In the NFL, teams ideally try to build a balance between offensive and defensive effectiveness. If you look historically, if a team commits heavily to one side of the ball in free agency and the draft in a given year, the next year is typically focused on addressing the other side. However, teams have been successful by being dominant on one side or the other. Green Bay and New England statistically had the two worst defenses in the NFL last year, yet had the two best records. When the Baltimore Ravens won their Super Bowl championship, they did so with a team that didn't score an offensive touchdown the entire month of October – yet won all four of those games.
Upon examination of the Arizona Cardinals, the Vikings' opponent Sunday, they are like Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde when it comes to the disparity of offensive and defensive talent. What can't be argued, however, is that the Cardinals have been successful at winning football games. After starting 1-6 last year, the team made the unusual decision to switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense midstream and the success that followed was immediate. The team won seven of its last nine games to finish the year at 8-8 and won their first four games of the 2012 season, making believers in the Valley of the Sun.
However, they accomplished that with what many viewed as smoke and mirrors. It's hard to call a team that put together an 11-2 run over two seasons fraudulent, but it's hard to imagine how the Cardinals have enjoyed such success with a pedestrian offense that will have a hard time putting up enough points to make a significant playoff run.
The problem, quite simply, starts at quarterback. When the Cardinals made a trade prior to the 2011 season to acquire Philadelphia backup Kevin Kolb, the hope was that he would be the franchise quarterback the team was so sorely lacking since the retirement of Kurt Warner. Two years later, the shine is off that rose and Kolb has been booed as often as cheered by Cardinals fans. Part of the problem has been health issues. When Arizona started 1-6, Kolb started all those games before getting injured. He was replaced by John Skelton and, coincidence or not, that was when Arizona started winning. In the seven games Skelton started, the Cardinals went 5-2, creating an unexpected quarterback controversy.
Kolb and Skelton had one of those rare training camp/preseason competitions where both were on a level playing field and the opening-day starter would be determined by who played better. Skelton won the starting job, but it didn't last long. He was knocked out in the first game of the season and replaced by Kolb. Kolb held the job until last week when, after absorbing his 22nd sack in three weeks, he suffered a rib injury on a busted running play that will sideline him for several weeks. Skelton has the job back, but, with a passer rating of just 36.5, a completion percentage of just 42.1 percent, no touchdowns and two interceptions, there isn't a huge upside to his game. Even when the Cards were winning last year, he was more of a game manager than a guy who could put the team on his shoulders.
In such cases of quarterbacks alternating the job between them, the one thing that the team needs is a strong running game – something the Cardinals didn't have when their quarterbacks were healthy, much less now. Beanie Wells, who came into the NFL with injury red flags, has found it difficult to stay healthy and this year, too. He lasted just three games, rushing 29 times for 76 yards (a dismal 2.6-yard average) and a long run of just 10 yards. When he went down to injury and was placed on injured reserve with the potential to come back in late November, the onus fell to backup Ryan Williams. Williams, a second-round draft pick in 2011, missed the entire season due to injuries of his own. He didn't fare much better, averaging just 2.8 yards a carry as the featured back before suffering a shoulder injury that put him on the I.R. and ended his season earlier this month. The next man up is William Powell, an undrafted free agent in 2011, who, prior to last week, had three career rushes for nine yards. With that kind of drop-off in talent and experience, it often doesn't matter that the team has a Hall of Fame wide receiver in Larry Fitzgerald. Without a running game, a suspect offensive line and a game manager at QB, the odds of winning go down significantly.
So how do the Cardinals have a winning record? In a word – defense. The Cardinals are in the top 10 in almost every statistical category, which is truly impressive considering how often the Arizona offense gives the ball back to the opposition without sustaining long, time-consuming drives.
The team has talent at all three levels. Up front, the starting threesome of Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and Dan Williams has done an exceptional job of limiting opposing run games and creating blitzing lanes for the aggressive linebacker corps. The numbers prove that.
Of the 19 sacks the Cardinals defense has recorded this season, 15 of them have come from their linebackers – four apiece from Daryl Washington and O'Brien Schofield, three from Sam Acho, and two each from Paris Lenon and Quentin Groves. They are relentless in what they do and attack running lanes and the alleys created by the defensive front to get to quarterbacks. They don't receive a ton of recognition, but each of them is a role player that does his job extremely well, and all are good technicians at creating pressure on quarterbacks, making sacks and creating turnovers. The Vikings are preparing for an all-out blitz war from these guys and rightly so. Their linebackers are coming and it will be a huge challenge for the Vikings offensive line to pick them up and neutralize them.
On the back end of the defense, Arizona boasts one of the most influential playmakers at cornerback in Patrick Peterson. An electrifying talent who leads the team with three interceptions as well as being one of the most dangerous punt returners in the NFL, he can make the plays that change games. With veteran William Gay at the right cornerback and safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes, normally the secondary of the Cardinals matches up favorably with just about any foursome in the league. With Rhodes out because of injury, it will be interesting to see how that affects the situation.
If the Cardinals had a more high-powered offense, they would be one of the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. But, much like most NFL observers felt about the Vikings in 2009 before Brett Favre arrived, there wasn't the dynamic presence on offense that would make them legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
If the Vikings offense can be effective enough to score 24 points – something nobody has done this year against Arizona – the odds of winning will go up exponentially. But the Cardinals play games close to the vest with the expectation of their defense carrying them and their offense doing just enough to hold up its end of the bargain. Some see the Cardinals as a team that has too many deficiencies on offense to be successful, but, somehow, some way, they have managed to win 11 of their last 15 games. Given that alone, despite an anemic offense, the Vikings can't take Arizona lightly because those who have more times than not have paid the price – coming away from an Arizona game with a loss.
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.
Preview: Cardinals get it done with defense
Viking Update Top Stories
Harrison Smith: No reason for changeThe Minnesota Vikings’ perfect season hit a brick wall Sunday at Philadelphia, but safety Harrison Smith said the panic on the outside of Winter Park isn't being shared on the…
Viking UpdateYesterday at 2:44 PM
Munnerlyn likes Cutler’s risk-taking waysCaptain Munnerlyn likened Jay Cutler to Brett Favre, calling him a “gunslinger,” but Cutler was at his best when he conformed last year.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 7:32 AM
Did Vikings have bounty system?In a new book released recently, the claim is made that the Minnesota Vikings had a bounty system in place at the same time the Saints were eventually swept up in the Bountygate…
Viking UpdateYesterday at 7:25 AM
Fusco: O-line problems correctableAs players and coaches watched film of Sunday's loss to Philadelphia, more than a few them got an uneasy feeling. Not because the Eagles dominated them as much as it appeared, but…
Viking UpdateYesterday at 4:15 AM
Vikings sign 3 to practice squad, release 3The Minnesota Vikings shook up their practice squad on Tuesday, signing three – including an offensive lineman – and releasing three.
Viking UpdateTuesday at 1:34 PM