The Arizona Cardinals are the only team from the NFC West that the Vikings will face this season. It will also be the third straight year that the two teams have met. Why? Because both of them are the two-time defending division champions of their respective divisions and, as a result, when the following year's schedule comes out, the division champions play each other. However, with the Cardinals at 3-4 and the Vikings at 2-5, both teams are in desperate shape heading into Sunday's game with both in third place trying to chase down two teams to retain the division titles.
Much has changed with the Cardinals and nowhere has it been more apparent than quarterback. Kurt Warner retired after last season and, unlike Brett Favre, he danced off into the sunset and didn't change his mind. The job was supposed to go Matt Leinart, a former blue-chip draft pick by former Vikings coach Dennis Green who never unseated Warner for the starting job once he arrived. However, when he struggled in the preseason, he was sent packing. Next in line was former Browns QB Derek Anderson. He was brought in to compete with Leinart, but got the job by default when Leinart was released. Anderson fared little better in his starting gigs, throwing just three touchdowns and seven interceptions in his first four games, fumbling three times and getting sacked nine times. He was replaced by undrafted rookie Max Hall, who ended up starting the last three games before being injured last Sunday against the Buccaneers. It may have been for the best since Hall was pretty brutal, completing just 50 percent of his passes with one touchdown and five interceptions. With two rookies as the backups, Anderson has got the job back. He is huge at 6-6 and can see over defensive linemen and rarely has passes batted down, but he has accuracy problems, which lead to receivers tipping balls that get intercepted. If the Vikings' defensive front can generate a pass rush to force his hand, Anderson will put the ball up for grabs.
The running game was supposed to be the domain or Beanie Wells. But, for the second straight year, early-season injuries have slowed Wells down. He missed the first two games of the season, in which former starter Tim Hightower got the job back. In his first three games, Hightower had 35 carries for 209 yards and two touchdowns. In the four games since, with his role reduced because of fumbles, he has just 18 carries for 89 yards and no TDs. While Wells has taken his place, the production hasn't been there. In the last three games, Wells had 50 carries (as opposed to just 11 for Hightower), but has gained just 139 yards – an average of only 2.8 yards per carry. Hightower is averaging more than two yards a carry more than Wells, but it appears as though Wells will be the primary ballcarrier and the runner the Vikings defense will have to concern itself with most.
The receiving game has been crippled by loss of Boldin and Warner. Boldin was a secure target over the middle that was expected to catch 80-100 passes a year. This year, the Cardinals have been far too easy and predictable. They throw the ball to Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston. Fitzgerald is one of the most dangerous receiver options and, like the Randy Ratio, he has been the clear focus of the passing game. Of the 230 passes thrown by the Cardinals this year, 76 of them (33 percent) have been targeted to Fitzgerald and 31 have been thrown Breaston's way. Nobody else on the team has more than 20 targets and only two have more than 15 through seven games. Fitzgerald leads the team with 35 receptions for 403 yards and four touchdowns, followed by Breaston (22-330-0). Beyond them, tight end Ben Patrick is the only player with more than nine receptions – and he only has 11 catches for 88 yards. The Cardinals have spread the ball around – 13 different players have receptions, but the game plan is clear – get the ball to Fitz and Breaston. They have 47 percent of the receptions and 55 percent of the yards. Keep them in check and the passing game will struggle.
The offensive line is solid at four spots, with the only question mark being at right tackle. On the left side, Levi Brown and Alan Faneca form a strong tandem and fifth-year right guard Deuce Lutui and fourth-year center Lyle Sendlein are set at their positions. Right tackle has been a question spot. Jeremy Bridges was expected to hold down the position, but Brandon Keith, has started all seven games. The line has allowed 22 sacks, among the worst in the league, and could be the answer to the Vikings' non-production in the sack department – they set a franchise record by going three straight games without a sack.
As many questions as the offense has had, the Cardinals defense has been just as sketchy, allowing 38 or more points in three of their four losses. The defense has allowed big points early, creating deficits they have been unable to overcome. The Cardinals have been outscored 47-17 in the first quarter of games this season and a whopping 129-65 in the first half. Much of the blame falls on a defensive front that has failed to successfully stop the run or pressure the passer.
The 3-4 defense of the Cardinals has been routinely run upon, ranked 29th in the league against the rush. Darnell Dockett is the big name on the front line, joined by nose tackle Bryan Robinson and pass rusher Calais Campbell, but neither has been a consistent pass-rush threat – Campbell has just two sacks and Docket has one. The have excellent depth with former first-rounders Alan Branch and Dan Williams waiting in the wings. For as much talent and depth as the team has, allowing 143 yards a game rushing isn't what anyone expected. Look for the Vikings to try to pound Adrian Peterson at this group early and often Sunday.
Head coach Ken Whisenhunt has dipped into his Steelers roots to try to put together a similar defense in Arizona with mixed results. Former Pittsburgh players Joey Porter and Clark Haggans have been brought in to increase the effectiveness of the 3-4 and, while Porter leads the team with three sacks, he hasn't played up to his big potential (and big mouth). He's not shy. In the middle, the Cards brought in Paris Lenon to take over inside next to Daryl Washington. Lenon is a solid tackler and Washington is the best run stuffer on the team. This is a talented, veteran group, but they are exploitable and shoulder much of the blame for the defensive woes the Cardinals have endured.
The secondary has been burned as well, allowing 11 touchdowns and letting opposing quarterbacks post a passer rating of 85.3. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has the lockdown ability to take on a team's best deep threat down the field and is the most impressive player on the defense. Second-year man Greg Toler took over the starting job from Bryant McFadden. Fourth-year players Trumaine McBride and Michael Adams provide depth in nickel and dime situations, but this is a risk-taking group that a veteran like Brett Favre can take advantage of. Just as they did at linebacker, the Cardinals have used free agency to shore up a poor safety position. Veteran Adrian Wilson has a pair of interceptions and former Colt Kerry Rhodes has scored two touchdowns on fumble returns and returned an interception 65 yards. They are playmakers that will need to be accounted for on deep pass plays. The team has some depth with former starter Matt Ware, Rashad Johnson (who was a part-time starter last year) and Hamza Abdullah, the brother of the Vikings' Husain Abdullah.
When one looks at the Cardinals, it is no surprise that the team has struggled in 2010. They have been unable to run the ball, have had a revolving door at quarterback, have allowed far too many big plays on defense and have the 31st-ranked offense and 27th-ranked defense. Complicating matters is that they have been outscored in their last three road games by a combined score of 104-27. If there is a team that the Vikings should be able to handle convincingly, it appears to be the Cardinals. Both teams have had a good run in recent years, but, if the Vikings are to compete for a playoff spot this year, this game has to be viewed in the "must win" category. Too many signs point to a double-digit win.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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