Commentary

Despite shaky QB, Cardinals a threat

Between Larry Fitzgerald and 'Steelers West' defense, Arizona is no pushover

Updated: September 14, 2012, 3:44 PM ET
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week is Sunday's home opener against the Arizona Cardinals at Gillette Stadium (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

Mike: It's a weekend to honor Troy Brown as he will be inducted into the team's Hall of Fame, and it's also the Patriots' home opener, which in recent years has meant a victory. The Patriots have won 15 of their last 17 home openers and are 10-0 in home-openers since Gillette Stadium opened in 2002. That's the longest active streak in the NFL.

Tedy: When it comes to Troy, he's the quintessential player who defined how we won. We had players with chips on their shoulders who weren't highly drafted but worked so hard, and when it came down to it, made huge plays. Even before Bill Belichick came in, I remember Troy making a catch while on his back in 1996. He made so many big plays. Those championships have Troy Brown's signature all over them.

Mike: The Troy Brown induction should add an extra energy to the weekend. Football-wise, as the Patriots roll into the second week of the season, they have a good foundation on which to build after that convincing season-opening performance at Tennessee.

Tedy: The defense looked great and they ran the ball, but the main thing I'd say is that it's just one game. Pump those brakes. And also consider that they were an undermanned Titans team with a quarterback making his first career start, and they were also missing their top receiver.

Mike: The Patriots probably wish the Cardinals -- who dating back to last season have won eight of their last 10 games -- were missing their top receiver this week, because Larry Fitzgerald is the type of talent who can keep coaches and opponents up at night. Let's get into this Patriots-Cardinals matchup and start by focusing on Arizona's unsettled situation at quarterback.

Tedy: The quarterback battle that was going on in training camp -- John Skelton vs. Kevin Kolb -- was won by Skelton. But as quick as it was Skelton's job, now it's gone because he has an ankle injury, a low ankle sprain. It looks like he will be out for this game, and in comes Kolb. When you have a quarterback battle going on in training camp between two guys who aren't high-profile quarterbacks, and you wait so long to decide, basically it's the coaching staff saying "neither of them are that good." Kolb did some good things last week against the Seahawks, leading an 80-yard scoring drive in a no-huddle, hurry-up type of situation. But it's another week where the Patriots play against a quarterback that isn't very experienced.

Mike: One of the themes this week for the Patriots has been getting to know the Cardinals, a team they don't play often. So in that spirit, a few quick notes on both quarterbacks: Skelton entered the NFL as a fifth-round draft choice of the Cardinals in 2010 out of Fordham. He's 6-foot-6 and 244 pounds, so he compares to Ryan Mallett from a physical makeup perspective -- a taller passer with a pretty good arm who is still developing a feel for the game. Kolb, who they hoped would be their franchise guy after acquiring him in a trade from the Eagles in 2011, hasn't panned out at this point. He's 6-foot-3, 218 pounds and one line of thinking is that now the pressure is off him. Losing the starting job and now finding himself back under center this week could be a good thing.

Tedy: The big thing for the Cardinals is that they have a special talent in Fitzgerald. You put it up near him and he'll find a way to catch it. He's that good. So Skelton or Kolb, I don't think it really matters. They just have to be told to get it to this guy and they'll throw it up to him in a jump-ball type of situation. When you talk about the best in the league, Fitzgerald is right there with Calvin Johnson. He's done it for a while now, since he was a first-round pick in 2004. Coach Belichick will have something in the game plan with this in mind; he always does when there is an obvious No. 1 threat on a team. They'll do everything to roll their coverage to jam him at the line of scrimmage, with a safety over the top. It's everything to get Fitzgerald out of the game plan and make other players beat you.

Mike: Sounds similar to last week's plan with Titans running back Chris Johnson (4 yards on 11 carries). Now let's get in to some of those other Cardinals players.

Tedy: The offensive line has had its problems. They lost left tackle Levi Brown; that was an early blow to them when he was put on injured reserve. Top backup Jeremy Bridges also went on IR, so they're still figuring things out there. They drafted receiver Michael Floyd in the first round, and receiver Early Doucet can do some things. With Ken Whisenhunt the head coach, and his Steelers background, they'll attempt to establish the run. They like to run the ball in between the tackles. There should be some entertaining collisions involving inside linebacker Brandon Spikes. But if you're the Patriots, you worry about Fitzgerald, first and foremost, with this offense. If you force the ball to be thrown to running backs and tight ends, which is what this team hasn't done in the past, then that just means one less throw to Fitzgerald. And that's good news to the Patriots defense.

[+] EnlargeLarry Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsLarry Fitzgerald presents the biggest offensive threat to the Patriots this weekend.

Mike: That might explain why the Patriots were working on jump-ball drills in practice this week. Looking closer at the Cardinals' offense, they had just 43 yards on 20 carries in their season-opening 20-16 win over the visiting Seahawks, which further accentuates the point on Fitzgerald, who Belichick noted is often moved around the formation and can be tough to find before the snap. Belichick often says a defense can essentially take away anything it wants, but the question is at what cost. You have to give up something somewhere else. So it will be interesting to see how that plays out: Who matches up against Fitzgerald, and how much help does he get? Is it Devin McCourty?

Tedy: I'm not sure it's going to be McCourty. It could be Kyle Arrington. It could be Ras-I Dowling, the bigger cornerback to cover on the bigger receiver. If McCourty is your best, maybe you put him on the other guy, all by himself, and rely on him to shut him down, and then roll all your coverage to Fitzgerald.

