Regular readers of this space will not be surprised to hear that the Cardinals hold a pretty considerable advantage in this match-up. Aside from All-Pro cornerback DeAngelo Hall, they have CB Jason Webster, who has been struggling with foot injuries since the pre-season, cagey veteran Lawyer Milloy at strong safety, and fourth year veteran and former Cleveland Brown Chris Crocker at free safety.
As an RCB, Hall will be matched up against Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald excels in intermediate and deep routes and has a reputation for going down too easy after the catch. Hall's specialty is in coverage, where his speed, change-of-direction skills, and recognition ability allow him to blanket receivers on all routes. However, he has a well-known distaste for contact and could be taken advantage of if forced to cover a more physical receiver. Anquan Boldin is such a receiver. If the Cardinals are able to use motion and different formation sets to isolate Boldin on Hall, while having Fitzgerald face off against the club-footed Webster, Arizona could have a very productive day throwing the ball.
In addition, since the Cardinals must be able to protect Kurt Warner against an absurdly savage pass rush vs. an abysmal offensive line (see below), they may need to keep Edgerrin James and Leonard Pope (or Troy Walters in a four receiver set) back to help in pass protection. They'll likely need 6 or even 7 to block Atlanta's 4, so that means that they must use motion and different formations to isolate Boldin on Hall and Fitzgerald on Webster. This is operating under the assumption that the Falcons will play a straight defense and not have Hall shadow Fitzgerald and Webster shadow Boldin.
This will be one of the stiffest challenges the offensive line faces all year. The Falcons are loaded up front, with current or former Pro Bowlers Grady Jackson and Rod Coleman at tackle and former or current Pro Bowlers John Abraham and Patrick Kearney at the end positions.
In the passing game, the five linemen up front will not be able to block Atlanta's four rushers. Since the Falcons are well aware of their talent on the front four, it's unlikely that they will blitz very much, preferring to use their nickel and dime packages and linebackers to support their overmatched secondary. However, the Cardinals will still need to keep an extra blocker (or possibly two) in the backfield to help protect Warner. With the considerable advantage Arizona holds in the receivers vs. defensive backs match-up, Warner will simply need time to find the open receiver. This is a classic obvious strength vs. considerable weakness on both sides. The team that is able to use its strength and hide its weakness is going to end up winning the battle on this side of the ball.
The one bright side to Atlanta's murder's row is that, Grady Jackson notwithstanding, their front four is undersized and Arizona's offensive line is one of the largest in the league. While it's highly doubtful that this group will be able to "blow them off the ball," it is conceivable that the offensive line will be able to use their hands and their size advantage to push the defensive line away from the play. Since everyone but Jackson is a pass rusher by trade, the Cardinals need to run between the tackles and directly at Abraham in order to have success running the ball.
Also, it goes without saying that success running the ball will translate into success protecting Warner, since the defensive line will need to worry about the threat of a running attack as opposed to merely focusing on putting the QB in an early grave. It is also imperative that the offense in general takes the disadvantage that it faces with the Falcons' pass rush head-on and makes a conscious effort, from game plan to execution to slow it down and/or eliminate it.
Edgerrin James plays a big role in that.
James does not need to have the game of his life in order for Arizona's offense to be successful and for the Cardinals to achieve victory on Sunday. He does, however, need to execute his responsibilities to the best of his considerable ability in many facets of the game.
- As part of the game plan to slow down/eliminate the pass rush. The best way to slow down a furious rush is run screen passes and draw plays out of passing formations. If James can gash the Falcons defense for a few big gains on these types of plays, the ends especially will think twice before charging up the field to sack the quarterback. That moment's hesitation will buy Warner the time he needs to make Atlanta pay in the passing game.
- As a sixth blocker in the backfield. James is, hands down, the best pass-blocking tailback in the NFL. He needs to showcase his abilities by chipping in against Abraham and Kearney, creating a pocket for Warner to throw from and giving him those few precious seconds.
- As a running back with the ball in his hands. It's entirely possible that Arizona's massive offensive line will be able to create holes for James to run through. He needs to hit those holes with authority and manufacture them into the big plays the Bidwells expected when they signed him to a $30 million contract in the off-season. Linebacker Keith Brooking seems to have lost some of his tenacity from previous seasons, Ed Hartwell is coming off an Achilles injury, and Michael Boley barely beat special teams ace Ike Reese for his job, and Lawyer Milloy is the only member of the secondary that can tackle. There are weaknesses to be exploited in the back seven. James needs to do that early and often.
- As a decoy in the playaction passing game. Even if Fitzgerald is matched up against Hall all day, he's still one of the best deep receivers in the game. The Cardinals need to take a few shots over the top on coverage liabilities Milloy and Crocker. If James is able to sell the fake, the safeties should bite, the pass rush should abate slightly, and Warner will have time to heave the ball up to Fitzgerald, who has a knack for beating the cornerback to the ball on long passes.
In order to slow down the pass rush and gain the easy passing yards available to them by exploiting Atlanta's outclassed secondary, the offensive line and James (and possibly Pope or Walters) need to keep Kurt Warner (still the starter) upright. By creating hesitation in the minds of their front four with screens and draw plays to James, they should be able to keep Atlanta off balance and give Warner some more time to find the open man. The open receivers will be there, it's all a question of whether or not Warner will be standing when they get past the defense.
Falcons coach Jim Mora definitely espouses the old adage that the best way to win in the NFL is to run the ball and stop the run. Therefore, an early key to breaking down Atlanta's defense will be to have early success running the ball right up the middle. This seems to be a weak spot in Atlanta's defense, but the interior of the offensive line is also soft for Arizona. Whichever side is able to make the most of what they have in the first quarter will help establish the winner at the line of scrimmage throughout the game.
Also, early success running the ball will open things up for deep passes off of playaction. Since the Falcons have not been a high scoring team thus far this season, hitting on one or two big plays could be the key to burying them and forcing Michael Vick to bring his team back into the game with his arm, which is not one of his strong suits.
Finally, Kurt Warner had his job threatened this week. While coach Dennis Green has publicly denied any quarterback controversy and said that Warner is "his guy," how the rumors of his demise affect him will certainly have an impact on the game. Will Warner come out, boldly trying to prove anyone wrong like he did as a former stock boy when he burst onto the NFL stage in 1999? Or, will he wilt under pressure and look winded and confused in the pocket, like before the Rams released him 2003?
Which version of Warner shows up on Sunday will most definitely help decide winners and losers in a game where the Cardinals seem to be on the short end of the stick in a number of key areas.