Friday, January 15, 2010

2010 NFL Divisional Playoff Preview, Part 1: Arizona Cardinals at New Orleans Saints

Arizona Cardinals at New Orleans Saints
Favorite: Saints (80.8%)

Last week the Cards teamed with the Packers to obliterate NFL postseason records before a lucky break on defense helped them seal the deal on a 51-45 overtime victory. Discouraging to indications that the Cards can repeat this Saturday with a win vs the Saints was that, despite predictably getting to Aaron Rodgers for five sacks, an opening-play pick and the closing fumble and TD, the defense allowed him to torch their secondary for 422 yards while the Packers running game gained another 90 despite minimal use (20 total rushes, including three Rodgers scrambles, vs 47 pass plays).

Granted, the Packers have the 4th best offense in the NFL per Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings, so yeah they were very likely to have the day they had last week... but the forthcoming Saints have the #2 offense in DVOA, and an offense much more well known for torching defenses, especially in the Superdome where this game will take place. They will likely repeat the feat and torch the Cards for big points... plus Drew Brees doesn't hold the ball like Rodgers does (in fact, the Saints have allowed the 4th fewest adjusted sacks in the NFL), so it's not likely the Cards can manage five sacks or even a turnover.

On the flip side, that the Cards rang up 531 yards of their own against the 2nd best defense in the NFL bodes well given the Saints' D is a much more mediocre 14th. However, the Cards have consistency issues and were clearly clicking on offense while playing in their own domed stadium. Now they're going into a hostile road dome where the crowd's not going to let Kurt Warner call plays without ear-splitting noise. Do the Cards come out on fire again, on the road, against the prohibitive favorite to get to the Super Bowl, which BTW has a prolific offense of their own? Highly doubtful. Could happen (remember that the Cards did well on the road this season), but doubtful.

Team Efficiency (Using FO's Weighted Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA)... as of the end of the regular season):

Cardinals: 10.5% (13th)... Offense DVOA: 8.8% (13th)... Defense: -0.1% (12th)... Special: 1.6% (11th)
Saints: 23.4% (6th)... Offense DVOA: 27.6% (2nd)... Defense: 1.3% (14th)... Special: -2.8% (28th)

Cardinals Offense (with grade):

Points Per Drive: 1.84 (C)
Drive Success Rate: .679 (C)
Turnovers per: .176 (F)

Offense Line Run Blocking: C
Left End: A
Interior: C-
RT: C+
Right End: C-
Pass Protection: Conditional B

As mentioned last week, Arizona gets a conditional B because Kurt Warner has an amazingly quick release, which offsets any shortcomings in the pass protection. If the run blocking is any indication, the line is probably more like a Grade C pocket than a Grade B.

The good news is that, like the Packers, the Saints are an average-ish pass rushing team, and Warner only got sacked once in last week's tilt. And per adjusted line yards, the Saints are not as good against the run as the Packers are... not even close. The Cards still managed 156 yards on the ground last week. They could be good for that and more vs the Saints, especially if they get a two score lead and Ken Whisenhunt (wisely) elects to work the clock, keep the ball away from that prolific Saints offense and protect the ball on subsequent drives.

Cardinals backfield:

QB: Kurt Warner: B+ (Religious Obsession: A++++)
RB: Beanie Wells: C (Receiving: A)
RB: Tim Hightower: D+ (Receiving: B- ... Touchdown Vulturing: A)

Beanie looked more like a B vs the Packers, though Warner's propensity for torching that secondary may have set up many of those yards in making every subsequent run play a glorified draw play. That said, the rushers themselves aren't incredible and will serve more to help the Cards grind the clock and convert the occasional short yardage situation than move the football.

Warner, of course, still turns to his Arena Football roots, firing quickly and often to take what he can get while he has openings. And the Saints are going to give him plenty on defense.

Cardinals receivers:

WR: Larry Fitzgerald: B
WR: Steve Breaston: B
WR: Anquan Boldin: C
WR: Early Doucet: B
WR: Jerheme Urban: D
TE: Ben Patrick: A
TE: Anthony Becht: D
TE: Stephen Spach: F

Too many weapons, even though some of them suck and aren't good for more than change-of-pace targets. But there's no way the Saints can keep them all covered: They can lock down whoever they decide is the #1 receiver, but that's essentially it. One of the B's will go off for 100+ yards. Last week it was Early Doucet. Who will it be this week?

Do the Saints believe the hype and decide the lockdown target is Doucet, opening up Fitzgerald? Does Fitz get the bullseye, allowing Doucet go off again and start building a playoff legend? Do the Saints lock Fitzgerald, while they get a couple guys on Doucet... and open the door for Steve Breaston to have a massive game? Do all three get bumped and run to death, opening the door for a career game from TE Ben Patrick? Does Tim Hightower channel Larry Centers out of the backfield and go off on a 20 catch, 150 yard game? Who knows, but someone in that receiving corps will have a massive game in the Superdome.

Cardinals defense (Base 3-4):

Overall: C (Momentum Weighted*: C)
Points per drive: 1.56 (C+)
Drive success rate: .647 (B)
Turnovers per drive: .140 (C)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: B-
vs left end sweeps: C
Right DE: C
Interior run defense: C
Left DE: A-
vs right end sweeps: C

One thing the Cards can do with some consistency is stop the run, so don't expect a massive game from Pierre Thomas or Reggie Bush... though the Saints are a great run blocking team so it could happen. The decent run defense, however, is one reason Aaron Rodgers got the ball much of the time and got to go crazy. Drew Brees will likely repeat the effort and the Saints will likely just gun it against the Cards defense.

