By Matthew Asher
For the first four weeks of the season, it appeared as though Atlanta and Arizona were on a crash course to meet each other in Week 10 to decide the best team in the NFC. Both teams were 4-0 and were riding lots of momentum.
The Falcons continued to ride their winning streak until Week 9. The Cardinals weren’t as fortunate. Week 5 ended with a 17-3 loss to the Rams. Since that game, Arizona hasn’t won a game, but that doesn’t make the Cardinals any less of a threat to extend Atlanta’s losing streak.
Coach Mike Smith certainly believes the key to Atlanta’s victory will be their containment of Arizona’s blitzing. “They have one of the top defenses in the League,” Smitty said. “They’re based out of a 3-4. Coach Horton is from the Dick Lebeau family so there is lots of blitzing.” While it seems simple, against a much less talented Carolina Panthers team, the Falcons offensive line gave up seven sacks, the most ever in a game for Matt Ryan.
Why is Arizona so good at the blitz? “They’re very stout up front with two good defensive ends,” Smitty said. “They got an inside linebacker that’s had eight sacks in ILB Daryl Washington, and then they have a good cover corner.”
There are two effective ways to counter a blitz-happy defense: running the ball and using the screen play. Unfortunately, Atlanta is only good at one of those this season. This means that the Falcons backfield, specifically Michael Turner, need to gain lots of yardage on the ground. While Arizona does give up nearly 130 yards on the ground each game, the New Orleans Saints were able to limit Atlanta to less than half that yardage, despite allowing the most yards on the ground this season.
Smitty considers both defensive ends for Arizona to be two of the best in the league, starting with Calais Campbell. “Not only is a good guy on defense, but he’s a factor on special teams in blocking field goals,” Smitty said. “He’s blocked six in his five years so we’ve got to have a plan for that.” Darnell Docket is the other man to look for. “He’s more of an anchor for them,” Smitty said. “They do a great job with their pressure game. They blitz to stop the run and they also blitz to stop the pass. We anticipate when they get off the plane they’ll be blitzing.”
If Turner and company can’t get the running game going, it might be a long day for Matty Ice. Arizona’s pass defense is the second best in the league, giving up less than 200 yards in the air each game. The Cardinals are also a tough team to score on. Giving up fewer than 20 points a game, they have the fifth stingiest scoring defense.
On the flip side, both offenses do have good aerial attacks. Matt Ryan has his three-headed monster of Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones and Roddy White. While Arizona doesn’t have as effective an offense as Atlanta (they currently rank 31st in total yards) but remember who Arizona’s primary target is: Larry Fitzgerald.
Smitty knows this means that Asante Samuel and the rest of the secondary need to be on high alert wherever Fitzgerald is lined up. “They do a great job with moving him around and putting him in different spots, so we’re going to have to know where he is” Smitty said.
Atlanta’s pass defense may give up more yards than Arizona’s does, but as far as a bend but don’t break mentality, both teams very similar. Arizona gives up 19.2 points per game while Atlanta gives up just 19.3. While it may seem oversimplified to say whoever scores the most points will win, but with two defenses like this, it’ll probably come down to whoever can first score 21 points will be the winner.
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Matthew Asher is a freelance writer covering all things Atlanta sports related. His work can be found on Examiner.com.