Minnesota actually has the Cardinals completely out-classed from a talent standpoint on the perimeter. Troy Williamson (taken 7th overall in last year's draft) and Travis Taylor (signed from Baltimore in 2004) are both powerfully built, exceptionally fast, excellent athletes with blazing deep speed and the ability to make defenders miss. Unfortunately for Taylor and Williamson, quarterback Brad Johnson has lost what little arm strength he ever had and the Vikings have been unable to take advantage of their considerable long speed at the wide receiver position thus far this season. In addition, neither Taylor nor Williamson is particularly fearless over the middle, and both men tend to drop passes at critical junctures (especially Williamson when open for a touchdown or on third down).
Eric Green (or, possibly David Macklin, if coach Green decides to sit his promising young corner again) and Antrel Rolle have their work cut out for them with this group, but do have the physical strength, tackling ability, and coverage skills to at least keep the play in front of them. If they are able to play effectively close to the line of scrimmage and take away the short and intermediate routes that Johnson likes to throw, they'll be able to force Johnson to beat them deep. Either the throw bounces to the target, or Williamson drops it. Either way, the Cardinals win.
In any event, the key for Rolle and Green (or Macklin) will be to force Johnson to look at his other options, namely Marcus Robinson and Jermaine Wiggins. Robinson and Wiggins are considerably less talented and dangerous than Williamson and Taylor. If the Vikings are forced to move down the field by getting the ball to their 3rd and 4th options in the passing game, Arizona has gotten the best of this match-up. On the flip side, if Johnson begins to force the ball to his talented targets on the outside (he hasn't looked in Wiggins' direction much this season - 140 catches in 2004 and 2005 combined, only 31 receptions this year - and Robinson has always been less than a viable third receiver in the Vikings' offense), Rolle and Green need to be ready to take advantage of Johnson's mistakes, jumping routes and squeezing the ball when it comes in their direction.
His noodle arm aside, Johnson is a very efficient and intelligent quarterback and will tear a defense apart if given enough time in the pocket. This is why the Cardinals need to bring the heat on him, like the did last week against Jon Kitna and the Lions.
For all Johnson's savvy, he tends to struggle in blitz recognition and has been known to unravel in the face of pressure. This is why pressuring Johnson will start with the defensive line, but certainly not stop there.
The Cardinals catch a break this week in that three of Minnesota's starters are either struggling (center Matt Birk) or injured (RT Marcus Johnson and RG Artis Hicks are both listed as questionable). The left side of the line, lead by former Seahawk Steve Hutchinson and solidified by the suddenly re-born Bryant McKinnie, is one of the best in the business. It will be up to Chike Okeafor and Antonio Smith (in for Bert Berry, who was just placed on injured reserve) to collapse the pocket from the outside, and occupy their man so that blitzing linebackers Karlos Dansby, Orlando Huff, and Calvin Pace (as well as the ever-versatile Adrian Wilson) will have clear lanes to the quarterback.
The Vikings have taken a page out of Seattle's playbook and have been extremely successful running to their left all year. Fortunately for the Cardinals, Hutchinson will match up against Kendrick Clancy, who has been exceptional against the run this season. Clancy and the underrated Darnell Dockett (who isn't making any friends this year with his comments to the press, but has been stout in run support) to clog the rush lanes and keep Chester Taylor from grinding this defense down to nothing.
While Smith filled in admirably for Berry last season, he's simply not on the same level as Berry. In Berry's absence, the rest of the defensive line needs to step up their level of play and work to dominate the line of scrimmage, opening things up for the linebackers (and Wilson) to make plays. They don't need to put up great stats, they simply need to eat up blockers and take up space.
For the defense to succeed, though, the linebackers must find Chester Taylor and punish him.
Since the Vikings offense revolves around Chester Taylor, he is the defense's highest priority. The responsibility for containing him, in both the running and passing games, falls to the linebackers.
Gerald Hayes didn't need to do much spying on Kevin Jones last week, as Detroit's talented tailback left the game early with an ankle injury. However, Hayes can't assume that he's going to get lucky two weeks in a row, and he draws another stiff challenge this week in Taylor. With 255 touches already this season (221 rushes, 34 receptions), Taylor is the focal point of this offense. Brad Childress came into this season promising to control the clock with the running game and to get Taylor as involved as possible. His plan has succeeded, as Taylor has produced over 1,000 yards of total offense ten games into the season.
However, since defenses have been gearing up to stop him, Taylor's production has declined. His carries have not decreased, but he's done less with more (much like Edgerrin James) during his team's four game losing streak. The Cardinals must copy this blueprint. Stop Taylor and you stop Minnesota's offense. It's that simple. Dansby and Huff will be very active in the pass rush, so the responsibility of stopping Taylor falls to Hayes. Hayes has a high motor and excellent speed in pursuit. While he's not as accomplished as most would like him to be in pass coverage, he's adequate enough. Most of Taylor's receptions have also come when he was the check-down receiver on a pattern (he's rarely the primary receiver in a passing play).
While Taylor is not the focus of the Vikings passing game, it will be very important for Hayes to keep tabs on him at all times. Minnesota has been extremely successful in sustaining long drives by checking down to Taylor and allowing him to convert critical first downs.
With the defensive line holding the line of scrimmage and Dansby, Huff, Pace, and Wilson blitzing from all directions, it will be up to Hayes to track Taylor down and wrap him up. Let's hope he's up to the task.
First and foremost, the Cardinals need to stop Chester Taylor in the running game. If they are unable to stop the run, Childress will continue to ride his starting tailback to victory. Taylor's success will also open things up in the passing game, with the Vikings working off play action in the hopes of hitting a big play on an overly aggressive Arizona secondary (Robert Griffith and Adrian Wilson have repeatedly been guilty of "looking into the backfield" this season). Johnson may only have half an arm left, but he can still get it 40 yards downfield and hit a wide open receiver.
In the passing game, the Cardinals must pressure Brad Johnson, get into his head early, and force him into a bad decision (or at least force him to throw the ball sooner than he'd like). Heavy doses of blitzes from all directions will be the best way to accomplish this with Minnesota's wounded offensive line, Birk struggling, and Berry injured. If Arizona brings more than they can block, good things will happen.
Provided, of course, Rolle and Green (or Macklin) do a sufficient job of locking down on their man in isolated coverage. With Griffith patrolling the deep area of the field and Wilson dancing around close to the line, Rolle and Green will be forced to guard Williamson and Travis Taylor man-to-man. They don't need to be perfect, they just can't have as many lapses in concentration as they have the last few games.
If the secondary is able to shut down Williamson and Travis Taylor, the defensive line and Gerald Hayes are able to contain Chester Taylor (he'll get his touches and yards regardless, the Cardinals just need to make sure he doesn't break their backs), and the linebackers and Wilson are able to get consistent pressure on Johnson, this could be a dominant effort from Arizona's defense versus a struggling Vikings offense.
Then again, a lot of things should have happened this year...