The Arizona Cardinals roll into Landover off a home victory against the Panthers where they were not the storyline: they were merely the footnote that beat Cam Newton in his exciting debut.
The 2010 Cardinals were not a good football team. They did not have a quarterback they could believe in. Larry Fitzgerald had a poor year, even considering the quality of the quarterback play. The offensive line was dreadful. The defense collapsed entirely. The Cardinals managed to be the consensus worst team in the NFL’s worst division.
If Week 1 was any indication, the Cards have significant cause for concern because their defense looked every bit as poor as it did during the prior season, even during a winning effort. Their offensive line did not look improved in pass protection. But fortunately for the Cardinals, Kevin Kolb looked very good getting the ball to his third and fourth options. More impressively, Kolb looked like he’s going to get help from his running game: Beanie Wells and La’Rod Stephens-Howling.
Key #1: Dominate in the trenches
The Redskins may not be deep in the trenches, but both Stephen Bowen and Adam Carriker could have career games this week. The Cardinal offensive tackles just aren’t very good. And while it makes sense for the Redskins to bring additional pressure to hit Kolb early and often (the Cardinal receivers against the Redskin defensive backs represent a big matchup liability for Washington), this is a game where the Redskins will need to consistently get home with four — if not three — rushers.
Key #2: Larry Fitzgerald
I’m not really sure how many options the Redskins really have here. I expect the Redskins to keep FS O.J. Atogwe a little deeper this week so that he can stay over the top of Fitzgerald, but if the Cardinals want to isolate Fitzgerald against Reed Doughty, they’re going to be able to. The only thing the Redskins can do is try to hit Kolb enough so that the overall gameplan of getting vertical with Larry Fitz hurts the Cardinals more than it helps.
Doughty, in particular, needs to come in prepared. I’m actually quite confident he can hold his own out there. But the Cardinals do a lot of route concepts with their spread sets, and they won’t hesitate to attack a defensive weakness. This offense can throw the ball. Too much coverage rolled towards to Fitzgerald simply makes Kolb’s job too easy. With some reasonable precautions, the Redskins will likely have to play Fitzgerald straight up, and just be aware of what can happen when he gets free in the secondary. Larry Fitzgerald cannot beat the Redskins by himself. But if this game is even remotely close, Washington did not do a good enough job against the top Cards threat.
Key #3: Hit Beanie in the backfield
The best way to handle the newfound Cardinals running game is to hit it before it gets started. With a huge advantage on the front, the worst thing that can happen to the Redskins early in this game is to start to get the ball run right down their front seven: that will make them adjust away from any schematic or personnel advantage they believe they have earlier in this week. Win the one on ones early in the game, get penetration in the backfield, hit Beanie before he starts moving downhill, and get the Cardinals into a timeshare between Wells and Stephens-Howling where their primary goal is to protect Kolb.
This shouldn’t be too difficult for the Redskins to accomplish, because a strength of their defense is the ability to do this. It should go without saying that this will remain a focus of the defensive gameplan. It’s just that the downside of failing to do this in the first half is staggering. The Redskins do not have a chance on defense if they need to start rolling guys up to slow down Beanie Wells. And I warn you: Beanie was good last week. If the Cardinals get to 8-8, Beanie will be the 2011 version of Darren McFadden.
Key #4: Keep Rex on his feet
Last week, Rex Grossman took a beating in a Redskins win. That cannot happen again.
The last time Grossman faced the Cards, his Bears won by a point in the Denny Green “they are who we thought they were!” game. Grossman’s passer rating in that game was a nice, round 0.0. His statistical performance actually fell outside the realm of what passer rating could measure.
This is a week where Grossman could and should go off for a great passing day. The only thing that could de-rail a strong Redskin offensive day is if Grossman starts to break down mechanically and in terms of decision-making because he is absorbing too many hits. The Redskins are going to lean heavily on the running game this week: it will be inexcusable if Grossman is knocked to the ground five or six times in the first half. The offensive line must play better.
Key #5: Let Fletcher run
Finally, the thing that really drove the Cards to victory — besides a punt return for a TD — was an injury to Panthers MLB Jon Beason. For the Cardinals to have a day on offense as strong as they enjoyed against the Panthers, they will need to neutralize London Fletcher. The Redskins, and particularly Barry Cofield and Chris Neild, need to understand this, and free up Fletcher to go sideline to sideline, down the seam, and upfield to the quarterback, in order to make Kevin Kolb’s day a gun-to-whistle struggle to move the ball.
Plenty of defensive keys this week because I am worried about what I saw from the Cardinals offense on tape. But in terms of the Cards defense, so long as Rex Grossman plays like a shell of the player we enjoyed last week, it should be a nice day running the ball for Tim Hightower and Roy Helu, and the plays will be there for the offense to make. Fred Davis is going to have another nice week. Santana Moss knows how to get open against zone coverage.
This game should be a Redskin blowout victory, but they need to keep the keys above in mind in order to win this game comfortably.