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Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Scouts Inc.: Can Pendergast outscheme Eli?

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

 
 Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE and Rich Kane-US PRESSWIRE
 Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will use varied looks and movements in an effort to keep Eli Manning guessing.

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Keith Kidd

One of the most intriguing matchups in Sunday's Giants-Cardinals game will be decided, to a large extent, not on the field but in the film room. How Arizona defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast decides to attack quarterback Eli Manning in passing situations will go a long way toward determining the outcome.

Pendergast, who should be on a number of short lists for NFL teams seeking a new head coach in the offseason, is a dynamic thinker who specializes in exotic pressure schemes. He builds his packages out of a base 3-4, though the Cardinals often move into a four-man front in nickel situations. It's a multiple scheme with variations and movements, and Pendergast isn't afraid to use them all. That may be necessary against Manning, a terrific talent who continues to deliver efficient play. But to get to him, the Cardinals first must put the clamps on the Giants' explosive run game.

New York has an excellent trio of backs -- Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw and Derrick Ward -- who complement each other well, not to mention one of the finest offensive lines in the league. The Giants' runners can punish opponents, and they excel at bouncing runs outside and getting to the edges. Arizona's defense is fast to the ball and aggressive in pursuit, but slowing New York's downhill running and interior power will be a challenge. Against two-back packages on early downs, Pendergast likely will invert strong safety Adrian Wilson near the line of scrimmage and use a lot of stems and single-zone linebacker blitzes to put stress on the Giants' blocking patterns. The Cardinals must force Jacobs, Bradshaw and Ward to run laterally, create a new line of scrimmage and maintain gap discipline to put Manning in more difficult second- and third-down situations.

With that accomplished, Pendergast will utilize varied looks and movements to cover up back-end weaknesses and make it difficult for Manning to diagnose where the blitz is coming from on passing downs. Expect overload blitzes that attack the front side of the pocket (to affect Manning's eye level and passing windows) and back-side delays out of the slot. Pressure is the key to forcing game-changing mistakes. Manning has a tendency to telegraph passes and, when under duress, force throws into tight windows. Defensive end Darnell Dockett gets good interior penetration when he slides inside in sub packages, and Bertrand Berry, Travis LaBoy and Chike Okeafor all are capable pass-rushers. The players to watch, however, are Wilson and linebacker Karlos Dansby. Wilson, who spends a lot of time near the line in both regular and sub packages, is as effective rushing the passer as he is playing the run. Dansby, a versatile defender who can drop into zone or match up on a back in passing situations, might be at his best on the blitz.

Will Arizona's secondary hold up long enough to allow the pass-rushers to get home? The Cardinals don't move personnel around much on the back end, which should enable the Giants to dictate with their formations who and how they attack. Rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has played well in recent weeks, but he will be tested. Receiver Plaxico Burress likely will be aligned or motioned to exploit that matchup. The Giants also will try to use play-action to bait free safety Antrel Rolle, who has struggled a bit in deep zones. In any case, the Cardinals must be sound open-field tacklers, because there should be plenty of room to run for Giants pass-catchers in the areas vacated by blitzers.

This is the first segment of a two-part package breaking down this weekend's Cardinals-Giants game. Check back at noon for Mike Sando's take.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.