You might think the Arizona Cardinals have the psychological edge on the Green Bay Packers.
A little less than three weeks ago they destroyed the Packers, 38-8, at the same University of Phoenix Stadium where the teams will meet Saturday night in an NFC divisional playoff game.
But an assistant coach from a Cardinals’ NFC West Division rival thinks the Packers gain an edge because the blowout challenges their manhood and possibly takes an edge off Arizona.
“It’s hard to (pick) against Arizona because they’re the home team,” the coach said. “(But) it won’t be like last time, just because the (Packers) players are professionals and they’re competitors. They get grittier the next time. Doesn’t mean they’re going to win, but they get a lot grittier. It’s hard to beat a team twice.”
The coach was one of four assistants and scouts from NFC West teams I talked to this week about the matchup and how the Packers might pull off the upset as seven-point underdogs. They offered even greater insight because their teams had played the Packers – the Packers faced the NFC West this season as part of the NFL’s yearly rotational schedule.
The main takeaway from those conversations was that the Packers’ need to hit Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer early and often. That was the subject of a column earlier this week. Following are four other keys:
1. It’s a given that the Packers can slow Arizona’s pass rush and take the crowd out of the game with a decent running game. The questions is, what’s the best way to attack a Cardinals defense that allowed the sixth-fewest rushing yards in the NFL?
Two points came up consistently: Double team defensive lineman Calais Campbell and run at undersized linebacker Deone Bucannon.
Campbell, a Pro Bowler this season and last, is a huge man (6-feet-8, 300 pounds) who is disruptive in the run and pass games. He was the dominant defensive player in Arizona’s win over the Packers on Dec. 27 with 2 ½ sacks plus another quarterback hit and three tackles for a loss.
“If I had to pick somebody in the division that’s the most underrated player going, it’s that guy,” one coach said. “He’s one of the most disruptive guys going. He doesn’t always make plays, but you see people trying to block him and it ain’t happening. … He’s a (run) wrecker”
Campbell is unusual in that he uses pass-rush moves even on early downs, which helps him get in the backfield against the run.
“He’s the guy you have to reckon with,” the other coach said. “Run at him with some double teams. He’s pretty good when you run away from him. … He’s unconventional. Any time (defensive linemen) do their pass-rush moves in the running game, you cannot be singled up. ”
The Cardinals drafted Bucannon as a safety at No. 27 overall in 2014 but moved him full time to linebacker this season. He’s badly undersized (6-foot-1, 211), fast (4.49-second 40), explosive and tough. But one scout that a linebacker as small as Bucannon invariably wears down if run at regularly.
“He can chase down plays,” the scout said. “If a guard can’t get him and you’re ready to bust a play for 15 yards he’ll get you for two. That’s the advantage (of playing him at linebacker). The disadvantage is if you run at him, there are only so many hits a guy like that will take. (Packers fullback John) Kuhn cuts guys, but you lower your hat on (Bucannon) eyeball to eyeball, he doesn’t want to do that. Those (smaller) guys lose too badly, the vibration goes through them.”
One scout said that if he were the Packers he’d give James Starks more carries than Eddie Lacy.
“Lacy looks good and maybe in short yardage and maybe the red-zone I back,” the scout said. “But you want a guy to hit that edge in this league, it’s (Starks). I’m not wasting any time. I’m getting Lacy in the mix but I’m feeding (Starks). Once you get that run going Aaron (Rodgers) can sit back and start picking his poison who he wants to target.”
2. It didn't matter that the Cardinals’ played without nickel back Tyrann Mathieu (knee injury) in the matchup in December, but it might this time.
Mathieu is disruptive and instinctive – he led the team in interceptions (five) and pass breakups (16). According to Pro Football Focus, he also had 11 sacks, hits and hurries combined, and his 41 stops (an offensive failure based on down and distance) were most among cornerbacks and fourth-most among defensive backs in the NFL this season.
