Historically, this has been the team's most maligned unit, but they have improved considerably in terms of technique and effort — and slightly in terms of personnel — since the new coaching staff took over in 2007. But, the running game has not improved even though head coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm have attempted to make it a point of emphasis.
To be fair, though, they have not emphasized it quite enough, as the Cardinals ranked 32nd in rushing attempts per game in 2008 and currently rank 24th for 2009. Part of the reason they don't run is because they don't run particularly well, ranking 31st in yards per attempt and 32nd in yards per game in 2008 and 23rd and 25th thus far this season.
On the other side of the ball, the Colts have had their fair share of struggles in run defense, allowing an average of 4.7 yards per carry (24th) and an average of 176.5 yards per game (30th).
They've also faced the most rushing attempts of any team in the league, though, so that should be taken under some consideration, especially against an offense that doesn't appear to favor running the ball.
In a matchup of the moveable object versus the resistible force, it's actually very crucial to see who gains the upper hand. In spite of the emphasis in the offseason on bolstering the interior of the defense, the Colts have still faced the most rushing attempts up the middle of any team in the league and are 21st at defending those attempts, allowing an average of 3.97 yards per carry.
The stats for the run defense on plays off tackle and around end are skewed because of the success of the option plays that Miami ran on Monday night, because the Indianapolis defense has been very adept at stopping the run in those areas.
Arizona has been inept in those areas on offense, but is currently averaging 6.09 yards per attempt when they run up the middle.
One of the reasons that the Cardinals have had such success running up the middle — Reggie Wells, Deuce Lutui, Lyle Sendlein are not the 1966 Packers after all — is because they have played 3-4 defenses that do not have strong nose tackles.
Sunday night's game marks the first time this season that Arizona will face a 4-3 defense, which works to the advantage of the Johnsons. They need to get off the ball, penetrate, and make some plays in the backfield. Arizona does run the draw play frequently, so they also need to make sure they are not too aggressive and get themselves out of position. And, of course, Brackett needs to clean up whatever they do not handle.
Since the Cardinals will not be running wide that often, tackles Wayne Gandy and Levi Brown will both need help in the passing game. In theory, if Arizona were able to wear down Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis by running at them and mixing in some screen passes, then Gandy and Brown might be able to handle the Pro Bowl duo for the Colts. But, since they are not successful running outside the tackles, Freeney and Mathis should be able to pin their ears back and pursue the quarterback the entire game.
That is horrendous news for the Cardinals, since Gandy especially struggles against speed rushers and in particular is not strong when working against speed rushers that have an extensive repertoire of pass rushing moves like Freeney. Gandy has allowed two of the three sacks that Arizona has given up this season and he has yet to face a player even approximating Freeney's caliber.
On the other side, Brown is still learning some of the nuances of the right tackle position and still is a bit flat footed when he tries to kick out against a faster, smaller player ... like Mathis.
But, if 2008 taught Colts fans anything, it's that Freeney and Mathis can't do it all. It will take a team effort to stop this very potent Cardinals offense.
The stars for Arizona are all in the receiving corps and their names are well known — and feared — throughout the league. Larry Fitzgerald established himself as the "go to" guy for this unit throughout the regular and post season in 2008, but each of the three talented wideouts for Arizona — Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston — finished with 1,000 yards receiving last season.
As far as the pass defense is concerned, Indianapolis has picked up right where it left off last season, ranking first in pass defense so far in 2009. They also have not allowed a passing touchdown as yet after allowing a league record-low six touchdown passes during the 2008 regular season.
The only area where they are vulnerable is when the opposing team throws to the deep left. They have allowed 12.6 yards per attempt on five attempts to the Tim Jennings/Marlin Jackson side of the field. That is the side of the field typically inhabited by Fitzgerald and, coincidentally enough, the only area of the passing game for the Cardinals that has been wildly successful so far. They have thrown deep left three times in 2009 and have averaged a staggering 21.67 yards per attempt.
Arizona usually tries to move their receivers around in an attempt to isolate one player — usually Fitzgerald — for a favorable matchup. As it turns out, his most favorable matchup will be to stay put on the left side of the formation.
Against the Jaguars and Dolphins, the Colts played more Cover 1, putting Melvin Bullitt in the box and leaving Antoine Bethea to play center field. They won't be able to do that against the Cardinals, so they'll need to make sure that Johnson and Johnson get the job done up front.
