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Friday, January 9, 2009

Divisional Playoffs, v/s Cardinals, 1.10.2009

Carolina hosts the Arizona Cardinals for the second time at home, this time in less favorable weather but with hopefully the same result. Carolina leads the matchup, has a 10 point spread, and has the better matchup at home. It's an eerily lopsided matchup for Carolina, despite a top passing offense for the Cardinals.

Last time

Carolina played Arizona at home, with AZ coming off a bye week and
Carolina preparing for one. The Panthers were without starting linemen
Jeff Otah and Ryan Kalil, while the Cardinals were getting WR Anquan
Boldin back. The Panthers fell behind by 14 points but came back to take the lead late with a strong running game and two quick Steve Smith scores; Carolina held off a late charge by the Cardinals by picking off Kurt Warner - Jon Beason bringing the interception back to midfield and Carolina killing the clock from there.

Since Then: Arizona went 5-4 since visiting Carolina, so 5-5 after their
bye and with a 2-4 finish. They won the NFC West, receiving their first
home playoff game since 1947 and beat the Falcons for their first
playoff win since 1998. They lost Anquan Boldin for more time;
Edgerrin James was benched, then started again; he's since said he wants
out of Arizona (which Boldin, in a contract dispute, has also stated).
James has picked up his game in the past few weeks.

To give you how big a deal it was that they had a home playoff game last week, the Cardinals were two moves and three name changes ago since their last home game in Chicago, twelve years before they moved to St. Louis. They never had a playoff game there, and never even played in the playoffs as the Phoenix Cardinals before becoming state-based.

Carolina Defense v/s Arizona Offense

Oddly enough, Carolina faces Arizona's passing attack the week after facing New Orleans, just as it did mid-schedule 2008. Facing a top ranked passing team tends to help for stopping a top ranked passing team, and it helped Carolina last time.

There's no getting around the potential of the Arizona offense. The league's 4th ranked offense sports a passing trio of Pro Bowlers in Fitzgerald, Boldin, and Warner, each of which were named starters in the all-star game. The pass-based Cardinals are direct opposites of the
Panthers offensively and show a direct change in balance - they're 32nd in run attempts (32nd in yards, 31st in yards per carry) and 2nd in pass attempts (2nd in yards, 7th in yards/attempt).

The Cards pass at a 7.7 yard per attempt average. They get a first down 36.7% of passing
attempts, equal with Carolina for 5th in the league. They're third in the league for 40+ yard passing plays. They convert 42% third down, good for 11th in the league. Fumbled 27, for 10th worst in the league; they've lost 15. 11 of them are Warner's.

The Cards allowed 28 sacks, very good for their number of attempts. Still, Warner's downfield, in the pocket mentality and his feet staying set in the pocket will show Warner getting hit a lot - he got pressured 9 times and sacked twice in the previous Carolina game despite
Carolina's pass rush underperforming over that stretch before the bye. 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 does wear down with hits and pressures, so effective pressure can matter even if it doesn't register a sack. It may even be worth, especially within goal-to-go situations a la Green Bay, to take the roughing penalty to hit Warner to prove the point. Unlike Carolina reacting to the hit on Jake Delhomme in the Chicago Bears game in week 2, there's not enough talent outside the passing game to be livened up by such an action.

Larry Fitzgerald is the key to stopping their passing game; Anquan Boldin is still injured, and may or may not play. Fitzgerald is an All-Pro, and a complete player; there's nothing he can't do well. It's hard to say whether the team will put Chris Gamble on Fitzgerald all game; it's possible, and it's something Carolina has had success in 2005 and 2007 with. Typically, Carolina doesn't roll coverage toward a player or put one CB on a receiver, however. Boldin is the dominant physical receiver when healthy, but isn't likely healthy - without a healthy hamstring, he probably won't be able to get off the jam fast, and probably would face man coverage if he plays. Still, he's the type to be able to outman a player in short space, enough to get a first down on 3rd and 4 or less with just one good leg due to his body control and ability to box out defenders.

If Boldin doesn't play, it's still not great news - Steve Breaston, rookie out of Michigan, had 9 catches against Carolina and had 1000 yards in 2008. Compared to Fitzgerald's 12 and Boldin's 11, Breaston only has 3 TDs on the year, but he's still dangerous and has more yards per catch than Boldin. 4th WR Jerheme Urban would get more snaps as the 3rd WR with Boldin out; the 6'3, 210 lb receiver was the 4th best receiver despite being buried on the depth chart, above the top backs, TEs. Warner and the Arizona offense has been determined to throw the ball and speficically to the WR position;

Ben Patrick leads tight ends with receptions at 15 - none of them are a threat. He, the 6'8 Leonard Pope, and Steven Spach rotate, and while none of them are individual threats, Carolina is typically open to the TE attack when playing deep coverage against two good receivers.