Pass Defense: B
Defensive line vs rush: C+
Pass rush: C+
vs #1 WR: D
vs #2 WR: A+
vs Other WR: B
vs TE: C
vs RB: C

Aaron Rodgers and the top shelf Packers offense shredded the Cards secondary, and there's little doubt the Saints can do the same. The Cards put up good numbers vs teams' secondary options because they tend to leave the #1 on an island and allow him to go off. Indeed, Greg Jennings blew past 100 yards on 8 catches, and Marques Colston is even more dangerous. Defending the tight end is also not their strong suit, and Jermichael Finley is peanuts as a TE compared to Jeremy Shockey. The Cards also don't defend backfield receivers all that great, and Reggie Bush is as dangerous from the backfield as tailbacks get. Drew Brees could easily throw for 500 yards if this game remains competitive into the 2nd half.

Cardinals Special Teams:

Kicker: C+ (Kickoffs: C)
Kick returns: C
Punting: A-
Punt returns: D+

It didn't come down to the kicking game, obviously, vs the Pack, but this game will definitely be a tougher matchup for the Cards. If the offense doesn't click this week, Ben Graham's coffin-corner ability as a punter is going to be very, very important, as forcing repeated 90 yard drives may be the Cards' only chance in hell of stopping the Saints offense. At least Neil Rackers gets to kick in a dome again.

Saints offense:

Points Per Drive: 2.56 (A)
Drive Success Rate: .742 (A-)
Turnovers per: .148 (C)

Offense Line Run Blocking: A
Left End: C-
Interior: A
RT: B+
Right End: A-
Pass Protection: B+

This is pretty much the polar opposite of the situation the Cards front seven had with the Packers, with a great offensive line, a fast backfield and a fire-away QB who has no problem getting the ball away quickly. Don't expect five sacks. In fact, the Cards are in big trouble because their one strength is getting pressure on the QB and the Saints front line and offensive style pretty much makes that close to impossible.

The Cards do have some hope in that their strength vs the run is along left DE, which happens to be one of the Saints' stronger points, so neutralizing right off-tackle runs could give them a chance to contain the backfield. That still leaves Brees, his excellent pass protection and his host of passing weapons, though.

Saints Backfield:

QB: Drew Brees: A+ (Rushing: A+)
RB: Pierre Thomas: A (Receiving: A-)
RB: Mike Bell: C
RB: Reggie Bush: A (Receiving: C)

Okay, that backfield is ridiculous. If they get traction against the Cards' front seven and the Cards aren't firing at 110% capacity like last week, this is over in one and a half quarters.

Saints Receivers:

WR: Marques Colston: A
WR: Robert Meachem: A+ (Rushing: A+)
WR: Devery Henderson: B
WR: Lance Moore: A
TE: Jeremy Shockey: A
TE: David Thomas: B-

The only reason I now feel wrong about the Drew Brees 500 yard estimate as I type this is that I now see that estimate might have been a bit conservative.

Saints Defense (Base 4-3):

Overall: C (Momentum Weighted*: D+)
Points per drive: 1.71 (C)
Drive success rate: .670 (C)
Turnovers per drive: .187 (A-)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: D-
vs left end sweeps: D-
Right DE: F
Interior run defense: C
Left DE: C
vs right end sweeps: A+

Yeah, I'm not sure what's up with the right side of the Saints' defensive line, but they can be run over. Again, the Cards best hope is to strike quick, get a lead, and then try to kill the clock by running it down their throats... which can be done against this mediocre run defense.

The Saints, however, have had better fortune than most with turnovers, subject as always to variance but there could be a ballhawking mentality to them. If the backers can step in front of a couple of Kurt Warner bullets or a blitzer can get to him and knock the ball from his smallish hands, getting a two TD lead on the Saints may be far easier said than done. In fact, a timely turnover or three could help put this game on ice quickly.

Pass Defense: C+
Defensive line vs rush: C-
Pass rush: C
vs #1 WR: A
vs #2 WR: C-
vs Other WR: C
vs TE: B
vs RB: C

The Saints can defend the strong side well, so while I boasted the possibility Ben Patrick likely won't blow up on the Saints for a big game. But any of the receivers could unload for big yards, possibly multiple receivers. The Saints do a fine job of locking down a key target, but they can be exploited by a team with several receiving weapons, as the Cards have.

Saints Special Teams:

Kicking: D- (Kickoffs: C)
Kick returns: B
Punting: D
Punt returns: D

Yeah, well, it's a good thing the Saints score a crapton of points and their crappy special teams don't matter.


So who has the edge?

I haven't made it much of a secret, but the Cards aren't going to see many of the advantages they had with the Pack, and that game was awfully close. The Saints have just as much firepower on offense, in fact way more, and the Cards are now in a hostile dome against a ballhawking defense, with the added caveat that Kurt Warner is as prone to big turnover games as he is to big passing games.

Unless the Cards successfully exploit the Saints defense without any miscues without missing a beat from last week's explosion, the Saints are probably going to humble the Cards on Saturday, ensuring we have a new NFC Champion in 2010.

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