One of the reasons Arizona has not been effective running the ball the last 18 games is that they do not have a running back that has great vision, superior cutback ability, and an explosive first step.
Tim Hightower split carries with Edgerrin James last season, but James is now with the Seattle Seahawks and has been replaced by first round draft pick Chris Wells. Both Wells and Hightower are bigger backs that have limited upside as blockers but considerable upside as receivers.
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
Hightower has caught 15 passes already this season — 12 of those came in Week 1, but he also only has 23 rushing attempts — and Wells has receiving potential, but has yet to catch a pass thus far this season.
Wells has 14 carries and has averaged 5.2 yards per attempt, as opposed to the 3.8 average for Hightower, so he may end up seeing a good deal of the early action, especially if Hightower can't get it going against what could be an overwhelmed interior for the Colts defense.
If either back can get it going up the middle, it's bad news for the Indianapolis defense as a whole. They need to stifle the Arizona rushing attack from the outset and force the Cardinals to pass. While this may seem like a foolish proposition, the alternative is far worse.
The one morsel of good news in all of this is that, should Arizona elect to pass, Hightower will likely be kept in as a blocker, since Gandy and Brown will need help. That means that he should be less of a threat in the passing game.
Even if the Cardinals decide to let him leave the formation as a safety option like they did against the 49ers in Week 1, Tyjuan Hagler and Clint Session should be able to bring him down fairly quickly, as they move very well sideline to sideline in pursuit and have shown they are sure tacklers in the open field. Hightower isn't elusive, so Hagler and Session just need to make sure they get him down and don't get taken for a ride.
At the moment, the Arizona passing attack is not as dynamic as it could be. They did put up 265 yards against the Jaguars in Week 2 and Kurt Warner was 24 of 26 in that game, but that was more as a result of the Jacksonville pass defense's ineffectiveness than the Cardinals pass offense exerting its will.
When this offense is at its best, it is attacking the seam and the deep area of the field, piling up yardage in bunches. Against the Jaguars, they worked the underneath routes, preferring to complete high-percentage passes — since they were there — rather than taking shots down the field. They deployed the same strategy against the 49ers in Week 1.
The difference in the two games was the performance of the opposing team's defense, not the performance of the Arizona pass offense. Since San Francisco was far more effective than the Jaguars, they were able to hold the Cardinals to 16 points. Since Jacksonville was not effective, Arizona scored 31 points.
The Colts will want to get to Kurt Warner
AP Photo/Bill Kostroun
If the Colts are able to shut down the run and force the Cardinals to be one dimensional, the extremely efficient and effective Cover 2 defense for Indianapolis will fill passing lanes, take away options, and limit the Arizona offense. If the Cardinals are able to run the ball, that opens up the play action passing game, may force the Colts to drop Melvin Bullitt into the box, and allows Arizona to take some shots down the field.
So far this season, the Cardinals have attempted only ten deep passes. By way of comparison, the Colts, who are by far not the top team in the league in terms of deep passes attempted, have attempted 16 deep passes in 2009.
Arizona has the talent on hand to destroy a defense in the deep passing game, but have not been able to take advantage of that talent because opposing defenses have bracketed the deep area of the field by running a heavy dose of Cover 2 on the back end. In addition, Gandy and Brown are liabilities in pass protection and Warner has a tendency to cough the ball up if he gets hit.
This has lead to a more conservative approach for the Cardinals in the early going. They will start the game conservative and slowly open things up as they are more and more successful.
The more successful they are early — and they'll test the Fitzgerald vs. Jennings/Jackson matchup early and often — the worse things will get for the Colts.
If Indianapolis is not able to stop the run, they had better be able to pressure Warner, both on the edges with Freeney and Mathis and up the middle with the Johnsons and blitzes by Brackett, since Warner is very good at stepping up in the pocket, but not skilled at all at moving side-to-side or shifting in the pocket.
The more early success, the more options for the Cardinals. The more options they have, the more damage they can do. Warner can cocoon just as easily as he can get hot, so the Colts need to stay on their game, keep the pressure on, and not allow Arizona any room to breathe.
Eventually, they will suffocate, but giving them oxygen early will only fuel the fire of this very explosive unit.
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