Pass rush critical to Cardinals-Saints matchup

Two high-powered offenses will clash this weekend when the Cardinals head to 'The Big Easy' to play the Saints. The Cardinals put on a show last week, winning an overtime thriller 51-45 over the Packers and their second-ranked defense.

The Saints have the 25th-ranked defense and will be challenged to slow down Arizona' offense. The same holds true for the Cardinal's 20th-ranked defense that has to slow down the Saints' top-ranked offense.

This should be a high-scoring game with close to 80 pass plays and at least 60 points scored. Here are the three pressing questions I have as I study the matchup.

1. Can the Saints' offense get back on track?

The Saints averaged 37 points, while winning their first 13 games. They looked unstoppable for 10 weeks, until a three-point overtime win over the Redskins and a three-point win over the Falcons indicated they were not invincible. The last three games of the season were all loses and the Saints' points per game average shrunk from 37 to 15. Granted, their last game against the Panthers was played without Drew Brees, but against Tampa Bay and Dallas -- both loses -- the Saints lined up with Brees and the rest of their starters.

The Saints really built a balanced offense in 2009, finishing up with 21 rushing touchdowns and 34 passing scores, but it remains to be seen if the late-season dry spell was a permanent problem that carries over into the playoffs. Keep in mind, those loses to Tampa and Dallas were both at home and now they face a Cardinals team that won a road playoff game in last year's divisional round at Carolina.

2. Will the Cardinals run the ball more than expected?

When the Cardinals offensive coaches study the Saints defense, they are going to be very tempted to run the ball close to 30 times in this game. Running the ball controls the clock, and keeps Brees off the field.

After watching Arizona rush for 156 yards against the Packers' top-ranked rush defense last week, I will not be surprised to see even more running against the Saints. In the last three games, New Orleans gave up 499 yards on 107 carries. That's an average of nearly 36 carries for 166.3 yards at 4.6 yards per carry.

Take a look at what Tampa Bay did in overtime when they ran the ball right at the Saints nine times to set up the winning field goal, and notice that all three of the teams that beat New Orleans at the end of the season won the time of possession battle.

3. Which team has the ability to pressure the quarterback?

Brees was sacked 20 times this season in 514 pass plays or once every 25.7 attempts. It sounds impressive, but when you consider that he was sacked once every 39 attempts in his previous three seasons in New Orleans, its clear the protection wasn't as good this year.

The Saints only played four teams with a 3-4 defense this year and they gave up 10 of those 20 sacks in those games. The Cardinals have a 3-4 defense and got to Aaron Rodgers five times last week. Brees will have his rhythm disrupted in this game.

The Saints also get a chance to get after Kurt Warner, whose blind side will be protected by backup left tackle Jeremy Bridges. Starting left tackle Mike Gandy was placed on IR, leaving Bridges with the unenviable task of blocking Saints DE Will Smith, who had 13 sacks this season.

The Packers only got to Warner once last week and his rhythm was not disrupted all game long. It's worth going after Warner, because he has a history of fumbling when the rush gets to him. He fumbled 12 times this season. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will not hesitate to bring exotic pressures from defensive backs and linebackers if he has too.

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