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Redskins Recon: Week 6 at the Arizona Cardinals

The last time the Redskins faced the Arizona Cardinals was in week 2 of the 2011-2 season. The Redskins won in a tight game in Washington, but the Cardinals would go on to have the better season, finishing 8-8. Since then the Cardinals had one blip in 2012, before coming back strongly in 2013 - finishing 10-5 in a tough NFC West division. Let's take a look at what makes them tick.

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The identity of this team can be traced back to Pittsburgh with many of the coaches and schemes coming from the not too distant, but successful Steelers teams. Bruce Arians and Ted Bowles are using this experience to form a strong team on both sides of the ball.

The NFC West should really be called the NFC Defense. Along with the Seahawks, 49ers and more recently the Rams, this division has some excellent defenses, and the Cardinals certainly play their part in this story.  Good defenses feel like a running theme in many of my Redskins Recon articles, and by week 6 the Redskins will have faced some excellent ones in Houston, Jacksonville, New York and Seattle. Hopefully we will be sharp enough not to be caught off guard here as the Cardinals could pose a stern test on both sides of the ball.

Let's start on offense however, where it has been a journey for the team to move on from the days of Kurt Warner, but now it seems they have started to build a potent attack.

As with many things in life, your strength can often turn out to be your weakness. Bruce Arians was brought in as the head coach of the Cardinals in 2013 after serving numerous years with the Steelers and the ColtsArians has a reputation for delivering results with his vertical passing game, and when it clicks it works well (click here for more information about this). Unfortunately it took some time for this system to click in Arizona last year, with many fans and pundits questioning the offensive scheme early in the season, but then about halfway through the season the players got it.

After this point the Cardinals only failed to score more than 27 points just three times. One of those times was against the Seahawks and that was a game they won, in Seattle no less. But as I wrote above, the vertical passing game has a weakness, and this comes in protecting the QB long enough for deep routes to develop. Naturally this is reflected in the amount of times they conceded sacks - 41 times in 2013. Also such reliance on deep passing always opens up the opportunity for interceptions, especially when Carson Palmer is your QB.  The Cardinals threw the ball to the opponent 22 times last season which will stand out to any defensive coordinator, and of course turnovers can be the difference in winning or losing. Arians has been highly praised by the fans and media for his ability to turn around a similar group of players that stank it out in 2012 into a playoff contender. It took some time, but the players bought into the scheme, and now the Redskins secondary will need to be on their game to nullify this attack.

Let's look at some of the offensive pieces in more detail to get a feel of where this team is...

Carson Palmer was acquired by the Cardinals via a trade with the Raiders. He had his ups and downs in 2013, but to his credit he finished the year with a career best 4,274 yds in passing and became the first QB to go over 4,000 yds for three different teams. Whilst that is impressive, he also threw for 22 touchdowns. The feeling in Arizona is that Palmer is certainly the guy for 2014 at least; however there is a wide acknowledgement that this comes with some negatives, notably his proclivity to throwing interceptions at key times. The Cardinals will most certainly be looking at the long term future of this position at the end of 2014, but for now Palmer's backups are nothing to write home about and he is very much in the driver's seat. The Redskins will be looking to get to Palmer frequently in the pass rush, and either get the sack, or force hurried throws in this offensive scheme described above. Of course, getting to the passer is easier said than done... or is it?

The Cardinals OL set records in 2012 for the wrong reasons. In 2013 they improved slightly but still couldn't adequately protect the QB. The best way of summarising this is to quote from PFF where they ranked the Cardinal's last in the league for OL play in 2013:

32. Arizona Cardinals (32nd)

PB: 32nd, RB: 27th, PEN: 22nd

Stud: Our 18th-ranked center on the year Lyle Sendlein (+0.5). The former undrafted free agent is the definition of a solid player, rarely wowing you in either a good or bad way. The team would have hoped Jonathan Cooper would be this guy, but that will have to wait for a year.

Dud: There was some serious competition here but Bradley Sowell (-38.4) takes the cake. In 12 games he earned 11 negative grades with 10 of them -2.2 or worse. The NFC West did feast on him.

Analysis: It's rare to see a team finish last two years on the trot, but then it's nothing Cardinals fans wouldn't have seen coming. It wasn't helped by the aforementioned loss of Cooper, while incredibly the team's long overdue divorce from Levi Brown actually left them in a worse position at left tackle. It's hard to imagine them being worse next year.

The Cardinals have looked to improve here (obviously) in the off season, firstly by adding quality at the left tackle position in Jared Veldheer. Youth is also the theme, and the Cards could end up fielding one of the youngest lines in the league in 2014. Certainly with Cooper returning and the addition of Valdheer, the left hand side of the line should be much more consistent. That said, whilst PFF thinks it may be hard for them to be this bad next year, a combination of age, scheme and talent could see them struggle, and this is certainly an aspect of the game the Redskins need to focus on - particularly sending pressure on the right side of this line.

