The Arizona Cardinals reached their first milestone of the Bruce Arians era last week — winning their first game under the coach — with a 25-21 win over the Detroit Lions.
Now they'll have a shot at a second milestone under Arians — winning their first road game, though their second attempt will have to come at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against the New Orleans Saints. The Cardinals haven't visited New Orleans since their lopsided playoff loss there in 2009, but are looking to build off of back-to-back strong offensive showings and a solid defensive performance against Detroit.
Arizona has shown that, if nothing else, it isn't the pushover it was for the second half of the 2012 season. If the Cardinals find a way to go to New Orleans and compete, they'll turn some heads around the league and show that it might not be just a two-team race between San Francisco and Seattle for the NFC West title.
Keys for the Cardinals offense:
1. Win first down: The Cardinals have gone three-and-out just twice this season, good for second in the NFL. A major part of that has been their ability to avoid third-and-long situations, and that will be a key on Sunday. If the Saints' pass-rushers can pin their ears back and go after Cardinals' quarterback Carson Palmer, they'll likely have little problem beating Arizona's pass protection in the noisy Superdome. But if the Cardinals can get in situations where they can be diverse in their playcalling, it'll at least help neutralize the home-field advantage the Saints typically enjoy.
2. Help Levi Brown: The effects of a loud environment are most felt by offensive tackles — especially those that struggle against speed rushers, like the Cardinals' Levi Brown. Though the Saints have recorded a solid-but-unspectacular four sacks through their first two games, they're likely licking their chops at the prospect of getting to line up against Brown in pass situations. The Cardinals have to counter that, much like they did against Detroit, by having tight ends and backs help Brown on pass plays that take any time at all to develop.
3. On the run: The Cardinals want to pass the ball (and it would be hard not to with the combination of Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd), but establishing some semblance of a run game may be the only way they'll be able to move the ball through the air in New Orleans. The Cardinals are — once again, at least through the season's first two weeks — an unspectacular team with regard to running the ball. But both Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington average more than four yards per carry, and Arizona has been able to get itself in third-and-manageable and use its play-action packages. That's all the Cardinals can realistically expect out of the ground attack at this point. If Arizona can consistently gain positive yards against the Saints' 26th-ranked rush defense, it'll make life infinitely easier for Palmer and his offensive line on the road.
Noteworthy stat: Eleven different Cardinals have caught a pass this season, and nine of them average more than 10 yards per reception.
Keys for the New Orleans defense:
1. Get to Carson Palmer: It's no secret that the Cardinals offensive line struggles in pass protection, though it at least showed the ability to be competent against Detroit. But left tackle Levi Brown failed his first road test this season, and the crowd noise in New Orleans won't make things any easier on him. If the Saints are able to consistently pressure Palmer, it'll work in their favor in two ways — forcing the quarterback to get antsy in the pocket, as well as making the Cardinals keep a receiving option in pass protection. But if Arizona's tackles are able to hold their own, it will free up the Cardinals' passing game, and Palmer has shown that he'll find receivers if he's given time.
2. No big plays: If the Saints can force Arizona to put together long drives, the Cardinals will likely struggle to score. Though kicker Jay Feely's confidence appears to be returning, Arizona isn't going to win at New Orleans by kicking field goals. The Cardinals have found the bulk of their offensive success by creating big plays to Fitzgerald, Floyd and Roberts. But Palmer has shown that he's prone to making big mistakes, though he's obviously a major upgrade over what the Cardinals have had at QB since Kurt Warner. Couple that with the offensive line's tendency to allow pressure on the quarterback, and the Saints' chances of creating a big play on defense increase as Arizona is forced to prolong drives.
3. Get the ball: If the Saints can force Arizona to turn the ball over, the Cardinals have little-to-no shot of winning the game. While Arizona's turnover ratio is even through its first two games, Palmer threw a pick-six against Detroit and, although he's been largely successful in Arizona, has made at least one terrible decision in each game that led to a turnover. If New Orleans can capitalize on the few mistakes that the Cardinals' offense is likely to make, Arizona is in trouble. But if the Saints are unable to take advantage of a poor decision or two, Arizona should be able to score enough points to compete.
Noteworthy stat: New Orleans ranks 11th in total defense under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan — up 20 spots from its 31st ranking in 2012.
Keys for the New Orleans offense:
1. Keep momentum: The Saints will start the game with the built-in momentum that comes with playing at home, especially in a raucous environment like New Orleans. If they can keep that momentum, things won't look good for the Cardinals. But if Arizona can make a big play early — force a turnover, get a big special teams play or take an early lead — it has a chance. It's the Saints' game to lose — if they're able to move the ball and keep the crowd in the game, it'll be a steep uphill battle for the Cardinals.
2. Get Jimmy Graham the ball: This hasn't been much of an issue for the Saints through the season's first two weeks, as he leads New Orleans in catches (14), yards (224) and touchdowns (2), and has its second-longest reception at 56 yards. Graham is one of the new-wave hybrid tight ends that are a missmatch for defenses, and the Cardinals are unlikely to find a way to match up against his size and athleticism. If Graham is effective, it'll force Cardinals' defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to get creative in coverage, likely giving another New Orleans pass-catcher a chance to step up. But if Arizona is able to limit Graham in single coverage — as unlikely as it is — the Cardinals will be able to diversify their coverage and pressure, making things more difficult on Brees.
3. Fix red zone woes: New Orleans has been the NFL's worst red zone team through the season's first two weeks (1-for-7), a far cry from the offense that ranked in the league's top-six in five of the past six years, and has never finished below 50 percent since head coach Sean Payton arrived with Brees. The Saints' lack of a consistent run game has likely been the biggest factor, but New Orleans will need to convert against the Cardinals' opportunistic defense in order to give its struggling defense a cushion against Arizona's newly capable offense.
Noteworthy stat: New Orleans is 1-for-7 in the red zone this season after being one of the better red zone teams in the league for the past several years.
Keys for the Cardinals defense:
1. Stop the run: If the Saints can effectively run the ball and get into their play-action sets, there isn't a defense in the league that stands a chance. New Orleans' offense has struggled to run the ball in 2013, though, averaging 76.5 yards per game and ranking 24th in the league. If Arizona can take away the Saints' subpar running attack and turn New Orleans' offense one-dimensional, it should be able to force a costly mistake or two against an offense that throws the ball more than 40 times per game.
2. Get to Drew Brees: Everything New Orleans does on offense starts with its seven-time All-Pro quarterback. He's completing almost 65 percent of his passes this season, but has thrown as many interceptions as touchdowns. While the New Orleans offense has taken a step forward with Payton's return, it's still not the machine that it was in the late 2000s. If the Cardinals can get pressure on Brees — something they've struggled with through their first two games, recording just one sack and minimal hurries — it would go a long way toward upsetting the rhythm of a New Orleans offense that still isn't fully clicking.
3. Create and prevent big plays: The Saints are going to move the ball against the Cardinals, and between Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston, they have a bevy of guys who can make a big play at any given time. But if the Cardinals defense can prevent the Saints from hitting big plays for touchdowns — as well as come up with a turnover or two — it can get Carson Palmer and the offense the ball without having to play catch-up and abandon the ground attack.
Noteworthy stat: Arizona has recorded just one sack this season, and standout linemen Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell have combined for just nine tackles through two games.