Arizona Cardinals  

 

Playmakers may give balanced Cardinals edge in playoffs

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The NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals' systematic dissection of the Rams on Sunday was so matter-of-fact, it barely caused a stir.

Sure, St. Louis is as offensively inept as someone trying to peel an orange with a shoe horn, leaving the overworked defense prone, but what Arizona did in that game was showcase its blueprint to make a deep playoff run.

We'll get to Arizona's ridiculously good offense later.

Defensively, the Cardinals' smothered running back Todd Gurley (nine carries for 41 yards), who ran wild in these teams' first meeting this season. That helped Arizona take apart a passing attack with limited threats.

It also caused Arizona to recognize that many of the playoff-caliber teams in the NFC (Seattle and Carolina) share the same makeup as St. Louis -- run-based, low-risk quarterback play and few perimeter receiving threats -- although those teams' offenses perform far more effectively.

The Vikings (8-4), who the Cardinals play Thursday in Arizona and who seem playoff bound, also fit the mold.

"This is the formula from here on out," said Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson, who is tied for third in the NFL with five interceptions. "Adrian Peterson is the best in the business. It is a huge task but we stop the run up front. That lets us match up on the back end and let us do what we do. As long as A.P. doesn't have a big day, we have a huge chance to separate ourselves from the division and NFC -- except Carolina."

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Trying to stop Peterson or Seattle's Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls or the Panthers' running game is great in theory. The Cardinals, though, feel they have the scheme and personnel to remain consistent and even improve on their fourth overall defensive ranking.

The abundance of talent and the hybrid scheme they're using with safety Deone Bucannon playing inside linebacker full time at 211 pounds has become problematic for opposing teams.

Bucannon, who leads Arizona with 80 tackles, plays as tough and disciplined as any normal inside backer. Most inside backers in this 3-4 scheme are at least 230 pounds -- fellow starter Kevin Minter is 246 -- but Bucannon plays fast and instinctively enough to get past a lot of the sledgehammering that takes place in the interior guts of the game.

He's also aided by a strong defensive line, his fellow speedy linebackers and fearless safeties -- like second-leading tackler Tyrann Mathieu -- who play the run and swarm tackle in the open field like piranhas that haven't eaten in a few days.

Bucannon ended up moving to linebacker in part because free-agent signee Sean Weatherspoon sustained a hamstring injury early on (and now only plays in sub-packages). But also because Arizona boasts so many good safeties (Mathieu, Johnson and Tony Jefferson), it was tough to fit Bucannon in full time.

"I've never seen anything like it," Johnson said of Bucannon's switch to an interior linebacker and the effectiveness at which he's played. "The only thing close was in my rookie year when Adrian Wilson would slide into the box in nickel and dime packages. For someone to do that full time shows how special he is.

"This also allows us to get our best players on the field. They found a way to do it, and Deone makes it special."

With the changes, Arizona's defense is looking equally as strong as its top-ranked scoring offense, led by quarterback Carson Palmer and home-run threats at every skill position -- Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, David Johnson and J. J. Nelson.

Averaging 31.8 points a game, the Cardinals put opponents in position to have to throw. That takes some of the pounding off Bucannon as a run-stuffer and allows him to either blitz or get into coverage, where his defensive back skills balance the scales against slot receivers, running backs or tight ends.

With cornerbacks Patrick Peterson, Jerraud Powers and Justin Bethel, as well as the aforementioned safeties, the Cardinals boast a dragnet of defensive backs that can make life difficult for a team like the Vikings, whose only major receiving threats are rookie wide receiver Stefon Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph.

The Vikings are going to try to run the ball with Peterson, especially after bailing on the run game so quickly in last weekend's blowout loss to Seattle. If the Cardinals slow Peterson down and put the game on Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater -- which will be the game plan -- then things will break for Arizona.

The wealth of playmakers all over the field for Arizona, including the secondary, gives them an edge in talent in potential shootout games with pass-oriented teams like Philadelphia and Green Bay, upcoming foes in Weeks 15 and 16 before a season-finale against Seattle.

"I haven't had a chance to look at everyone's roster but looking at ours, I can be confident enough to say we have playmakers. Tons of playmakers," Johnson said. "We have guys on offense that can stretch the field. Larry playing in the slot makes him unstoppable and on defense, we have skill all over the place. I believe we're one of the most skilled teams in the NFL."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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