Cardinals vs. Saints: Breaking Down Arizona's Game Plan

Andrew Nordmeier@@AndrewNordmeierContributor IIISeptember 19, 2013

Drew Brees and the Saints host Arizona Sunday.
Drew Brees and the Saints host Arizona Sunday.Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Cardinals look for consecutive wins for the first time since last September when they take on the New Orleans Saints Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints are 2-0 with narrow wins over the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

New Orleans is usually known for its offense, and the Arizona defense will have to be up to a very tall task. Let’s take a look at what Arizona needs to do on offense and defense to steal a win.

Offensive Game Plan

1. Run, Rashard, Run!

The Cardinals will need a big game from running back Rashard Mendenhall. He’s been the lead back for Arizona in the early going and needs to produce. He hasn’t posted more than 70 yards in either game this season for the Cardinals. That’s okay. The way Mendenhall will have his biggest impact on the game will be keeping the clock moving.

Mendenhall has carried the ball 31 times in two games this season. If he gets his usual workload, Mendenhall should be able to eat several minutes off the clock. If the Arizona offense is on the field, Drew Brees isn’t.

Mendenhall has a better chance for success against a New Orleans defense that allowed the Buccaneers' Doug Martin to run all over it last week. Martin ran the ball 29 times for 144 yards in the losing effort. That’s an average of 4.96 yards per carry that Martin posted last week.

2. Decide Plan B in the Passing Game

Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald didn’t practice Wednesday with a hamstring injury. He's on this week’s injury report, according to Arizona Sports 620-AM.  

He wasn’t on the field late in the game when Arizona drove down the field for the game-winning touchdown from Mendenhall.

More importantly, who is the second option for quarterback Carson Palmer? Andre Roberts leads the team with 11 receptions and 133 yards. Michael Floyd has registered seven catches for 104 yards. Neither receiver has a touchdown catch yet this season.

Tight end Rob Housler is back in practice this week after missing the first two games with an ankle injury, according to Darren Urban of the Cardinals’ official team website. Housler could make his season debut and add a new wrinkle to the Arizona offense.

The options are there for Palmer, but someone needs to step up. Roberts drew a key pass interference penalty on the game-winning drive. Arizona needs receivers who can make the catches and move the team downfield that way instead of by penalty.

3.The Offensive Line Needs Another Solid Game

The Arizona offensive line allowed only one sack to the Detroit Lions last week. That’s a vast improvement over a team that would consistently allow two or three sacks per game.

Head coach Bruce Arians told members of the New Orleans media that the Saints defensive line is very impressive. Listen to the conference call on the Saints website here

The offensive line has to give Palmer time to throw. He may be throwing the ball more than 40 times if Arizona falls behind to New Orleans. The line must protect him or the Cardinals' chances of winning are greatly diminished. 

Defensive Game Plan

1. Arizona Needs to Pressure Drew Brees

The Arizona offensive line has recorded one sack in two games, and that won’t cut it. Brees has thrown for more than 300 yards in each of his last seven games. Without pressure, it should become eight in a row for Brees.

As we’ll see below, Brees keeps having a solid pocket to throw from. Arizona needs to disrupt that pocket in order to have success.

2. The Cardinals Have to Stop Tight End Jimmy Graham

Jimmy Graham is going to be a monster for Arizona to stop. Last week, he tore through Tampa Bay for 10 catches, 179 yards and a touchdown. He could do the same this week. Arizona was victimized already in Week 1 by tight end Jared Cook of the St. Louis Rams to the tune of seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns. We'll break it down below. 

3. Arizona Has to Be Ready for Shifts at the Line of Scrimmage

As you’ll see in the screen grabs below, the Saints like to send players in motion in different directions before the snap. This can make it very difficult for the Cardinals to keep their defensive assignments correct. It will lead to mismatches and the Saints will take advantage of it.

In the screen grab above, the Saints will undergo a few shifts and radically change their pre-snap look. 

Wide receiver Lance Moore (red arrow) goes in motion from right to left. After he sets, Graham (yellow circle) breaks off the end of the line and lines up outside of the numbers. Running back Darren Sproles (white box) shifts from the left of the quarterback to the right of the quarterback. 

After the snap, Graham runs the route along the yellow line, dipping inside the numbers at midfield. This dip fools Tampa defensive back Ahmad Black (pink circle), and Graham breaks free for a 19-yard reception. Meanwhile, Sproles goes out for a short pass. The three wide receivers on the bottom of the screen all stay within five yards from the line of scrimmage (blue box). 

See, it is confusing and difficult to follow. Communication will be vital to avoid blown coverage.

In these next two images, we'll break down a 56-yard touchdown catch that Graham had last week. 

This has the look and feel of a run play. New Orleans has two tight ends on the left of the formation with Graham highlighted in the yellow circle. The Saints have one receiver on each side, and running back Mark Ingram (white circle) is alone behind Brees. Tampa Bay is lined up in a 3-4 defense and looks to have this covered if it happens to be a play-action pass. 

But it doesn't. Tampa crumbles in coverage, and Graham makes it pay. 

Brees has a nice pocket with time to throw (white arc). Ingram (yellow circle) is open for a short pass but Graham is open deep and has his hand up. 

Three Tampa defenders (red box) are all frozen and looking in the backfield. The cornerback in the red box at the bottom of the screen is also caught gazing in the direction of Drew Brees. The only defender looking at Graham is the defender in the red circle and is about 20 yards away. 

The key takeaway from this is that the Arizona defense needs to make sure it can account for everyone on each play. If it gets caught looking the wrong way, it will come back to haunt it. 

The Cardinals can beat the Saints this week. If they follow the plan laid out here, they can improve to 2-1. The only question is whether they can execute it Sunday. 


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