Setting the stage
It never gets any easier in the National Football League.
After notching his first win as head coach, Bruce Arians had very little time to celebrate, as week three pits the Birdgang against the imposing New Orleans Saints, off to a 2-0 start after ending last season 7-9.
Last week, the Saints pulled out a close one against the division rival Buccaneers with a Garrett Hartley field goal as time expired to win 16-14. Week one also saw the Saints defeat the Atlanta Falcons, 17-23.
Looking at New Orleans, it’s a very difficult read. With one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks in Drew Brees, the Saints are a threat to score from anywhere on the field. Part of that also lies with head coach Sean Payton, who missed all last season amidst the Bountygate scandal. When he is on the field coaching the Saints, however, he is one of the game’s premier offensive minds; the Saints have been in the top six in the NFL in total offense every single season since his introduction in 2006, leading the NFL in four of them.
As good as the Cardinals defense is, that’s a tall order. The good news for the Redbirds, though, is that the Saints defense has been a perennial doghouse (opposite of powerhouse). It shouldn’t be taken lightly, but the Cards could very easily put up some points this Sunday.
One storyline that will be interesting to watch is the performance of the former LSU players on the Cardinals in their return to New Orleans. Tyrann Mathieu, Patrick Peterson and Kevin Minter all will have their share of fans in the Superdome stands, so they’ll be aiming to please.
Here’s a look at some of the matchups to watch for in the Cardinals’ week three matchup.
Sean Payton vs. Bruce Arians
If I had to rank the best head coaches in the NFL, Sean Payton would crack the top three. Much like Arizona’s Bruce Arians, he coaches with a lot of ingenuity on the offensive side of the ball, and paired with Drew Brees, he can make a roster go real far. His absence last season more than anything is why the Saints missed the playoffs in 2012 with a 7-9 record. Case in point, the Saints have started the season 2-0 with him back.
Matched up against the also innovative Arians, we could see some trick plays and special team fakes (like this one in Super Bowl XLIV) to get some momentum going. If the situation warrants it, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if either coach tries to catch the other team napping.
Rashard Mendenhall vs. Saints run stoppers
Through the first two weeks, Rashard Mendenhall has been one bright spot of many, averaging 4.1 yards a carry for the Cardinals. While that is modest compared to some of the other backs in the league, he has consistently generated positive yardage and has proven to be a reliable weapon in the Cardinals offense.
Mendenhall and the running back corps will be opposed by a New Orleans run defense unit that has given up 248 rushing yards in two games, sixth most in the NFL. Middle linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne as well as nose tackle John Jenkins haven’t generated consistent penetration these first couple games for the Saints, with two tackles for loss among them.
That being said, the Cardinals running game could have a relatively productive night, as the Saints aren’t that stout up the middle.
Jimmy Graham vs. …well, whoever is going to cover him
When the Cardinals opened the season against St Louis, they were absolutely incapable of stopping tight end Jared Cook from having his way, catching 7 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
Not to take anything away from Cook, but Jimmy Graham is another monster altogether. Since 2011, Graham has not had a season of less than 980 yards, 85 catches, and 9 touchdowns. 2013 is much of the same, as he’s come hot out the gate with an average of 7 catches for 112 yards and a touchdown per game.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Cardinals choose to approach defending Graham. They could put Peterson on him, but that would leave Marques Colston against someone other than Peterson. After week one, I doubt the Cards will put Dansby on Graham.
The 6 foot 7, 265 pound tight end is a dangerous offensive weapon who will get his catches regardless of who’s on him, but that doesn’t mean he should be left open.
Carson Palmer vs. Saints secondary
A unit that IS pretty stout, on the other hand, is the Saints secondary, keeping opposing quarterbacks to just under 200 yards per game. Kenny Vacaro is making a solid case for Defensive Rookie of the Year, as the rookie out of Texas has stepped up as a leader for the Saints defense with Will Smith and Roman Harper missing time due to injury. He has a team leading 10 solo tackles.
Vacaro is also complemented very well, with veterans Jabari Greer, Malcom Jenkins and Keenan Lewis all playing their position soundly, to say the least.
It will be an uphill battle for Carson Palmer, but it will become exponentially easier if Larry Fitzgerald and Rob Housler are healthy for the game. I’m especially psyched to see how Housler affects the offense, being an above average pass catching tight end, something that Arians loves to utilize.
Cardinals front seven vs. Saints O-line
I’m kind of waiting to see if Todd Bowles can get the whole defensive unit working together at one time. Arizona’s secondary is undeniably talented, but keeps getting torched, averaging 286 passing yards per contest.
A lot of that also lies on the front seven, however. Last week against the Lions, Calais Campbell notched the Cardinals’ first and only sack of the season. They have been able to shut down opposing running games (2nd lowest in the NFL at 58 opposing rushing yards per game), but a consistent pass rush is keeping the Arizona defense from being a truly elite unit. Talented or not, cornerbacks can’t cover once the routes break, and coverage skills are thrown out the window.
Last season, the Saints offensive line gave up only 26 sacks, 3rd lowest total in the league. I’m not going to call a Cards pass rush explosion against that, but if All-Pro guard Jahri Evans is missing from that unit, the Cards have to capitalize and pressure Drew Brees if they want win in the Superdome.
By the numbers
- Arizona Cardinals 2013 record: 1-1 (5-11 in 2013)
- New Orleans Saints 2013 record: 2-0 (7-9 in 2013)
- Head-to-head: The Cardinals lead the series 14-13, but the home team has an 18-9 advantage.
- Sean Payton’s head coaching record: 64-34 (.649 win%)
- Bruce Arians’ head coaching record: 1-1 (.500 win%) / 10-4 (.714 win%) including his interim as Colts HC.
- Drews Brees in 2013: 64.2comp%, 679 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT, 87.4 passer rating
- Carson Palmer in 2013: 60.8comp%, 575 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 85.1 passer rating
- Vegas betting line: Saints are favored by 9 points.
If this game was at University of Phoenix Stadium, I’d be more apt to pick the Cardinals. But in the Superdome, against one of the NFL’s deadliest offenses, the Saints don’t look to be very beatable in this situation. This has the potential to be very ugly for the Birdgang.
The Saints bust out early, scoring two quick touchdowns. Jimmy Graham runs wild in the Cardinals’ secondary, as the absence of Daryl Washington takes it toll as the Cards struggle yet again to cover a legitimate tight end threat. A pair of Cardinals turnovers save face, as they enter halftime trailing 21-10.
The Cardinals come out with steam to start the second half, scoring on a long, drawn out drive to get within a possession. The Saints answer immediately, giving the Cardinals a sizable fourth quarter deficit to overcome. That proves to be too much, as the Cardinals score another touchdown in garbage time, but fall short NO 31 – 24 ARZ.
Thoughts? I’d love to hear them! I’d encourage you to also check out Bijon L Banerjee’s preview from a Saints perspective.
Kickoff is Sunday, Sep 22nd at 1PM ET.