The Atlanta Falcons just ended a three-game losing streak, and the Arizona Cardinals are looking to avoid falling into one of their own.
The two teams meet Sunday at 1:25 p.m. at University of Phoenix Stadium in a rematch of a game Atlanta won 23-19 in a defensive struggle a year ago.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan three a career-high five interceptions in last season’s meeting, and the Arizona offense sputtered its way to a sixth-straight loss. But this year’s Arizona offense has been overhauled, though it’s produced similar results to last year’s woeful unit.
The Falcons (2-4) will be without star receiver Roddy White, but the Cardinals will still be tasked with slowing down a passing offense whose 306.3 yards per game rank third in the NFL.
Arizona (3-4) will be facing a familiar foe in Atlanta running back Steven Jackson, though he’s played just two games this season. The Falcons snapped their longest losing streak in six seasons last week, and haven’t won a game on the road this season.
Keys for the Cardinals offense:
1. Be diverse
The Cardinals offense has become predictable at times — something a unit that isn’t flawless in execution can’t afford to do. Arizona needs to be diverse in how it gets the ball to its backs, especially if Rashard Mendenhall isn’t able to go.
If Arizona can simulate a running game with a mix of quick-hitting outside passes and screens, the Cardinals will be able to get their playmakers the ball in space with a chance to make big plays. But if the playcalling in certain down-and-distance situations is predictable, the Cardinals haven’t shown that they’re good enough offensively to put up points.
2. Get Fitz going
Larry Fitzgerald hasn’t been the dynamic receiver of old for most of the last two years, thanks to a combination of poor quarterback play, learning a new scheme and nagging injuries.
The Cardinals will line Fitzgerald up at nearly every receiver position on the field in an attempt to get beneficial matchups, but Arizona needs to find a way to get more production out of the heartbeat of its offense.
3. Establish an identity
Part of the challenge that comes with a new coaching regime is establishing an identity on either side of the ball. Defensively, the Cardinals have done that. But offensively, it’s been a mix of power runs, five-wide sets and nearly everything in between.
While diversity is good for an offense, the Cardinals have fallen into a pattern of doing a little bit of everything without excelling at anything. It’s to the point of the season that the Cardinals should have an understanding of what they do well offensively, or at least what things they do less-poorly than others.
Keys for the Falcons offense:
1. Be smart
If the Atlanta offense can avoid making a big mistake to either give up a score or put its defense in a bad situation, the onus will be on the Cardinals to score points and take control of the game — something they have yet to show they can do.
2. Next man up
The Falcons are without their top two receivers in White and Julio Jones, who underwent season-ending foot surgery last week. Harry Douglas will be Atlanta’s No. 1 receiver, and it’s safe to assume he’ll be a non-factor thanks to Patrick Peterson.
But Atlanta needs to find production from somewhere in its depleted receiving corps, and while tight end Tony Gonzalez will likely put up big numbers, he won’t be able to carry the Falcons offense alone.
3. Commit to the run
Committing to the ground attack isn’t easy for a team that’s struggled to run the ball as badly as the Falcons, but with the return of Steven Jackson, Atlanta needs to commit to at least being a threat to run the ball.
Jackson is the type of back that becomes more effective as the game wears on, and a similar back in Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch had solid production against the Cardinals last week. But if Atlanta struggles the run the ball early and abandons the ground game in favor of passing the ball, Arizona’s secondary and pass rush is good enough to severely limit the Falcons’ production through the air.
Keys for the Cardinals defense:
1. Pressure Matt Ryan
Like any NFL quarterback, Matt Ryan will torch a defense if he’s given ample time to throw. But after a slow start to the season, the Cardinals pass rush has been a force of late.
Between John Abraham and the linebacker duo of Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington, the Cardinals have been relentlessly pressuring quarterbacks in passing situations — especially in the defense-friendly environment at University of Phoenix Stadium. That needs to continue Sunday.
2. Limit Atlanta’s run game
The Falcons’ ground attack has been sub-par this year, though the Falcons have had Jackson for just two games. They average 3.6 yards per carry, and Jackson has the team’s lone rush for 20 or more yards.
Atlanta’s rush offense hasn’t been able to reliably produce, and the Cardinals need to make sure that continues. Against a passing attack as potent as the Falcons’, the last thing the Cardinals can afford to do is give momentum to an underperforming part of the Atlanta offense.
3. Find Gonzalez
Gonzalez, a future Hall of Famer, has 24 catches for 276 yards in his last three games — and that’s including a two-catch, 30-yard performance last week.
Tight ends have destroyed the Arizona defense through the season’s first seven games, especially hybrid-type pass catchers like Jimmy Graham, who fits into the Tony Gonzalez mold. Gonzalez will be one of Ryan’s top targets with White and Jones out of the lineup, and the Cardinals need to solve their tight end issues to slow down Atlanta’s passing attack.
Keys for the Falcons defense:
1. Eyes on Ellington
Cardinals running back Andre Ellington isn’t a focal point of Arizona’s offense, but the rookie out of Clemson provides a big-play threat every time he touches the ball. Because of his ability to gain yardage in big chunks, the Falcons need to know where he is whenever he’s on the field. If the Cardinals can find a way to sneak Ellington out of the backfield without drawing attention to him, it will only help a unit that has struggled to move the ball consistently.
2. Nothing deep
The Cardinals and Carson Palmer have shown that if a defense doesn’t allow a big play and makes the team put together a sustained drive, someone is most likely going to make a mistake.
There’s no reason the Falcons shouldn’t be content taking away the deep pass and making Palmer throw the ball 35-plus times and banking on the costly error that has been a prevalent part of the Arizona offense to this point of the season.
3. Get to Palmer
If Atlanta’s pass rushers can get to Palmer, Arizona’s chances of having a big game offensively decrease dramatically. While those chances already slim — as are the chances of the Cardinals effectively protecting him — Palmer is still a big-armed quarterback who can find receivers if he’s given time.