The Final Cut: Cardinals vs. Bears

The Bears travel to Arizona to play the Cardinals on Monday Night Football. They seem to hold a sizable edge on offense and defense. Will special teams be the factor that pushes the game in Arizona's favor? Probably not.

Special Teams:

Return specialists J.J. Arrington and Troy Walters for the Cardinals haven't done much to set themselves apart from the pack so far this season.  While respectable, neither is a "game breaker" and neither can be counted on to turn the one big play on special teams that drives a dagger into the hearts of the Chicago Bears.  Arizona's coverage teams have been solidly average all year, but face a distinct challenge this week against kick/punt returner Devin Hester of Chicago.  Hester has explosive speed, excellent feet, and exceptional vision in the open field.  He's had some early season success, but it seems to be just a matter of time before the light comes on and he hits on a big return.

Punter Scott Player for the Cardinals has done a good job this season, but isn't a Pro Bowl caliber player.  The only way he'll help determine the outcome is if he gets a lot of work, meaning that the Cardinals are not having success on offense.  Despite a critical miss at the end of last week's game, Neil Rackers is still one of the 10 best kickers in the NFL.  However, thus far this season, no one has been as accurate and deadly as Chicago kicker Robbie Gould, who has converted all 13 of his field goal chances thus far and has had good depth on his kickoffs.  Brad Maynard is solid, a good directional punter, and someone that isn't going to lose the game for the Bears by badly shanking a punt that only travels 20 yards.

All in all, the Cardinals are on the wrong side of every special teams match-up in this game.

Game Plan:

On offense, the Cardinals need to come out swinging.  They need to pass the ball down the field and mix it up with screen passes to Edgerrin James and Troy Walters, giving Matt Leinart some early completions to help build his confidence.  It doesn't hurt that the Bears are prone to screen passes and the deep ball and that those two types of plays are where Arizona is going to be successful in the passing game.

When they do run the ball (preferably later in the game), they need to be able to do so with the lead.  Without the threat of the pass and the ability to keep the Bears defense off balance, the offensive line is far too overmatched against Alex Brown, Tommie Harris, Ian Scott, and Adewale Ogunleye to have success just lining up and running straight at them.  They need to incorporate misdirection, endarounds, and reverses into the game plan early on so that they can have success running straight ahead with James off of fake endarounds and reverses later in the game. 

Since Chicago will be able to stop the running game with their front seven and rush Leinart with their four down linemen, the Cardinals also need to isolate key match-ups by using playaction and double moves, as well as using Leinarts mobility to move the pocket.  The pass rush will already be slowed by the various misdirection and screen plays the Cardinals will already have run, but the defensive line, especially Brown and Ogunleye are ineffective going East to West.

On defense, the front seven needs to be able to stop Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson in the run game, forcing the game into Rex Grossman's hands.  The only time Grossman was responsible for winning the game for the Bears, he through a critical fourth quarter interception against the Vikings.  If Arizona is able to stop the running game, not let Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad get behind them in the passing game, they should be able to keep the score close.

The Bears have been on the winning end of so many blowouts this season, the only answer is to keep the game within a touchdown either way and see how they react.  While the Cardinals have performed pitifully in the close games they've been involved in this year, they've at least had experience with them.

Keep it close, put the game in Grossman's hands, and hope he screws up.  It may not be much, but it's the best chance we've got.

Prediction:

Given that the Cardinals face a heavy disadvantage on offense, defense, and special teams, it doesn't look good for the home team.  The Bears are not 5-0 because of luck.  They've trounced their opponents by a 156-36 margin on the season and dominated the defending NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks 37-6 in Week 4.  This is not a team that a wounded Arizona squad that has dropped three straight wants to see on its schedule at this point.

All that having been said, they do have a chance.  After all, on any given Sunday...

In order to beat a very talented and heavily favored Bears team, the Cardinals need to capitalize on the few advantages they hold in this game.  One is that no one has a lot of film on Troy Walters.  Another is that Leinart does have good ball skills and has an exceptional play-fake and pump fake.  No one has a lot of film on Leinart, either.  At least, not in a Cardinals uniform.

Arizona needs to use all of that to jump out to an early lead.  While no one has been able to accomplish this feat thus far against the Bears, it's the only way to beat them.  Chicago is not a team that is built to come back from a huge deficit (and by huge, I mean 14 points).  Grossman is still inexperienced, the offense as a whole plays much better with a lead when they can pick plays out of a hat and watch them succeed, and Jones and Benson are both better suited to protecting a lead as opposed to sparking a comeback.

The linebackers need to blitz early and often, forcing Grossman to make a decision before he's ready and clogging up rush lanes between the tackles that Kendrick Clancy and Darnell Dockett will not be able to clog.  And the secondary needs to lock down on two very talented but inconsistent and unproven (at least in this system) receivers. 

And, at the risk of overstating one of the most important aspects of the defensive game plan: Adrian Wilson and Robert Griffith cannot, under any circumstances, allow Berrian to get behind them and allow Grossman to play pitch-and-catch with the speedy wide receiver over the top.

Finally, if the Cardinals do somehow manage to get the lead early, they need to keep their foot on the accelerator and be cautiously aggressive with the football, making bold but smart decisions.  While they're not built to overcome huge deficits, the Chicago Bears are like the ocean: You don't want to turn your back on them.

Can the Cardinals do it?  Can a defense that has struggled to stop the run, failed to get solid production from its linebackers, and given up long touchdowns in the passing game succeed in all those phases under the bright lights of Monday Night Football?  Can the offensive line that has been atrocious in both the running game and pass protection open up holes for James and keep Leinart upright long enough to take advantage of an overly aggressive Bears defense?  Can Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson, not to mention Troy Walters step up in the absence of Larry Fitzgerald?

I really, seriously doubt it.

Prediction: Bears 31, Cardinals 13.


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