MHR Chalk Talk - Game Prep for Denver Broncos at Arizona Cardinals

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Revengeofbirds_thumbs_medium_medium  For thoughts on the game from a Cardinals perspective, visit Revenge of the Birds!! Revengeofbirds_thumbs_medium_medium

The final game of the preseason is upon us, and it's the toughest game to prep for MHR's defensive coordinator in residence.  Why?

  1. Chalk Talk likes to analyze teams systems, not so much player match-ups.  This is because player match-ups appear all over sports media (both on and off line).  Arizona has performed so badly over the years, that information about their offensive and defensive systems are very difficult to find.
  2. Being a preseason game, teams play very vanilla.  For this reason, preseason Chalk Talks are abbreviated, and treat the game as if starters where playing and systems are in effect.  But game four in a preseason is the toughest of all.  Starters may be rested entirely, and no hint of offensive or defensive styles will be showcased.

What's a game prep writer to do?  Serve his fellow Broncos fans.  After all, the preseason is a "preseason" for Chalk Talk too.  Chalk Talk (like the fans and the players) is gearing up, practicing, and shaking off the cob webs too.  The '08 season is days away, as is the hated raiders (sic).  Which reminds me,

A very special WELL DONE to our Cardinal friends in Arizona.  All of us at MHR send you a Mile High Salute for your blow out of the raiders (sic).  When it comes to beating the raiders (sic), we're ALL Americans. 

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First off, the Cardinals are a team with a lot of problems.  Mike Florio (over at The Sporting News) writes the following: 

The Cardinals snuck into the playoffs 10 years ago and won their only postseason game since the Truman administration. Since then, nothing. They've been competitive at times, and they've been a trendy pick the past two years to turn things around. But they haven't.

Part of the problem is the Cardinals are too quick to blame the team's fate on the head coach, creating a regular state of turmoil that makes it hard for the successor to be successful. At a deeper level, the Cardinals have yet to use the current system as a way to maximize their talent while properly managing the spending limits.

The Anquan Boldin situation is a prime example of the flaws that prevent this team from succeeding. With two high-end receivers on the roster, they've paid one of them (Larry Fitzgerald) a contract worth $10 million per year. But the other (Boldin) is making a fraction of that, and the two players are comparable in terms of skill and production.

Now they have to choose between keeping an angry Boldin, trading him or paying him. The Cardinals seemingly want to squat on Boldin, even though a T.O.-style situation could soon unfold.

Of course, none of this would have happened if Fitzgerald's rookie deal hadn't included escalators that backed the team into a cap crunch, forcing it to give him that $40 million deal.

Then there's Matt Leinart, the franchise quarterback the team drafted in 2006. He'll open the season riding the pine while the next player drafted behind him, Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler, seems poised to become a star.

First, I'm going to confess that I'm not familiar with the Cardinals defensive system.  I know very little about defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.  He runs a base 4-3 formation on defense, and has some players of note, but nothing that generates any write-ups.  Researching the defensive system of the Cardinals might be like getting a look at North Korea's or Iran's nuclear program, except that no one seems to be interested.  (At press time, the Arizona Cardinals deny any intentions of develping a nuclear program).

The Denver offense (on the other hand) runs a West Coast Offense paired with a one cut running Zone Block system.  The team features an up and coming QB, depth at WR, depth at TE, and a stable of runners that always seem to crack 1000 yards a season (no matter who starts).  With Ryan Torain on the PUP list, and Pittman a question mark, Denver may be in danger of having speed without power though.  Denver had serious problems in the redzone last year, so if they hope to overcome that problem (and also be a threat on third and short downs), they may need to keep Pittman and pray for a speedy recovery for Torain.

The only other concern for Denver is a major changing of the guard on the vaunted offensive line.  Lepsis retired last year, and Nalen / Hamilton are wrapping up careers.  Denver has brougt in some new players including first round pick Clady), and moved forward players waiting in the wings.  In the preseason thus far, the OL looks like it will be fine.

The real test for the teams though isn't Denver's offense versus Arizona's defense.

