|Johnson is one of many explosive playmakers on the Cardinals offense|
Each week, I'll be doing an in-depth scouting report on the Patriots upcoming opponent, highlighting not only their personnel, but also strategical tendencies and how the Patriots might match up. The season starts with a big one, as the Pats will head on the road to face the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday Night Football. Coming off of a 13-3 season that ended with a loss in the NFC Championship, the Cardinals appear to have one of the league's most talented rosters heading into the 2016 season. Here's a closer look at the matchups.
Arizona Offense vs Patriots Defense
While the Cardinals are known for their prolific passing offense, they used the run early and often to set up those deep passes. Last year they ranked 9th in the league in rushing attempts (452) and averaged a respectable 4.2 yards a carry, forcing teams to respect the run enough to open up play action for the passing game.
Of course, the Cardinals rushing attack will have a different look this year, as second-year man David Johnson enters the season as the presumed feature back. Despite flashing explosive playmaking ability, Johnson didn't assume that role until both Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson went down with injuries. After managing double digit touches just once in Arizona's first 10 games, Johnson did so in every one of the Cards final 8 contests, including the playoffs. His regular season numbers (581 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 36 receptions, 457 receiving yards, 12 total touchdowns) have gotten him a lot of offseason hype as a potential breakout candidate, with much of the hype coming from within the Cardinals facility.
The key to stopping Johnson for the Patriots will be limiting his big plays. Despite his big back size (6'1", 224), Johnson's defining traits are his explosiveness and breakaway speed. He's elusive enough to make you miss in space and has the jets to turn one missed tackle into a big gain in a hurry. Sure one-on-one tackling will certainly be important, particularly for the secondary who will be charged with stopping him once he gets through the traffic of the front seven.
As for the Patriots front seven, they'll be going against an Arizona offensive line that looks far better at run blocking than pass blocking on paper. This is clearly evident in their starting guard duo of Mike Iupati and Evan Mathis. Both veterans struggle at times in pass protection, but both have been amongst the league's best run blockers at the position for years. Those two guards figure to be key to Arizona's attempts to run the ball, especially given their ability to pull and clear a path for ball carriers. There will be some high impact collisions when the likes of Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins come up to take on those two in the hole. While the play of those aforementioned linebackers will be crucial, so will gap control and discipline from the Patriots defensive tackles, starting with Malcom Brown and Alan Branch. Vincent Valentine should also get snaps on a rotational basis, and his inexperience could be targeted at times by the Cardinals zone rushing attack.
Setting a strong edge will also be key, as the odds of keeping Johnson from exploding for a big gain increase dramatically if you keep him between the tackles. It appears that Jabaal Sheard will be available, as he wasn't even listed as limited in practice despite spraining in MCL in the preseason. That will give the Pats a rotational trio of Sheard, Chris Long and Trey Flowers on the edge, with Barkevious Mingo potentially factoring in that rotation as well. The Cardinals have a massive pair of physical starting tackles in Jared Veldheer and DJ Humphries, presenting a challenge for the edge rotation right of the bat.
While Johnson figures to get the bulk of the snaps Sunday night, the other two aforementioned veterans are still here and will get touches as well. Chris Johnson was in the midst of a very productive season before going down with a broken leg. While not quite the same speed demon he was earlier in his career, CJ2K still has the wheels to create big plays if his blocking gives him a crease. He represents yet another playmaker who will test the speed of the Patriots defense. While he appears to be the younger Johnson's primary backup as an early down ball carrier, Andre Ellington projects to more of a change-of-pace passing down role. Ellington has explosive burst and open field elusiveness, but has struggled to stay on the field throughout his injury-filled career. With the younger Johnson displaying impressive passing game chops as a rookie, it's unclear how much Ellington will actually play, but his playmaking ability must be respected when he's on the field.
This battle figures to go back and forth, as one of the league's better secondaries will be tasked with matching up with perhaps the league's best receiving depth chart. While plenty of teams threw the ball more often than the Cards last year, no one threw it deep more often or better. Arizona's 7.8 net yards per passing attempt led the league, allowing them to finishing second in the league in passing yards despite ranking 19th in passing attempts. A whopping seven players recorded a reception of 40 or more yards last season, with an eighth just missing that cutting line with a long gain of 39.
The Patriots were predominately a press-man team last year, matching each of their defensive backs up with a receiver and trusting them to win the one-on-one matchup. They were successful in doing so despite facing some of the top receivers in the league, as both Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan stepped up with breakthrough seasons. While I expect them to continue to use this strategy liberally this season, it could be risky against an Arizona team with a group of receivers this diverse and deep.
