The 3-0 Arizona Cardinals are preparing to play the 1-2 Miami Dolphins Sunday in front of the Red Sea at University of Phoenix Stadium. Big Red’s coaching staff, these products of perseverance and productivity, has been sitting around a big rectangle all week, planning and plotting their success. What can they do to put their players in positions to be successful? What can they do to stop or diminish the strengths of the Miami Dolphins? What can they do to exploit their weaknesses?
Although players on the offense, defense and transition teams operate and play within schemes independently (unless you’re Patrick Peterson) and should never allow the performance of a unit to impact their play, coaching and game-planning must take into account their comrades in all three phases to come up with a team strategy, a plan to be victorious on Sunday (it’s one of the reasons why Buddy Ryan threw a haymaker at Kevin Gilbride).
But the Cardinals coaching staff is faced with a specific dilemma that involves all phases of the game and is strategic in nature: will the Cards try to stick to the blueprint that generally got them to 3-0 or will they see the Miami Dolphins as an opportunity to come out of their skin, spread their wings and fill the air with pigskin?
In a gross simplification of reality, the Cardinals have won games by running the football — even if they weren’t experiencing great success — not throwing interceptions, making a play on special teams and playing hood and sickle football on defense. That’s been the blueprint and it worked to perfection against the likes of New England and Philadelphia.
Rushing the football has been centric to the success of Big Red. This unit is 12th in rushing attempts per game (28.7) but 30th in average yards per carry (2.8). Mike Miller’s brilliance is reflected in his understanding of how his unit needs to play in order to be productive. Play-action has got to be a big part of this offense and the only way to be effective with play-action (like the 37-yard post route for a TD to Larry Fitzgerald) is to run the ball into the pile! Make it a threat defenses must respect, even if you’re not experiencing great success. Humility in coaching shows great character and allows one to be a realist and this is one of Miller’s strengths. Coach Miller has refused to try and slam a square peg into a round hole.
Play-action helps protect Arizona’s QB by keeping him in a three-dimensional offense that includes running it, throwing it and using play-action. This helps mitigate the exposure of your Q. Kevin Kolb has been lights out for Big Red, but he is proving himself all over again. He threw the ball 27 times against the Patriots and 24 times against the Eagles. When you have a question mark at QB that’s right about where you want him. Kolb has responded to being in this offense by not throwing an interception in three games. He has protected the ball and made good decisions — from the pocket.
The combination of running the football and protecting the football has protected Big Red’s defense, the strength of this team. And that formula, along with making HUGE plays on special teams, has been successful for the Cards.
But the Dolphins have an excellent rush defense. Their front seven is 3rd in rushing yards per game (84.7) and 2nd in rushing yards per play (2.47). They have an active, quick, strong group that flies to the ball. The Dolphins rush defense has been a metaphorical stonewall.
Complicating the issue is the fact that the Dolphins have struggled mightily to stop the pass. They are 29th in passing yards allowed per game (307) and 22nd in passing yards per play (7.44). Compounding the complication is their lack of a pass rush. Although they have some good pass rushers, they have four sacks and are 29th in sacks per attempt. According to NFL stats, the Dolphins only have a 3% chance of getting to the QB each time said QB throws the ball. The Dolphins pass defense has been a metaphorical sieve.
So what will the Cardinals do? The coaching staff is faced with a dilemma this Sunday. Will they stick to what has been successful or see this game as an opportunity to get Kevin Kolb and their passing offense going, knowing they will need their offense to be pass-proficient in order to win specific games on their schedule?
Every game has a life of its own. Every game has an ebb and flow that dictates what coaches do, decisions they make, tactics employed and adjustments made. Every game is different and circumstances change strategy, but how they attack their opponent from the beginning is the end result of hours and hours of film study, research and staff meetings.
I wonder what those hours of film study, research and staff meetings about Sunday’s game determined in the hearts and minds of Ken Whisenhunt’s coaching staff?
It’s a dilemma. And that’s why they get the big bucks.