The Final Cut: Cardinals vs. Cowboys

The Cowboys seem to have the Cardinals out-gunned in all facets of the game heading into Sunday's tilt in Phoenix. Any hope Arizona might have for a victory rests in two key areas: special teams and intangibles, the only two things the Cowboys have been worse at than the Cardinals.

Special Teams:

It isn't as though the Cardinals are a special teams juggernaut and can overpower any team in the league on any given Sunday with their kicking game might.  They just happen to be better on special teams that the Cowboys.  As erratic as Neil Rackers has been, he's been much more consistent (and healthier) than Mike Vanderjagt.  The Cowboys employ someone by the name of Mat McBriar as their punter.  At least some people have heard of Scott Player.  McBriar is averaging 49 yards per punt, though, so he might hold an edge over the directional prowess of Player.

Troy Walters (who now looks like he will suit up and play on Sunday) and J.J. Arrington are not going to create electrifying plays out of thin air and win a game for you, but they're certainly dependable enough to get the yards they're supposed to get and not cough the football up.  The Cowboys have been bothered by miscues on special teams for most of this season and now have second year receiver Patrick Crayton, rookie receiver Skyler Green, and, occasionally, Terrence Newman returning kicks for them. 

They haven't even approached consistent and are a far cry away from explosive, so don't look for too many big plays from either unit.  The only x-factor is whether or not a Dallas mistake on special teams leads to a game altering play for the Cardinals. 

And, given what they're up against, they'll need all the help they can get.

Game Plan:

On offense, the Cardinals need to stay focused, continue to stick with the run even if it's not working (and it won't), convert on third down, and hit on the big plays that will be available to them over the top off of play action and double moves.  The biggest hole in the Cowboys defense is the safeties and their abhorrent cover skills.  Arizona won't get many chances to take a shot downfield, but they should be wide open and Matt Leinart needs to be able to get the ball to his receivers in stride.

Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald do not match up well against the athletic, physical cornerback tandem of Anthony Henry and Terrence Newman.  So, when the Cardinals aren't trying to hit on a few big plays to Boldin and Fitzgerald, they need to concentrate on getting the ball underneath to Bryant Johnson, Leonard Pope, and Troy Walters are facing lesser athletes that have suspect cover skills.  Leinart needs to be able to look to those receivers first, then turn to Boldin and Fitzgerald if things start to break down.

In order to compensate for the fact that the Arizona offensive line is thoroughly overmatched by Dallas' front seven, Edgerrin James needs to play his best game of the season in pass protection and Leinart needs to identify where the pass rush is coming from and effectively communicate that information to his line. 

Essentially, it will take a near-perfect effort from the offense (especially the offensive line) for the Cardinals to score enough points to stay in this game.

On defense, they just need to keep it plain and simple.  They need to execute a classic Cover 2 look and force Tony Romo and his charges to march down the field slowly, methodically, and without error to score.  While the linebackers have shown little to no ability to do anything but rush the passer, the safeties, with Robert Griffith's experience and Adrian Wilson's versatility, should be able to keep plays in front of them and make the Cowboys work to beat them.

This doesn't mean, of course, that Dallas won't be able to move the ball by running it.  They've had success all year by giving defenses steady doses of Julius Jones and switching it up with Marion Barber.  If the Cowboys are able to have success running the ball against Arizona's surprisingly stout front seven (at least in regards to run defense), the game will end very badly for the Cardinals.  Success in the running game will equal success off of play action passing and a less pass rush focused front four for Arizona.  As much success as the Cowboys have had in the passing game this year, every Bill Parcells coached team keys off the running game.  If the Cardinals are able to stop Jones and Barber early, they can focus on Romo, on maintaining their zones, and forcing the inexperienced signal caller to beat them by throwing the ball.

Additionally, Terry Glenn might not play in this game due to injury.  If that happens, Eric Green may be able to match up against Terrell Owens and Antrel Rolle may draw Patrick Crayton, which is something that works considerably in the Cardinals favor.  Also, with Glenn out of the line-up, Romo will focus even more on getting the ball in Owens' occasionally capable hands.  This will allow the Cardinals to form a shell around Owens with Green and Wilson and perhaps force Romo into a few costly mistakes.

Prediction:

Ultimately, the Cardinals are outgunned, outmanned, and face a considerable talent deficit on both sides of the ball.  In order to win, they need to hope that Dallas commits a few fatal errors on offense and defense that allows them to make game changing plays.

They need to flawlessly execute schemes that don't play to their strengths, show more discipline and physicality than they've shown to date, and be able to apply pressure to a quarterback that has seemed unflappable through two starts.

The one variable working in their favor is intangibles.  They're at home.  They're a team with no playoff aspirations, nothing to lose, and an opportunity to play spoiler against a former division rival (I don't know about anyone else, but I still hate the Cowboys).

Parcells, a man with a reputation as a disciplinarian, has allowed this team too much autonomy and they're beginning to slip away from him.  They're committing stupid penalties and costly turnovers at inopportune times during games.  It must be driving Parcells absolutely crazy, but there seems to be little he can do to stop the onslaught of ineffectiveness.

Intangibles, special teams, and Dallas' weak safeties are the only things working in Arizona's favor coming into this game.  Can they take advantage of the edge they have in the non-talent aspects of this game?  Can they finally win one on heart, execution, determination?

I doubt it.  But, as we've said before, anything's possible.

Prediction: Cowboys 31, Cardinals 17


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