Ordinarily, one could make the case that the Cardinals and their trio of big, physical, athletic receivers are better than any three cornerbacks in the NFL. And one would be right. We're pretty fond of saying that ourselves. However, this week is one of the few occasions that the opposing team holds an advantage when the Cardinals line up to pass.
Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Bryant Johnson will be matched up against Ty Law (signed by Kansas City, not Arizona), Patrick Surtain, and Lenny Walls. Fitzgerald, Boldin, and Johnson have had success at the NFL level in winning the battle at the line of scrimmage with their strength and size advantage over most defensive backs and using that advantage to put their body between the ball and the defender. Once they beat the jam at the line and were able to turn their shoulders to block out the DB, it was over. The three men on the other side of the ball, though, are big, physical, athletic cornerbacks in their own right. Walls is 6'4", Law is one of the most physical cornerbacks of the last 15 years, and Surtain has a reputation for playing vicious man-to-man coverage and having one of the best jams in the league.
Since Matt Leinart is behind center, the Cardinals are most likely to be more conservative on offense and have their receivers run mostly short timing routes. Though this is the best way to keep the young man upright all game, it's playing directly into the strengths of the Kansas City defensive backfield. None of these men is particularly quick or fast, has trouble staying with the receiver deep, and have little help over the top as safeties Sammy Knight and Greg Wesley excel in run support and are seen as liabilities in coverage. Where the Chiefs CBs have an uncanny ability to disrupt the passing game and make plays is in the short and intermediate areas of the field (or the areas that the Cardinals are most likely to attack).
Kansas City plays one of the purest versions of the Cover 2. The holes in the Cover 2 defense are in the intermediate areas of the field down the sidelines and up the seams. If Arizona's wide receivers are able to get a clean release and exploit those holes, the Cardinals will be successful. If they are constantly tied up at the line of scrimmage and unable to separate and access that part of the field in a timely fashion, the passing attack will fail and Leinart will either make a lot of poor decisions or spend the majority of the afternoon on his back.
Jared Allen, recently convicted of a DUI, and rookie Tamba Hali are the two ends the Cardinals must contend with. Ron Edwards and James Reed, both signed in the offseason, are the tackles for the Chiefs. While none of these men are household names (though Hali was drafted in the first round of this year's draft), they've done a respectable job of run support and have provided just enough of a pass rush to compliment Kansas City's vastly more talented back seven. The past few seasons, the Chiefs have been unsuccessful in their attempts to create consistent pressure with their front four, but that seems to be slowly changing under the Herm Edwards regime. This is bad news for a Cardinals line that has looked overmatched and outplayed at every turn this season.
It may have seemed, especially when the season began, that the Chiefs were a good draw for a suspect Cardinals line. This may have been the game Arizona fans circled as the first day James would go off after facing formidable challenges against Seattle, St. Louis, and Atlanta in consecutive weeks. The simple fact of the matter is that the only break the Cardinals catch is that Oliver Ross now becomes the most important blocker on the offensive line as the man protecting the left-handed Leinart's blind spot. Even though he's old and has never been a particularly noteworthy tackle, Ross is arguably the best player on the line (which is kind of like getting to take your prettiest cousin to the prom). He's also facing Allen, who is less aggressively and certainly not as skilled at rushing the passer as his battery mate Hali.
Ultimately, though, this is a case of weakness against weakness. And the Chiefs have shown themselves to be at least decent along the defensive line thus far this season, creating some pressure and limiting Cincinnati and Denver (two of the the better rushing teams in the NFL) and San Francisco to 350 total yards rushing and a 3.8 average. If the Cardinals are going to be successful, they need to give Leinart time to throw. Since they don't have the personnel to match up against the Kansas City defensive line, they're going to need to be successful in the running game and not allow the Chiefs linemen to pin their ears back and focus on rushing the passer.
It's true that success in the running game boils down to successful and effective blocking by the offensive line. But, at some point, Edgerrin James needs to step up and make something out of nothing.
Given the fact that the Chiefs are going to attempt to control the line of scrimmage on offense in the running game and try to make this game as short as possible with heavy doses of Larry Johnson, James needs to match Johnson run for run. If the offensive line is able to create seams for James to run through, Kansas City's back seven have a well-deserved reputation for being too aggressive and being bad tacklers. There are a lot of new faces on defense for the Chiefs, but one only needs to look back at the game against the Giants last year where Tiki Barber ran through 38 missed tackles on his way to two long touchdowns.
Middle linebacker Kawika Mitchell is simply the best man they could find for the job. He's not particularly skilled in run or pass defense, but he's not a glaring weakness either. The true star power in the linebacking unit exists in Kendrell Bell and last year's first round pick Derrick Johnson. Both are extremely athletic and explosive, but both can be taken advantage of when their aggressiveness gets the best of them. Bell is an inside linebacker by trade and has never looked comfortable operating on the outside, while Johnson has been repeatedly panned for running around blocks in an attempt to make a play. Both are looking to attack, penetrate, and make that Sportscenter play that gets them on TV. James needs to be patient, pick his hole and wait for Bell and Johnson to screw up or overpursue the play.
Most importantly, James needs to act as a third guard in the passing game. The Chiefs are very likely to do what every team does to rookie quarterbacks: Bring pressure up the middle early and often. James needs to be able to pick up the free man and give Leinart enough time to hit the hot receiver. If not, the young man could get rattled early and the Cardinals could be in for another long day.
Conventional wisdom would tell the Chiefs to load up against the run, pressure the rookie up the middle, and wait for the turnovers and punts to come. However, since the Cardinals have been positively atrocious running the ball all year and Leinart has far too many weapons in his arsenal for Kansas City to "dare him to beat them," look for the Chiefs to play a fairly vanilla Cover 2 scheme with heavy doses of inside stunt blitzes from Bell and Johnson.
Since running a lot of timing patterns is unlikely to work against this defense, Arizona simply needs to get a good game out of its offensive line (their weakness needs to be stronger than Kansas City's weakness) opening holes when they run and allowing James to get to the matadors at the second level, and protecting Leinart when they pass, allowing Fitzgerald, Boldin, and Johnson to find the holes in the Cover 2.
A lot of talk this week will center around Leinart's first start and the fact that James hasn't been his usual productive self. Both Leinart's effectiveness and James' productivity are linked to the offensive line. While the line does not have an abnormally favorable match-up this week, this may be their best shot to come together and finally start being the engine that drives this offense as opposed to the flat tire that sidelines the Ferrari.
They haven't been even mediocre thus far this year and the Cardinals offense has struggled. If they can raise their level of play, the Cardinals will have a lot of success on offense. If not... well, you saw the first four games.