Denver's defense is expected to run (former defensive coordinator) Coyer's version of the Man / Show Blitz.  While not set in stone, many factors point to this system.  The most recent factor is the reluctance of the Broncos to blitz, and the lack of hard core pass rushing by the DL.  I believe that Denver is holding back the scheme until the start of the season, but that everything (down to one gap DTs and statements about returning to roots) indicates the Show.

However, Denver's biggest question marks are on the defense.  The DTs were the weak link of the team last year in the Run Contain system, and Denver has little to show for improvement.  Denver's lone draft pick for addressing the position is on IR for the season, and the other pick-up is FA DeWayne Robertson.  Robertson is likely a major key to Denver's season.

Robertson is a very powerful one gap DT who was (wrongly) used in the NY Jets Fairbanks - Bullough system.  He may do well paired with upcoming Marcus Thomas (DT), but he has three strikes that may or may not come into play.

  1. According to doctors, his knees look like Hell.  On the other hand, he's hardly missed any games in his career.
  2. We haven't seen anything yet (regular season) from a guy who was used incorrectly in another team's system.
  3. The more he plays for Denver, the higher the draft pick compensation goes.  (This bothers me very little though.  If he plays great and often, he's worth it).

The question marks deepen at LB.  DJ Williams at  WLB is considered solid, and should have a great season.  But the MLB position has (so far) looked like a battle between mediocre talents.  This may change radicaly in the regular season, but for now Denver fans may have some concerns.  Over at SLB, Boss Bailey is (once again) injured, so the jury has to be out on his performance.  However, some LBs waiting in the wings (Woodyard chief among them) have shown some surprising flashes, and may jump in.

Denver is at once both elite and deep at CB.  The safeties this year seem to be an improvement over last year.  Denver has a pro bowl, pass rush talent at DE (Dumervil), and several good run stopping and balanced players too.   So the area of unknowns falls squarly on the front seven.

Which brings us to Arizona.  Arizona's offense is built to exploit the front seven.  During an MHR staff meeting, I brought up the difficulties of researching the Cardinals.  Guru (The Wise) advised me to consider how much Arizona looks like Pittsburgh on offense.  Once again, Guru was right.

Head Coach Whisenhut and Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley (who share a birthday) share ties to the Steelers.

While Arizona has two outstanding WRs, they have a decent running game with both Edge James and Tim Hightower.  While not a true zone block team, they are experimenting with it.  (Note: While Edge is a one cut runner, I wouldn't consider Indy's OL to be a true ZB system as referenced in the link.  My opinion is that the author takes the Coach's comments to mean play by the Indy OL, instead of the running style used by James).

If this were the regular season I would expect Arizona to run a Pittsburgh-like smash mouth offense (Erhardt - Perkins) that would force Denver to face the run.   While Arizona will use several ZB plays, I don't see them running the system the plays are predicated on.  At any rate, If Denver can't stop the run, they may get much the same shock that the raiders (sic) just suffered.

In the passing game, Arizona has a struggling QB but solid receivers.  Now that the promotion of Warner has proven to be a false rumor, the only danger to the Cardinals' passing game is the public dispute taking place between Anquan Boldin and his team.  That, and the elite Denver secondary.

Where does this put the game (if it were regular season)?

KEYS TO THE GAME -

Denver

  • Play mistake free on STs
  • Stop the run / force the pass
  • Because the Cards have a better Off than Def, win the time of possession battle

Arizona

  • Establish the run
  • Establish the run (yes, it's that important)
  • Limit turnovers (this should be a tough game for Ariz, and TOs would only make matters worse).

The Cardinals have been popular dark horse picks the last couple of years.  Folks keep waiting for the team to take off.  (Did you know the Cardinals are the oldest professional football club, dating back to the 1800s in their days in Chicago?)  Somehow, they just never get over the top.  If this were a regular season game, the pick would be easy.  But in a vanilla mix of systems, and playing with 3rd and 4th stringers, there's just no way to predict this game.

You know what's next folks.  MNF against Oakland.  We can be forgiven if we overlook preseason game four just a little.

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