Mike: Speaking of matchups, another to monitor is impressive Patriots first-round draft choice Chandler Jones at right defensive end against Cardinals left tackle D'Anthony Batiste. A seven-year veteran out of Louisiana-Lafayette, Batiste made his first start since 2007 last weekend, and one might describe his performance as a boxer who was staggering but holding on deep into the fight. It's probably safe to say he exceeded low expectations in a tough matchup against Chris Clemons, but still, that looks like a trouble spot for them. This will be just his sixth career NFL start. In addition to Jones, what else caught your eye with the Patriots' defense against the Titans?

Tedy: I saw a lot of speed, especially at the linebacker position. Back in the days of our championship teams, I don't know if we were as fast as these guys. The speed that Jerod Mayo has. Dont'a Hightower looks like he can be a solid contributor. Brandon Spikes, one of the most entertaining things for me watching the game is seeing him go downhill and attack a block. He's that physical. These guys are flying around. It looks like that's a mantra for them -- fly around. They have the speed and ability to do it. Dare I say this defense is just as entertaining to watch as the offense?

Mike: When you watch the tape of the Cardinals' defense, what do you see?

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson, Adrian Wilson
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsThe Patriots can't lose sight of speedy safety Adrian Wilson, who often sets up at the edge of the Cardinals' defensive formation.

Tedy: Personnel-wise, this is an interesting crew of veterans and young explosive talent at every level of this defense. In the middle, you have Dan Williams, a 2010 first-round draft pick. You mix him in there with Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell -- two veterans who have had some success in the league -- and that's a good group. At linebacker, you have some young guys in O'Brien Schofield, Darryl Washington and Sam Acho, and then there's Paris Lenon. He was actually here in New England for a little while, in 2009 training camp. I got to know Paris a little and he is one of those steady, workmanlike guys. At defensive back, safety Adrian Wilson is the guy everyone talks about. He's teamed back there with Kerry Rhodes, and then at cornerback, you have a young, explosive talent in Patrick Peterson, a first-round pick in 2011. Add it all up and it's a nice mixture. This is a very prideful group. "Steelers West" if you will. They just don't have the rings or the big-name players the Steelers have.

Mike: Former Patriots safety James Sanders is a reserve for the Cardinals. He didn't play on defense in the opener, but was a core special-teamer (21 snaps). Patriots fans can keep an eye on him; he wears jersey No. 39. Sanders joins reserve offensive lineman Rich Ohrnberger as former Patriots on the Cardinals' roster. In terms of style of defense, it has some similarities to the Steelers, according to Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who is expecting a variety of looks, a lot of linebackers on the field, and an extensive pressure package.

Tedy: Their base sets will be in the 3-4 alignment and then in sub situations, they'll try to confuse you with where the pressure is coming from. Against the Seahawks, they overloaded one side of the offensive line on the right, and then came from the left, with others dropping out. So deciphering the combinations and pressure packages will be important. Tom Brady will use the "molasses" count. That's when you're at the line of scrimmage and you give a "Blue 80! Blue 80!" and it looks like you're about to snap the ball but you stop. Because when the defense hears that, they get to the line of scrimmage and show you where they're going to be. So it's a dummy count in a sense. At that point, Brady will point out the "Mike" (middle linebacker) and set the protections, and that's a way to counter the different looks. And that's important because the Cardinals will move around and bring combo coverages and aggressive blitzes.

Mike: And you see another similarity to Pittsburgh with how the Cardinals use safety Adrian Wilson. Explain a little, if you will.

Tedy: You watch Wilson and he's sort of in that Troy Polamalu mode. I don't know how much free reign he has compared to Polamalu, but you see him on the edge of a formation, coming off the edge at times, and sending him to different places. So you have to account for him.

Mike: One other thought on Brady. This will be just his second career game against the Cardinals. The first was back in 2004, at Sun Devil Stadium, and it was a 23-14 Patriots victory. Obviously a lot has changed since then, with Fitzgerald and Dockett the only Cardinals still on their roster. Likewise, Brady and Vince Wilfork are the only current Patriots who played in that game. The 49ers and Seahawks are the only other teams Brady has faced just once in his career. Based on how you explained the Cardinals' defensive approach, protecting Brady, as it was in the opener, will be big for the Patriots.

Tedy: That offensive line is a unit that will need to get better. There are too many shots on Brady from what we've seen to this point. You see a quarterback and he has a bloody nose, that can't happen. They are still getting used to not having Matt Light out there, so you just have to hope that as they develop there isn't that one shot that puts Brady out. While Brady always seems to get up from those hits, they take on a cumulative effect on his mobility and arm strength. They add up and when you get deeper into the season, you have a quarterback that is beat up.

Mike: Another aspect of this matchup that deserves attention is special teams. Belichick has stressed that this week, how the Cardinals have had success blocking kicks and have an explosive returner in Patrick Peterson.

Tedy: This is the next-generation Devin Hester. I think he has that type of ability, and the quickness and strength to run through tackles. There is going to be more of an emphasis on the punt game, because that's the type of threat Peterson is.

Mike: I like the Patriots in this game, as they are heavily favored and should win. The Cardinals' defense could present some issues that keep the game close initially, but in the end, I see the Patriots having too much firepower. Defensively, the opportunity is there to control the line of scrimmage against an offensive line that has some backup-caliber players in key roles. And then there are the questions the Cardinals have at quarterback. No questions from the Patriots in that area. Patriots 31, Cardinals 14.

Tedy: The Patriots are at home and Troy Brown is getting into the Patriots Hall of Fame. This team needs to capitalize on the emotion in that stadium and start to establish Gillette as a place where opponents fear playing. I see a Cardinals team that will try to establish the run and play keep-away from the Patriots' offense. Patriots 27, Cardinals 14.

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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