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

FREE ACCESS TO PREMIUM CONTENT - Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the Chargers will still have something to play for on Sunday. That's bad news for their offensive line, bad news for Edgerrin James, and bad news for Kurt Warner, who figures to be seeing the glare of headlights by midway through the first quarter.

Wide Receivers:

The good news for the Cardinals is that the Chargers use a 3-4 defense.  In the 3-4 defense almost all available salary cap money goes to the linebackers and the nose tackle, leaving very little in available funds to put towards the secondary.  While San Diego cornerback Quentin Jammer is a tough, physical player and was drafted 5th overall in the 2002 draft, he often takes too many chances, is usually beaten badly by receivers that run crisp routes, and doesn't particularly excel in man-to-man coverage.  Both Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald hold a tremendous advantage over Jammer, who is decent enough to have avoided the "bust" label, but not talented enough to cover Arizona's All-Pro tandem one on one.

Jammer's battery mate, Drayton Florence, has finally started to become comfortable with the speed of the pro game in his 4th season.  He is not, however, in the same class as Boldin or Fitzgerald.

Both corners are aggressive and take too many chances.  Both are susceptible to pump fakes and double moves, giving up their fair share of big plays.  And first round pick Antonio Cromartie will also probably have his hands full with Bryant Johnson, provided the Cardinals work him into their game plan.

Over the top, safeties Terrence Kiel and Marlon McCree are serviceable at best.  Arizona will have the opportunity to make some big plays in the deep passing game off of play fakes, double moves, and pump fakes.

However, in order to take advantage of those opportunities, Kurt Warner needs to be upright.  And keeping him upright will be a taunting task for the Cardinals offensive line.

Offensive Line:

The bad news for the Cardinals is that the Chargers use a 3-4 defense.  In the 3-4 defense almost all available salary cap money goes to the linebackers and the nose tackle.  In the running game, this defense starts with nose tackle Jamal Williams and just gets scarier from there.  Former first round pick Luis Castillo, and excellent two-way defender, fills one end position.  The underrated Igor Olshansky fills the other.  The defensive line's primary responsibility is to play two-gap defense and occupy blockers so that the linebackers can fly to the football.

When the Cardinals attempt to run the ball, this means a lot of opportunities for Randall Godfrey and Donnie Edwards (think the Chargers are glad they didn't trade him in the off season?).  Godfrey and Edwards are good two-way defenders (especially Edwards, who has three interceptions), but they both made their bones in the league as run defenders.

Facing an Arizona squad that celebrates every 100 yard rushing performance from Edgerrin James, this is a match-up that heavily favors San Diego.

It doesn't get any easier in the passing game.  Linebackers Shawne Merriman (16 sacks, 4 forced fumbles) and Shaun Phillips (12 sacks, 4 forced fumbles) are extremely disruptive from the outside.  In passing situations, Arizona would be best served to keep James and tight end Leonard Pope in the backfield as extra blockers.  While Arizona's pass protection has improved over the last six weeks, they haven't faced a combination like Merriman and Phillips thus far this season.

Even when teams max protect, it seems as though Merriman and Phillips still get their sacks.  It will be a difficult situation for the Cardinals all day, but they'll need to protect Warner if they are to take advantage of the mismatches present in the passing game of Boldin and Fitzgerald vs. Jammer and Florence.  Hopefully, Arizona's 7 can block San Diego's 5 for most of the game.


Running Backs:

This might actually be a good game to give the ball to Marcel Shipp 5 or 10 times.  Even though the Chargers are the league's 8th ranked run defense, they're not an especially physical group.  Between James and Shipp, Shipp is the more physical back.  While it's unlikely that the Cardinals will have much success, if any, against a very stout front seven for the Chargers, Shipp might gain more yards and do more damage than James.

Where James might be effective is when he is able to make the first defender through the hole miss.  The Chargers defense is very fast, very young, and very aggressive.  They have been beaten and given up long gains (most notably to the Chiefs and Broncos) when they have over pursued the play and the running back has cut back against the grain into an open lane.

The bad news is that James has not had success cutting back in the running game this year.  And the Cardinals seem to lack the talent up front to successfully run such a scheme.

So, it's going to be a long day for Edge and Shipp.

Game Plan:

The offensive line, Edge, and Pope need to give Warner time to throw.  If they can give him three seconds and a decent pocket to throw from, allowing him to plant his left foot and let it fly, the Cardinals will have considerable success throwing the ball against an overmatched San Diego secondary.  If Arizona is unable to pick up the blitz, unable to contain Merriman and Phillips, and unable to give Warner time to throw, the Chargers will add considerably to their league leading total of 60 sacks.

On top of the fact that San Diego excels at applying pressure is the small matter of Warner becoming easily shell-shocked.  If the Chargers relentless pass rush can get to Warner early, he'll have that "deer in the headlights" look that donned his face for most of the past four seasons.  He'll get rid of the ball too early and to the wrong spot, start fumbling every third play, and begin to hear footsteps by the midpoint of the first quarter.  It cannot be overstressed how important it is for the Cardinals to protect Warner and give him a clean pocket to throw from.

Since it's probably a pipe dream to expect Arizona to have success with cut-backs in the running game, they simply need to stick with it even when it isn't working.  San Diego also happens to have a very explosive offense, headlined by this year's MVP LaDanian Tomlinson.  The best way to keep the Chargers offense in check is to make sure they're not on the field.  The best way to do that is to run the ball effectively, keep Warner protected, prevent him from committing too many stupid mistakes, and carve up San Diego's secondary.

However, since the Cardinals seem to be completely outmanned in this game (even though Merriman and Phillips might not play due to injuries), it's too much to hope for a strong outing by the offense.  In all likelihood, the offense will sputter early, the defense will give up too many big plays to Tomlinson and the potent Chargers offense, San Diego will stake themselves to a big early lead, and the crowd and the pass rush will take over.

But, I said that about the Chicago game.

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