Preview: Razing Arizona?

The Cardinals have been about as inconsistent as any team this year, with a passing game that comes and goes and a defense that is big-time or bust. As Adrian Peterson puts it, it could be famine, famine, feast for the Vikings.

In many ways, for the second straight week, the Vikings face a team that is in a strikingly similar position when they host the Arizona Cardinals at Mall of America Field at noon Sunday. Just as Kansas City last week was a matchup against a winless team that came into the season with legitimate playoff aspirations, the Vikings face an Arizona team in dire need of a win – and a team that, similar to the Vikings, can make a legitimate contention that with a bounce or two of the ball, they could be 3-1 or 4-0.

The Cardinals come into Sunday's game with a record of 1-3, but it's how they got to 1-3 the has the players, coaches and fans in Arizona confused and frustrated. After winning their home opener 28-21 over Carolina, the Cardinals went on the road and had chances late to beat both the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks. Instead, they lost 22-21 to the Redskins and 13-10 to Seattle. Last week at home against a pretty good New York Giants team, the Cardinals lost 31-27. They have lost three straight games, but they have come by a combined eight points – meaning that every dropped pass on offense or missed interception on defense has been magnified.

Like the Vikings, the Cardinals have their share of stars on both sides of the ball – playmakers that are capable of turning a game around. If there has been a surprise on the Arizona offense, it has been injury-prone running back Beanie Wells. A power runner prone to breaking down, if he ever stays healthy, Wells could be a big-time player. He has prototype size – 6-2, 230 – and surprising speed, but injuries have slowed his career in his first two seasons. He has already missed one game due to injury and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game, but Wells has been incredibly consistent and productive in his first three games. He has rushed 59 times (20 carries a game) for 321 yards (107 yards a game) and five touchdowns – leading all running backs in touchdowns despite playing one fewer game. His 5.4-yard average is almost a full yard more than Adrian Peterson. Given the recent struggles of quarterback Kevin Kolb, Wells will likely be called on to carry the ball 20 times Sunday, making it imperative that the Vikings throttle the run and force Arizona to pass.

Acquired in trade shortly after the lockout ended in July, Kolb came out blazing against Carolina, throwing for more than 300 yards and leading the team to victory. Since then, his production and efficiency have dropped off with each passing game. Instead of getting more productive and efficient as he gets more comfortable with the Cardinals offense, he has become more erratic and has actually regressed. However, he has thrown for 1,049 yards and five touchdowns in his first four games and has the ability to do a lot of damage when given time. That has been a problem, however, since Kolb has been sacked 12 times and has been forced to run for his life on just as many plays, either scrambling away or throwing passes away when out of the pocket. Given the increased Vikings pass rush, expect Jared Allen and Brian Robison to try to flush Kolb out and not let him get comfortable in the pocket.

If there is a consistency to the Cardinals offense, it has been the production of wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. A native of the Twin Cities, Fitzgerald is well documented as being a ball boy with the Vikings and amazing Randy Moss and Cris Carter with his uncanny ball skills. Nothing has changed. He not only has caught 90 or more passes in his last five full seasons, he has topped 1,400 yards three times in that span. Despite losing his complementary receivers – Anquan Boldin prior to the 2010 season and Steve Breaston after the 2010 season – Fitzgerald still finds a way to make a big impact despite getting an inordinate amount of double coverage. He has caught 23 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns and is again on pace for 90-plus catches and more than 1,400 yards. Two of his primary complementary targets – wide receiver Early Doucet and tight end Todd Heap – are both dinged up, so it's no secret the Cardinals will be trying to force the ball into Fitzgerald. The extent to which the Vikings can limit him will go a long way to razing Arizona.

The Cardinals defense has been up and down like a roller coaster, looking oppressive at times, but routinely being scorched for big plays. The team has 10 sacks, but they have been shared by nine players. As a frame of reference, the Vikings have 12 sacks, but they have been made by just four players. That stat, perhaps more than any other, has been the story of the 2011 season for the Arizona defense. Of the nine players that have been credited with sacks, three are defensive linemen (DE Calais Campbell and DTs Darnell Dockett and David Carter), four have been linebackers (Joey Porter, Paris Lenon, Daryl Washington and O'Brien Schofield) and two have been defensive backs (safety Kerry Rhodes and CB Richard Marshall).

The fact that Rhodes (a safety) is second on the team with two sacks, as well as the high number of different players from different positions to get in the sack column speaks to their defensive style. The Cardinals blitz a lot and they bring blitzes from everywhere. They have chosen a "live by the sword, die by the sword" defensive mindset that is a risk-reward style. Thanks to the rush pressure, the Cardinals have four interceptions and have forced three fumbles. On the flip side, they have averaged allow 301 yards a game to opposing quarterbacks and have allowed more pass plays of 20 or more yards than any team in the league. With a Vikings offense struggling to go vertical, the number of times the Cardinals leave their cornerbacks – rookie Patrick Peterson and second-year free agent A.J. Jefferson – on an island makes them ripe to get burned.

The breakdowns in the passing game have tended to negate the improvement in the Cardinals run defense. Teams have tried to run on Arizona, rushing 116 times (29 times a game), but have averaged just 3.6 yards a carry – primarily because they haven't allowed a run of more than 23 yards all season. They have done so against run-first offenses in Carolina, Washington, New York and Seattle, so they will likely be packing the box against Adrian Peterson, looking to keep him from breaking a long run and forcing the passing game to beat them.

The Cardinals are a risk-taking team. At times, that strategy works (see New Orleans and Dallas). But when it doesn't work, the offense can become turnover prone and the defense can become big-play prone. That has happened to Arizona in all four of its game. Fans shouldn't overlook the Cardinals – they have lost both of their road games, but by a total of just four points. If they can stay close with the Vikings heading into the fourth quarter, they won't be the pushover so many expect them to be.


