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

This is a match-up that features two units that are headed in opposite directions. The Broncos started out on a roll on defense, but let up 48 points to San Diego last week. The Cardinals started out horribly with too many turnovers and no ability to run the ball. Who gets the best of this match-up on Sunday? The Cardinals, if they stay away from Champ Bailey.

Wide Receivers:

Depending on who you talk to, Champ Bailey is either vastly overrated, or the best cornerback in the league.  I happen to think he's the best cornerback in the league.  Teams have challenged Bailey throughout the season and lost.  They're now avoiding his side of the field altogether.

The good news is that the Broncos play almost exclusively man coverage.  Bailey will almost surely be assigned Larry Fitzgerald.  That means that Darrent Williams, who was positively abused by Reggie Wayne earlier this season, will draw Anquan Boldin.  Expect Boldin to have a big game - must start in all Fantasy formats.  The news gets even better as you go deeper (or, as it turns out, there is a lack of depth) into the secondary.

John Lynch and Curome Cox struggle in coverage.  Third string cornerback Domonique Foxworth is nowhere near as talented as Bryant Johnson.  If the Cardinals avoid Bailey completely, only throwing to Fitzgerald if he's either not covered or sitting in a 15-yard open area of the field, they will be successful.  Very, very successful.

The other good news is that the offensive line doesn't face a very steep challenge this week in their match-up against the Denver defensive line.

Offensive Line:

In the off-season of 2005, the Broncos acquired 3/4 of Cleveland's defensive line in Ebenezer Ekuban, Michael Myers, and Gerard Warren.  In 2004, Cleveland finished 31st overall against the run and seemed to have a great deal of difficulty rushing the passer, so it seemed like a very questionable move on Mike Shanahan's part.  However, these three men have exceeded expectations (provided, the expectations were low) and have defended the run rather respectably this season.  Add in Kenard Lang and his six sacks, and it's a solid unit.

Fortunately, it's not a scary unit.  All of these men can be beaten at the point of attack, struggle with consistency (and quitting on plays), and aren't overly effective in the passing game.

The bottom line is that Arizona once again draws a defense that is not particularly adept at pressuring the quarterback.  They're on a roll, having let up only four sacks in five games, due partly to better play along the line, but mostly due to the fact that they haven't faced a ferocious pass rush in that span.

Denver has a fine defensive line, but they're not as good as Seattle's defensive line.  And the offensive line did just fine against them last week.

Running Backs:

The real terrifying aspect of this defense is the linebackers.  They're the best group in the NFL.  Al Wilson (who seems to have come back too early from a pretty scary injury), D.J. Williams, and Ian Gold work well together, all of them can run like the win, they are exceptional tacklers, and probably are better in coverage than any of Denver's safeties.

In order to have success in this game, Edgerrin James needs to make one of these men miss.  The line should handle Denver's front four, so once he gets to the linebacker that comes free (or, probably linebackers that come free), he needs to make them miss, then get to the second level, where he can prey on their safeties.

He should have a pretty good day on Sunday, but don't expect to see his streak of 100 yard games persist (unless the Bronco defense begins to break down - see below).

Denver rarely blitzes, but it will be important for Edge to stay in the backfield and protect Matt Leinart's blind side.  When they do blitz, the Broncos are likely to overload the right side of the formation and "bring more than the Cardinals can block."  When that happens, Edge needs to make sure he picks up his assignment and gives Leinart enough time to get rid of the ball.

Game Plan:

I've been trying to ascertain for the past two years exactly why the Broncos defense is effective.  I have finally decided that it breaks down to match-ups.  When the Broncos play a team that utilizes their tight ends and running backs (like the Patriots and Ravens this year, to name two), they succeed, because their linebackers are some of the best coverage players and tacklers on their roster.  However, when they play teams that utilize their wide receivers and pretty much ignore their backs and tight ends (like the Colts and the Cardinals, to name two), they struggle, because that puts the game into the hands of their underwhelming secondary - Champ Bailey notwithstanding.

The Broncos play man coverage schemes almost exclusively and rarely ever blitz.  This means that they struggle against teams that have talented wide receivers that use their size and route running abilities to exploit the fact that the game is designed for them to succeed when facing man-to-man coverage.  The Cardinals are such a team.  If they're able to protect Leinart as they've done the past five games, he's going to have an easy time picking apart the Denver defense, simply throwing the ball to the guy who's the most open.

If, however, the Broncos begin to blitz, Leinart needs to stay away from the middle of the field.  This is the area where Denver's talented corps of linebackers can really make him pay.  If he starts to feel the pressure, he should either throw the ball away, or get it out to the perimeter.  Once again, Leinart's football intelligence comes into play.  If he is able to successfully diagnose the defense at the line of scrimmage and make the proper adjustments, he'll have a big day throwing to wide open receivers.  But, if he misses more than he hits at the line of scrimmage, the Cardinals could be in for a long day.

Given the match-ups, it looks as though this will be an easy game for the Cardinals and their suddenly high-power offense against the Broncos and their suddenly vulnerable defense.

But, that's why they play the games.

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