Super Bowl 43  

 

Cards focused on keeping Panthers' big-play ground game in check

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Here are some numbers to chew on:

Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams has broken off runs this season of at least 20 yards in 10 games, 30 yards in seven games, 40 yards in four games and 50-plus yards in three. His backup, Jonathan Stewart, has five games in which he's had runs of at least 20 yards and two with at least 30-yard runs.

Here is a number to swallow on -- hard:

The Arizona Cardinals -- yes, the Cardinals -- have allowed just one run of 40 or more yards and only eight of 20 yards or more all season. They did not allow a run of more than 13 yards in last weekend's wild-card victory over the Atlanta Falcons, who had 12 games in which they had runs of at least 20 yards this season.

So when Arizona faces host Carolina Saturday night, the Panthers' explosive running game could have some pop, just not the boom.

"It's no secret," Cardinals middle linebacker Gerald Hayes said. "It's our guys hustling to the ball, making sure that one person doesn't make the tackle, (but) that a whole bunch of guys make tackles. It's basic football that you learn from Pee Wee. It's better to have two or three guys making tackles instead of one.

"It's always been a point of emphasis with us. It's being talked about a little bit more this week because everything is more intensified, but we all know that's what we are supposed to do."

Arizona allowed Carolina's Williams to run for 108 yards with a long run of 15 in a 27-23 loss in Charlotte earlier this season. That long run was the first of three Carolina touchdowns in the third quarter that keyed the Panthers' comeback victory. This rematch, and the stakes that come with it, has brought back the bad taste of that loss, that run and the way the defense performed in crunch time.

"We didn't play like we know we can but we're going to be ready," safety Antrel Rolle said. "We're trying to work our way through the playoffs so (limiting big runs) is something that has to get done."

The Cardinals have been inconsistent against the run and this can't be a time for a down game. Carolina has averaged more than 190 rushing yards over its last eight games and Williams and Stewart have collaborated for more than 2,300 rushing yards and 28 rushing touchdowns this season.

The keys to limiting big gains on the ground are multi-layered, according to Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Those layers are practiced over and over, even at this point of the season, he said.

It starts with mastering and maintaining proper technique at every level of the defense. Linemen have to play their assignments and leverage plays the way they've been designed for the situation and field position. Linebackers have to shed blocks and get to spots. Defensive backs have to make quick reads and not miss tackles.

The success of the plan is predicated on football geometry.

"We practice angles at every level of our defense," Pendergast said. "The defensive line has to take 45-degree angles. The linebackers are taking 45-degree angles to the ball carrier and the secondary is taking 45-degree angles to the ball."

Unless, of course, the play calls for a zero-degree collision.

"That's a big focus and has been a big push for us in terms of guys rallying to the football and not allowing big runs," Pendergast added.

Up front, the defensive line must consistently hold its ground or re-set the line of scrimmage to force the ball carrier into positions he doesn't want to go. If the front four can routinely push offensive linemen backwards and stuff run gaps, it becomes hard for any running back to find room to operate.

Williams and Stewart are excellent at bouncing plays outside or cutting back against the grain when holes are clogged, which means Arizona's linebackers have to be under control in pursuit. The Cardinals' boast the ultimate backstops with Rolle and fellow safety Adrian Wilson, a Pro Bowl player. They are both fleet and aggressive big hitters -- and sure tacklers.

"Our two safeties do a nice job of tackling in the secondary and other parts of the field," Pendergast said. "We're lucky because they get guys to the ground."

The Cardinals do live, form-tackling drills every Wednesday in individual groupings to make sure they don't get sloppy with their techniques, Pendergast said. Not every team works on tackling through the season, which is why some teams digress defensively as time progresses.

Stephen Dunn / Getty Images
Arizona has allowed an average of 132.5 rushing yards over its last eight games, putting the onus on LB Karlos Dansby and the rest of the Cardinals defense to slow down Carolina's potent rushing attack.
Cardinals run defense in final eight games
Wk Opponent Yards Long Result
10 San Francisco 119 20 W, 29-24
11 at Seattle 43 7 W, 26-20
12 N.Y. Giants 87 13 L, 37-29
13 at Philadelphia 185 17 L, 48-20
14 St. Louis 85 32 W, 34-10
15 Minnesota 239 32 L, 35-14
16 at New England 183 16 L, 47-7
17 Seattle 119 16 W, 34-21

To show how thorough NFL teams are when it comes to scouting and preparation, Carolina's players have been made aware of Arizona's ability to minimize long runs. The Panthers can be a big-play offense but they aren't overly stressed about breaking off huge chunks of yardage against Arizona. In fact, Carolina wouldn't mind churning out 3 and 4 yards a carry because it likely will burn time off the clock.

The more time the Panthers offense can kill, the less time Arizona's dangerous offense, featuring quarterback Kurt Warner and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin will be a game-time decision with a hamstring injury) stays off the field.

"We'll take anything we can get as long as it's not a negative-yardage run," Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. "That's kind of the idea behind the running game, to hopefully chip away at them and break some as time goes on. This is going to have to be a ball-control day with offense. They have an explosive group of receivers so we have to keep the ball in our hands."

There is some thinking that Carolina will be able to soften Arizona's run defense by getting the ball to wide receivers Muhsin Muhammad and especially Steve Smith. If the Panthers start completing passes, the Cardinals will back a safety out of the box, run-gap locations near the line of scrimmage or drop into nickel packages that leave just two linebackers on the field.

"When they get eight in the box they don't just stand there and look at the quarterback," Muhammad said. "They try to put some pressure on the quarterback. If they back out of that and try to take our receivers out of the game, go to a cloud coverage or double coverage, we ought to be able to run the ball."

Any Panthers' success in the passing game isn't going to make Arizona immediately back out of run-stopping schemes, though.

"Steve Smith is one of the best receivers in the league and they are going to make plays, but at the same time, you have to play your defense and play what's called," Rolle said. "That's why corners make the money that they make. That's why they make the big bucks. Buckle down, man up, take care of one-on-one coverage because you might not always have help."

The Cardinals have adopted the bunker mentality of it's them against all doubters. Most guys have bought in, especially on defense. When they were challenged to stop Atlanta last week, they bowed up and held the Falcons, who finished the regular season as the NFL's No. 2 rushing offense, to 60 yards rushing.

They have been challenged again.

"We've got to stop the run or they say we can't, so it's a matter of going out there and executing and doing what you do well, which for us, is making sure more than one person is tackling the ball carrier," Hayes said. "We always have to prove ourselves but teams are surprised when they play us and feel how hard we play. We always have to prove ourselves, so this game will be no different."

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