Both teams have satisfactory coverage units as a result of lack of quality depth at linebacker and along the defensive line. After the four accomplished starters on Atlanta's defensive line, the crop begins to thin. Thus, they could be prone to giving up a long return or a touchdown if the Cardinals had someone better than Troy Walters or J.J. Arrington returning kicks. The Saints were able to block a punt for a touchdown against the Falcons on Monday night, so it might behoove Arizona to take a chance and rush the punter every time, accepting the fact that they're unlikely to get a big return regardless because of their personnel.
Where Atlanta holds a sizeable advantage on special teams is their return team vs. Arizona's coverage team. With dangerous rookie Jerious Norwood and former Pro Bowl returner Allen Rossum, the Cardinals will need to be diligent, disciplined, and make sure they tackle these guys when they get the chance. Both are explosive when they get a seam, so Arizona will need to watch this area of special teams very closely in order to prevent a momentum changing return.
The punters are a wash, since Michael Koenen and Scott Player are not household names (even with people who follow punters). Where the Cardinals do have a big edge is Neil Rackers vs. the venerable Morten Anderson. The Falcons had used Koenen as their placekicker for the first three games of the season. He proved to be erratic at best, so Atlanta signed 46 year old Anderson. Yes. Forty-six. He was alive during the Kennedy administration. Rackers went to the Pro Bowl last year. While Anderson must still have some life left in that leg of his, being that the Falcons signed him, coach Jim Mora is unlikely to feel perfectly at ease on the sidelines if this game comes down to a field goal.
Overall, though, specials teams doesn't appear to play much of a factor in the game. The more important match-ups exist on offense and defense.
On offense, the Cardinals need to have success running the ball to set up playaction later in the game. Given the fact that Atlanta's ends will tend to pursue the quarterback upfield in an attempt to tackle the running back on the way to the quarterback, James should find plenty of room between the tackles. This provided that the interior of the offensive line is able to move all 480 pounds of Grady Jackson, which is no small feat. In order to slow pressure from Atlanta's front four, there should be healthy doses of Edgerrin James on screen passes and draw plays. James mentioned recently that he wants the ball more. If Arizona is to win this game, James needs to get his wish. He needs to be active in pass protection, as a receiver, as a runner, and as a decoy when the Cardinals decide to take a few shots down the field off playaction. His team is currently 1-2 overall and 1-2 in their division. He needs to shoulder the load and prove he's worth every one of the 3 billion pennies the Bidwells are paying him.
While it's unlikely that the five chubby, sub-par athletes up front will be able to shut down Atlanta's potent defensive line, they might be able to slow them or contain them if they get a little help from James and Pope/Walters. If the line is successful enough in pass protection to keep Kurt Warner's uniform reasonably clean, he should be able to step into throws, complete some passes, and do a lot of damage to an overmatched Atlanta secondary. This is, however, a BIG IF. Atlanta's front four versus Arizona's offensive line (and even the additional blockers that can be brought in to help) is far and away the biggest mismatch in this game. If the offensive line is able to apply enough lipstick to keep Warner upright, the Cardinals will win. If they open up the turnstiles and allow Atlanta's defensive line to punish the fumble prone and easily rattled quarterback, the Cardinals will lose.
Defensively, they need do absolutely everything in their power to stop Atlanta's running game. Pure and simple. If the defense can force a few early punts and the offense can score, that will help the overall defense's effectiveness tremendously. The best defense is a good offense. This is especially true when playing the Atlanta Falcons. If the Saints taught us nothing else, it's that putting Atlanta in a 10 point hole is the best way to stop their running game. Once they are facing a large deficit, they begin to attempt a comeback by throwing the ball, which is by no means their specialty. Atlanta passing means turnovers, sacks, incomplete passes, and turnovers on downs. All of these are very good for Arizona's defense.
And, once more for those of you standing in the back that might not have heard: Michael Vick should not be Arizona's focus on defense. They should concentrate on stopping Dunn, Norwood, and Vick (but only on designed run plays and not devising a scheme to contain him when he breaks the pocket and decides to tuck the ball and run on a passing play). If they stop the running game and contain the shotgun option, they'll win this game. If Atlanta approaches their average of 225 rushing yards per game, Arizona will lose.
I think the shotgun option's time has passed. I think that the Cardinals can do just enough against Atlanta's front four to move the ball on offense. I think that James finally has his break-out game in all four facets discussed in the offensive overview. And, I think Leonard Pope might actually be a factor in the red zone against this group of linebackers.
Three things give me pause (the fact that I picked the Red Birds winning big last week against St. Louis notwithstanding):
- Which Warner shows up? The grocery bagger with something to prove or the shell-shocked, battered former MVP? If Atlanta gets a ton of early pressure on Warner, the home crowd starts to get into it, and it looks as though ten guys wouldn't be able to block their four, will he wilt under that pressure and become the turnover machine that's been lingering inside him since he was with the Giants? Or will he come out swinging and stake the Cardinals to an early (and likely insurmountable) lead? As much as everyone would like to call this Edge's team, it's still a system that lives and dies by the quarterback's ability to run it and avoid mistakes. Currently, the quarterback is Warner (though possibly not for long). Will he rise to the occasion? That's why they play the games.
- Can the soft middle of this undisciplined defense stop the vaunted Falcons rushing attack? Conventional wisdom says yes, if they commit 8 or 9 men to the line of scrimmage and are able to maintain their gaps and pursuit lanes. History says probably not. This is not a group (and they've all been together in Pendergast's system for a while now) that has dominated the line of scrimmage on defense. Can they break the trend and play above their talent and discipline level on Sunday? We shall see.
- How many "wow" plays will Vick produce? You can't plan for them, you just have to worry about them, expect them, and hope that they don't happen at a critical point in the game. He has produced fewer "wow" plays on average this season than in seasons past, so maybe he's slowing down. Or maybe he's waiting for the right time to strike.
You have two teams that lost ugly last week that are trying to get back on track. A quarterback that had some troubling rumors spread about him earlier this week. A road game for the Cardinals, an early conference match-up at home for the Falcons. This game will come down to who plays above their ability and which match-ups are most successfully exploited. I think Arizona will be able to exploit the match-ups that favor them and cover the match-ups that don't more effectively than the Falcons on Sunday. And that will be the key to victory.
Unless Vick does something completely amazing that no one could've predicted.
Prediction: Arizona 24, Atlanta 20.