3TFO: Colts @ Cardinals, Week 12
Sunday’s meeting between the Colts and Cardinals will be an emotional reunion on a couple of fronts, as Arizona head coach Bruce Arians faces his former team for the first time. It’s well known that Arians, originally hired to be Colts coach Chuck Pagano’s offensive coordinator, was suddenly thrust into the head role when Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia last September and entered treatment. Arians then guided the Colts, coming off a 2-14 season, to a 9-3 record in Pagano’s absence, ultimately winning NFL Coach of the Year honors for his efforts. That led to Arians receiving his first official head coaching gig in Arizona, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Reunions aside, the Colts are coming off a couple of shaky performances, with narrow victories over the Titans and Texans sandwiched around a stunning 30-point loss to the Rams at home. They seem to especially struggle in the first half of games and will be hoping to avoid digging themselves into another double-digit halftime deficit. The Cardinals survived a poor start themselves in Jacksonville before taking control in a 27-14 win. With both running games expected to struggle, it looks like the passing games for both teams will take center stage, and that is where we find the matchups to watch for on Sunday.
Robert Mathis and Bjoern Werner vs. Bradley Sowell and Eric Winston
Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis had typically been overshadowed by Dwight Freeney in their years together in Indy, but he has garnered more of the spotlight this year without missing a beat, even after Freeney left for San Diego. He has graded negatively just once this season (+19.9 overall), generating 13 sacks, two hits, and 30 hurries, good enough for a Pass Rush Productivity of 12.3, seventh in the league. After playing for years with his hand on the ground, this is just his second year in the 3-4 defense standing up as an outside linebacker. Last year he put up nine sacks, but graded out at -2.4. He will be a challenge for both of the Cardinals’ tackles, as he flips sides frequently, with 39.5% of his pass rush snaps from the left side, and 54.7% from the right.
Bjoern Werner, from Florida State, was the Colts first-round draft pick this year. He was a 4-3 defensive end in college, and has had trouble getting on the field this year as an outside linebacker in the Colts’ 3-4 scheme, having played just 69 pass rush snaps in 11 games. That changes this week, as Erik Walden serves his one game suspension for head-butting a helmetless Titan during last week’s contest in Tennessee. Although he has a lot to prove, Werner will certainly benefit from having Mathis on the other side, and couldn’t ask for a much more favorable matchup than the Cardinals’ offensive tackles, who are protecting a quarterback with almost no mobility. Arizona tackles Bradley Sowell and Eric Winston have combined for -27.6 in pass blocking this year, and have helped keep the Cardinals’ offensive line at the bottom of our Pass Blocking Efficiency rankings. They have been slightly better as of late, but they have not faced any rushers on the outside of Mathis’ caliber. Carson Palmer and the Cardinals’ passing offense seems to finally be finding its groove — last week was his first game all season without an interception. He may revert back to previous form quickly, however, if the Colts can put pressure on him coming around the edge.
Ever since stalwart wide receiver Reggie Wayne went down for the year with a knee injury a few weeks ago, the Colts’ receiving corps has been trying to fill the void. Against the Cardinals, Andrew Luck‘s favorite target might end up not being a wide receiver at all. While Luck received the bulk of the attention as the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, the Colts second-round pick, tight end Coby Fleener has been developing nicely as a go-to-guy for Luck in his second year. Having been teammates at Stanford certainly helps, and so far this year he has been targeted 56 times, catching 37 balls for 439 yards and three touchdowns. He has been especially valuable for the Colts the last couple of weeks, with 10 targets in each of the past two games (by comparison, he was targeted 45 times in all of 2012). He has been very reliable with a Tight End Drop Rate of just 2.63, fourth-best at his position. The Cardinals have been especially vulnerable to tight ends this whole year, although inside linebacker Daryl Washington‘s return to the lineup and fellow linebacker Karlos Dansby‘s inspired play has helped stop the bleeding some for Arizona’s interior pass defense as the season has worn on. With Patrick Peterson on the outside though, and the Colts’ issues at wide receiver, that still seems like a vulnerability that Luck will try to exploit on Sunday.
After seven terrific seasons in Atlanta, John Abraham was not resigned by the Falcons and left to explore the open market. He had few teams interested during free agency this offseason, scared off by what 13 seasons and a 35-year-old body might be able to produce, despite being one of the NFL’s premier speed rushers over the past decade. Finally, on literally the eve of training camp for the Cardinals, he accepted a two-year deal with Arizona, who were looking for some speed at outside linebacker, a position he hadn’t even played in almost a decade. Coming into the year he was regarded as strictly a nickel pass rush specialist, and wasn’t expected to get more than 20 or 30 snaps a game. That all changed Week 3 in New Orleans, as Arizona lost two outside linebackers for the season (and a third the following week), and suddenly Abraham was thrust into the role of full-time starter (he has played 87% or more of Arizona’s defensive snaps in five of the past six games). Yet instead of wilting under the workload, Abraham has thrived in it. After barely missing several sacks in the first six games of the season, he finally broke through against Seattle in Week 7, and has managed seven sacks in the past four games, grading out at +9.9 during that time. He has also held his own in the run game as well, with 14 stops in the last five games and grading positively overall in run defense.
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