There was a time when Kurt Warner was the most feared quarterback in the league. A decade ago, he was introduced to the NFL world and brought the Greatest Show on Turf to life in St. Louis. Almost 10 years later, Warner is again one of the most feared quarterbacks in the league.
As the Vikings prepare to meet the Cardinals Sunday looking to maintain their one-game lead in the NFC North, perhaps the biggest obstacle standing between them and a victory is Warner.
No quarterback in the league has thrown or completed more passes that Warner and only Drew Brees has thrown for more yards. Of every eight plays the Cardinals run, five are passes. They often abandon the run completely for long stretches, making the passing game almost their entire offense.
As a result, the onus will be on Vikings linebackers Chad Greenway and Ben Leber to make plays. With the Vikings likely to use a fifth defensive back on more plays than not, the linebackers will have a lot of assignments and ground to cover because they expect the ball to be in the air a lot.
"There are people who believe that they're just going to come at pass all day long," Greenway said. "There's nothing in the numbers that dispute that theory. They have a lot of playmakers and they make a lot of big plays down the field. They may run a little bit, but we know what they want to do."
Leber said the Cardinals passing attack is different from most in that they have three legitimate go-to receivers. If Larry Fitzgerald is covered, Anquan Boldin is an option. If both are covered, Steve Breaston becomes a big-play threat. Fitzgerald and Boldin have already each surpassed 1,000 yards receiving and are on pace to catch 100 passes. Breaston isn't far behind and could have 1,000 yards and 80 or more catches before all is said and done.
Their ability to spread the ball around and make plays both short and deep makes the Cardinals a dangerous opponent for the Vikings.
"It's a chance for them to make plays all across the board," Leber said of Arizona's pass-happy style. "They're going to come out and do what they do best and that's pass the ball. The have a bunch of threats that can get downfield and make plays. It's going to be tough on us because they have a lot of weapons."
With so much passing expected, it is likely the Vikings will remove the middle linebacker from a lot of packages and slide Leber inside with an extra corner or safety on the outside. If the Vikings are to contain the potent Arizona offense, it may be on the shoulders of Leber and Greenway to take away throwing lanes and cover backs and tight ends.
"I'm sure we'll play a lot of dime-2 coverage," Greenway said. "We'll have an extra defensive back in on a lot of plays. For us linebackers, it will be a challenge. There will be a lot of coverage responsibilities and open field to cover."
In many ways, Warner reminds the Vikings of Brett Favre. When he's in a groove, he can slice and dice an opposing defense. But, when pressured early and often, he often resorts to throwing risky passes that can turn the game around. Warner has a propensity for having multiple interceptions in games in which he feels a lot of pressure and the Vikings plan to give him plenty of heat Sunday.
"No quarterback likes to get hit in the mouth," Leber said. "It wears on them if you did it enough and it forces them to make quick decisions. He reminds me a lot of Favre. When he's a on a roll, he is as good as it gets. If you get him off his game, he will make errant throws that hopefully we can take back for six points."
While the Vikings have a lot of weapons to contain, it seems clear that, as the trigger-man, Warner is the one that will be the priority. If the Vikings can rattle the wily veteran, having talents like Fitzgerald, Boldin and Breaston can be negated in the process.
"Stopping Warner is going to be the key," Greenway said. "A lot of that will come down to the front four getting pressure and that hasn't been a problem this year. If we can do that and force him to throw quickly, it will give the DBs and linebackers a chance to make plays and that's what we'll need to win on the road."
Linebackers ready for pass-happy action
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