In terms of receiving threats, the Cardinals have two main weapons. Of course Larry Fitzgerald is the main man, and everyone knows about him, but not many will know much about Michael Floyd, who had a breakout season last year. Whilst Fitzgerald is the redzone threat, Floyd is often the playmaker elsewhere. He has good hands and makes clutch plays.  Beyond that the Cardinals lost Roberts to the Redskins this offseason, and generally needed to add some depth. They did that by adding Ted Ginn in free agency who will also help out as a returner on special teams. They then dipped into the deep WR class in the draft and picked up Walt Powell and John Brown to complete a deep group for 2014. No doubt the Redskins will have a game on their hands in the secondary trying to keep both Fitzgerald and Floyd quiet in this prolific passing attack of Arians.

In terms of running the ball, the Cardinals of 2013 were not that effective, with a yards per attempt average of only 3.6. In the offseason Rashard Mendenhall retired at a surprisingly young age, leaving the young Ellington to take the lead role. The Cardinals will not be too unhappy with this development as Ellington was a much better running back last year, however the problem is not player it is scheme. Many of the Cardinals fans grew frustrated with the team last year as they consistently overlooked the effectiveness of the running game when Ellington was on the field. That said Arians does not just use his backs to carry the rock, they are also threats in the passing game too. Arians has been quoted as saying that Ellington will get 30 touches a game, 10 catches and 20 carries, so this is something the Redskins need to pay attention to when they match up in October.

The tight end group for the Cardinals is full of promise, however they live in a system that is not particularly friendly if they want to catch passes. They have Rob Housler, Jake Ballard, John Carlson and they drafted a stud from Notre Dame, Troy Niklas, to make this a competitive position. Arians uses a lot of two TE formations, so with added depth the productivity of this group may increase.

It will be very interesting to see which Cardinals offense turns up for the 2014 season. If they carry on where they left off in 2013 then this could be a tough match up for the Redskins in week 6. Our secondary will need to have a good game to stick with Fitzgerald and Floyd. That said, there are obvious weaknesses that the Redskins could attack, particularly on that offensive line.

The Arizona Cardinals defense runs out of a 3-4 that comes straight out of Pittsburgh via coordinator Ted Bowles.  Instead of me writing up what others can do better I would strongly recommend reading this article, which shows why this defense is so successful. But if you don't have the time, these are the key points:

  • The Cards blitz more than any team in the league

  • They blitz a lot on first down

  • They use a lot of disguises and zone blitz (want to know more about zone blitz? Read this)

  • They have movable parts with quality versatile players

  • A superb secondary always gives their pass rush more time to get home (Similar to Seattle, their corner backs can shut out receivers and play press man very effectively)

In terms of personnel the Cardinals have an eye opening array of talent.  Players such as:

  • Darnell Docket and Calais Campbell on the defensive line
  • Daryl Washington at ILB (Note: Washington has been suspended for the year following repeated drugs infringements)
  • Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie form one of the best CB pairings in the league
  • Tyrann Mathieu can play safety or CB and had a superb rookie season (Note: coming back from knee injury)

(Updated: Karlos Dansby has left for the Browns. Alongside Washington's injury this does leave the Cardinals thin at ILB)

The Cardinals added depth to their defense by adding safety Deone Bucannon with their first round pick, and two defensive ends Kareem Martin and Ed Stinson.

In summary this defense is going to be another tough challenge for the Redskins, however good we think our offense can be. One thing going for us is our depth and versatility on offense, meaning that if Jackson or Garcon are covered we still have Roberts, Reed and others who can step up. In terms of the running game, Alfred Morris will have his work cut out as he will face the league's best run defense in 2013.

In summary the Cardinals are quietly building a very good team in Arizona, and this game will certainly not be an easy one for the Redskins on the road. The hopes of this team are very much aimed towards the playoffs, however they have a tough division getting in the way before that.  At the very least they will want to complete a solid, consistent season instead of their lopsided 2013 campaign and see where that leads them.

The keys to this game will be:

  • Can the Redskins pass rush get to Palmer before the Cardinals have time to develop their vertical passing game?

  • Will our secondary be able to cover their men while the pass rush gets home? Can they nullify Fitzgerald and Floyd? Will our ball hawking players like Hall, Amerson and possibly Rambo/Thomas make some plays?

  • When our defense gets stretched, will we be able keep Ellington out of the game as both a running and catching threat?

  • Will Alfred Morris find the room to run against this defense?  Will Gruden even try to run the ball consistently?

  • Can we use our speed against Peterson and Cromartie to create space for Reed and Roberts underneath?

That is the Arizona Cardinals folks. What do you all think? Tough game, or is this one game the Redskins should win? After this the Redskins have a nice stretch of three games that they will be looking to win. More on those in the coming weeks.