The one matchup that leaps out as obvious is Butler shadowing John Brown. A third year player, Brown is small (5'11", 179) but possesses rare deep speed that makes him a big play waiting to happen. Even with Butler shadowing him, Brown's pure speed should warrant the attention of a deep safety. Brown battled concussion symptoms this summer, missing the entirety of the preseason, but he hasn't been listed on the injury report this week, making him a safe bet to be out there with no restrictions Sunday. While he does most of his damage on deep routes, the Cardinals will also manufacture touches to get him the ball in space. Wide receiver screens and end arounds are two such plays to keep an eye on with Brown.
|Fitzgerald's size makes him a major matchup problem in the slot|
Beyond that, the size of the Cardinals receivers figures to create some matchup problems for the Pats. Typically, Ryan would take on the other team's bigger wideout (Brandon Marshall and Demaryius Thomas were two noteworthy battles he faced last year), while Butler would face the quicker, speedier foe (Odell Beckham Jr and Antonio Brown fit this category). Unfortunately for the Pats, Arizona base offense features two big bodied receivers in Michael Floyd (6'2", 220) and Larry Fitzgerald (6'3", 218), creating a pick your poison scenario for the Pats. Adding to the matchup problems here is Fitzgerald's tendency to lineup in the slot, a late career development that led to one of his better statistical seasons last year.
On paper, the Patriots slot/nickel corner is second round rookie Cyrus Jones. However, matching up a rookie with Fitzgerald could be a death sentence, particularly with said rookie giving up about 5 inches and 20 pounds to the crafty veteran. While Ryan's skillset is better suited to playing the boundary, he does have plenty of experience covering from the slot and likely offers a more competitive matchup against Fitz. If he does draw that thankless assignment, his ball skills will be key, as Fitzgerald has made a career out of winning contested catch situations, particularly in the red zone.
That would theoretically leave Jones to cover Floyd on the outside. While many pigeon-holed Jones in the draft as a slot corner only due to his lack of prototype size, he was a boundary corner in college who had plenty of success against the NFL talent of the SEC. Standing at just 5'10", Jones would clearly be at a size disadvantage in this matchup. He has the athleticism to turn and run with Floyd down the field, but his ball skills will need to be at their best to keep the bigger receiver from making plays over his head.
If Jones struggles against either big bodied receiver, it will be interesting to see if newly acquired Eric Rowe gets a chance. At 6'1" and 205 pounds with long arms, Rowe was seemingly built in a lab to match up with big receivers like Floyd. Just a year removed from being a second round pick, Rowe showed promise in an up-and-down rookie year, but fell out of favor this summer under new Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. The Patriots preferred press-man coverage is perfectly suited to Rowe's strengths and makes for an easy transition, making it feasible that Rowe could play despite just joining the team days ago. With little experience in the slot, Rowe would strictly be an option on the boundary (i.e. against Floyd).
The Cardinals go five deep at receiver, with Jaron Brown and JJ Nelson rounding out the depth chart. Brown is a third year man who has impressively stuck around despite a crowded depth chart and his status as a former undrafted rookie. At 6'3" and 200+ pounds, he brings more size to the depth chart and stood out in camp this summer, when the Cards were often without several of his more heralded teammates. Meanwhile, Nelson is an extremely undersized speed demon who blazed a 4.28 40 time in the build up to last year's draft. His deep speed will warrant immediate attention whenever he gets on the field. As the most athletic of the Pats cornerback reserves, Justin Coleman figures to see time on him.
With the Cardinals preference for throwing deep well established, the importance of Devin McCourty as the deep safety cannot be overstated in this one. It will be largely McCourty in charge of making sure none of the Cardinals talented receivers can get behind him. In fact, with Arizona running such a vertical passing attack, I wouldn't be surprised if we see plenty of Duron Harmon in this one, with the Pats possibly splitting deep responsibilities between their two free safeties.
The tight end position was largely an afterthought last year in the Cardinals offense. They've talked up Troy Niklas, a former second round pick, this summer, who projects as a strong in-line blocker with potential as a solid if not explosive possession pass catcher. His size (6'6", 270) is noteworthy in the red zone. The other tight end on the roster is Darren Fells, a 6'7" former basketball player whose athleticism has never translated to much in the way of pass catching production in the pros.
