When the 2008 schedule came out, I think most of us took a look at the Cardinals/Rams portion of the schedule and thought - there's a break for the Cowboys. It's not quite working out that way as Arizona has proven to be a new team this year. They lead the NFC West and have an offense that can score points. This game is no longer a "gimme" but a true test for the Cowboys, a game where the winner is definitely in doubt.
So what's going on in the desert? I took a look at last week's Cardinals game vs. the Bills to get a Scouting Report.
The focal point of the Arizona offense was definitely the passing game and that hinged on the performance of Kurt Warner. The Cardinals didn't avoid the running game, they used it quite a bit, but the results were not always good. What were the Cardinals doing in the passing game that led to such success? Two things, they were protecting Kurt Warner and Warner was using short-to-intermediate passes to great effect. Arizona used a lot of three and four-wide sets even without the services of Anquan Boldin. Steve Breaston filled in for Boldin pretty well and they still have Larry Fitzgerald who is about as good as they come in the NFL. Their offense reminded me of a West Coast philosophy - lots of quick slants, crossing patterns and dump passes that took place mainly in the 5 to 8-yard range and relying on YAC to produce drives. The Cowboys have seen this before, recently the Redskins proved it could work against Dallas who has notably been playing soft zones this year; willing to concede the underneath stuff to protect vulnerable safeties and inexperienced corners deep.
Unless the Cowboys switch up their philosophy and press up on receivers to disrupt the short patterns, forcing the QB to hold the ball longer while waiting for receivers to uncover (something I pleaded with them to do before the Washington game), we could see similar results. The Cowboys secondary is without Terence Newman and is relying a good deal on rookies Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick, so the idea of soft zones to protect deep makes sense in theory. But on the field it has allowed opposing offense to control the ball, and without turnovers the defense is left to a bend-don't-break philosophy of making the offense kick FG's. That's a risky strategy.
If the Cowboys secondary is playing back, even getting pressure can be ineffective if Warner is allowed to release the ball quickly. I think everybody agrees that if you can get to Warner, knock him around some, good things will happen for your defense. Warner notably turns the ball over, either fumbling in the pocket or making ill-advised passes if you can get to him. I would hope the Cowboys play a little more aggressively with the secondary to make Warner hold the ball a little longer, then rely on the pass rush to do the damage.
The Cardinals running game was much more effective when they were running draws and delays out of the shotgun formation. Edgerrin James isn't the running back he once was although he's still decent. Rookie Tim Hightower looks pretty good and can make so plays. But overall, except for the redzone where they do run pretty well, the Cowboys defense should be able to contain the running game.
The Cardinals defense is hard to define. They run some kind of hybrid 3-4/4-3 and the linebackers and strong safety can end up playing in some unusual formations. It was tough to get a handle on just exactly how they would line up and the responsibilities of each player. They are quick to the ball and pursue very well, so misdirection could be employed to slow that down. They ended up with a lot of sacks in the game but a good number of those came when the Bills were so far down that they had to drop back and throw, allowing the Cardinals linemen to pin their ears back and attack. During the competitive part of the game there wasn't an inordinate amount of pressure on the QB.
On first downs they played a lot more press coverage with the secondary but tended to back off on other downs. On third down passing situations they were almost guaranteed to blitz. The secondary looks pretty good although rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie bit badly on a move to the middle allowing Lee Evans to get wide-open for a long TD. Travis LaBoy and Karlos Dansby were very active in the game, the Cowboys need to account for both players on Sunday.
The Bills were unable to generate a serious rushing attack early in the game. The Cardinals did a very good job of holding the line of scrimmage and they now have strong safety Adrian Wilson back which only bolsters their ability to stop the run.