“Seattle exposed (the Cardinals) a little bit in the back end of their secondary (in the regular-season finale) just because he wasn’t there,” a scout said. “They’re vulnerable on the back end. The Packers’ problem is they can’t stretch (the field).”
The coaches and scouts had varied opinions on the Cardinals’ secondary without Mathieu and especially on All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson.
“Peterson can be inconsistent and you can get a lot of pass interference calls, he’s very handsy,” one coach said. “But you play with fire when you play with him, because he can play the ball. (No. 2 cornerback Jerraud) Powers isn’t as fast, he isn’t as talented. If you were going to say, who are you going to target? He’s the guy.”
Another scout, though, said that he wouldn’t avoid Peterson (6-foot-1, 203) even though Peterson has 17 interceptions in five NFL seasons, was named All-Pro for the third time this season and according to Pro Football Focus has allowed the fourth-lowest completion percentage (47.7) in the league.
“Peterson is a little slow flipping the hips, his transition is a little slow,” the scout said. “Once he flips them he’s OK, his recovery quickness is there. But I’ve seen him get beat in the red zone, I’ve seen him get beat on some slants. He’s beatable. I like teams when they throw at him.”
3. When the Packers and Cardinals met in December, Arizona sacked Rodgers eight times. That alone would have been the difference in the game.
Keys in this meeting are the Packers preventing 35-year-old Dwight Freeney from dominating as a rusher, and having Rodgers deliver more quick-rhythm passes.
Freeney, signed off the street on Oct. 13, made $600,000 in sacks incentives this season – he received $200,000 for his fourth sack, and $100,000 for each of his four sacks after that. Three of those were against Packers backup left tackle Don Barclay.
With JC Tretter as the new backup, the Packers are better off at left tackle regardless, though it looks like starter David Bakhtiari will return this week after missing three games because of an ankle injury. Bakhtiari handles speed better than power, and Freeney at 268 pounds still relies more on quickness and his killer spin move than bull rushes.
“He doesn’t have the old Freeney speed to beat you around the edge,” one scout said. “Now he’s still a viable guy out there. I watched him on film and said he’s not half the guy he used to be. Then I watched him a little more and said, well he’s got a little savvy to him. Then I watched him a little more and said he’s a really good spin guy.”
Coach Mike McCarthy and Rodgers also can help protect against a second jail break with plenty of short throws that might function as an extension of the run game.
“You’re going to do five-step drops and wait for (the Packers’) receivers to get open? No.” another scout said. “You get some guys some short routes to let them run after the catch. Then take your shots down the seam, take your shots down the outside. But getting the ball out quick will be the key to beating Arizona.”
Said one coach: “You have to move the sticks so you get into third and manageable. If you don’t, hold on to your (butt), because they’re going to (blitz) you from all different ways.”
4. Though 32-year-old Larry Fitzgerald remains the best receiver on the Arizona's No. 1-ranked offense, second-year pro John Brown (65 catches, 15.4-yard average) might be the key.
Brown is a small speedster (5-foot-11, 179, 4.37-second 40), and that’s where Sam Shields’ health comes into play. If Shields returns from a concussion this week, the Packers will have a cornerback who can run with Brown.
“I don’t think (Brown’s) a great receiver, but the guy can run,” one coach said. “And it’s that vertical element you have to account for. From the secondary standpoint, if their guys are faster than you’re used to playing, back up. It sounds simple but it really is, back up. Having that weapon really opens the field up (for Palmer).”
The other coach recommended double teaming Fitzgerald (109 catches, 11.1 yards) on third downs and in the red zone.
Also, Palmer and coach Bruce Arians are ultra-aggressive once they get around the defense’s 30-yard line.
“The ball’s going up top. Book it,” one coach said. “The arm strength and all that stuff, Carson’s always had that, it just matches up with what Bruce likes to do. They’ve been together for long enough that it’s kind of a perfect marriage.
“The ball is going vertical. (Arians) doesn’t want to get inside the 10-yard line, because now all the windows are constricted. He wants to score a touchdown before he gets to the 10-yard line, and the ball’s going to go into the end zone.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.