After a lackluster home showing against the Lions, the Arizona Cardinals travel east to face the Atlanta Falcons. Arizona and Atlanta have endured hellish seasons respectively. For fans of The Walking Dead television show or graphic novels, Atlanta is the major city where the story begins. For fans of the Cardinals, the walking dead is a phrase appropriate to refer to the 2018 season. The Cardinals hope to make the Atlanta home field their own sanctuary. Today we take a look at Sunday’s match-up between the Dirty Birds and the Red Birds, and figure out what it will take to avoid a post-apocalyptic scene at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Beef Up Security
Protecting against the undead is a lot like keeping the quarterback off the turf. The undead craves flesh, much in the same way the Falcons pass rush craves sacks on quarterback Josh Rosen. Arizona’s offensive line has struggled to keep the hordes away from their rookie quarterback. Rosen has started 10 games this season and the line has surrendered nearly three sacks a game during that stretch. The pressure has been consistent and is not conducive for a good learning experience for the rookie.
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The offense has shown signs of regression during that time. However, it is to be expected when the offensive line has just one player who started the regular season as a starter, center Mason Cole. Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich needs to utilize play-action and use max protection. Atlanta’s defense will undoubtedly attempt to stop the run. Taking advantage of that focus through play-action allows more time for receivers to get down the field and give Rosen just a bit more time to get through his reads. If the Cardinals offense intends to move the football, they will need an efficient Rosen. The best way to ensure that is to protect their investment and keep him in a clean pocket.
Move With a Purpose
The key to surviving the hordes is to avoid vulnerable positions. On the football field that means converting on first and second down. Coaches refer to this as staying on schedule. This allows offenses the convenience of having access to more of the playbook than what would be used on third and long situations. Arizona needs to make positive plays on early downs and not allow a talented Atlanta pass rush to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback.
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Leftwich needs to take risks against Atlanta. Throwing on early downs and veering away from tendencies helps keep the Falcons defense off-balance. To find the path of least resistance, Arizona must find new ways to attack the defense. Throughout the season the Cardinals have relied heavily on inside runs to the A gap on either side. Much like trying to push through a massive horde of the undead, things have been slow-moving and often to disastrous results. Using both Chase Edmonds and David Johnson on the field at the same time will create mismatches, especially if used in two receiver-one tight end sets.
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Go For the Head
Fighting zombies mean disabling the part of the body in charge of driving them forward, the brain. For the Falcons, their brain is quarterback Matt Ryan. Arizona’s defense must create havoc in the backfield and bring down Ryan. Similar to the offensive line woes of the Cardinals, Atlanta brings a group surrendering nearly three sacks a game. The Cardinals pass rush was nearly non-existent against the Lions, but this Falcons unit is a whole other level of poor. Atlanta has surrendered 38 sacks this season, good enough for 10th worst in the NFL. Atlanta’s offense remains talent rich and can put points on the scoreboard if Ryan is given time. The Falcons have the receiving talent in Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley to cause massive headaches for the secondary. They become non-factors if the offensive line is unable to maintain a clean pocket.
With Robert Nkemdiche out for the rest of the season, Arizona will need someone to step up on defense to help Chandler Jones in rushing the passer. Jones leads the team with 12 sacks this season, and with Nkemdiche out, no other Cardinals player has more than three sacks in 2018. Expect defensive coordinator Al Holcomb to dial-up pressure packages to take advantage of a weak Atlanta offensive line. Holcomb must take advantage of the focus paid to his best pass rusher and send defenders off the edge to find one on one match-up to Jones’ side. Consistent pressure on Ryan results in errant throws and opens the door for turnovers.
Ultimately this game will come down to Arizona’s offensive and defensive lines. The difference between Arizona’s victory in Green Bay and the loss to Detroit is akin to the difference between Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead zombies and George Romero’s original. Against the Packers, both lines fired off the football, were the aggressors and overwhelmed their opponent. When Detroit came to town, the lines were slow-moving and easily fooled. The Lions had a sense of security throughout the game. Against the Falcons, Arizona will look to be more Snyder and less Romero.
Prediction: Cardinals Lose, 24-13 The Cardinals have struggled to find any consistency on offense and took a step back last week. There is no reason to believe the hodge podge offensive line will be able to be effective against the Falcons. Arizona keeps it close for the first three quarters but eventually the Falcons pull away late.