3TFO: Falcons @ Cardinals, Week 8
The Falcons are coming off a win at home against Tampa Bay, trying to get their season back on track as they have a lot of ground to make up in the NFC South. As it turned out, the Buccaneers provided the perfect remedy to what ailed them in the 31-23 Atlanta victory. Tampa Bay’s continued mistakes on offense, combined with the loss of star running back Doug Martin, led to a relatively comfortable afternoon for the Falcons, although their defense had trouble getting off the field sometimes and the offense only ran 48 snaps all day.
Arizona, meanwhile, has had a 10-day rest since a disappointing effort against Seattle, which continued to expose their offensive line issues, and Carson Palmer’s inability to deal with pressure. Although coach Bruce Arians is sticking by Palmer, the entire offense has looked disjointed with receivers still having trouble knowing where to line up seven weeks into the season. His offense, which is predicated on getting the ball deep downfield has never really had a chance since the offensive line simply can’t hold off the pass rush long enough for those types of routes to develop. Add to that Palmer’s immobility and it is a bad combination for Arizona. Given all that, let’s take a look at three matchups that will likely be decisive factors in Sunday’s outcome.
Bradley Sowell vs. Falcons Pass Rush
It’s no secret that the Cardinals’ pass protection has been severely lacking again this year, a familiar refrain since Kurt Warner (and his ability to cover up a lot of their weaknesses) retired after the 2009 season. Teams with strong edge rushers seem particularly able to wreak havoc on the Cardinals offense. Arizona had hoped left tackle Bradley Sowell would provide an upgrade over recently-traded Levi Brown, but that has been only wishful thinking. Sowell has seemingly gotten worse each week, with a particularly poor performance (in an admittedly tough matchup) versus the Seattle defense. He put together a terrible -6.4 pass blocking grade against the Seahawks, allowing two sacks, two hits, and five hurries, and has put together an impressive (as in impressively bad) -17.2 since replacing Brown.
Osi Umenyiora was signed away from the Giants this offseason, with the hopes of providing a blind side pass rush to replace John Abraham’s declining skills in the that regard (who now fills the same role at outside linebacker for Arizona). So far the results have been mixed, with Umenyiora grading in at -0.5 on his pass rush, but having accumulated four sacks, two hits, and 14 hurries on 209 pass rush snaps. Jonathan Massaquoi has been the pass rushing specialist so far for Atlanta (coming in on obvious passing situations), with a very respectable Pass Rush Productivity of 10.0 (compared to 7.8 for Umenyiora).
Tony Gonzalez and Jacquizz Rodgers
Since taking over for an injured Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers has proved to be a real weapon coming out of the backfield. In the last five games, he has 24 catches for 151 yards, has forced 11 missed tackles, and scored twice against Tampa Bay, displaying many of the playmaking abilities he showed in Oregon State’s offense. With a solid 1.48 Yards Per Route Run, he is a weapon for Matt Ryan that linebackers Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby will have to account for (even with Jackson’s likely return for this game).
Covering the opponent’s tight end has really been the Achilles heel for the otherwise solid Cardinals’ defense and this week they face one of the best of all time in Tony Gonzalez. He has been his usual excellent self (+8.3), leading all tight ends in tight end Drop Rate, and has 369 receiving yards with three touchdowns (check out Sam Monson’s in-depth analysis of the ageless one here). Recently, safety Yeremiah Bell has gotten beat repeatedly by tight ends Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis (allowing six touchdowns in coverage, two more than any other safety in the league), so it will likely be a group effort in trying to contain Gonzalez. He has become an even more important receiving option for Ryan with the loss of Julio Jones and Roddy White’s lingering injury problems, with the former out for the year, and the latter unlikely to play Sunday.
Cardinals Receivers vs. Falcons Secondary
With the obvious struggles of Palmer behind his leaky offensive line, it would benefit Arizona greatly if their receivers can make plays against the Falcons cover-men. Arians continues to absolve Palmer for much of the blame regarding his interceptions (he is second behind Eli Manning in that category), instead laying fault with the receiver’s routes and pass protection issues. Standout Larry Fitzgerald has been bothered by hamstring issues in both legs, and Arians stated that he was at 80% last Thursday against Seattle. Although Arians’ absolution of Palmer’s responsibility for his mistakes seems dubious at best, eventually the Cardinals will need their wide receivers to step up and make some plays to help out an otherwise struggling offense. Last year’s first round pick Michael Floyd seemed lost at times during his rookie season, but he has turned into a solid contributor (+1.1 in the pass game) across from Fitzgerald in his sophomore season. He has 403 yards on 31 catches (playing 91.6% of snaps), with just one drop in the first game, and has caught at least three balls in every contest.
One player the Cardinals are still hoping will emerge as a receiving threat is third-year tight end Rob Housler (-8.6 overall). He has all the physical tools you could ask for in a TE, but he started the year injured, and has not been able to develop any rhythm with Palmer, issues he had his first two years in the league. He caught all seven of his targets last week against Seattle, but most of them came long after the contest had been decided. They will need him to elevate his game to take some of the pressure off Fitzgerald and Floyd.
On the other side of the ball, the Falcons needed help at corner with the departure of long time starter Brent Grimes to Miami this offseason, and first-round pick cornerback Desmond Trufant has filled in quite nicely as the starter since Day 1. He has especially picked up his game the last two weeks, grading at +3.9 overall during that time. Strong safety William Moore has been the star of the back line, playing in all 404 snaps so far the defense, with a grade of +6.5 overall, excelling in both pass coverage and run defense, and coming off his best performance of the year against the Buccaneers. Thomas Decoud, however, has been the weak link in the Falcons’ secondary, especially in coverage (-5.2). Longtime veteran Asante Samuel has missed a couple of games, but has been very solid as well opposite Trufant. Teams haven’t been testing him much, as he has a rate of 23.0 Cover Snaps Per Reception, tops in the league. Given Palmer’s propensity for throwing balls up for grabs, Atlanta defensive backs will no doubt have opportunities to make plays on Sunday.
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