The rare combination of size and athleticism that Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Bryant Johnson possess are usually too much for smaller, less physical cornerbacks to handle. This is one of the primary reasons the trio has had so much success throughout their careers. However, when matched up against strong, physical cornerbacks like Fred Smoot and Antoine Winfield, their advantage begins to wane.
While Winfield gives up 5 inches and 45 pounds to the average Arizona receiver, he is still one of the toughest players in the NFL. He is a sure tackler, excels both in zone coverage and man-to-man, and is very active in run support, as evidenced by his 55 tackles already this season. Since it is nearly impossible to run on the Vikings and their stout front seven, teams have begun throwing the ball out of spread formations, following the lead of the New England Patriots and the big game they had against Minnesota's back four. Smoot has been more abused by this new tactic than Winfield, but both have been exposed on occasion this season.
After Smoot and Winfield, though, the crop begins to thin pretty significantly. Back-ups Ronyell Whitaker (I haven't heard of him, either) and Cedric Griffin leave a lot to be desired in zone and man coverage. If Troy Walters or Leonard Pope can break out of their season-long funk, Bryant Johnson can live up to his first round talent, or the Cardinals are able to successfully use motion and formations to get Fitzgerald or Boldin matched up against Whitaker or Griffin, then the tide swings in Arizona's favor.
If the Cardinals stay in their base formations and run their base offense (something they've been guilty of in every game but the Monday Night Football tilt against the Bears), then the match-ups, with Smoot and Winfield manning up against Fitzgerald and Boldin and effectively shutting them down.
Last game, Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown gained 2 yards on 12 carries. Two yards. Twelve carries. This is the same back (albeit fighting through a groin injury) and same offensive line that gashed the Bears for 157 yards two weeks beforehand. And yes, those are the same Bears that allowed Edgerrin James to set a league record for futility. The Vikings run defense is so skilled and their front seven so effective, that the Patriots decided not to run against them at all when the two teams met on Monday night four weeks ago.
For Minnesota, it all starts up front, in the middle, with the unblockable combination of Kevin Williams and Pat Williams. Pat Williams is more of a conventional run-stuffing tackle, whereas Kevin Williams is extremely effective getting off the ball and penetrating into the backfield. Kevin is also the team's most accomplished pass rusher with 5 sacks. But both do an exceptional job of clogging up the middle and giving the opposing team no room to maneuver. The Vikings are good enough to destroy and demoralize a good offensive line, so they shouldn't have much trouble with the woeful interior of Milford Brown, Nick Leckey, and Deuce Lutui.
The bright side is that, while their front seven boasts the best run defense in the NFL, they are not particularly skilled at rushing the passer. Their two starting ends Kenechi Udeze and Darrion Scott have 4 sacks between them (Scott has four, Udeze has zero, so Leonard Davis is going to have his hands full) and the line as a whole has only gotten to the quarterback nine times all season.
It's a little too optimistic to expect that Matt Leinart will survive the entire game without getting sacked, but he should have sufficient time to stand in the pocket and find the open man. And, more often than not, he should have those three crucial seconds that every Cardinals quarterback in the Dennis Green Era has needed to be successful.
Edge finally topped the 90-yard mark and game very close to notching 100 total yards for the game. That's a very important step for a Cardinals line that has struggled all season. The line combination that the coaches feel will be most effective is now together and will be starting the rest of the season. They hope to build on the success they had in Week 11, but should hit a brick wall in the form of the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
Where James will be most effective is in pass protection and coming out the backfield as a receiver. He should work well both as a safety valve and on screen passes. Since the Vikings are a defensive line that prides itself on its ability to penetrate, it will be important to slow down their pursuit to the ball carrier (and the quarterback) by running screens and other misdirection plays that involve James.
Given the suffocating manner in which the Vikings defend the run and the slipshod manner in which the Arizona offensive line run blocks, it won't make a difference who is working at tailback for the Cardinals. While I have advocated a "two-headed monster" of James and Marcel Shipp to keep the opposition off balance, Minnesota is simply too talented up front for the talent-challenged Cardinals to overcome.
It will be more important for the Cardinals to utilize James as a blocker in the backfield and in the receiving game to maximize the effectiveness of his touches.
Match-ups will be the key to this game. The Cardinals must find a way to get Fitzgerald or Boldin matched up one-on-one with Whitaker or Griffin. Whether they accomplish this through motion, formations, or some other form of trickery, it is the key to getting on track in the passing game.
Leinart should have plenty of time to throw the ball (or, at least more time than he's accustomed to having), as well as a reasonably clear pocket to step into and throw. He needs to be accurate and timely with his passes and hit his receivers in stride. Vikings safeties Darren Sharper and Dwight Smith are big, physical guys, but they've also been known to gamble too much, get caught "looking into the backfield," and miss their fair share of tackles. Additionally, while the linebackers for Minnesota are all first day picks (though only E.J. Henderson is home grown), Napolean Harris, Ben Leber, and Henderson are all more well known for their ability to support the run rather than their pass coverage skills.
The Vikings also run a lot of zone coverages, but will try to get Smoot isolated on Boldin and Winfield on Fitzgerald one-on-one. They'll assume (and correctly so) that their best chance for victory will lie in their ability to take away Arizona's two most potent weapons in the passing game with two defenders and safety help. This strategy has been met with mixed results. When the Vikings have played teams that only have two viable threats (or teams that are unable to get the match-ups they're looking for), the strategy has been effective. When they've faced teams that have been able to dictate match-ups or that had playmakers three and four deep at the receiver position, the strategy has back-fired, with disastrous results.
The game is in Arizona's hands. They simply need to take advantage of their strengths, hide their weaknesses, and hope they're able to outscore Minnesota's anemic offense.