Red-hot Arizona (7-4) comes into Philadelphia this weekend seeking to solidify its NFC Playoff eligibility quest and knock the Eagles (6-5) the heck out of the wild card race…
Most of the Cardinals' headlines have gone to their offense lately, especially to QB Carson Palmer, who has once again reinvented himself as the clever assassin of modern defenses.
But the fact evident to me is, the Cardinals are winning on defense.
And ouch, that hurts to say, because guess who Arizona's defensive coordinator is? None other than our own alumnus Todd Bowles, who basically got run out of Philly on a rail after the debacle of defensive disability that followed his replacement of Juan Castillo in the dying last gasps of the Andy Reid era.
So it's basically going to be a chess match between Bowles and the Chippah…
Add Andrew Luck to the list of elite quarterbacks who have looked anything but elite against the Arizona Cardinals in a 40-11 loss this past Sunday afternoon. Like Cam Newton and Matt Ryan before him, Luck struggled at University of Phoenix Stadium Sunday, completing just 20-of-39 passes for 163 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The Indianapolis Colts quarterback finished with his worst completion percentage, yards per attempt and QB rating of the season.
Todd Bowles is on to something.
"I give all of the credit to (defensive coordinator) Todd (Bowles)", said head coach Bruce Arians yesterday.
"I didn't even talk to Todd, other than personnel, what guys can and can't do. Not a bit about scheme or anything like that. Todd and the defensive staff did a great job [against the Colts].."
It's become a theme this season, and especially so during the Cardinals' four-game win streak.
With their performance Sunday, the Cardinals are now allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 59 percent of their passes for 235.8 yards per game. Their 15 interceptions are tied for third in the NFL, and the rating of 77.8 that quarterbacks are posting against them ranks eighth.
"No question," safety Tyrann Mathieu said of the defense taking pride in shutting down some of the game's best passers. "The secondary, we take pride in that. We put it on our shoulders when, obviously, most teams can't run the football on us. "
"So when it's time to pass the ball, the secondary, we're licking our lips; we're chomping our teeth; we're definitely trying to get after the football."
That's a big part of it— when you can't run on the Cardinals' front seven, it gets a little difficult to run play-action in your passing game and delay or keep their monster rush guys off your QB.
Such a monster is that daggone Darnell Dockett— that guy is still playing DE after 10 years in the league, and he's still messing up well-designed offensive plays with his sheer athleticism.
That guy bugs me way more than Carson Palmer.
He's 32 years old now, but still 6-4, 290 and crazy quick like a cat.
He is determined to mess up Nick Foles' timing in the backfield. He'll switch sides just to annoy Jason Peters or Lane Johnson at tackle— but he'll probably pick on the rookie Johnson moreso.
Dockett can stop the run and he can pressure the passer. And he will get his arms up to deflect a pass when you least expect it. he has 4.5 sacks so far this year. That doesn't even begin to account for the pressures and hurries he gets.
Dockett is a Florida State guy, by the way. But he was born and raised right down the road in Burtonsville, Maryland. I guess that's why it has become personal for me.
In the past three games, Carson Palmer has averaged 325 passing yards with six touchdown passes and only one interception. BUT—he has been sacked nine times in those three games, so he's still getting hit, which continues to be a problem for the Cards. That's the biggest opening on defense for the Eagles. That's where the Cardinals are somewhat vulnerable— on pass pro. If we can match pressure for pressure on defense—and that's a big "if"— the Eagles have the athletic ability on their own offense to compensate for whatever points Palmer manages to put up on the board.
So in my dream scenario, the game boils down to one final defensive stand… only problem is, my dream hasn't ended yet to reveal who is the last team standing…
I keep seeing the image of that darn Darnell Dockett in my dream of what the final series of downs will look like for the Eagles…
Dockett's not the only problem for the Eagles offense.
The Red Birds rank fourth in the NFL in rushing defense (88.2 YPG) and fifth in sacks (23). Linebacker Karlos Dansby has played like a Pro Bowler, leading the team in tackles (71) by a wide margin. He's also added three sacks. Cornerback Patrick Peterson is playing at an All-Pro level again with three interceptions and 21 tackles. Daryl Washington, who was suspended for the first four games, is starting to regain his dominant form. Dockett and Calais Campbell pace Arizona with four sacks each while rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu is a playmaker – he was named NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month of October. No one wants to face this defensive unit right now.
And that doesn't even mention the Honey Badger.
Likewise, don't just focus on that carpet-bagger Carson Palmer on offense.
Rookie tailback Andre Ellington has been the surprise of the season so far. Drafted in the sixth round, the Clemson product had a breakout game against the Falcons on Oct. 27 with 154 yards on 15 carries and a sensational 80-yard scoring run. He looks like a future star. Quarterback Carson Palmer has been up and down – he has 16 touchdown passes but 15 interceptions, the second most in the league. He has to be protected at all costs. He has no mobility. Larry Fitzgerald has been hampered by hamstring issues most of the season but still has eight TD catches, four more than last season. Michael Floyd (49-761-3 TD) has continued to make progress in his second NFL campaign. Tight end Rob Housler (28-313-1 TD) has been disappointing once again. Veteran Rashard Mendenhall has scored five rushing touchdowns but is averaging just 3.1 yards per carry.
Arizona's special teams have been solid but not overly "special". Jay Feely has connected on 22 of 24 field goal attempts, including a 52-yarder. The Michigan product looks as good as ever at 37 years of age. Punter Dave Zastudil has enjoyed a good campaign, averaging 45.1 yards per boot, but he was even better last season. The kickoff and punt coverage units have been good if not spectacular. No one has distinguished themselves returning punts or kickoffs to date. When is Peterson, who had four punt returns for a TD in 2011, finally going to break one to paydirt again?
So as good as the Cardinals are and as much as they have improved over the past few drafts and FA signings, there are openings and tendencies in their program which can be exploited. I'm interested in seeing if and how the Eagles game plan can find all the seams necessary to rip apart the Cardinals' pretty new robe.