It’s never easy when the Cowboys travel to the desert to face the Cardinals, and this season will be no different.
The Cardinals have skill at several positions, but they have weaknesses that Jason Garrett’s club can take advantage of. It’s this mix of good and bad that could either lead to an upset or to the Cowboys winning their fifth straight game on their march to the NFC East title.
Cardinals' Fitzgerald could exploit Cowboys' weakness
You do not have to be a professional scout to know that Fitzgerald is one of the best wide receivers in the game. The Cowboys have struggled with receivers making plays down the field the past two games. I was concerned about what Brandon Marshall was going to do against this secondary, but I am even more concerned of the challenge that lies ahead with Fitzgerald.
When you study his game, you see a tremendous route runner -- not in the sense of an explosive player, but much like Miles Austin in that he runs his routes at the same speed throughout the route. Fitzgerald doesn’t give the corner any type of hint when he is going to break in his route. Most receivers in the NFL have to chop their steps or slow down to make cuts, but not Fitzgerald.
In my view, the most impressive trait he possesses is his hands. Other than Kurt Warner, Fitzgerald has played with some bad quarterbacks throughout his career in Arizona. Never have I seen a receiver that adjusts to more bad balls than this guy, but he is always coming up with the play.
The Cowboys have to be careful with Fitzgerald when he runs the inside routes, getting the ball on the move and exploding through the middle of the secondary. Remember what he did to the Steelers in the Super Bowl several years ago? He has done that this year as well.
The one personnel switch for the Cowboys will be that Mike Jenkins will be in the lineup. That takes Alan Ball off the field in the nickel, and it also allows Orlando Scandrick to go back to his role as the nickel corner.
RB Wells has very similar style to Cowboys' Murray
The Cowboys’ run defense has had stretches where it has been outstanding, then two games where the Eagles and Seahawks were able to gash the defense for some nice gains. Beanie Wells is more of a physical runner than a home-run back. His offensive line doesn’t give him much room, so he has to create opportunities on his own, but he doesn’t have the quickness of LeSean McCoy or Marshawn Lynch.
Wells can hurt you with the ability to use his vision to see a crease then make a cut, much like what we have seen with DeMarco Murray. Wells is not afraid to take the ball to the hole then allow the defenders to commit and bend it backside. The Cowboys’ run defense can be aggressive flowing to the ball, so what happens on the backside with these defensive ends and linebackers will be key if they are going to keep Wells in check.
The Cardinals will attempt to run Wells to keep the rush off Kevin Kolb, who is making his return to the starting lineup after dealing with a toe issue.
Matchup to exploit: Cardinals' offensive line
The biggest weakness of this Cardinals offense is their line. There is nothing pretty about the way they play or the effectiveness in which they operate.
Usually when I study an opponent each week, there are one or two players that I will like on their offensive line. There is no one on the Cardnals’ offensive line I would want if I were building a team.
Tackles Levi Brown and Jeremy Bridges struggle with speed off the edge, and it would be no surprise to me if Rob Ryan starts there to attack this offense. At the guard spot, things aren’t much better with former Packer Daryn Colledge and ex-Brown Rex Hadnot, who really struggle with movement of the defensive line and don’t do a good enough job of handling the twist stunts or games in the middle of the line. Colledge really struggled because he would become engaged with his block, then a linebacker would run through on the blitz and he was unable to adjust off that to secure the blitzer.
The biggest fear for the Cardinals is if they are stuffed on the run with Wells and it turns into a game where the Cowboys can tee off on Kolb. The fear for the Cowboys is that they allow this poor Cardinals line to block them like the Redskins did two weeks ago.
There are questions about Kolb’s health and mobility. The Cowboys need to take advantage of the situation when given the opportunity.
DT Dockett will be handful for Cowboys' line
Defensively for the Cardinals, tackle Darnell Dockett will be a handful for Kyle Kosier and Montrae Holland. I worry more about Holland because he tends to struggle with those players that can get on his outside shoulder and quickly get up the field. That is what we see in Docket’s game.
Dockett is an explosive player that loves to attack on the outside. Holland hates this type of player because he doesn’t always adjust quickly enough out of his stance.
The Cowboys have to be careful when they go to their outside game that Dockett isn’t allowed to get up the field and into the backfield to throw off pullers or John Phillips trying to get to the edge to secure the corner. Any type of penetration throws off timing and the execution of the blockers.
The Cowboys will have an advantage when the Cardinals have to rush the passer. Other than Dockett, this front really struggles with pressure. It is only when they are able to bring linebacker help that they are able to generate a pass rush.
The Cowboys have struggled some this season when teams have brought pressure from the linebackers in the middle of the defense. Center Phil Costa was better last week, but continue to watch how he and Holland handle these games.
Cards' young linebackers making some noise
The Cardinals have two young linebackers that I really like. Former TCU star Daryl Washington and Texas-ex Sam Acho really show up on tape. Both of these players are always around the football. Impressed with the way that they are able to fight blocks and finish plays.
Washington showed the ability to work through the trash, keep his balance and make the tackle in the hole. I would not call Washington a thumper like a younger Bradie James, but at the point of attack, he has done a nice job.
Acho is a nice player off the edge. In the Rams contest, he showed the quickness to come around the corner, beat the tackle and get a sack of Sam Bradford to cause a fumble. He and Dockett are the two best pressure players the Cardinals have in the front seven.
Don't overlook Peterson as defender, either
Rookie Patrick Peterson has created quite a buzz with his ability to return punts for touchdowns. Peterson is a talented cornerback, but I have heard the whispers that early in the season he wasn’t playing as well and was struggling in coverage.
I studied four games -- Eagles, 49ers, Rams and Ravens -- and did not see the struggles that scouts were speaking of. There was one play against the 49ers where he slipped on a stutter-go to Michael Crabtree and it ended up as a nice gain, but overall, I only observed a corner that could read the route, drive on the ball and defend the play. Didn’t see a corner that played with wasted steps or was not quick enough to keep position in the route.
In the Ravens game, Peterson did a nice job in press coverage, turning and running with his man, then finding the ball. In my view, Peterson did not look like a player that was struggling to do his job. We’ll see if Jason Garrett’s game plan will be to try to attack Peterson, but there are other areas that he can go to for better results.
Cowboys run game: Watch safety Wilson
When the Cowboys run the ball, they must be aware of safety Adrian Wilson, who likes to work around the line of scrimmage. Wilson is a physical player who is not afraid to mix it up against the run or pass.
When the Cardinals need a big play in the secondary, it will usually come from Wilson. Wilson can hurt you as a blitzer. He has a nice feel for how to time his blitz and be that disruptive player.