3TFO: Cardinals @ Saints, Week 3
In Tampa last week, the Saints survived a lightning storm and some uncharacteristic mistakes by Drew Brees to escape with a shaky 16-14 victory over the Buccaneers — thanks largely to their suddenly-improved defense. Brees was just 26 of 46 for 422 yards with one touchdown to go with two interceptions, both of which led to Tampa Bay touchdowns, Tampa’s only points of the game. A key third-down stop by their defense, followed by a missed field goal and a last-minute, game-winning drive prevented New Orleans from falling to 1-1 on the season. Regardless, they return home to face the Cardinals undefeated, who themselves are coming off a last-minute victory.
Playing for the first time in front of their home crowd, Arizona was able to keep the potent Detroit offense in check (save for a couple of big plays from Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush), and did just enough on offense to pull out the win. After allowing two long scoring drives to Detroit in the first half, including 232 yards of total offense, the Cardinals’ defense took over in the second half, limiting the Lions to just 90 yards while pitching a shutout. The Arizona offense was just 1 of 11 on third downs, however, and that won’t cut it against the Saints in the Superdome if they want to pull off the upset. Here are some key matchups (even giving the kickers some love this week) to watch during the game.
Cardinals Offensive Line vs. Cameron Jordan
Giving their quarterback time to throw has been an issue seemingly forever for the Cardinals’ offensive line, and this year has been no different (although clearly an improvement over last year’s dreadful performance). Quarterback Carson Palmer has been under much duress so far in 2013, as he is averaging just 2.35 seconds from snap to throw, which is the third-fewest in the league. With a Quarterback Accuracy Percentage Under Pressure of 57.7% (25th in the league) from Palmer, keeping him clean will be critical to the Cardinals’ chances in New Orleans. So far, only left guard Daryn Colledge has managed even a positive pass blocking grade, and the Arizona offensive line has combined for a Pass Blocking Efficiency of just 67.7.
Third-year Saints’ defensive end Cameron Jordan has been thriving in Rob Ryan‘s 3-4 defense, and seems to finally be coming into his own. A former first-round pick, he had graded negatively in 2011 and 2012 (-2.4 and -1.3 overall respectively), excelling at run defense, but struggling with putting pressure on the quarterback consistently, despite his eight sacks last year. This year he has become a complete player, grading in at +4.0 in run defense and +5.5 in pass rush after just two games. He’s played every snap so far (at a position where most players get rotated in and out), and has racked up 13 total pressures for a Pass Rushing Productivity of 15.4 (good enough for second in the league among 3-4 DEs), in addition to four stops in the running game. He’s been a one-man wrecking crew in the Saints’ rejuvenated defense, so he’s sure to be licking his chops going up against a suspect Arizona line this weekend.
Jimmy Graham vs. Cardinals LBs and DBs
In my Week 1 preview of the Cardinals/Rams game, I highlighted the matchup of Rams’ tight end Jared Cook against the Cardinals’ interior linebackers as one to watch — and it may have been the deciding factor in the game. Cook lit up the Cardinals with seven catches on 10 targets for 141 yards (including 73 yards after the catch) and two touchdowns (which should have been three, save for an incredible effort from Tyrann Mathieu punching the ball out at the goal line). Although they held Lions’ TE Brandon Pettigrew in check with just three catches for 32 yards last week, on Sunday Arizona will go up against arguably the biggest TE receiving threat in the NFL in the form of Jimmy Graham.
While the Saints’ passing game has sometimes looked out-of-sorts so far this year (at least by their standards), the one member of the receiving corps who has excelled has been Graham. With 22 targets, which leads all tight ends, he has snagged 14 catches for 224 yards (88 coming after the catch) and two touchdowns. He has a Target Percentage of 29.7%, which means Brees likes to look his way early and often, and with 3.03 Yards Per Route Run (first overall among TEs), he is making the most out of those opportunities. His most likely matchup will be against Cardinals’ linebacker Karlos Dansby, who defended Cook on four of his 10 targets, and Pettigrew on four of six. Last week, Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles went frequently to dime packages against the Lions’ passing attack. That took ILB Jasper Brinkley out of the game, and moved strong safety Yeremiah Bell (three coverages on Cook) down next to Dansby in the box. It will be interesting to see if this adjustment continues against the pass-happy Saints’ offense, as run-specialist Brinkley’s snap count went from 63 to 16 over the first two games.
Saints Special Teams vs. Cardinals Special Teams
One common link between the Saints and Cardinals this year has been close games — all four contests involving the teams have been decided by less than 7 points. In games like these, it is often the special teams that can turn the flow of the clash. A missed field goal by the Bucs with 1:06 remaining last week allowed the Saints an opportunity to drive for the winning field goal, while it was a fourth-quarter FG block by Justin Bethel (+3.5 on coverage teams) that helped set up Arizona’s go-ahead touchdown (the Cardinals lead the league in blocks since 2008). With a combined red zone efficiency of one for eight last week, it could again come down to the kicking game for these teams on Sunday.
Field position may be another deciding factor — both teams have done well so far this year in pinning their opponents back near the goal line. Saints’ punter Thomas Morstead has been very strong, grading at +3.8, and downing six of his seven punts inside the 20. His kickoffs have also been solid, allowing only one return on 10 this year. Arizona punter Dave Zastudil (+3.5) has done equally well, nailing seven of nine punts inside the 20 (he set an NFL record with 42 of these last year), and allowing a total of only 4 punt return yards. Cardinals’ kicker Jay Feely has been much better on kickoffs in 2013 after a poor 2012, averaging 5 more yards per kick, and increasing his touchback percentage from 49% to 66%.
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