After the Broncos traded Ashley Lelie to the Falcons, Javon Walker became Denver's one true threat in the passing game. It's true that Stephen Alexander has had some success from the tight end position and that Rod Smith is, by far, the finest undrafted player in the history of the NFL. However, after Walker and possibly Smith (who seems to have aged 10 years in the past 10 months), the receiving corps gets a little thin.
Even though he's struggled with bouts of inconsistency, dumb interference penalties, and mental lapses that leave receivers uncovered deep, Antrel Rolle is still the best cornerback the Cardinals have on their roster. He and Eric Green need to make sure that they jam the receiver before he has a chance to come out of his break. Since they'll be playing primarily zone (see Game Plan below), the Cardinals corners need to be physical with Denver's receivers and make them dread coming off the line of scrimmage, nonetheless coming over the middle.
In the zone scheme, the venerable Robert Griffith will be playing "in the box" as an eighth defender against the run, leaving Adrian Wilson to patrol the deep portion of the field in a Cover 1 defense. Griffith filled this role admirably against Seattle and will be called upon to fill it again. Let's hope he's able to give the Cardinals one more solid effort in run support before he keels over.
The most important thing to remember is that the Broncos receivers will not beat you if you play solid, disciplined defense, punctuated by sure tackling. If Arizona's back seven can play as good a game as they did against Seattle (again, see below), they'll be in good shape.
The good news is that run stuffing specialist Kendrick Clancy will be back for Sunday's game and that Antonio Smith has filled in admirably (at least in the run support) in Bert Berry's absence. While gap discipline is critical when facing Denver's zone blocking scheme, the key for Darnell Dockett and Chike Okeafor will be to collapse the pocket and get in Jay Cutler's face all game. Since the Cardinals should blitz very judiciously (and... see below), the key to the game will be the defensive line's ability to maintain their gaps in the running game and get to the quarterback in the passing game.
The Denver offensive line, anchored by Tom Nalen, is one of the best in the business. However, I'm happy to report that they are not as talented as Seattle's offensive line. If the defensive line can play sound, fundamental football like they did last game, the Cardinals will be successful in their quest to defend the run.
Of course, if the defensive line does their job, that means that the linebackers must step up as well.
The linebackers need to stay close to the line of scrimmage in run support and maintain their zones in the short area in the passing game. Since Griffith is also going to be playing close to the line, they'll have a little leeway. But, a very little leeway. Gerald Hayes, Orlando Huff, and Karlos Dansby are going to have the opportunity to make a lot of plays in this game, provided they keep to their assignments.
The Broncos rushing attack has always lived and died on the assumption that linebackers will over pursue the play, opening up cut-back lanes for the running back. The running back is taught to stay patient, read the defense, find the cut-back lane, make one and only one cut, and explode into the open field. If the defensive line and the linebackers stay in their lanes, they will force the Denver running backs to move east-to-west in a system that stresses that the back must run north-to-south.
If they are able to contain plays, forcing the running back to cut back either too early (running into a pile at the line of scrimmage) or too late (running into a pile on the perimeter), they will be successful. However, if the Denver running backs are able to slash and cut between the tackles, it's going to be a long day for all involved.
Conventional wisdom tells you to blitz rookie quarterbacks like crazy up the middle until they beat you. The problem with conventional wisdom is that rookie quarterbacks are now too experienced, too intelligent, and too well coached to wilt under the pressure of constant interior blitzes. What I've found is that, while rookie quarterbacks are well coached and are generally able to find the "hot" receiver in the event of a blitz, they lack the mental toughness to consistently and meticulously drive down the field against zone coverage.
I am therefore suggesting that the Cardinals fly in the face of conventional wisdom and play a conservative game plan against the Broncos, much like they did against Seattle. They loaded up to stop the run and dared Matt Hasselbeck to beat them. And he almost did. However, Jay Cutler is no Matt Hasselbeck and he doesn't have anywhere near the arsenal of weapons at his disposal that Hasselbeck has in the passing game.
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast needs to reign in the blitz packages yet again. He needs to keep his charges close to the line of scrimmage in an effort to stop the run, but caution his players not to be overly aggressive. Overly aggressive defenses are usually shredded by Denver's offense.
In addition, by playing mostly zone, where the players are set in their positions, Pendergast is taking away Mike Shanahan's ability to use motion and formations to exploit mismatches in the passing game. If the defense does not move when the offense shifts, the offense's advantage begins to diminish.
If Cutler is forced to be consistently flawless in methodically driving Denver down the field in order to score, his mental stamina will begin to erode and he will start to force passes into coverage in order to "make something happen."
The best way to beat this offense is to make them work. By playing a relatively simple scheme on Sunday, I believe the Cardinals will be able to accomplish this.
Take away the running game and make Cutler beat you. And I believe the Cardinals are up to the task.