While the Falcons have a number of talented athletes in their receiving corps, they don't necessary have a number of talented receivers. Atlanta's receivers are all big, fast, and agile, but their rare physical gifts have yet to translate into success during their NFL tenures. Starting duo Roddy White and Michael Jenkins are big, having blazing speed, and are excellent deep threats. Ashley Lelie, acquired in an off-season trade with the Broncos, is big, has blazing speed, is an excellent deep threat. The only trouble with these three wideouts is that they all play on the same team and that Atlanta offensive coordinator Greg Knapp runs a derivative of the West Coast Offense, which concentrates more on timing routes and short passes to the tight ends, receivers, and occasionally running backs. While the Falcons seemingly have the ideal personnel (and a terrific match-up this week against a slower Arizona secondary) to attempt multiple deep passes a game off of playaction, they never do. In fact, Vick only seems to go deep when a play breaks down and he scrambles out of the pocket.
The only true player of consequence in the passing game is Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler. Listed generously at 6'2", 262 (looks like he's about 6'4", 290), he has the size to run through a linebacker and the speed to get behind a safety. He creates huge match-up problems in the red zone and on third downs (and pretty much any down). If he can be stopped, or at least contained, it will be very difficult for Atlanta to improve on its thus far anemic passing totals (107 yards per game, second to last in the NFL).
Therefore, this match-up favors the Cardinals and their slower, more physical secondary. Say what you will about Arizona's defensive backs, at least they can tackle, and they usually make solid contact when they do. If Atlanta wants to attempt to methodically drive down the field with short passes and running plays, they'll be hard pressed to score a lot of points against the Cardinals.
Provided, that is, the defense is able to contain the Falcons' most dangerous weapon.
Here's how to stop Michael Vick: Have your ends rush upfield and take wide angles to the outside, thus keeping Vick in the pocket. Have your tackles push straight upfield with no regard to anything but keeping Vick in front of them, pushing him back, and forcing him to run east-to-west and north-to-south simultaneously, which is the only way to slow him down enough so that a normal human can catch him and tackle him. In addition, the linebacker from the weak side (the strong side 'backer must jam Crumpler at the line of scrimmage) must blitz on a stunt up the middle and give Vick an immediate threat from which he must escape. Once Vick is flushed into "no man's land" running in all directions outside the pocket with an end and a linebacker in hot pursuit and Crumpler held up at the line, he'll either be sacked, throw the ball away, fumble, or throw an ill-advised pass into double coverage that will be intercepted. This strategy has been tested and proved to be effective as a means of stopping Michael Vick. However, if the goal is to stop the Atlanta Falcons, the defense's focus must change.
Tampa (except the first game this year), Carolina (all of last season), and Philadelphia have all been historically effective in stopping both Vick and the Falcons. These teams, though, had the benefit of athletic and disciplined defensive lines and exceptional linebackers. The 2006 Arizona Cardinals have just two athletic defensive linemen (Berry and Okaefor), none of the other components, and therefore must choose between stopping one man and stopping an entire team.
Lost in all of the Vick hype is the play of the offensive line and their extensive grasp of Alex Gibbs' complicated zone blocking scheme and Warrick Dunn's ability to create electrifying plays. For the most part, defenses have been focused on stopping Vick. If you'll note from the above example, four linemen and a linebacker all have Vick as their sole responsibility. This creates a situation where the other 10 men that happen to be on the field (9 if you take out Crumpler, which then makes the odds 9-5, with the linebacker taking him away) are free to run the play that is called. A play which, more often than not, since the Falcons staff has realized the league's collective obsession with their quarterback, has absolutely nothing to do with Mike Vick.
Warrick Dunn is a fantastic player and the Falcons offensive line deserves an enormous amount of credit for what they've been able to accomplish as a unit. Their job is made easier by the fact that everyone on defense is watching Vick. Thus, Dunn has been able to gain 310 yards rushing thus far this season and has single-handedly out-rushed sixteen entire teams. If the focus is taken away from Vick and placed on Dunn and the rest of the running game (see what the Saints were able to do to the Falcons on Monday night), the Cardinals stand an excellent chance of at least slowing down the diminutive Dunn and Atlanta's vaunted rushing attack.