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.



Viking Update Top Stories

\r\n\r\n","mobileBody":" In many ways, for the second straight week, the Vikings face a team that is in a strikingly similar position when they host the Arizona Cardinals at Mall of America Field at noon Sunday. Just as Kansas City last week was a matchup against a winless team that came into the season with legitimate playoff aspirations, the Vikings face an Arizona team in dire need of a win – and a team that, similar to the Vikings, can make a legitimate contention that with a bounce or two of the ball, they could be 3-1 or 4-0. The Cardinals come into Sunday's game with a record of 1-3, but it's how they got to 1-3 the has the players, coaches and fans in Arizona confused and frustrated. After winning their home opener 28-21 over Carolina, the Cardinals went on the road and had chances late to beat both the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks. Instead, they lost 22-21 to the Redskins and 13-10 to Seattle. Last week at home against a pretty good New York Giants team, the Cardinals lost 31-27. They have lost three straight games, but they have come by a combined eight points – meaning that every dropped pass on offense or missed interception on defense has been magnified. Like the Vikings, the Cardinals have their share of stars on both sides of the ball – playmakers that are capable of turning a game around. If there has been a surprise on the Arizona offense, it has been injury-prone running back Beanie Wells. A power runner prone to breaking down, if he ever stays healthy, Wells could be a big-time player. He has prototype size – 6-2, 230 – and surprising speed, but injuries have slowed his career in his first two seasons. He has already missed one game due to injury and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game, but Wells has been incredibly consistent and productive in his first three games. He has rushed 59 times (20 carries a game) for 321 yards (107 yards a game) and five touchdowns – leading all running backs in touchdowns despite playing one fewer game. His 5.4-yard average is almost a full yard more than Adrian Peterson. Given the recent struggles of quarterback Kevin Kolb, Wells will likely be called on to carry the ball 20 times Sunday, making it imperative that the Vikings throttle the run and force Arizona to pass. Acquired in trade shortly after the lockout ended in July, Kolb came out blazing against Carolina, throwing for more than 300 yards and leading the team to victory. Since then, his production and efficiency have dropped off with each passing game. Instead of getting more productive and efficient as he gets more comfortable with the Cardinals offense, he has become more erratic and has actually regressed. However, he has thrown for 1,049 yards and five touchdowns in his first four games and has the ability to do a lot of damage when given time. That has been a problem, however, since Kolb has been sacked 12 times and has been forced to run for his life on just as many plays, either scrambling away or throwing passes away when out of the pocket. Given the increased Vikings pass rush, expect Jared Allen and Brian Robison to try to flush Kolb out and not let him get comfortable in the pocket. If there is a consistency to the Cardinals offense, it has been the production of wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. A native of the Twin Cities, Fitzgerald is well documented as being a ball boy with the Vikings and amazing Randy Moss and Cris Carter with his uncanny ball skills. Nothing has changed. He not only has caught 90 or more passes in his last five full seasons, he has topped 1,400 yards three times in that span. Despite losing his complementary receivers – Anquan Boldin prior to the 2010 season and Steve Breaston after the 2010 season – Fitzgerald still finds a way to make a big impact despite getting an inordinate amount of double coverage. He has caught 23 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns and is again on pace for 90-plus catches and more than 1,400 yards. Two of his primary complementary targets – wide receiver Early Doucet and tight end Todd Heap – are both dinged up, so it's no secret the Cardinals will be trying to force the ball into Fitzgerald. The extent to which the Vikings can limit him will go a long way to razing Arizona. The Cardinals defense has been up and down like a roller coaster, looking oppressive at times, but routinely being scorched for big plays. The team has 10 sacks, but they have been shared by nine players. As a frame of reference, the Vikings have 12 sacks, but they have been made by just four players. That stat, perhaps more than any other, has been the story of the 2011 season for the Arizona defense. Of the nine players that have been credited with sacks, three are defensive linemen (DE Calais Campbell and DTs Darnell Dockett and David Carter), four have been linebackers (Joey Porter, Paris Lenon, Daryl Washington and O'Brien Schofield) and two have been defensive backs (safety Kerry Rhodes and CB Richard Marshall). The fact that Rhodes (a safety) is second on the team with two sacks, as well as the high number of different players from different positions to get in the sack column speaks to their defensive style. The Cardinals blitz a lot and they bring blitzes from everywhere. They have chosen a \"live by the sword, die by the sword\" defensive mindset that is a risk-reward style. Thanks to the rush pressure, the Cardinals have four interceptions and have forced three fumbles. On the flip side, they have averaged allow 301 yards a game to opposing quarterbacks and have allowed more pass plays of 20 or more yards than any team in the league. With a Vikings offense struggling to go vertical, the number of times the Cardinals leave their cornerbacks – rookie Patrick Peterson and second-year free agent A.J. Jefferson – on an island makes them ripe to get burned. The breakdowns in the passing game have tended to negate the improvement in the Cardinals run defense. Teams have tried to run on Arizona, rushing 116 times (29 times a game), but have averaged just 3.6 yards a carry – primarily because they haven't allowed a run of more than 23 yards all season. They have done so against run-first offenses in Carolina, Washington, New York and Seattle, so they will likely be packing the box against Adrian Peterson, looking to keep him from breaking a long run and forcing the passing game to beat them. The Cardinals are a risk-taking team. At times, that strategy works (see New Orleans and Dallas). But when it doesn't work, the offense can become turnover prone and the defense can become big-play prone. That has happened to Arizona in all four of its game. Fans shouldn't overlook the Cardinals – they have lost both of their road games, but by a total of just four points. If they can stay close with the Vikings heading into the fourth quarter, they won't be the pushover so many expect them to be. 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