In a typical NFL season, you have a pretty good idea of a team's identity. Unfortunately for the Vikings, the Arizona Cardinals are not one of those teams. Through 13 games, they have already wrapped up a division title with a record of 8-5, they have the second-rated offense in the league and seventh-rated defense.
But, are the Cardinals truly one of the top teams in the NFL? Against teams with a record below .500, the Cardinals are 6-0. Against teams with records above .500, they have a record of 2-5. Of those two, both were at home, one of them was against Miami, which was still feeling its way with Chad Pennington as its starting quarterback in Week 2. What should be made of that? Clearly, the Cardinals are a team that beats those teams that they should. But, as everyone knows, the Vikings aren't below .500 and the last three teams with records above .500 – Carolina, the Giants and Philadelphia – have all beaten Arizona.
Much of the credit for the Cardinals' ability to put up big points has to go to Kurt Warner. Viewed as all but done when he was sent packing by the Giants, Warner can make a legitimate case to be league MVP. The Cards have scored 29 or more points in all six of their home games this season and Warner is a big reason. Through 13 games, Warner has already topped 500 passes and 4,000 yards passing. The big concern about Warner has always been his health – he has suffered numerous concussions that constantly have teams concerned that the next one will be his last one. But, for the first time in a long time, he has been the starter all season and made Matt Leinart an afterthought.
A case can be made that no quarterback has been better than Warner this year. He has completed 69 percent of his passes with 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for a passer rating of 99.1. The Cardinals are one of the few teams to be able to completely abandon the run by choice because not many teams can contain their passing game. The key to his success has been that he has been sacked just 20 times. When given time, Warner can be a surgeon – carving up defenses with quick slants or accurate bombs 50 yards downfield. The teams that have limited him have been able to provide a pass rush. It will be on the shoulders of the Vikings' defensive front to put pressure on Warner. If he is afforded time in the pocket, it could be a long day for the Vikings defense.
One of the continuing problems the Cardinals face is a lack of a consistent running game. While the team has thrown more than 500 passes this season, they have rushed just 299 times and are dead last in the league in rushing yards this season in the NFL. One of the reasons they have rushed so infrequently is that nobody has been very effective. Veteran Edgerrin James still leads the team with 395 rushing yards on 115 carries – just a 3.4-yard average. Despite not having an injury that the team has discussed, James has been benched in favor of rookie Tim Hightower. While Hightower is an adept goal-line runner – he has 10 touchdowns on the season – he has averaged just 2.9 yards a carry. Against the Williams Wall, those numbers likely won't improve on Sunday. Also is the mix is veteran J.J. Arrington. A former high draft pick, Arrington has never lived up to his billing and has been reduced to little more than a third-down back. He has 28 carries for 155 yards (mostly on third down) and has 20 catches out of the backfield. If the Vikings can stop the running game, the Cardinals will be forced to pass, but as many already know, that isn't a problem for this offense.
At wide receiver, the Cardinals have the best 1-2 punch in the league in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. It's hard to say which is the better receiver because they're both lethal. Fitzgerald has 83 catches for 1,148 yards and nine touchdowns. Not to be outdone, Boldin, despite missing time with broken bones in his face, has caught 83 passes for 1,004 yards and 11 touchdowns. Teams can't double-cover both and Warner is adept at identifying the man in single coverage. If teams roll both safeties over on Fitzgerald and Boldin, there's always Steve Breaston. Technically a third receiver, Breaston has 67 catches for 873 yards – totals that would qualify as the No. 1 receiver on 20 of the 31 other NFL teams. Also in the mix is Jerheme Urban, who, as the No. 4 receiver, has caught 25 passes for 287 yards. With all the passing that is done, tight end remains a relative non-factor. Of the four tight ends on the roster – Leonard Pope, Jerame Tuman, Steven Spach and Ben Patrick – none has caught more than eight passes and the four have combined for just 21 receptions and no touchdowns. They are little more than glorified blockers used to protect Warner, so they shouldn't be much of a factor, if any, on Sunday.
The Cardinals offensive line has been one of the biggest improvements over previous years. While still not adept at run blocking, the pass protection has been outstanding – allowing just 20 sacks on 525 pass attempts. To put that in perspective, the Vikings quarterbacks have been sacked 35 times on 408 pass attempts. The best part for Cardinals fans is that they have a combination of veterans and youth. The experience is on the left side with eighth-year pro Mike Gandy at tackle and six-year veteran Reggie Wells at left guard. In the middle is second-year pro and first-year starter Lyle Sendlein, third-year vet Deuce Lutui at right guard and former first-rounder Levi Brown at right tackle. If this group is vulnerable, it would be up the middle, where the news that Pat Williams and Kevin Williams will both be available Sunday has to be viewed as a bad sign for the Cards. Look for the middle of the Vikings defensive line to try to collapse the pocket and take advantage of the relative inexperience in the middle.