LT Mike Gandy is a solid pass blocker, but gave up 6 of the Cardinals' 26 sacks this year and faces Julius Peppers, though Peppers has moved around more in the past few weeks . RT Levi Brown, the Cardinals' 2007 top five overall draft pick, gave up 11 of those sacks, including one to Charles Johnson in the last matchup. The backs and tight ends gave up six of those sacks on confusion, which continues to be a concern for a team that passes so much; a fair amount of pressure has come from blitzers, but Warner generally releases the ball fast enough to mask those problems.

Cardinals Running Game

Despite coming in with the league's worst running game to supplement what can only be described as the easiest passing game to use to setup the run, the Cardinals have run well from base formations in the last two weeks. Without using the draw that much, either. Look for the shotgun-spread draw to be a big part of the Cardinals' gameplan, however, due to the Giants' overuse of the ideal.

4 wideouts are the perfect way to spread out any strong front, and Carolina is no exception - but the question remains. Will the Arizona OL be good enough to block the Carolina front? Spreading the formation means man on man blocking, and Arizona isn't strong enough inside. In the run game, Gandy is passive; Levi Brown at RT is stronger and more physical, but has underwhelmed all career. He could team with Deuce Lutui to create a strong right side, but they don't get enough yards there - Arizona runs off left tackle more than right tackle by over 15%. Vet LG Reggie Wells is an able pass blocker, but doesn't have a lot of heft behind his run drive. S econd year Lyle Sendlein is a replacement center after losing Al Johnson for the year - a solid player in a pinch but athletically limited.

Tim Hightower came into the last Carolina game on fire, and finished with 10 TD but had poorer results when starting. Edgerrin James responded to being benched mid-season with numerous solid performances late in the seasondespite complaining of wanting out of Arizona, but still finished at 3.9 yards per carry and only 3 scores.

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. Carolina would be smart to play pass first every down, and only look for the Giant-copy play of running the inside draw out of shotgun. The Cardinals will not line up and pound the ball, and never have had the ability.

Having DTs Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis healthy will be a plus, but will need more rush than run stopping. Expect Hilee Taylor active instead of a 4th DT.

Special plays/trick plays

Warner's actually one of five to throw the football for the Cardinals -
Matt Leinart started the year out and played in four games (15/29, 264
yd, 1 td 1 int); JJ Arrington, punter Dirk Johnson (cut in December),
and backup WR Jerheme Urban have all attempted passes. To add to their
trick play arsenal, Anquan Boldin has only 12 games played but has
attempted 9 rushes, and Steve Breaston has attempted 2 in his place.
They have used Boldin in a Wildcat style formation, what they call
Pahokee - and Boldin's the only WR to use the formation this year.
Boldin had a background as a quarterback before turning to the receiver
position at FSU, and can throw or run the option efficiently. The team
traditionally sends Larry Fitzgerald split out in this formation, and
use backup RB Tim Hightower in the backfield.

Carolina Offense v/s Cardinals Defense

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. The team uses Calais Campbell, a rookie, there as well, and if the Cardinals need to stop the run badly enough, they could go to a 5-man DL look.

Ends Bertrand Berry and Antonio Smith are solid, with Smith being primarily a run stopper - Travis LaBoy gets a lot of the pass snaps. Last year, Smith and Dockett had the two AZ sacks.

Karlos Dansby (119 tackles leads the team; has four 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. Jeff King had 3 receptions against the Carinals last time.

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 Steve Smith - 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. He'll have help from FS Antrel Rolle, a converted CB that struggled in transition. Rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was drafted as a new centerpiece the AZ backfield and has developed, but still can't handle Smith one on one, and doesn't have the experience to handle the tricks that Muhsin Muhammad brings. Nickel Eric Green has solid man-cover technique, but loves to jump routes and gets abused on double moves.

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 - and this is still ripe for the picking, assuming Carolina is close in score and not ahead.

Carolina had more passing success than rushing success last matchup, with Delhomme throwing for 250 yards and two scores. Muhammad carried the team for first downs, but Steve Smith's 2 TD and playmaking ruled the day. The Cardinals don't have a match for Smith without leaving the running game exposed, and the last 8 games since the Cardinals matchup in late October have shown teams tending toward defending the run first.

Special Teams

K Neil Rackers continues to be one of the better kickers in the league,
hitting 25 of 28 including 1 of 2 from . P Dirk Johnson was cut in
December; Ben Graham punts a quarter of a yard better at 42.0. They
allow 4.2 yards per return. Rackers has 15 touchbacks and averages 63.3 yards per kick (tied for 26th), for an average kick spot of the opposing 1.7 yard line. The Cardinals allow
25.0 per return, tied for 5th worst.

The Cardinals did bobble a snap on an extra point and failed to kick. Carolina has blocked one field goal.
Other than one broken JJ Arrington return (93 yd TD), the Cards average
25.6 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 7.2 ypr on punts, and 20.2 on kicks.
Backup WR Sean Morey was voted he NFC Pro Bowl special teamer
(technically giving them three receivers in the Pro Bowl) and backup SS
Aaron Francisco shares the ST captain role with him. The Cards blocked a
punt to win the Dallas game, and Carolina has a total of 3 blocked punts
against them.
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