One of the pleasant surprises this season has been the play of Arizona's young secondary. Antrel Rolle has lived up to his enormous potential after having spent most of his rookie season on injured reserve. Adrian Wilson has again given considerable pause to Pro Bowl voters (until they realize he plays for a bad team). Eric Green has stepped into the starting role opposite Rolle and has performed well, bringing a physical presence to the back four that was sorely needed. Even Robert Griffith has played well, despite being exceedingly long in the tooth.
The point of these accolades is to say that the four men in the secondary can handle Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. When Brett Favre drops back to pass, he looks for Driver. Then he looks for Jennings. Then, maybe, possibly looks in the direction of tight end Bubba Franks. If all else fails, he checks down to running back Ahman Green.
While head coach Mike McCarthy has a West Coast Offense background, it's difficult to tell that by looking at the plays he calls. He likes to run a vertical offense with lots of pass plays down the field. With the emergence of Rolle and Green as solid coverage players, Favre should find his receivers blanketed when he looks to sling the ball down the field.
The only weak spot in this strategy is if Favre does look in the direction of Franks and finds him open, since the Cardinals linebackers aren't particularly skilled in defending the pass. Franks should find some soft spots in zones and be able to beat his man in single coverage (with Jennings and Driver both being doubled on the outside).
Let's just hope that Favre doesn't have the time to look for Franks. And that boils down to the front four and their ability to make him throw before he wants to.
Bert Berry and Chike Okaefor are finally living up to their billing as two of the more talented ends in the NFL. They're beginning to pressure the quarterback, have been good enough in run support, and have even forced a few turnovers (the last two weeks in particular). Gabe Watson (or Kendrick Clancy) and Darnell Dockett have been excellent up the middle, occupying blockers in the running game and pushing the pocket upfield in the passing game. Thus far, the defensive line is trying to make fools of everyone that predicted them to be a weak spot this season.
This is encouraging news, as they face Ahman Green and the Packers running attack on Sunday. Green and back-up Noah Herron have been productive thus far this season. They've been especially productive if you account for the fact that they're running behind a patchwork offensive line that has had to sustain through numerous defections the past two off-seasons.
The good news is that Green and Herron have similar running styles. They are both powerfully built backs that like to read the play, cut, and explode. Green's the more explosive of the two and the better receiver, which is why he's the starter, but Herron filled in admirably when Green was injured and has performed well in spot duty since then.
The most important thing to remember when facing backs with this running style is gap discipline. The defensive line and linebackers need to stay in their lanes and pursue with cautious aggression, waiting for Green and Herron to come to them, but also needing to be in a position to chase down the ball carrier, should a cut-back not occur. The line and linebackers were successful in doing this against superior backs and superior offensive lines (against the Chiefs and Seahawks most notably), so they should be able to contain Green and Herron, forcing Favre to stand in the pocket and throw behind an offensive line that's almost as bad as Arizona's.
Berry and Okaefor need to make the most of what are pretty tough match-ups versus Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher respectively. The bulk of the free agent defections on the Green Bay have hit the inside (both guards and the center), so the bookends are still pretty solid.
In order to pressure Favre into critical mistakes early in the game to build a lead and late in the game to protect it, they will need to treat him like a rookie and blitz him up the middle. That's where the linebackers come in.
Although most of their blitzing success has come by bringing extra rushers off the edges, the Cardinals do have the ability to create pressure up the middle as well (as evidenced by the Chicago game). While Adrian Wilson may occasionally be involved in this tactic, most of the inside pressure should come from the two outside linebackers: Orlando Huff and Calvin Pace (who is a converted end).
Pressuring Favre up the middle, even during his most productive years, was often looked at as one of the few ways to beat him. Favre is a rhythm passer and is most effective when he's able to scan the field, moving out of the pocket as necessary, and hit his target with a clear line of sight. The best way to keep him from getting into an early rhythm (or any rhythm at all) is to get defenders in his face. The best way to do that is by blitzing up the middle. However, Favre has been around too long to not properly diagnose a blitz at the line of scrimmage and roll the pocket away from it. This is why the Cardinals must disguise their blitzes and pressure Favre up the middle by using their outside linebackers.
Arguably the most important defender in all of this, though, is Gerald Hayes, who must patrol the middle of the field and keep his eyes on Green and fullback William Henderson. In the face of pressure, if he's able to escape it or is being dragged down, Favre will look first in the direction of Green or Henderson and check the ball down to whichever one's closest. In this situation, Hayes is the first line of defense. In addition to being an accomplished running back, Green is also an excellent receiver out of the backfield and can be absolutely deadly in the open field if he makes the first defender (in this case Hayes) miss. While Henderson is not as dangerous with the ball in his hands as Green, he has always been a key component of Green Bay's passing attack and this game will be no different.
In the running game, the defensive line has already proven its mettle and ability to tie up the opposition's offensive line at the point of attack. The only real danger in pulling the outside linebackers into the middle is the possibility that Green or Herron might bounce the play to the outside and gash the Arizona defense for a big gain. However, the bulk of Green Bay's running plays have been up the middle this season and Green and Herron don't possess the speed or the quickness to bounce very effectively without the defense being able to catch up with them. It's a calculated risk to pressure Favre and try to jam up the inside by selling out to that part of the field. Factoring everything in, it's a risk worth taking.
Basically, the Cardinals need to do what every team that has beaten the Packers this season has done. They need to take away his two favorite targets in the passing game (Jennings and Driver) and make Ahman Green work in the running game. Green will most likely get his yards (he even went over 100 against Chicago in the opener), but the Cardinals need to keep him from making that deadly cut-back and getting yards in bunches.
If they're able to take away the three-headed monster of the Packers offense, the Cardinals will take Gerald Hayes amassing 14 tackles and Green and Henderson getting 150 yards combined on 20 receptions. The key will be making sure that they're able to take Favre's favorite targets away for long enough and pressure him up the middle consistently enough for him to start taking a lot of foolish chances with the football.
While Favre has suffered some criticism in the past two seasons for not being the player he once was, he's still better and more dangerous than a lot of the quarterbacks in the NFL. Where he is no longer dangerous, or really able to be trusted, is in mounting a big comeback or in the two minute offense. He has tended to make too many mistakes and tried to create too many plays that weren't there in the last few seasons. Against an aggressive, turnover producing defense like Arizona's, that flaw could prove to be Green Bay's undoing.
Taking an early lead or at least holding the lead late in the game will be critical on Sunday. If the Cardinals are able to play with a two touchdown buffer or are leading by a field goal or touchdown with two minutes remaining, Favre will commit a huge mistake. They just need to be ready to take advantage of it when he does.