Key vs. Atlanta was…
The play of the Arizona front four. Rightfully maligned as an inconsistent and lethargic unit late in the season, Clancy Pendergast’s defensive line exploded against a somewhat undersized Falcons front five. Matt Ryan was pressured all day and sacked three times, and the league’s second leading rusher, Michael Turner, was held to just 42 yards on 18 carries.
Veteran defensive end Bertrand Berry was particularly effective working against rookie left tackle Sam Baker (who had been battling back problems in the weeks leading up to the game). The Falcons also made the mistake of not double-teaming defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. Instead, they singled him up with former undrafted free agent Harvey Dahl. Dockett is by no means a superstar, but his quick hands make him extremely dangerous in a three-technique. Plus, simple film study reveals that Dockett – who is by far Arizona’s most important D-lineman – dominates against single blocking, but disappears against double teams.
Key vs. Carolina will be…
Stopping one of the league’s best rushing attacks. Don’t expect the Cardinals to do it. As well as the front four played Saturday, it’s doubtful they can reenact the performance against an oversized and aggressive Carolina offensive line. A lot of responsibility will fall on the linebackers. Arizona will need Karlos Dansby to be in his brilliant mode (a tossup given the way Dansby’s week-to-week output fluctuates).
It was shrewd of Pendergast to limit middle linebacker Gerald Hayes to one-gap responsibilities against Atlanta – watch Hayes on tape and you’ll quickly see that he’s a star when he does not have to think, but a liability when he does. Stopping the run is the first key for the Cardinals, but it might not be enough anyway. It remains to be seen whether Antrel Rolle is a good enough safety to help the corners contain Steve Smith.
Key vs. Minnesota was…
Doing exactly what everyone thought they’d do: load the box to stop Adrian Peterson (20 carries, 83 yards, though only 43 yards on 19 carries if you take away his one big run), then blitz Tarvaris Jackson in third-and-long situations. Right now the Eagles front seven is as venomous as it’s ever been under Jim Johnson, and that’s saying a lot. Two players who have really emerged are middle linebacker Stewart Bradley and pass-rushing defensive end Chris Clemons.
Key vs. New York will be…
Letting the stars shine. It’s pretty simple when you’re facing a divisional rival for the third time this season, and fourth time in the postseason. Both sides know what the other side brings. For Philly, it will be about Andy Reid continuing to go to Brian Westbrook, and Donovan McNabb prioritizing speedy rookie receiver DeSean Jackson when making his reads. The Eagles will struggle to run against the Giants, just like they struggled to run against Minnesota.
But slow developing plays – such as screens and draws – are always a way to isolate Westbrook’s skills. As for finding Jackson, Philly would be wise to get him the ball early and in space (end-arounds, bubble screens, etc.). This allows the rookie to be creative and search for the homerun. It’s important for Jackson to become the aggressor early, for he will have a tough time against the physical Giant cornerbacks, and the Eagles can’t afford to have him get rattled like he did against Washington.
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