While the Cardinals offense has been consistently high-octane, their defense has consistently been one of the worst in the league. From a numbers perspective, they have been scorched badly at times – giving up 37 points to the Giants, 48 to the Eagles and 56 to the Jets. They can get burned, but, through 13 games, have the 10th-ranked defense – 12th vs. the run and 19th vs. the pass. The Cardinals have devoted a lot of time and money to improve defensively and it would seem as though, for the most part, that investment has been warranted.
Up front, the Cardinals don't have great pass rushers or consistent run stoppers, but the whole seems to be bigger than the sum of its parts. The Cardinals came into the minicamps and OTAs with a 3-4 defense, but scrapped that for a more conventional 4-3 defense. The key to the switch was moving Darnell Dockett from the outside to the inside and bringing in 12-year veteran Bryan Robinson at nose tackle. Second-round rookie Calais Campbell and third-year pro Gabe Watson provide depth in the middle. Alan Branch has been buried on the depth chart as a borderline bust in his second season. Expected by many to a high- to mid-first round pick, Branch was the first pick of the second round and hasn't come close to living up to expectations, as injuries and ineffectiveness have combined to derail the early portion of his career. On the outside, Bertrand Berry, one of the more dynamic defenders for the Cardinals, has been slowed with injuries throughout his career. He has been forced to be a part-time pass rusher, but leads the Cardinals with five sacks. The starters are both five-year veterans – Antonio Smith and Travis LaBoy. Smith is a solid playmaker who is acknowledged as an on-field and locker room leader, while LaBoy, a free agent signee from Tennessee in the offseason, has stepped into being one of the more consistent pass rushers on the team. The rotation is enhanced by Berry and rookie Kenny Iwebema. Their ability to pressure passers has been critical to the team success this year and will have a big role in determining who wins the game.
The Cardinals don't have a top-end linebacker corps. Sixth-year middle linebacker Gerald Hayes isn't a household name to most casual fans, but he has been a rock in the middle of the Cardinals defense. A team captain, he can chase plays down to the sideline and rarely lets anyone get away from him once he gets his hands on them. On the outside, the Cardinals have a pair of solid veterans in Karlos Dansby and Chike Okeafor. Dansby is a tackling machine with excellent range, as well as having the ability to cover backs and tight ends in coverage. Okeafor is a 10-year veteran who missed all of the 2007 season with a torn biceps. In 2006, he was viewed as the defensive MVP of the Cardinals and has returned to form this season. The team has some depth in OLB Clark Haggans and veteran Monty Beisel on the inside, but the Cards are pretty dependent on the top three to provide big plays. They will be in charge of making sure Adrian Peterson doesn't break off a long run or Tarvaris Jackson flees the pocket, making their roles vital in Arizona's hopes of containing the Vikings offense.
The Cardinals have been solid in terms of yardage allow through the air, but their clear defensive Achilles heel has been the secondary. Arizona has thrown 25 touchdown passes, but the Cardinals defense has allowed 27 passing TDs and have been abused at times. The new star of the secondary is first-round rookie Antonio Rodgers-Cromartie. He has three interceptions and had a 99-yard pick six earlier in the season. He is strong in man coverage and has the speed to blanket receivers deep downfield. However, he is aggressive and is subject to getting burned with double moves. On the left side, Roderick Hood, who was a nickel back with the Eagles, has proved to be a physical, solid starter for the Cardinals. The team has a pair of veterans at safety that could play critical roles Sunday – Adrian Wilson and Antrel Rolle. Wilson is a playmaker that, when healthy, can make as big an impact as any defender on the team. Rolle is a converted cornerback who doesn't have the big hitting power of pure safeties, but has good speed and can make plays covering over the top. Nine-year veteran and former Viking Ralph Brown provides depth as the nickel back.
The Cardinals are a team that has dominated at home this season – winning five of six – and will be looking to set a tone with a win over a playoff contender. However, the only reason they're not in contention for a first-round bye is that they have folded, especially recently, when playing top-tier teams. That could play well for the Vikings, who need a win Sunday to further cement their chances of bringing home their first division title since 2000.
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