Thursday, January 29, 2009

Scouting Report: Arizona Cardinals

On the Arizona side, all of the buzz has been focused on their offense, and for good reason. But let's give credit where credit is due. They only got this far because of their defensive performances against Atlanta, Carolina, and Philly.

The defense has been incredibly opportunistic, forcing turnovers and making big plays. The Cards defense has 7 sacks, 4 fumble recoveries, and 8 interceptions. The turning point for the Cardinals came in the Atlanta game when Antrel Rolle ripped the ball away from Matt Ryan and ran it in for a touchdown, giving Arizona the lead just after halftime. The Cardinals defense hasn't looked back since and has effectively blitzed, stunted, created pressure, and forced the issue with the opposing offense.

Possibly the biggest stat for the Arizona team is the difference in rushing margin. Arizona is not a running team, but in the playoffs when you need to kill clock, Arizona has been able to move the ball on the ground. Their opponents are averaging more yards per carry (4.1 to 3.3) but Arizona has almost twice the rushing attempts (100 to 57).

This stat directly correlates with the way Arizona's games have gone. They jumped out to leads in the Philadelphia and Carolina games, effectively negating the opposing teams run games, forcing them to put the ball in the air.

Arizona's secondary has playmakers in rookie corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, solid vet Roderick Hood. At the safety positions they boast the underrated (though he's getting more coverage as the playoffs go on) Adrian Wilson at strong safety and Antrel Rolle at free safety. In the last game the Steelers played the Cardinals, Wilson had a huge game by committing himself to the box to stop the run and coming up with an interception on a goal-line pass intended for Heath Miller. Note to Arians: don't use that play again.

Karlos Dansby anchors a solid linebacking corps that has been effective in blitz schemes throughout the playoffs. The big question in this game will be if an Arizona linebacker will be able to cover Heath Miller, who has already built four houses and a hotel between the hashes.

The Cardinals have a dangerous return tandem in Woodland Hills standout Steve Breaston and kick returner J.J. Arrington. Arrington has a return for a score this year and Breaston took a punt to the house against the Steelers in '07, which turned out to be the difference in the game.

This season, Arizona's special teams have been less than special. They were 30th in punt and kickoff coverage, giving up one touchdown in both areas. The Steelers return teams haven't been great, but they have turned it on in the post-season and this is an area that could be exploited.

On offense, the Cards boast one of the league's best passing games, with 3 recievers going over 1000 yards on the season. Pitt product Larry Fitzgerald, who finished second in the league in recieving yards during the regular season and has already broken Jerry Rice's postseason yardage record, is the go-to guy. Fitz catches everything around him and has a nose for the goal line. He has speed in space and can make defenders miss. This is going to be a tough draw for Ike Taylor, and Ryan Clark is going to have to be on his heels all game, as Fitz is always a threat over the top.

The rollercoaster season continues for Anquan Boldin, who started strong until he got knocked out of the game against the Jets by a vicious hit. Boldin was productive when he returned, but has recently drawn attention for being frustrated with not getting the ball enough. Boldin is a very good reciever who gets most of his yards via running after the catch on quick slant and flare routes. Some combination of Bryant McFadden, Willie Gay, and Deshea Townsend will likely be covering Boldin, leaving the slot reciever, the aforementioned Steve Breaston, in a favorable matchup.

Tight end Jerheme Urban is also a threat over the middle, and will demand the attention of the Steelers defense. Warner has 4 legit targets that can all take the Steelers apart, and the pass defense is going to have to play very well in space to shut them down.

In the backfield, Edgerrin James has been solid this playoff season, due to the fact that he hardly touched the ball during the regular season. Benched part way through the season in favor of the bruising rookie Tim Hightower. Hightower is a strong back, but if the Cardinals fall behind, this paragraph will become irrelevant.

The one flaw in Arizona's offensive armor is turnovers. As a team they were 7th in the league in giveaways with 30, an average of almost 2 per game. The Steelers were 18th with 25 giveaways. During the season Warner alone had 14 interceptions and 7 fumbles lost (11 total fumbles). In 2008, Warner's passer rating is 23 points better when his team is leading. Ironically, Roethlisberger's passer rating is 25 points better when the Steelers are trailing. However, this could just be a facet of how many close games we've been in.

Under pressure, Warner will turn the ball over, and we are going to have to get pressure with just bringing four or five. If we can get pressure with just the D-line + Harrison and/or Woodley as we have all year, we will be in for another great defensive performance. Warner is not a mobile quarterback, and this game matches up very similar to how the Colts game matched up (with 3 good recievers out the outside and an effecient but less-than-mobile quarterback).

Looking at the advantages:
Steelers defense vs. Arizona's rushing offense: Advantage Steelers
Steelers defense vs. Arizona's passing offense: Advantage Cardinals
Steelers coverage vs. Arizona's return teams: Advantage Cardinals
Steelers rushing offense vs. Arizona's run defense: Advantage Steelers
Steelers passing offense vs. Arizona's pass defense: Advantage Steelers
Steelers return teams vs. Arizona's coverage: Advantage Steelers

So there you have it: the Steelers have a slight advantage, but Arizona has the weapons on offense and playmakers on defense to keep them in the game. This game is going to be all about field position and turnovers. The key to defensive success will be to prevent Arizona from getting good starting field position and putting the defense in tight spots. If the Steelers jump out to an early lead, Arizona will abandon their running game, which is both dangerous and beneficial because it makes them one-dimensional and will allow LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison to just pin their ears back and go.

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