As the Arizona Cardinals gear up for their huge early season showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday in Glendale, it will be very interesting to see how well Arizona's much improved defense handles the high-powered offense of Michael Vick and company.
Can they get sustained pressure on Vick and force him into mistakes? Can they contain LeSean McCoy? On the flip side, can the Red Birds generate enough offense to have a legitimate chance to improve to 3-0? All interesting questions. Let's take a look at how these 2-0 teams match up:
The Eagles will be without one of their top receivers in Jeremy Maclin, who will miss the contest due to a hip injury. Head coach Andy Reid will try and mix and match in more targets for tight end Brent Celek and also undrafted rookie Demaris Johnson. Desean Jackson, as always, is a dangerous long ball threat. Quarterback Michael Vick has had a real roller coaster ride so far, leading the NFL with six interceptions thrown and three fumbles but also ranking third in the NFL in passing yards (688). He's tossed three scoring passes and added 66 yards on the ground with one TD.
When healthy Vick is one of the most exciting players in the league but he can be rattled. The Cardinals defense is quickly becoming one of the better units in the league. Led by linebacker Daryl Washington (who leads the NFL with 23 tackles), Paris Lenon (two sacks) and a fine secondary (paced by Patrick Peterson and veteran Adrian Wilson), Arizona will try and get sustained pressure on Vick with a variety of blitzes and speed rushes. Vick struggled against the Cards last season, throwing for only 128 yards and two interceptions in Philly's 21-17 loss to Arizona.
Of course the Eagles also have one of the best running backs in the league in LeSean McCoy, who doubles as a superb pass catching back. McCoy ranks sixth in the league in rushing (191 yards) and has also added eight receptions out of the backfield. He can help Vick set up the play action pass very effectively. He will face a Cardinals defense that has not allowed a rushing touchdown yet this young season.
A key player for Philadelphia could be Celek. The six-year veteran leads all tight ends with 222 receiving yards and could be Vick's safety blanket. The Cardinals will have to account for him over the middle on seam routes.
This is such a huge game for the Cardinals. Not only can they go to 3-0 but they can stamp themselves as a legitimate threat to the 49ers in the NFC West.
As of now Kevin Kolb is expected to get the another start at quarterback but John Skelton returned to practice on Thursday. If Kolb gets off to a rough start, don't be surprised to see Skelton come off the bench if he is deemed healthy to play. Kolb may be working on a short lease. This game means a lot to Kolb – not only is he facing his old team, he would like to put forth another fine, winning effort to try and keep the starting gig.
The Cardinals were conservative offensively against New England last week – Kolb threw for just 140 yards but did not throw an interception – and it worked. This week they are going to have to kick it up a notch against the high-powered Eagles. Look for Kolb to get Larry Fitzgerald involved early with slant routes and even some screen passes. Fitzgerald, coming off one of the worst games of his career last week (one catch for four yards), will probably be matched up against All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha , which is no day at the beach. The Cardinals have to make the effort though to get Fitzgerald the ball as much as possible because he is still their best impact player.
Tight end Todd Heap, Arizona's leading receiver so far, looks to be a game-time decision with a sprained knee. Rob Housler will start in his place if Heap can't go. Cardinals coaches like Housler's speed and upside.
Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams have to step up their games this week to help set up play-action and take some pressure off Kolb. They've combined for just 80 yards this season, one of the worst figures in the league. Williams also must protect the ball better – he's already lost two fumbles this season. The offensive line will have their hands full against an aggressive Eagles defense.
This will be a challenge for a still underrated, impressive Cardinals defense, which is allowing just 17 PPG this season. They've been getting better and better since the midway point of 2011. Arizona has excellent special teams as well – a solid kicking game, one of the best punt return men in Peterson and no team has blocked more kicks than Arizona (15) since 2008.
Prediction: This should be a very close game. Look for Fitzgerald to get involved early and have a nice bounce back game. McCoy should have a very good outing for the Eagles but I expect Arizona's defense to cause a few turnovers by Vick and for Kolb to stay steady, if not spectacular. Look for Wells and Williams to contribute just enough and for the Cardinals to climb to 3-0 for the first time since 1974. Cardinals 24, Eagles 21.
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