Cardinals 'D' vs. Kansas City 'O'

This Sunday, the 1-3 Cardinals take on 1-2 Chiefs. With star QB Trent Green out with an injury, the Cardinals defense needs to stop three aspects of Kansas City's offense. They are, in order: Larry Johnson, Larry Johnson, and Larry Johnson.

Secondary:

Even before Trent Green sustained a severe concussion and back-up Damon Huard was forced to take over, the Chiefs passing attack was generally referred to as "complimentary" and was never synonymous with the terms "vaunted" or "powerhouse."  While tight end Tony Gonzalez is a perennial Pro Bowl performer, the receivers have historically been substandard at best.

Eddie Kennison and Samie Parker are fine players, but would rate most likely as third receivers on most teams (or fourth and fifth receivers on teams as deep at the receiver position as the Cardinals).  Dante Hall is a punt returner by trade and has made the Pro Bowl in that capacity in the past has been forced into the third receiver slot due to a lack of other quality options.  At best, all three at least have long speed, which the Chiefs usually take advantage of off of playaction, and must be respected in the deep passing game.

Gonzalez is the primary threat in the passing game, but has been used fairly extensively as an extra blocker since Kansas City is still attempting to plug holes in the offensive line following the retirement of future Hall of Famer Willie Roaf.  While not the deep threat he once was, Gonzalez is still a dangerous receiver and a load to bring down with the ball in his hands.  He has a near superhuman ability to find the soft spot in the zone and uses his hands very well to separate from the defender and catch the ball at its highest point.  Even at this point in his career, the Cardinals need to know where he is at all times.

The Cardinals should play mostly man coverage in order to free up their cornerbacks to support in run defense.  When matched up one-on-one with Hall, Kennison, and Parker, cornerbacks Antrel Rolle, David Macklin, and Eric Green must cover their assignment soundly and count on safeties Adrian Wilson and Robert Griffith to give them deep help.

However, everything the Chiefs do on offense revolves around their potent running attack and dominant offensive line (even without Roaf).

Defensive Line:

Through four games, the defensive line has produced three sacks and allowed 578 rushing yards (4.7 yards per carry average).  Given the talent at ends with Chike Okeafor and Bert Berry, and the run stuffing prowess of Kendrick Clancy, to say that the unit has vastly underachieved thus far would be a profound understatement.  The news doesn't get any better for the Red Birds, since they face a strong, cohesive unit in Kansas City's offensive line.

Though Roaf's retirement had a pretty disastrous effect on the line's performance as a whole, he's just one man.  The Chiefs have successfully adjusted and filled the hole with newcomer Kyle Turley.  The good news for the Cardinals is that Turley is currently listed as questionable on the injury report and possible replacements Jordan Black and Kevin Sampson are not natural left tackles.  The bad news is that the three man inside tandem of Pro Bowlers Will Shields and Brian Waters at guard and center Casey Wiegmann are among the best in the league.  As a result of the strength in the middle of their line and the situation at left and right tackle, the Chiefs have begun to run the ball more between the tackles, which is a soft spot in Arizona's defense.  Darnell Dockett and his back-ups are not at the same level as Waters, Shields, and Wiegmann and neither is Clancy.  In order to have a chance at stopping Larry Johnson from taking over the game and destroying the Cardinals defense, the tackles and middle linebacker Gerald Hayes need to step up.  If the tackles are unable to eat up blockers at the point of attack to allow the linebackers to make plays, that sound you will hear is Fantasy Football owners across the country shouting with glee.

In the passing game, the ends need to break out of their early season slump and get to the quarterback.  If the Bengals game taught us nothing else, it's that Huard wilts under pressure.  With Berry and Okeafor collapsing the pocket and Clancy and Dockett hopefully getting some pressure up the middle of the defense, the Cardinals should be able to rattle Huard, get his head on a swivel, and force him to cough the ball up.  Additionally, since Hayes and Adrian Wilson will serve other key roles in the game plan and can't be used in blitz packages, Arizona will need to use some corner blitzes and send Carlos Dansby and Calvin Pace to pressure the edges and hopefully overwhelm the disadvantaged Chiefs tackles.

Linebackers:

Larry Johnson is a north and south runner that is completely out of his element bouncing the ball to the outside.  The tackles and Hayes need to clog up the middle of the field and force Johnson to move laterally outside the tackle box.  Once he gets there, it is the responsibility of the outside linebackers to chase down the play and make the tackle.  This is easier said than done, as Johnson is strong through the legs and shoulders and is not an easy draw.

From a psychological aspect, the Cardinals as a defense need to realize that they can put eight in the box, execute flawlessly, hold at the point of attack, and Johnson will still find a seam on the inside, break a couple of tackles, and break a 15 or 20 yard run.  When this happens, Arizona cannot allow themselves to become demoralized.  The Chiefs running attack has been extremely successful for a number of years because of their ability to physically and mentally break down a defense and run away from them in the third and fourth quarter.

In the passing game, Wilson will be responsible for Gonzalez over the top and the linebackers will need to fill the short and intermediate zones, jamming the talented tight end at the line of scrimmage to take him away as a safety valve for the hopefully shell-shocked Huard.

Game Plan:

The linebackers should patrol their zones in the middle of the field in the short and intermediate routes, using their speed to get to the ball, jam the closest receiver, and punish the ballcarrier.  On passing downs and known running situations, the outside linebackers need to blitz between the tackles in an attempt to pressure Huard up the middle and rattle him, and hopefully to fill the gaps that will be sure to exist when the interior of the offensive line blows Arizona's tackles off the ball.

When they're not bringing pressure up the middle with stunts from the outside, they need to pressure Huard from the edges and take advantage of Kansas City's tackle situation.  With Macklin, Green, or Rolle blitzing from their cornerback position, they should be able to find a clear path to the quarterback.  Larry Johnson is an exceptional runner and a fine pass receiver, but pass protection is not his longsuit.  The Cardinals need to exploit that while Hayes spies Johnson to make sure he doesn't slide out of the backfield and find a large chunk of open real estate to run through while the cornerbacks are either blitzing or covering their man.

Ultimately, the defensive line needs to play well above the level that they have thus far this season.  The linebackers need to tackle more surely than they have to this point.  And the defensive backs need to win the necessary battles in man-to-man coverage, making Huard hold the ball and giving the line and blitzers the time to get to him.  And they need to come up with authority in run support.

If all those things happen, the Cardinals have an excellent shot at stopping a Chiefs offense that whitewashed the 49ers 41-0 last week.


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