Let's jump right in on this lazy Saturday.
I like to think my predictions for four important matchups last week were pretty accurate. Michael Turner's lack of success, the offensive line's struggles to contain the Steelers' pass rush and the climactic Rashard Mendenhall rush all proved to be critical. Matt Ryan fared pretty well against the Steelers' secondary, all told, but there was a grain of truth there.
This week, I'll once again be basing these matchups on what I think is most likely to affect the final score of the game. This means that while I like hulking receiver Stephen Williams for the Cardinals, the fact that he's their third receiver means he's fairly unlikely to bust the game on his own. Also, Chris Owens will destroy him.
After the jump, marvel at my magic.
Larry Fitzgerald vs. Dunta Robinson
This is the matchup to keep your eyes on, right here.
Derek Anderson is a barely subpar quarterback. There's no doubt about that. There's also no doubt that Larry Fitzgerald is in a class of his own, a receiver so supernaturally talented that he typically makes a handful of jaw-dropping plays a game. Any cornerback in the league is going to struggle to cover him.
That's what makes Dunta Robinson such a focal point. He barely got on the field in the pre-season and had moments where his coverage wasn't sharp enough against aging Hines Ward last week, leaving him looking far short of elite. It's likely going to take some time to get Dunta fully up to speed, but this is a spectacularly bad matchup for him. How he reacts to it will go a long way toward telling us what kind of cornerback he'll be this season.
He won't go it alone, of course. Look for the Falcons to give him a little help courtesy of Thomas DeCoud or William Moore, and whoever else is available and reasonably capable in coverage. If Dunta can hold his own against Fitz, he can hold his own against anybody. Watch closely.
Derek Anderson vs. Falcons Pass Rush
As already mentioned, Anderson's not very good. His ability to evade a pass rush has declined in recent years, and he was never all that good at escaping to begin with.
Let me be crystal clear: I think the Falcons are going to have a field day with this guy. The Cardinals' offensive line is decent enough, but it's not an elite unit and Anderson will do them no favors. Brian Van Gorder must recognize the need for aggression Sunday and send the house every now and then. In between, he should feed the Cardinals a steady diet of John Abraham, Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, Peria Jerry and Kroy Biermann. I'm not ruling out four-plus sacks on the day for that group.
To avoid that, the Cardinals will have to force Anderson to get rid of the ball quickly or keep an extra tight end back to help block. The team has to pray their big ol' quarterback is up to the task, or they're going to be slaughtered. If they go for a lot of short passes and target reliable Steve Breaston, the Falcons may struggle, but they're getting in there. Don't doubt it.
Tony Gonzalez vs. Adrian Wilson & His Band
This is a bit of a speculative matchup. I don't know for certain that the Cardinals will lock down Gonzo with Wilson, and even if they do, it's not going to be all game long.
That said, Wilson is an incredible safety. The guys around him are all pretty talented, too. This is a team comfortable with the strength of their linebackers and safeties in coverage, in my mind, and Tony's one of the game's biggest threats, so they'll key on him. After a very quiet effort against the Steelers, he'll be itching to burn the Cardinals, too.
Getting Matt Ryan's security blanket open will be critical on those plays where the pressure is coming. Ryan looks like a different quarterback when the pass rush is coming hard, and on those plays he needs a reliable threat to save him. Having Gonzo open 5-10 yards downfield will be key, because he's perfectly capable of bulldozing his way for a few extra yards and making the Cards think twice about sending seven or eight men. He'll need to break free of some quality players in the middle of their defense to do so, however.
Falcons Offensive Line vs. The World
Yeesh, these guys looked bad last week. The Steelers defense is good, yes, but Sam Baker and Harvey Dahl were getting pushed back so far that they were already in Arizona for this week's game.
The Cardinals are tough up front with Darnell Dockett in the middle, and the Falcons must protect Matt Ryan and open up holes for Michael Turner for this offense to be successful. They're not facing off against the Steelers, yes, but it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the D.
The team will have to put them into a position to succeed, but the line needs to show better physicality at the point of attack. They must bringing back the nasty edge that got them so far the last two seasons. Above all, they need to friggin' block. If they don't, this is going to be a long game indeed.