When I first glanced at the 2013 schedule, I became very excited for the Week 3 matchup between the New Orleans Saints and the Arizona Cardinals. I often dream about the battles between schemes, rather than teams.
Watching Rob Ryan—defensive coordinator for New Orleans—match wits with Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians will be worth its weight in gold. With two of the most creative coaches at their respective crafts, it's bound to be a Clash of the Titans scenario.
There couldn't have been a better roster for Arians to assume control over; the Cardinals have one of the most plentiful rosters with regard to talent in the NFL. The Cardinals may provide the toughest test to the Saints yet, but one I'm positive they can pass.
Ryan's multiple-scheme defense is designed to pressure quarterbacks.
Arians' vertical-pass scheme requires the quarterback to hold on to the ball until the receivers clear downfield.
Naturally, one would think the advantage would be in favor of the defense. I tend to think things might even out.
Arizona's quarterback, Carson Palmer, has been one of my favorite players since his time at the University of Southern California. At 6'5", 235 pounds, Palmer had all the tools to be the very best QB in the NFL.
His arm was virtually strong enough to throw a football through a brick wall. His accuracy, timing and mechanics were off the charts, which may have only been superseded by his moxie. He was simply the prototype franchise quarterback.
When the Cincinnati Bengals made Palmer the first overall selection in the 2003 draft, it was widely believed he would make them a contender for the next decade. And for a while, it seemed he would do just that.
But I'm here to warn you, Palmer can still sling it with the best of them.
When Palmer drops back to pass, he does so to two of the most imposing receivers in the league in Larry Fitzgerald (6'3", 218 lbs), and Michael Floyd (6'2", 220 lbs). Both guys have the ability to win 50-50 balls, break tackles and beat defensive backs deep. Receiver Andre Roberts is a pretty solid threat in his own right, with speed to burn.
Running back Rashard Mendenhall—who was a starter for Arians when he was a coordinator in Pittsburgh—is the perfect fit for the between-the-tackles scheme. At 5'10", 225 pounds, Mendenhall is a physical specimen who won't be brought down by one defender. The Saints must rally to the ball to corral this thoroughbred of a back.
The offensive line is pretty good moving forward in the run game, but might be the absolute worst when it comes to pass protection. This is where the chess match begins.
Left tackle Levi Brown is a human turnstile. He struggles with the speed rushes and counter moves alike. If matched up with Saints outside linebackers, Junior Galette or Martez Wilson, it may be a long day for the former first-round pick.
Here, Brown is matched up with St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn. Quinn has similar burst to Galette, Wilson and Saints' 5-technique Cameron Jordan. Ryan should make should make sure one of the defenders is matched up with Brown in pass situations at all times.
Right away, Quinn eats up the cushion, while Brown is slow to react. Brown's technique makes it even easier for the defender, as his feet are entirely too close together. With Palmer launching into one of his deep drops, Brown has very little room for error.
Brown doesn't have the physical attributes to compete with high-level rushers. Notice how he doesn't bend his knees and tries to operate from bending at his waist.
Notice how Palmer is just now starting to deliver the pass. Arizona's scheme will allow for plenty of opportunities for exotic blitzes and stunts alike. Ryan has to be salivating at the thought of a pocket passer like Palmer waiting for routes to clear—while being protected by a line like Arizona's.
What makes it even more compelling is Brown is the best lineman the Cardinals have.
The Cardinals' defense has impact players at every level. Defensive linemen Calais Campbell (6'8", 300 lbs), and Darnell Dockett (6'4", 290 lbs) form one of the most formidable duos of interior linemen in the league. Both are equally as good at stopping the run as they are rushing the passer.
With Saints guard Jahri Evans struggling mightily, you can guarantee the Cardinals will highlight those particular matchups. Saints quarterback Drew Brees—due to his lack of height—struggles with interior pressure more than pressure off the edge. Both Evans and fellow guard Ben Grubbs need to be operating at their very best this game.
In pass-rush situations, the Saints will notice a familiar foe.
Former Atlanta Falcons defensive end John Abraham will look to pick up where he left off the last time he saw the Saints in New Orleans. Abraham has been a nightmare for the Saints the past five seasons. He will be fired up to go against a familiar opponent, and usually rises to the occasion.
Tackles Zach Strief (pictured above) and Charles Brown will, undoubtedly, have their hands full when lined up across from Abraham.
The Cardinals do a great job of mixing up their fronts similar to the Saints. This puts pressure on their linebackers in a myriad of ways.
As you can see here, the Cardinals like to use even-front principles mixed in with their 3-4-based schematic approach. They employ Campbell and Dockett as 3-technique linemen who are free to shoot gaps on their way to the QB.
With the outside linebackers responsible for getting upfield, the Cardinals become susceptible to screen passes and draws. Expect plenty of running back Pierre Thomas if that's the case.
Due to the defense's aggressive front, the Cardinals play a lot of zone. Which in turn, forces linebackers Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley are counted on to be sure tacklers—who cover a lot of range.
The Saints can expect to see a lot of this on Sunday. The Cards lean toward Cover 6 in long-yardage situations. If they don't get the pressure they need, Brees will eat this alive. Brees is adept at finding soft spots in zones and is one of the best at leading receivers to the voided areas.
The Cardinals secondary contains two of the most exciting players in the NFL. Both should be very recognizable to fans of the "Black & Gold."
Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu were both star corners at Louisiana State University. Both possess speed, physicality and a flair for the dramatic. One mistake by Brees—or any other player for that matter—and either can turn it into points for the defense.
Peterson usually shadows the opposing team's best receiving threat, while Mathieu plays nickel corner and safety in sub-packages.
Both are dangerous threats on special teams, with Peterson even playing a little offense.
When the Cardinals travel to New Orleans to face the Saints this Sunday, a ton of talent will be on display for both teams. After laying waste to the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively, the Saints will look to continue their march toward the top.
If the offensive line can hold up, Brees may have a field day against predominately zone coverage. Conversely, if the secondary can cover long enough, the rush might be too much for the Cardinals to handle.
It'll be a great battle between two talented squads.
Usually matchups like this come down to who can adjust their game plan on the fly. The Saints have the edge in that department.
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