The Cardinals face the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night, on what is really a must win game. No-one would doubt that they have struggled offensively, especially at the quarterback position, and against a stingy 49ers defense, few expect things to improve for QB John Skelton and the Cardinals offense.
A win would keep the Cardinals in lock-step with San Francisco at the top of the NFC West, a loss would see them fall two games back on the division leaders. The Cardinals have home-field advantage, but unfortunately, that is the only column which favors Arizona.
If the Cardinals have any hope of toppling their divisional rivals, they need to find a way to protect and support their quarterback, John Skelton. The Cardinals much maligned offensive line is on track to give up 80 sacks this season, and the 49ers pass rush, who have managed just 11 sacks thus far, will be fired up and motivated to improve those numbers.
Adding using tight ends and running backs in pass protection will help a lot, and the Cardinals must commit to this if they hope to give Skelton the chances he needs to succeed. A blown blocking assignment by running back William Powell resulted in the injury to Kevin Kolb which gave Skelton back the starting job, and their current tight-end group has been assembled to catch passes, not block so the Cardinals hesitance to rely heavily on this is understandable. Nonetheless, the team must do so against the 49ers, and give the Cardinals big, physical receiving corps time to get down field and move the chains. Expecting the offensive line to miraculously improve overnight isn't going to happen, so the team must provide additional support.
The Cardinals should also look to use the no-huddle offense earlier in the game, and keep the tempo high. Skelton is well known for improving dramatically in the fourth quarter and leading the team to unbelievable come-from-behind wins, and this appears to be in no small part due to their use of the hurry-up offense.
As a quarterback, Skelton improves when running a simpler offensive playbook, and making adjustments at the line. When given the full playbook, and the more strict assignments that come with it, mistakes abound. He seems to struggle to remember his progressions, often staring down a single receiver, which results in incompleteness and picks and he seems to confuse routes in his head and throw balls to areas of the field where no receiver ever showed any indication of moving into.
He also struggles a little with his internal clock, holding onto the ball while facing pressure from his blind side, and this has resulted in strips and fumbles at times too. In the hurry up offense, the ball leaves his hand quicker, and he seems much surer in his progressions and routes, often because he has modified them himself at the line.
Ken Whisenhunt is well known as a detail oriented micro-managing type of coach, so this style is never going to be his favorite method of play calling—it took him many years to even allow his offensive coordinators to wear a headset, and call plays directly. However, a great head coach puts success ahead of his own feelings, and is willing to play to his players strengths. Skelton has admitted he is a slow starter, and expressed a desire to find his groove earlier in his game. His best play comes during the no-huddle, hurry up offense, and so the Cardinals must offer him that chance sooner in the game.
The team simply cannot let the 49ers build up any kind of lead, because, as we saw in Minnesota, that may leave Skelton with too much to do, and not enough time to do it, so must start the no-huddle from the outset, and hope to build a lead of their own, or at least remain in touching distance of their opponents.
Finally, the Cardinals must run the ball. Against a San Francisco team which allows on average less than 100 yards per game, and without a first tier running back, it will always be tempting to abandon the run altogether but the Cardinals must avoid this at all costs.
Against the Minnesota Vikings, running back LaRod Stephens-Howling had a career day, rushing for 104 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries and adding an additional 45 yards on four receptions. Against Buffalo in Week 6, William Powell managed 70 yards on 13 carries. The Cardinals have serviceable running backs, who can post positive yardage.
However, even if Stephens-Howling and Powell combine for less than 50 yards, a real possibility, committing to the run helps the pass no end. Not only does it prevent the 49ers defense from selling out to stop the pass—something they will undoubtedly want to do—and force them to pay less attention to the quarterback and receivers, it also keeps the defense on the field for longer, and opens up the prospect of play-action passes and successful draw plays.
Stevens-Howling is an explosive and elusive runner, if a little undersized, and has seen great success running to the outside and breaking tackles in the open field, and is also useful in the passing game. Powell, a larger back, is punishing up the middle, and can grind out tough yards, even after initial contact.
Using both men, perhaps even in split-back sets at times, will keep the defense guessing, and will give the Cardinals passing game additional chances to succeed.
If the Cardinals can utilize these things, to support and protect their quarterback, then Skelton has proved he can win tough games. And few will come tougher than this one.