The Chiefs have never had exemplary coverage units under any regime and that hasn't changed much in the Herm Edwards era. Since their defenses have historically underperformed due to a lack of talent, the gentlemen backing them up haven't generally been as good as the other team's back-ups. The same goes for their wide receivers (the other back-ups that participate on special teams). This would be a match-up that favored Arizona if the Cardinals had better return men than J.J. Arrington and Troy Walters. Since they don't, it's pretty much a wash.
Where Kansas City holds a considerable advantage is in their return game. Specifically Dante Hall. Hall is a Pro Bowl caliber player and seems to be returning to his 2003 form with last week's 60 yard touchdown on a punt return last week against the 49ers. While that score came long after the game was already decided, no one has the luxury of determining when exactly a kick return for a touchdown will occur. The Cardinals need to stick to their lanes and their responsibilities in coverage and not allow Hall to make that one deadly cut, accelerate, and take it to the house.
Neil Rackers has become inexplicably erratic thus far this season after going to the Pro Bowl and setting several NFL records last year. Lawrence Tynes of the Chiefs hasn't distinguished himself as a top 10 guy at the kicker position, but he also won't lose any games for you either. Scott Player of the Cardinals has been consistently solid all season, especially given the number of times he's had to do his job thus far. In limited work (since the Chiefs score a lot of points), Dustin Colquitt has performed near the league average (44.8 yards per punt) and has had 5 of his 13 punts downed inside the 20. So the kicking side of things looks pretty even.
Ultimately, if the Cardinals can keep Dante Hall from killing them with long returns, special teams shouldn't play too much of a factor in this game. In order to win, the Cardinals will need to do what the Chiefs will attempt to do: Run the ball, stop the run, and try to control the clock.
This is the game for Edgerrin James to break out. With Matt Leinart making his first start, Dennis Green will make sure that he limits the game plan and doesn't put too much pressure on his rookie quarterback. Additionally, the Chiefs are one of the few teams that have a favorable match-up vs. Arizona's wide receivers. Their cornerbacks are physical, excellent tacklers, and cover exceptionally well on short and intermediate routes. If they're able to squat on routes and read Leinart's eyes, this could be a long, painful game to watch. The bright side is that since their corners are so physical, they like to come up in run support. If James can get off to a good start, Ty Law and Patrick Surtain will begin to creep towards the line of scrimmage before the snap. That will give Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin the ability to avoid the jam at the line and get into their breaks faster, hopefully finding their way into the holes in the Cover 2 defense.
If James is not successful running the ball (or, more importantly, if the offensive line is unable to open up holes for him), the Cardinals will get into an early hole, become one dimensional, and allow the Chiefs to focus on putting pressure on a rookie quarterback making his first start behind a shaky offensive line.
Oliver Ross now becomes the most important blocker on the line, since he protects the left-handed Leinart's blind side. He's never been in this situation before, so it will be interesting to see how he reacts to the added pressure. The good news is that he will be matched up against Jared Allen, a hardworking player that doesn't possess the physical tools and pass rushing ability that fellow end Tamba Hali possesses. This is, of course, assuming that the Chiefs coaches don't roll Hali over to Ross' side and have Allen matched up against the venerable Leonard Davis.
The line needs to be able to give Leinart time to scan the field and make the right decision. While it would be tempting to work to his strengths and operate out of a timing offense centered around quick passes, this strategy plays right into Kansas City's hands. They will therefore need to work the deep middle, intermediate outside, and intermediate middle of the defense and target the holes in the Cover 2 zone. In order for them to do this successfully, Leinart needs to stay upright.
On defense, the linebackers and linemen need to play above the level they've played at thus far. The linebackers need to patrol their zones, come up hard in run support, and tackle Larry Johnson when they get a shot at them. Since word came in on Friday that left tackle Kyle Turley will not play, the Chiefs will concentrate on running between the tackles, which is the strength of their line anyway. This means that the linemen, especially Darnell Dockett and Kendrick Clancy, need to hold up the talented interior of Will Shields and Brian Waters at the point of attack and allow Gerald Hayes and his fellow backers to flow to the football. If Johnson is able to pile up a bunch of yards early, the Cardinals defense will be on the field all day.
Kansas City's passing game keys off of its running game. If they're averaging 5 yards per carry, they'll keep running it and wait for the exact right moment to throw deep to their speedy receivers off of playaction. They quite successful in doing this in the game against San Francisco and were able to put the game out of reach by hitting on a few key long passes, along with steady doses of Larry Johnson.
Stop Larry Johnson first, stop Larry Johnson second, stop Larry Johnson third, then worry about what the Chiefs might do in the passing game. Of course, if stopping Johnson was an easy task, he wouldn't have been the consensus #1 draft pick in all Fantasy Football formats.
I'll go ahead and drive the point home. In order to win this game, the Arizona Cardinals must be able to contain Larry Johnson. He's the key to everything they do on offense. If Kansas City's offense is unable to run the ball, they are going to be in trouble when it comes to scoring points. They were unable to effectively get the running game going against Cincinnati and Denver and scored a total of 16 points in those games, losing both. They had success running the ball last week against San Francisco and ended up winning 41-0.
Can the Cardinals, a team that allowed 260 yards on the ground to the Atlanta Falcons last week stop one of the most vaunted rushing attacks over the last 10 years? It's possible. Anything's possible. Man walked on the moon.
With Kyle Turley out and the less-than-impressive tandem of Jordan Black and Kevin Sampson at the bookends, the Cardinals need to bring pressure on Damon Huard from the outside. This starts with Bert Berry and Chike Okeafor. The two talented ends need to start playing to their potential at some point this season and this match-up definitely seems to favor them. If they're able to get to Huard and make him cough up the ball, the Cardinals have a chance.
On offense, it all starts with James. He needs to break out this week against a defense that has been softer against the run than the pass. He needs to be able to get to the second level and break tackles against a poor tackling Kansas City secondary. And, he needs to protect Leinart in the passing game, picking up the bevy of blitzers that are sure to come free between the tackles.
But, really, success on offense breaks down to whether or not the offensive line is ever going to play at least effectively, if not well. With the pressure that's sure to come on Leinart, the Cardinals need to be prepared for it. Instead of designing a bunch of hot reads and hot receivers for the offense, which Law and Surtain will exploit to their advantage, they simply need to protect Leinart, give him a pocket to operate from, and allow him to carve up the holes in the zone. There are plays to be made against the Kansas City secondary. Leinart just can't make any of them if he's constantly on his back.
All in all, this seems like too much of an obstacle to overcome. And, it doesn't get any better next week, as the Cardinals travel to Chicago. Welcome to the NFL, rook.
Prediction: Chiefs 30, Cardinals 17