While the tight ends aren't a big part of the passing game in Arizona, the running backs certainly were. David Johnson figures to play the majority of the passing down snaps, but Andre Ellington is another capable pass catcher out of the backfield. Both backs are adept route runners with the open field ability to take an ordinary check down or screen pass and turn it into a big gain. Jamie Collins typically checks opposing running backs in coverage and will face a challenging matchup against two players with extraordinary quickness.
|Humphries could be targeted by the Pats pass rushers|
With so many weapons, the best way to slow down this passing attack is putting pressure on quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer's MVP caliber regular season proved that he's still one of the league's best pocket quarterbacks, with a big arm that can shred defenses deep. However, as a 36 year old with multiple major injuries on his resume, he's hardly known for his mobility and can get rattled by pressure. Combine that with Arizona's deep passing tendencies requiring deeper drops and longer time in the pocket for the quarterback, and pressure appears to be the best way to disrupt Palmer's rhythm.
Fortunately for the Pats, Arizona's offensive line is questionable at best in protection. Left tackle Jared Veldheer is amongst the league's best, but the rest of the line consists of question marks. Second year right tackle DJ Humphries is a first time starter after essentially red shirting his rookie year despite his first round status. Center A.Q. Shipley is a journeyman who has never entered a season as the starter. Guards Evan Mathis and Mike Iupati are both well-established players, but neither has been a pass protection standout in their careers. The Patriots boast plenty of edge defenders capable of bumping inside and rushing from the interior, something they could use to their advantage against the weaker interior of the Cardinals line. Anthony Johnson, a third year player who really stood out rushing the passer in the preseason, is another guy who could use his explosiveness to take advantage of the matchups inside.
Arizona defense vs Patriots offense
Can the Patriots run the ball? Despite sporting one of the league's most anemic rushing attacks last year, the Pats did little to upgrade the talent at running back. Not only does LeGarrette Blount return as the team's top between-the-tackles rusher, but he's the only back of that nature on the roster. With James White and DJ Foster better suited to the passing game and Brandon Bolden being a jack-of-all-trades, master of none backup, Blount figures to get the bulk of the early down work.
While Blount looked more explosive than he did last season during August, he's always been a back who is reliant on his line to generate enough space for him to get going downfield. That could mean trouble against an Arizona defense that was solid against the run last year, holding opponents to 3.9 yards per carry for the season. The Pats will likely try to establish the run early on, as doing so will take pressure off of first time starter Jimmy Garoppolo while opening up play action for him. If they can't get the running game going, Garoppolo will be forced to carry the offense against one of the better defenses the league has to offer.
|Campbell is a monster in the middle of the Cards defense|
The biggest key to opening up the running game will be generating movement on Calais Campbell, a mountain of a man whose ability to control blockers should recall the dominant Patriots prime of Richard Seymour. Expect Campbell to see plenty of double teams, as he's simply too big and powerful for any of the Pats projected starters to block one-on-one. The Cardinals defensive line is rounded out by veterans Corey Peters and Frostee Rucker, with second year man Rodney Gunter and first round rookie Robert Nkemdiche rotating in. Nkemdiche is a high upside talent who figures to play more on passing downs; the rest of the rotation consists of solid pros, but none who would be considered impact players.
The other key to getting the rushing game going will be getting a blocker on "linebacker" Deonne Bucannon. Originally drafted as a hard-hitting safety, Bucannon's smooth transition to linebacker has helped create a league-wide trend. While clearly undersized compared to traditional linebackers (he's listed at 6'1" and 220 pounds), Bucannon brings defensive back speed to the front seven and plays with an aggression that belies his lack of size. If unchecked, he will fly into gaps and blow up running plays before Blount and co can get going. The presumed starting guard duo of Joe Thuney and Jonathan Cooper (Cooper has been dealing with plantar fasciitis) are both excellent athletes who excel at reaching linebackers at the second level, but they'll rarely face a linebacker with Bucannon's range. The other starting linebacker is Kevin Minter, a former second round pick who is better on early downs against the run than in pass coverage.
One way to establish the run is using heavier personnel. Expect the Pats to run plenty of two tight end sets featuring both Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, as both tight ends are excellent blockers who should be able to set a strong edge for the Patriots backs. Gronk going against old friend Chandler Jones as a blocker figures to be a fun battle. In fact, that could be an area to attack as Jones, normally a strong run defender, can occasionally get sucked inside and give up the edge, especially against a blocker as good as Gronk. I wouldn't even be surprised to see the Patriots whip out the jumbo 3 tight end package for this one, with offensive tackle Cameron Fleming coming on as an eligible receiver to add some extra power to the edge blocking.
Arizona has been known for their strong secondary play during their recent run of success, but their depth has been hit a bit this offseason. While they still have a few studs in the secondary, there could be some weak links to pick on.
