I'm in a myopic mood so let's get specific: beating the Arizona Cardinals means beating their defense. And the plan to beating Ray Horton's X-Men has been to run the football, run it well and run it often.
Running the football takes a toll on quick, athletic fronts like you find in Big Red's box defenders. Other than Dan Williams, who's built like a Dumpster but has eyebrows, the Cardinals are light and slight up front. Calais Campbell is long and lean. Darnell Dockett is quick, explosive, athletic, but is not considered a prototypical run-stuffer. O'Brien Schofield (who was playing when this defense was rolling) and Sam Acho have great motors and play to the ground with blood under their nails but are undersized at the OLB positions in today's 3-4 scheme. Although Paris Lenon is the grandmaster-guru of destruction and generalship and Daryl Washington is one of the best football players this side of the moon, they both are light in the pants for playing inside the tackle box.
These men have played extremely well and are still considered one of the better defenses in the league. But teams have figured out how they want to attack the X-Men and their fluid, athletic fronts. In all games the Cardinals have lost, opposing offenses have had the luxury of playing with leads in the first-half of the game and into the second half. And most of these leads have developed because teams ran the ball well enough to stay balanced, move the ball and use the power of play-action to confound Horton's scheming.
It started against the Rams, October 4. After getting torched by Ryan Tannehill and the Miami Dolphins for 417 passing yards the week before, the Rams had a different plan of attack against the Cardinals defense. Sam Bradford only threw the ball 21 times (completing 7) and they handed the ball off to a RB 27 times. Steven Jackson & Co. averaged over four yards a carry and allowed the Rams to stay balanced. Although they only scored 17 points, the Rams won the game and that game marked the beginning of woes for Arizona.
Buffalo tried the same thing: run the ball, attack the Cardinals front seven, stay balanced. The Bills threw the ball 32 times and ran it, where they handed it off to a running back, 28 times. They gained 141 yards, averaged over five yards per carry and scored two rushing touchdowns. Although many other factors weighed into the outcome of this game, the plan was sound and the Bills won the game in OT.
Minnesota threw it 18 times and ran it on 26 occasions for 164 yards, averaging over six yards per carry. And the Cards lost again. And a trend was forming.
San Francisco threw the ball 19 times and ran it 28 times and Alex Smith used play-action to near perfection, completing 18 of those passing attempts and three touchdowns. The Cards were soundly defeated by the 49ers and the trend of how you beat the Cardinals, generally, and how you beat Big Red's defense, specifically, had become a pattern.
The Packers were looking for a running game all season but had been struggling to find one -- until they played the Cardinals. Like the others, Green Bay ran the ball more than they threw it. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers were balanced, used play-action and ran the ball between the tackles. Green Bay amassed 143 yards rushing against the X-Men when they were in the bottom third of the league in rushing, averaging under 100 yards per game.
And so it goes… Atlanta isn't great at running the ball and only averages 24 attempts per game. Expect that number to rise on Sunday.
There are many variables that have come into play and have contributed to the outcome of games during this losing streak for Arizona. But it appears obvious the word is out on how you beat Ray Horton's defense and, in so doing, beat the Cardinals and their struggling offense.
These thoughts and words are not meant to be the spiny, ruddy finger of blame, pointing at the defense. Other than the last two games, the defense has played exceptionally well. But the burden of greatness is carried with the yoke of responsibility and the Cardinals defense is this team's beast of burden.
Fair or unfair, like it or not, offenses are trying to put the Cardinals front seven in a phone-booth, where there's only one way out: fists first. Lets hope Big Red brings their brass knuckles to Hotlanta.