams. Keydrick Vincent fell down on a pulling play, and a number of times the Chiefs penetrated and stopped the RB for a loss. Can't afford that against good teams, putting yourself into third-and-long because of poor execution at the line of scrimmage.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

v/s Kansas City

Taking teams lightly in this league leads to ruin. "Any Given Sunday" is alive and well and elite teams aren't immune. Carolina, of course, isn't elite, but is highly favored, and at home, on what should be a beautiful October day, and faces a Chiefs team in disarray, but this shouldn't be considered a walk by any means.

Facing Kansas City's problems head on would mean a deep look at their drafts. This year's draft hasn't netted much - two players that may not be a great fit, but that would still theoretically add a lot of young toughness to a squad that had seen its lines dissipate over time. Past drafts haven't been that successful - 2007's top three start, the top two from 2006 start, but there's not much overall to be said about the players in the last five drafts. The best, end Jared Allen, faced Carolina two weeks ago as a Viking, and no other star level players have emerged. The Chiefs are talent-poor, and head coach Herm Edwards hasn't really advanced this team from where he picked it up.

Offense

Carolina had a very solid offensive output this past week against Atlanta, and should be able to move the ball well on the Chiefs as well (3rd downs on defense are 5th worst in the league, 30th ranked yards overall). Last week, Carolina lost both starting OT, and neither likely play this week, which will probably be the only hindrance to consistently putting up long drives.

With that in mind, matchups up front should be critical. Travelle Wharton steps back out to start at OT again, and faces DE Tamba Hali. A former 1st round pick, the 6'3, 275 Hali was touted coming out of Penn State and had 15.5 sacks in two years across from Allen, but none this year and very little pressure. Hali isn't a player you sleep on, but it shouldn't be hard to block him effectively. Across from him, Jeremy Bridges steps out to OT as well - and faces second year end Turk McBride (6'4, 280). McBride has started a total of 5 games, is still green, and doesn't have a lot for rush moves yet.

Inside, Glenn Dorsey hasn't shown that he deserves extra attention, and the big man's still nursing back problems. Tank Tyler is scrappy, and has a good first step - big men that get into Keydrick Vincent's body can push him, and if Tyler can turn Vincent's pads, he's going to cause problems. The DTs don't have any substitution patterns, but utility lineman Alphonso Boone often fits in anywhere on running downs. McBride and Hali haven't really mastered the run, and Boone often tightens things up.

Rookie corner Brandon Flowers has a lot of tackles but few plays on the ball - the 5'9, 180 lb corner also doesn't have the speed to get downfield without cushion, so he's getting picked on underneath. He leads the team in solo tackles, and is playing with good technique, but he got picked too high for need and starts for the same reason. Brandon Carr, another rookie, is expected to start this week, and while a little more physically prototype than Flowers, hasn't responded as well. The Grand Valley State product is still very raw, and is susceptible to anything from getting shielded on slants to double moves.

The safeties are a pair of 3rd year players - Bernard Pollard is a 220 lb SS that lacks deep range, picked up in the 2nd round of the 06 draft, and 225 lb Jarrad Page is a 7th rounder from the same draft. The pair have just over two years' total experience in games, and are always shielded in safe zones.

Derrick Johnson, once thought to be our pick at 14 in the 05 draft, is their playmaker, but he hasn't exploded as some thought. He leads the Chiefs in sacks with 2, and is high in tackles, but isn't an impact player in part because of the line in front of him, and partly because he's a contain type player that doesn't do much upfield. Donnie Edwards hasn't had much impact, and being injured, Demorrio Williams has filled in well, but the former Falcon is a better fit weakside and gets bullied near the line. Former Jaguar and NC State MLB Pat Thomas isn't a special player and is only able to hold his own inside the tackles.


Defense


The Chiefs, in a stat Edwards teams' pride themselves on, aren't turning the ball over this year. This, and rush offense, are about all they do well, though (4th rush O but rush TD 16; pass O 7th in attempts but 28th pass D). Where they do fail, they fail well, though - 12th in offensive 3rd down percentage at 40%. If you can't keep them off the field, that's more carries for Larry Johnson. Carolina's 5th in the league for giving up fewest 3rd downs, and matches up well on defense.

With the Chiefs missing Brandon Albert, protection schemes will certainly roll to Julius Peppers, and will probably mean more weakside running as well. Carolina can counter by moving Peppers, by stunting more, and by strongside blitzing. Huard isn't easily fooled, but the Chiefs' line isn't great, either. Expect a heavy dose of 6'7, 260 lb rookie TE Brad Cottam to be on that side much of the day helping out.

Inside, LG Brian Waters is the only player left from the old days - the 9 year vet has watched the former strength of the KC line fade away. Adrian Jones and 3rd year (1st year starter) center Rudy Niswanger aren't powerful players. RT Damion McIntosh, a free agent pickup, has been solid, and brings size (6'4, 325) without a lot of mistakes (gave up 3 sacks last year, 3 penalties). The Chiefs like running behind him, and he's a tough matchup for Tyler Brayton and Charles Johnson.

Outside, Dwayne Bowe isn't a threat, but he's a solid, physical body control type receiver. Behind Bowe in receiving, of course, is TE Tony Gonzalez, and he'll be a tough matchup despite his decline. Behind that pair - the top three backs, then the fullback. Devard Darling, the next WR, has a grand total of 3 catches. KC's receiver position is in severe disarray, and Huard isn't a guy who goes deep often. The end result is that it's going to be a dumpoff game, and that should only help Carolina's defensive calls. At all times they're either going to press Bowe and roll coverage to that side, or bring an 8th guy in the box which will give more coverage to Gonzalez and help stop Johnson.

Johnson's 4th in the league in rushing at this point in the season, nothing new for a Carolina D that's faced two others on that top 5 already and contained them. Johnson will get his yards, and we'll get a heavy dose of him, but simple gap control and execution should help - the defense is more physical and strong in most places than KC's offense. Look for a lot of isolation runs behind FB Mike Cox, and their playaction comes off these plays more often than not.

Special Teams

Dustin Colquitt is a solid punter, and trust that they need a good punter. Nick Novak is a solid kicker, but Edwards also remains very conservative about trying FGs that aren't higher percentage. Return men BJ Sams and Dontrell Savage aren't much more than serviceable, and they lack the depth to have good young players gunning down kicks. The first few weeks of the year, the special teams Carolina faced were excellent - the Chiefs don't even have a full compliment of specialists.

Overview

This is a very winnable game, but a trap one nonetheless. Carolina is the more physical team, the more talented one, and the one at home. But if the Chiefs can get Johnson and Gonzalez going, and hold the ball, they have a chance. This is a team that mixes advanced age with youth lacking fundamentals, and don't really have the mature horses to pull themselves out of the hole. Edwards is a good coach, and he's not going to let the Chiefs just fade into mediocrity without a fight game by game - they're going to fight for it. I don't believe they'll win that fight, or this game, though.