The secondary is led by the dynamic duo of Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. Now entering his sixth season, Peterson backed up his reputation as one of the game's top corners last year with a stellar season. Unlike some of his competition for the title of best corner, Peterson tracks the opponents best receiver week in and week out, shutting them down more often than not. While he performs his simple role at an extremely high level, Mathieu performs a variety of roles and does them all exceptionally well. Mathieu is a safety by name, but he spends much of his time as a slot corner, where he's become one of the game's best. He's also capable of matching up with tight ends, using his exceptional ball skills to make up for a lack of size (5'9", 186). Finally, he's aggressive and disruptive against the run, where his knack for forcing fumbles brings an extra level of impact to the field.
|Who will Peterson match up with?|
It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals utilize their two stars against a deep group of Patriots pass catchers. The Patriots top receiver is clearly Julian Edelman, which normally would lead to a matchup with Peterson. However, Edelman's expertise in the slot could make him a candidate for Mathieu to cover. That would free Peterson up to check Gronk, as Peterson is one of the rare corners with the size and length (6'1", 203) to be able to stand a chance in that matchup. The fact that Gronk is reportedly dealing with a balky hamstring certainly makes him a less daunting matchup, but he's expected to play and has proven in the past that he can be effective even when playing through injury.
With Gronk and Edelman likely to see plenty of Peterson and Mathieu, the other receivers on the team could find themselves with better matchups to attack. I'd particularly expect the Pats to attack Brandon Williams, a third round rookie who will be starting across from Peterson at corner. Williams impressed the Cards throughout camp, but faced the occasional ups and downs in the live reps of the preseason. Look for the Pats to use motion to try and create mismatches against him, possibly even with Bennett split out wide. The rest of the depth chart consists of Justin Bethel, a veteran special teams standout whose surgically repaired foot had him limited in practice, and Marcus Cooper, a former seventh rounder who had his share of ups and downs with the Chiefs. The Pats could decide to spread Arizona out and test their shaky cornerback depth, utilizing underrated receivers like Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola.
The aforementioned Bennett could be a key for the Patriots in this one. With plenty of attention likely to be paid towards Edelman and Gronkowski, Bennett should see plenty of single coverage. At 6'7" and 270 pounds, it will be imperative for Bennett to take advantage of his size advantage and to dominate those matchups. If Gronk is as limited as he sounds, Bennett will also need to step it up in the red zone, where his size should make him a go-to target for Garoppolo.
Speaking of Garoppolo, the presence of two running backs with passing game chops will likely be utilized to get him some easy completions and let him settle into a rhythm. While not nearly as dynamic as the injured Dion Lewis, James White proved last year that he's capable of being a reliable third down back with some playmaking chops in space. The screen game could be Jimmy's best friend, especially against a Cardinals defense that blitzed as often as anyone last year. It remains to be seen if rookie DJ Foster will even be active on Sunday, but he could be a surprise candidate for some touches if he is, as he flashed dynamic ability in his limited preseason reps.
|All eyes will be on Jones as he takes on his former team|
Protecting Garoppolo will be another key, as facing too much pressure early on could have a snowball effect on the third year pro's first career start. Much of the pressure will naturally be on tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon, who will be matching up with a talented edge rushing duo in old friend Chandler Jones and second year man Markus Golden. Pats fans are well aware of what Jones is capable of, but Golden could be a surprise star after improving steadily throughout his rookie year. Nkemdiche is another name to watch on the Cardinals defensive front, as the rookie interior rusher has an explosive first step than can create disruption in a hurry if unchecked. The young interior of the offensive line will also be tested mentally by the Cardinals blitz heavy tendencies. Picking up blitzes and stunts was not a strength of this group during the preseason, and they'll face far more complex looks Sunday night than the largely vanilla defenses of the preseason.
With his offensive responsibilities scaled back due to the development of David Johnson, Andre Ellington is expected to be the Cardinals primary return man on both punts and kickoffs. Pats fans have seen first hand with Amendola how that kind of role can jump-start a struggling player, and Ellington certainly has the talent to be a dangerous threat in that department. He's backed up on both return teams by JJ Nelson, who is one of the fastest players in the entire league and a big play waiting to happen. Discipline will be needed from the Patriots coverage teams, who return most of the main characters from a successful 2015 campaign.
The Cardinals special teams appear to be steady if unspectacular elsewhere. Punter Drew Butler and kicker Chandler Catanzaro return from solid 2015 seasons, while the coverage teams didn't particularly stand out in a good or bad way. Those coverage teams will be tested by Cyrus Jones, who will be making his debut as the Pats new return specialist. Jones' dynamic return ability appeared to translate from college to the pros during the preseason, and the team hopes he'll be a field position creating weapon for them on fourth down.