The Breakdown: Cardinals 'O' vs. Cowboys 'D'

After using the bye week to get healthy and plan how to salvage the rest of the season, the Cardinals host the 4-4 Dallas Cowboys. There are two men that the Cardinals can exploit to their advantage in this game. That's about it.

Wide Receivers:

Anquan Boldin and the now (presumably) healthy Larry Fitzgerald present match-up problems for any cornerback duo they face.  However, Dallas has a couple of very talented cornerbacks in Anthony Henry and Terence Newman.  Newman was a top five pick a few years back and Henry was signed to a huge free agent deal two seasons ago, as he was considered one of the best available players at his position.  While Boldin and Fitzgerald will still get their numbers, Newman and Henry will often leave Matt Leinart holding the ball as they blanket Arizona's receivers in man coverage.

The good news is that the Cowboys depth chart gets a little shaky after you get past their two starters.  The venerable Aaron Glenn is on his last legs and was probably signed because of his longstanding relationship with Bill Parcells.  If the Cardinals can successfully match Bryant Johnson up on Glenn all day, then Troy Walters should be able to find a lot of open space against third year cornerback Jacques Reeves (who narrowly missed Mr. Irrelevant status in the 2004 draft).

Dallas plays a lot of man-to-man.  This would be the optimal strategy if Arizona didn't work exclusively out of three and four receiver sets, or if their back-up cornerbacks were anywhere near as good as their starters.  It would also be a fantastic strategy to employ if safeties Roy Williams and Pat Watkins didn't struggle so horribly in man-to-man coverage.  Williams has always been more of an "in-the-box" safety, but Watkins has been absolutely dreadful this season. 

Everyone in the back four is extremely athletic and aggressive and are often fooled by double moves and play action.  Since it seems unlikely that the Cardinals will be able to run the ball or consistently complete short and intermediate passes against Dallas' talented cover corners, their best shot is to take advantage of the coverage liability that Williams and Watkins represent over the top.

Of course, deep passes mean that pass protection is necessary.  This is something that Arizona is likely to struggle with against Dallas' very active front seven.

Offensive Line:

This unit has been downright dreadful all season.  And, the outlook for the rest of the season, especially in this game, doesn't look any better (if not worse).

The Cowboys run the 3-4 as their base defense.  The 3-4 presents an interesting challenge for any offensive line, but will likely be particularly challenging for this group.  The challenge in defending the 3-4 is that you don't know where the extra rusher (usually Demarcus Ware) is coming from.  In order to run the ball effectively and have any chance of keeping Leinart upright, the quarterback and his offensive line need to communicate well at the line of scrimmage and identify the "mystery pass rusher" before every snap. 

Dallas doesn't blitz often, but when they do, they usually bring the kitchen sink.  Since the offensive line will struggle opening holes for Edgerrin James in the running game, Leinart and his linemen need to be able to properly diagnose blitzes and pressure at the line and adjust accordingly.  Given the fact that the Cowboys safeties struggle in coverage and Arizona's third and fourth receivers hold an advantage over Dallas' third and fourth cornerbacks, Leinart and company need to hit on a few deep passes, make the Cowboys pay when they blitz, and come out of the game with enough big plays to win the war of attrition that will be occurring at the point of attack.

Arizona's linemen, as has been stated before, have one attribute that cannot be underestimated: They're big, fat men.  While they've struggled against faster, more active defensive lines (like Atlanta's and Chicago's), they've had considerably more success against larger, slower defensive lines.  And, they also had success running against the 3-4 defense that San Francisco uses.  All that having been said, they have yet to face a 3-4 defense that has this much talent (or this much pure mass) along the defensive line.

Chris Canty (6'7", 300), Jason Ferguson (6'3, 310), and Marcus Spears (6'4", 298) are all massive, strong men that hold up well at the point of attack.  They're very difficult to move and were hand-picked by Parcells to be the foundation of his defense.  The linemen in the 3-4 don't make a lot of headlines, but they're absolutely essential to the success of the defense as a whole.  Their job is to play two-gap defense, occupy blockers, and give the linebackers clean avenues of pursuit.  Canty, Ferguson, and Spears know their responsibilities and see them through very effectively.  The key in this match-up will be how well Arizona's line is able to push them off the ball without tying up too many blockers.

Running Backs:

In the passing game, James will be needed as an extra blocker to pick up the "mystery pass rusher," which will usually be Demarcus Ware (a man many feel was shafted in last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year voting).  However, converted end Greg Ellis is beginning to find his stride at his new position and could be very active as a pass rusher as well.  James needs to stay alert in passing situations and block whoever comes free.  Leinart will need all the time he can get in order to take advantage of Dallas' weaknesses in the secondary, so James will need to have his best game of the season in pass protection.

In the running game, the outlook is very bleak.  The limited success the Cardinals have had running the ball (I count the two games in which Edge scored and went over 80 yards - San Francisco and Green Bay) has come against larger defensive fronts.  Arizona's large offensive line has simply had to push harder and put their massive frames in motion in order to clear the opposition out of the way.  However, they have yet to face a defensive line that's as big, powerful, and well disciplined as Dallas'.

One definite option would be to rotate Marcel Shipp in for 8-10 carries (especially early in the game) in the hopes of loosening the front seven up a bit.  While Shipp doesn't possess the physical skills or explosiveness of James, he certainly has a larger frame and is more of a battering ram than Edge will ever be. 

On paper, though, it appears to be a lost cause.

Game Plan:

As has been the case for the past two seasons, the Cardinals will need to move the ball by throwing it.  Leinart has performed well and hasn't been as prone to turnovers and bad sacks as his predecessor, Kurt Warner.  If nothing else, Leinart will gain valuable experience reading defenses in this game.  This is the first 3-4 defense he has seen all season.  How he reacts to the different looks they present, how well he diagnoses the defense at the line of scrimmage, and how successfully he communicates with the offensive line in setting the protection schemes will go a long way in determining if he's ready to go to the next level and be the cog that makes this offense work.

With the current offensive line, current offensive scheme, and current staff, the running game will never be a factor.  Leinart will either need to carry this offense the next two seasons during a period of transition (provided Green is fired after this season), or literally strap the offense to his back and drag it through next season, should the current staff stick around in a lame-duck situation.

Since it's obvious that the outcome on Sunday will not effect Arizona's playoff hopes, it's important to remember what positives can be extracted with each remaining game in this disastrous season.  Leinart's development will the the thing to watch in this one.  How he handles the defense, how he handles the pressure, and how he responds when the running game craps out and he's the only one steering the ship.

Of course, it could happen that Edge breaks out for 150 yards and three scores.  That would definitely be the story of the game.  It just won't happen.  So, keep your eye on Leinart.

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