The Cardinals yielded their second punt block of the season and have been unreliable in punt coverage and abysmal in the return game. After losing the top back-up job to Marcel Shipp, you'd assume that J.J. Arrington would try to step things up as a returner. This has not been the case. He teams up with Troy Walters to form a rather underwhelming duo.
Given that former Patriot Bethel Johnson and Troy Williamson have yet to distinguish themselves as threats in the return game for Minnesota, the Vikings may have wanted to keep Koren Robinson around, even after his 38th DUI. Back-up tailback Mewelde Moore handles punt returns and has done about as stellar a job as Arrington has for the Cardinals.
Ryan Longwell was signed away from division rival Green Bay in the off-season and has performed well, converting 17 of 20 field goal tries in the kicker-friendly dome of Minnesota. Neil Rackers has had a season-long struggle in crunch time, but has not done horribly, all things considered. Let's just hope he doesn't have to kick the ball through the uprights with the game on the line. Scott Player for the Cardinals and Chris Kluwe for the Vikings are right around the middle of the pack as far as punters are concerned.
Even though special teams appear to be a wash and neither a strength or a weakness for either team, this game will most likely be close and come down to a last-second field goal. In that situation, I trust Longwell more than I trust Rackers, so the edge goes to the Vikings.
Hopefully, though, it won't come to that. Especially if the Cardinals are able to take advantage of favorable match-ups on offense and defense.
On offense, Arizona must stick with the run, even though it won't work. It's pre-mature to say that the running game has been resurrected after one promising performance against a depleted Detroit front seven. And, it would be especially pre-mature to assume that the Cardinals will have success against the league's best run defense on Sunday. Minnesota's approach will be to take away the run, discourage the Cardinals from sticking with it, and make them one dimensional on offense. Even though offensive coordinator Mike Kruczek has had a propensity to abandon the run when it isn't working (which has been the case all season), Arizona must stick with it and at least give the defense something to think about.
In the passing game, Matt Leinart needs to be crisp, accurate, and timely with his throws. The Vikings have two stellar cover cornerbacks in Fred Smoot and Antoine Winfield. Both men are undersized but physical and match up very well against Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. The key for the Cardinals will be to mix up formations and motion to isolate Boldin and Fitzgerald against the overmatched tandem of Ronyell Whitaker and Cedric Griffin.
If they are unable to accomplish this, Bryant Johnson, Leonard Pope, and Troy Walters need to step up and have big games. They haven't been the focal point of the offense all season, but if Boldin and Fitzgerald are successfully taken away (and Edgerrin James will likely not be a factor in the running game), these three must raise the level of their games and give Leinart legitimate targets to hit in the passing game.
Operating under the assumption that Edge will have another 31 carry, 55 yard game, he needs to be involved in the passing game as a receiver catching screen passes and as a check-down option, as well as picking up E.J. Henderson and Napoleon Harris when they come on the blitz.
With the right side of the line struggling with injuries and center Matt Birk struggling in general, Arizona must overload the right side of Minnesota's line and continually bring more than the Vikings can block. Clancy Pendergast has a well-deserved reputation for conjuring up exotic blitz packages and bringing pressure from all directions. In order to break Brad Johnson down and force him into making bad decisions, Pendergast needs to call every blitz in his playbook
Karlos Dansby, Calvin Pace, Orlando Huff, and Adrian Wilson need to make the plays that Pendergast puts them in position to make. They need to get to Johnson early and often, forcing him into a paranoid shell by halftime. On first and second down, Arizona needs to keep bringing the heat, using the linebackers and Wilson to fill running lanes and stop Chester Taylor.
First and foremost, the Cardinals need to stop Taylor. He's the key to everything they do on offense. Kendrick Clancy, Darnell Dockett, Antonio Smith, and Chike Okeafor don't need to have huge games rushing the passer. They simply need to occupy blockers at the point of attack and point the back seven (especially Gerald Hayes) in a position to make plays on the ball carrier.
If the line is able to do their jobs, the men behind them need to do theirs and wrap Taylor up when they get a clean shot at him. In the passing game, Hayes needs to spy Taylor, following him wherever he goes and assuming the "hero" position along with Robert Griffith, acting as the last line of defense, especially on third down.
Antrel Rolle and Eric Green need to play close to the line of scrimmage and man up on Troy Williamson and Travis Taylor. While both receivers have exceptional deep speed, Johnson lacks the arm strength to get them the ball in the vertical passing game. Rolle and Green will be tasked with the responsibility of shutting down Williamson and Taylor in the short-to-intermediate areas of the field, forcing Johnson to check down to Chester Taylor or look in the direction of Jermaine Wiggins or Marcus Robinson (both of whom have been largely ignored this year).
While taking away their best three options and pressuring a skittish quarterback with a weak arm and a fear of contact seems like an oversimplified game plan, it's the best way to stop the Vikings. Other teams have had considerable success with this approach (even teams that lost to Minnesota) and it's the best shot the Cardinals have.
James will not rush for 96 yards in this one. He probably won't even get 50 yards, since the Vikings have given up an average of 60 yards per game on the ground thus far this season. He will, however, be a factor in the passing game, doing his best Chester Taylor impression and doing some damage in space.
Leinart should actually have a good game, as the Cardinals should be able to take advantage of the Vikings soft middle with motion and varying formations. Minnesota has not pressured the quarterback and racked up a ton of sacks thus far this season, so Leinart should have enough time to step into his throws and hit his talented receivers in stride. It's unrealistic to expect him to have a second consecutive game where he "stays clean" and is not sacked, but it's definitely within reason to say that he won't be constantly harassed and should have a productive game against a weak Vikings pass defense.
If Green and Rolle are able to lock down on Williamson and Travis Taylor, it will be a long day for Brad Johnson. And, I think they'll be able to do that. Green should be able to intimidate Taylor with his physical play and Rolle possesses the athletic ability and footwork to blanket Williamson and stay with him stride-for-stride should he take off down the field. If Wiggins and Robinson end up beating the Cardinals on Sunday, then you have to hand it to the Vikings. I don't think that's going to happen, though.
Chester Taylor will get his yards. Arizona simply needs to maintain gap discipline, play the solid run defense they've played all season (they effectively contained Larry Johnson and Shaun Alexander earlier this year) and keep Taylor in front of them. And they especially need to contain him on third down, not allowing him to convert any back-breaking third downs.
They should be able to keep him under a hundred yards, probably keep him from scoring, and definitely keep him from taking over the game. And that should be enough.
It's very difficult to say that the 2-8 Cardinals will be able to win consecutive games and that the once proud Vikings will lose their fifth straight, but the match-ups don't lie. Still, it's going to be close.
Prediction: Cardinals 15, Vikings 10.