The Patriots’ new-look offensive line may have passed its opening test against the Titans with flying colors, but Sunday’s game against the Cardinals will be much more difficult.
The Cardinals’ 3-4 defense is one of the league’s fastest in the front seven, and has one of the top lines with defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, end Calais Campbell, and nose tackle Dan Williams.
Dockett (6 feet 4 inches, 290 pounds) is still one of the league’s best linemen despite being 31 years old and in his ninth season. The 2009 All-Pro is strong, explosive, and startlingly quick off the line. He was a one-man wrecking crew in the Cardinals’ 20-16 victory over the Seahawks. Dockett had a half-sack, four knockdowns, and five hurries, not to mention a few outstanding plays against the run when he shed blockers with ease.
Williams has battled conditioning issues — and the team will try to spell him — but he is in shape this season and very tough to move.
Add in the many blitzes the Cardinals like to throw in from linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties, and the Patriots’ offensive line will have its hands full at Gillette Stadium.
A closer look at the Cardinals, who have won eight of their last 10 games, including four in overtime:
Offensive scheme: Mike Miller is the offensive coordinator, but it stills appears that coach Ken Whisenhunt, the Steelers’ offensive coordinator from 2004-06, is calling the plays. The Cardinals prefer to use multiple tight ends, and will use some two-back sets with North Attleboro’s Anthony Sherman at fullback.
Quarterbacks: The Patriots will face former Eagle Kevin Kolb after John Skelton was knocked out of the Seahawks game with a high right ankle sprain. Kolb, who has a very strong arm, played very well, going 6 of 8 for 66 yards and throwing the game-winning touchdown. However, the book on Kolb is if you can hit him early, he’ll start watching the rush instead of looking down the field. When a quarterback does that, he has no chance. Kolb kept his eyes downfield against the Seahawks.
Running backs: Ryan Williams, who missed all of his rookie season after rupturing his patella tendon, started ahead of Chris “Beanie” Wells (hamstring) against Seattle. They combined to rush 15 times for 23 yards. Neither showed any burst, and the run blocking was terrible. Speedy LaRod Stephens-Howling is the preferred third-down back, but Sherman will be there as well to provide better pass protection.
Receivers: Larry Fitzgerald is one of the league’s elite and catches anything in his area. He doesn’t get much help out of first-round pick Michael Floyd or Early Doucet. Andre Roberts does a little bit of everything, and will carry the ball and line up at running back. At tight end, Jeff King is more of a blocker, Todd Heap isn’t what he used to be, and Rob Housler will get into the mix.
Offensive line: The Cardinals have three new starters — journeyman left tackle D’Anthony Batiste, right guard Adam Snyder, fourth-round right tackle Bobby Massie — and it showed against the Seahawks. Those three, along with center Lyle Sendlein, were completely overmatched. Only left guard Daryn Colledge was solid. Batiste, playing because Levi Brown suffered a season-ending injury, made his first start since 2007, when he started four games at guard for the Falcons. Batiste gave up a sack/fumble, three hurries, and three knockdowns against Seattle. Former Patriot Rich Ohrnberger is the game-day backup interior lineman.
Defensive scheme: Nearly a carbon copy of the Steelers’ zone pressure scheme, given that coordinator Ray Horton is in his second season since being a Pittsburgh assistant from 2004-10. Expect a lot of blitzes on third down.
Linebackers: A very young but active group with ROLB Sam Acho and LOLB O’Brien Schofield new starters next to ILBs Paris Lenon and Daryl Washington. Washington has developed into a very good player and was given a big contract in the offseason. He can rush, cover, and play the run. The group overall lacks against the run, especially when Reggie Walker replaces Lenon for coverage. Quentin Groves will see time as a rusher.
Secondary: Patrick Peterson, the fifth overall pick in 2011, is one of the top young cornerbacks in the league and will match up one-on-one all over the field against a top target. Safety Adrian Wilson plays the Troy Polamalu role in the Cardinals’ version of the Pittsburgh defense, but matches up better against tight ends. William Gay starts at corner and still looks too much in the backfield. Former Jet Kerry Rhodes is the other safety. Third-round pick Jamell Fleming is the nickel, and Michael Adams is the dime. Former Patriot James Sanders provides depth at safety.
Special teams: Peterson tied the NFL record with four punt returns for touchdowns last season so he must be accounted for with high, directional punts. Punter David Zastudil led the league in average during the preseason, but was inconsistent against Seattle (37.6-yard net). Veteran Jay Feely is a solid kicker but his kickoffs are low, so return opportunities will be there. Safety Rashad Johnson is a very good special teams player.