The key to any zone blocking scheme is to teach the linemen and the running back patience. The popular theory is that you simply need to stay patient, choose your rush lane or cut-back lane, and wait for the defense to screw up. The theory holds that since the running back and the offensive line know where they're going, they have all the time in the world to get there. The only way to defeat the zone blocking scheme is through gap discipline and patience. By reverse engineering the scheme, you simply need to sit tight and wait for the play to come to you. The absolute worst course of action is to overpursue the play and open up a cut-back lane for the running back.
Unfortunately, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast teaches pursuit and aggressiveness.
Since the Falcons run the ball a large percentage of the time, the linebackers will play a key role in this game. They will be especially important in defending Atlanta's shotgun run-option offense, which they unveiled this season. The shotgun run-option is primarily used in collegiate offenses and likely found early success (once again, something that didn't work against the Saints) due to the fact that most NFL linebackers hadn't seen anything like it since college.
When facing the option, the linebackers are critical to forcing the quarterback to make a decision. Generally, Vick will run down the strong side of the line of scrimmage with Dunn or rookie Jerius Norwood running parallel to him. He has the option of pitching the ball, throwing it, or tucking it and running. The outside linebacker to the strong side is responsible for pursuing Vick and forcing him to make a decision. If Vick decides to run, he must tackle him. If Vick decides to pitch the ball to the running back, the middle linebacker, running parallel to the strong side linebacker, must cut off the running back's angle to the sideline and tackle him. If Vick decides to throw, the middle linebacker, safeties, and weak side linebacker are responsible for covering the zones he might target on that side of the field.
Otherwise in the running game, the linebackers need to flow to the football, but stay in their rush lanes and not allow Dunn a cut-back. If they follow the play and the zone block to its end, they'll be there waiting for the ball carrier. If they try to beat Dunn to the hole, they'll quickly find out that the play was designed to go away from them. In order to stop the running game, the linebackers must tackle Dunn, Norwood, and Vick when they get a shot at them and make sure they finish plays, keep disciplined and stay in their lanes. Otherwise, it will be a long afternoon for the Cardinals.
Since Atlanta's receivers are overmatched, their passing game has struggled since the first Bush administration, and the Falcons live and die by the run game, the Cardinals need to sell out on the run. They need to put 8 (or even 9) men in the box and force Vick to beat them through the air. They need to run blitz to fill the gaps between the guards and the tackles, since the ends will need to run their pursuit wider to protect against the option and to contain Vick in the pocket.
Given that Atlanta has only scored 37 points on the season and averaged a measly 107 yards passing per game, daring them to get into a shoot-out seems to be the best idea. If they are unsuccessful early on in the running game, they may panic, but they'll definitely stick with it. The more third and long situations the Cardinals can force them into, the better the odds of forcing Vick into a mistake. While it's possible that he'll also burn the Cardinals for some big plays, sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders and say, "He's Michael Vick. That's what he does."
The key to the entire defensive game plan, though, is to be cognizant of Vick, but not focused on him. While Knapp has re-designed certain facets of his offense around Vick's unique skill set, it's still an offense built around running the ball and throwing timing routes to the wide receivers and tight ends. And, ultimately, Vick is less dangerous when he has the ball with the intent to throw it than when he has the ball with the intent to run it. If the Cardinals are willing to give Vick the short timing routes, they'll win several small battles, but win the war. So long as they can stop Dunn and the running game. The worst result would be to ignore Vick entirely and watch him burn the defense for a huge run or a desperation heave to one of his speedy receivers. If the Falcons are forced to methodically plod down the field with 3 yard runs and 7 yard outs, ins, and slants, they will make a mistake. And the Arizona needs to capitalize.
In order to counteract Crumpler, the Cardinals need to cover him with steady doses of Karlos Dansby and Adrian Wilson. While neither is a "shut down" cover player, they're the two best coverage players at their respective positions (linebacker and safety). With Dansby taking away the short, intermediate, and "hot" or safety routes and Wilson helping over the top, they should be able to box Crumpler in and contain him. He can't be taken out of the game, but he can definitely be contained. If he ends up with 6 catches for around 40 yards, even with a touchdown, that's a win.
All in all, this is not a high octane offense that should be keeping coordinator Clancy Pendergast awake at night. They are, however, very dangerous and could explode at any time. Especially if they get their running game going early. Just ask the Rams, who got obliterated by these Falcons in the divisional round in 2004.
Those Rams were eerily similar to this version of the Cardinals. Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself.