Three weeks ago, If I had suggested that the Arizona Cardinals could be in line to start the 2012 season at 3-0, I would have been laughed at, even by myself.
Yet, against all the odds, and in the face of every prediction, the Cardinals somehow find themselves at 2-0, as they prepare for their Week 3 home fixture against the Philadelphia Eagles. For the third week in a row, the Cardinals will enter the game as underdogs—albeit by a much smaller margin than in Week 2 against the New England Patriots—and once again hope to beat the odds, and the opponents.
Both teams currently sit at 2-0, and the Cardinals and Eagles will both be well aware that teams who start the season 3-0 are statistically much more likely to make the playoffs—around 75% of all teams start with this record are still playing football in January.
Yet if the Cardinals hope to keep up their winning record, they once again face an uphill battle. How can they win? Here are five keys to victory for the Cardinals.
Put pressure on Michael Vick.
The Arizona Cardinals defense is one of the top units in the NFL today. Quick, young and aggressive, their pass rush is one of the most feared in all of football, and rightly so. Ray Horton has designed an eclectic, high tempo defense which has many a quarterback shaking in his boots. Pressure can come from anywhere on the field, and yet, with its quickly improving secondary, this rarely comes at the expense of coverage.
In 2012, the Eagles seem to have won in spite of, rather than because of Vick. He has taken risks, and licks, and paid for it. In the young season, Vick has already thrown twice as many interceptions (6) as touchdowns (3), given up four sacks, and fumbled the ball three times.
His mobility simply isn't what it used to be, but without his primary safety valve—the ability to take off and run—Vick has looked decidedly shaky in the pocket. His reads and progressions just take too long, he is unable to avoid pass rushers the way he used to, and his passing attempts when under pressure are amongst the most inaccurate of any NFL quarterback this season.
If Vick plays that way against Arizona's ferocious pass rush, the chances of him even finishing the game, let alone being successful, shrink dramatically. Horton's defense must dial up the pressure, and force the Eagles QB to make every pass with defenders right in his face.
If they can do this—and I have no doubt they will—then that will hopefully allow the team to...
Get the Defense off the field sooner.
The Cardinals defense may be one of the top units in the NFL but as most Cardinals fans know all too well, they spend far too much time on field to maintain the pace Horton prefers for the entire game.
The Cardinals offense go 3-and-out much too often and rarely give the defense as much time as they need to fully recover before returning to the field. As a result, they particularly struggle during no-huddle situations.
So if the offense isn't cutting it, the Cardinals defense need to do a better job at interceptions and forced fumbles. Though the Cardinals are suitably impressive at tipping and deflecting balls and hitting quarterbacks and running backs hard, relatively few of those ever result in turnovers.
Against Philadelphia, that needs to change. Turnovers not only give your offense another shot, they also get your defense off the field that much sooner, and that is a must for Arizona, not just for this week, but also for any kind of sustained success down the line.
Make more use of Larry Fitzgerald.
Without question, Larry Fitzgerald is one of the top wide receivers in the game. He is, by some distance, the Cardinals greatest offensive threat. And yet, throughout the first two games of the season, Fitzgerald has been held to just five receptions for 67 yards and no touchdowns.
His presence has surely been felt, his blocking abilities have helped in the running game, and the attention paid to him by oppositions has ensured that others, especially Andre Roberts and Todd Heap, have the space necessary to make key plays.
And yet no-one else on the field has shown the big-play ability Fitzgerald has. No-one else has the physicality, instincts or pure, raw talent that he has either.
Fitzgerald has the skills to make things happen all on his own. He forces defenders to miss, makes catches which would simply be impossible to other receivers. While I'm not advocating forcing the ball to number 11 on every play, there are times when the best, perhaps only, course of action is to put it out there, in those places only he can get it, and see what he can do.
Through two games, Fitzgerald has been effectively blanketed by defenses, but in both games, there were times when the opposing team seemed to ease up on the Cardinals top receiver. At times, there seemed to be a sense amongst the opposing defense that Kevin Kolb had given up on Fitzgerald as an option, and focussed on other areas of the field. This at times, left Fitzgerald in one-on-one coverage, while Kolb danced around in the pocket looking for check-down lanes.
Fitzgerald is a key to offensive success, and the Cardinals must not forget that, and must not let oppositions forget that either. Getting the ball to Fitzgerald a little more often will not allow defenses to ignore him, and his big play ability will inevitably, eventually lead to points for the Cardinals too.
Include more of Michael Floyd.
The Arizona Cardinals first round draft pick has been a none-event through his first two games. The Cardinals do not like to rush rookie's into the lineup, preferring where possible to allow them to naturally develop into the roll. But with such a limp offense at present, the time may have come to force the issue.
Floyd is still a raw prospect. He has prodigious talent and natural skill, but his knowledge and understanding of pro-game in general, and the Cardinals offense in particular is still very much in question.
Nonetheless, Floyd is a big, physical receiver, very much in the mould of Larry Fitzgerald. While Andre Roberts has stepped up his game throughout the first two games of 2012, and Todd Heap finally appears to be proving his value to the team, but neither of these men put fear into the hearts of opposing defenses yet. Early Doucet, in spite of occasional flashes of brilliance, appears simply not to have the requisite skill set to regularly challenge top tier defenses.
Teams still seem perfectly happy to blanket Fitzgerald, pressurise Kolb and challenge him to throw elsewhere. With Floyd lining up and being targeted more frequently, in spite of the fact that he is largely an unknown quantity—or perhaps because of it—teams would be forced to pay attention to him.
Perhaps I'm wrong, but I believe that this would be win's all around. Not only would it give Fitzgerald a little more breathing room—and a little is all he would need—but it would also allow Roberts to slip back into the slot, and fill the Steve Breaston role I believe he is naturally most suited to as well.
Fitzgerald, Roberts in the Breaston role and Floyd filling the spot left vacant by Anquan Boldin are a genuinely fearsome combination, and even with a struggling Kevin Kolb or John Skelton under center, should provide more than enough options to keep the ball moving in the right direction.
Put the ball in the hands of Kevin Kolb.
In 2011 Kevin Kolb's triumphant return to Philadelphia as the savior of the Arizona Cardinals was put on ice when first he struggled and then he went down to injury. Instead he was forced to watch from the sidelines as John Skelton lead a late game comeback to secure the win against Kolb's former team.
In 2012, it appeared that the table's had turned for Kolb. Skelton went down to injury in Week 1 , and Kolb appeared to have won back the job he lost in preseason, with touchdowns against Seattle and New England.
However, named starters rarely lose their starting jobs due to injury alone, and Skelton's return to practice on Thursday once again threatened Kolb's grudge match against his old team.
I'm a fan of Skelton. I believe he has far more long term potential than Kolb, and if given the chance appears to me at least, that he has the skill set to develop into a good, dependable NFL quarterback for years to come. So it surprises even even me when I say, even if Skelton is game fit, Kolb should still get the nod.
I hope, and fully expect, that Skelton will be given the opportunity to keep the starting job if he is able, but that shouldn't start against the eagles. Aside from the obvious—Skelton's lack of preparation—Kolb simply presents the Cardinals with the best chance to win against this week.
Kolb has been waiting his whole career to prove once and for all that he really is a top-tier NFL quarterback. He has faced nearly equal levels of fan disdain in both Arizona and Philadelphia, and will never be as motivated or have as much to prove as against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Kolb knows the Eagles defense. He had faced their pass rush week in and week out in practice for the early parts of his career. This alone gives the Cardinals a clear advantage.
Kolb actually looked good during the early exchanges in New England. He stood tall in the pocket, and showed very little fear, even in the face of direct pressure. The result was that the Cardinals offense was productive during this time.
However, as the game progressed Kolb once again appeared to struggle. He began to move around in the pocket, and the reads he made and accuracy of his passes both declined as a result.
Against the Eagles, I don't expect this to happen. He has a reputation in Philadelphia, as in Arizona of being soft. He will do everything in his power to shake that image, and I am certain will take anything the Eagles throw at him in his stride.
Kolb could be the Cardinals secret weapon against Philadelphia and the Cardinals need to take advantage of the fact that Skelton is coming off an injury to justify using it.