Setting the Stage:
It's on National TV on Sunday night. It's hard to set up this game for three reasons: (1) It's the first game of the regular season, and teams don't usually show very much strategically during preseason. (2) It will be Garoppolo in place of Brady at QB and Ninkovich has been suspended. (3) We're talking about Belicheck, and you never know what he's likely to come up with. Update - Sept. 10 - TE Rob Gronkowski has been listed by the Patriots as "Out." GIven the way the Pats use him to create matchups, this could be a huge game-influencing factor. Also downgraded to "out" were LT Nate Solder and OG (& former Cardinal) Jonathan Cooper.
Opponent's Last Game
It was the preseason Game #4 audition and not worth reviewing.
WR1 80 Amendola...............15 Hogan.....18 Slater
LT 68 Waddle...................77 Solder (out)
LG 62 Thuney....................69 Mason
C 60 Andrews................75 Karras
RG 69 Mason...................75 Karras....65 Cooper (out)
RT 61 Cannon..................71 Fleming
TE 88 Bennett..................81 Harbor......86 Derby.....Gronkowski (out)
WR2 11 Edelman.................19 Mitchell
QB 10 Garoppolo...............07 Brissett..12 Brady
28 White......................46 Develin
RB.......29 Blount.....................38 Bolden...27 Foster.......65 A Johnson FB
DE 93 Campbell.....72 Stinson
NT 98 Peters..........69 X Williams...72 Pierre
DT 95 Gunter..........92 Rucker........97 Mauro.....,,90 Nkemdiche
SLB 55 C Jones........57 Okafor
ILB 20 Bucannon....50 G Martin
ILB 51 Minter...........59 Fua.............52 Louis
WLB 44 Golden.........96 K Martin
LCB 21 Peterson......xx M Cooper
RCB 26 B Williams....28 Bethel
SS 36 Swearinger...27 Branch........25 Christian
FS 32 Mathieu........22 T Jefferson
Matchup: New England Passing Attack vs. Cardinal Pass Defense
Garoppolo hans't taken a meaningful snap...His strength is that he's been part of Bill Belicheck's offensive system.. Belicheck's system is designed to give the QB presnap reads that reveal zone vs. man coverage, pick routes, zone responsibilities etc. This figures to help a system-QB like Garoppolo who's one historic weakness is that he sometimes holds onto the ball a bit too long. When the NE quarterback has to hang onto the ball too long, it exposes a somewhat suspect NE offensive line.
At WR, Amendola is the burner. Edelman is M. Crunchtime (The difference in offensive production when Edelman was out injured vs. production when he was on the field was biblical in nature. Their RB White is also a good receiver out of the backfield to the weakside. (Note - NE likes to go out of a Trips set amd then throw to the opposite side.
A Belicheck strength is that he's a master of mismatches - especially at TE. Pats acquired another mix & match TE (Martellus Bennett) in the off-season to pair up with Rob Gronkowsk, but the Gronk has been downgraded to "out" due to a hammy issuei. The two figured to wreak havoc on the Cardinal back seven, but the absence of Gronkoski figures to limit the Pats' dual-TE matchup threat. A NE passng strength has historically been Brady and his system's ability to counter (& therefore discourage the blitz).
On pass defense, the Cards are relatively strong and deep across the board - though one area of concern is at #2 cornerback (opposite Peterson) where the Cards will line up with somewhat gimpy Justin Bethel or rookie Brandon Williams. (Note - newly acquired veteran corner, Markus Cooper is listed on the depth chart as backup to #1 corner Patrick Peterson. If Belicheck uncovers a weakness at the #2 corner, he will exploit it unmercifully. If Justin and Brandon can hold up, it could force Garoppolo to hold onto the ball and be hounded by a potent Cardinal pass rush. The Cardinal safety quartet of Mathieu, Branch, Jefferson and Bucannon will have their hands ful handling Patriot TE's Gronkowski and Bennett but should be up to the task.
Going into this week, New England's pass blockers were generally considered less than elite. With the loss of Solder (hamstring), Cooper (foot), Vollmer (PUP) and Kline (released), NE's pass blocking unit is pretty chewed up. They'll be facing an improved Cardinal front seven enhanced by former Patriot pass rushing demon, Chandler Jones and rookie DT penetrator Robert Nkemdiche to go with veteran linemen, Calais Campbell, NT Corey Peters and OLB's Okafor and Golden. Interesting Cardinal wildcards figure to be Swiss Army Knife defenders Deon Bucannon and Tyrann Mathieu - who could be spotted anywhere in the secondary on any given play. Should NE's pass blocking not hold up, Bellicheck may be forced to rely on a lot of quick release dink & dunk stuff designed to take some of the pressure off Garoppolo.
Key Matchups: Peterson vs. Amendola. Bethel or B Williams vs. Edelman. Mathieu, Swearinger or T Jefferson vs. Bennett. Bucannon vs. White. C Jones vs. Waddle. Nkemdiche vs. Karras
Matchup: New England Rushing Attack vs. Cardinal Run Defense
Blount can be a dangerous runner if allowed to get up a full head of steam. I've liked him since he showed up in Tampa Bay. He can be a tackle-breaker if given the slightest chance. White received more scouting mention as a receiver than as a RB, but, if I'm Belicheck and I'm concerned about the Cards' high powered offense, I may decide the best strategy is keeping the Card offense off the field by running the ball to retain possession and draining as much clock-time as possible. This plays into Belicheck's "keep it simple, minimize mistakes, wear down the opponent and let the other team beat itself" overall philosophy. But the absence of OL starters, Solder and Cooper may throw a monkey-wrench into that sort of thinking. Cards have loaded extra personnel (9 players) on their DL; perhaps to provide rotational depth to keep fresh people on the field vs. run-happy offenses. . My guess is that BA and Jim Bettcher will attempt to take away the threat of the run early and try to make Garoppolo beat the Cards thru the air.
Key Matchup: Gunter and Minter vs. Blount. Cardinal Front Seven vs. Patriot run blockers.
WR1 11 Fitzgerald..........13 Jaron Brown
LT 68 Veldheer............73 Wetzel
LG 76 Iupati
C 53 Shipley..............78 Watford...........70 Boehm
RG 69 Mathis..............61 Toner
TE .85 Fells.................87 Niklas
WR2 15 M. Floyd..........12 John Brown.....14 JJ Nelson
QB 03 Palmer.............05 Stanton
RB 31 D Johnson.......23 C Johnson.......38 Ellington.......30 Taylor
TE 84 Gresham
LDE....50 Ninkovich.....95 Long.............98 Flowers...
DT......97 Branch...........65 A Johnson
DT ..90 M Brown........99 Valentine
RDE...93 Sheard...........51 Mingo
LB......54 Hightower.......51 Mingo..........52 Roberts
LB......55 J Freeny.........58 McClellin
RCB...26 Ryan..............31 J Jones
LCB....21 Butler............22 Coleman.......31 J Jones
S........23 Chung..........30 Harmon........37 Richards
S........32 McCourty.....43 Ebner............36 B King
Matchup: Cardinal Passing Attack vs. Pats Pass Defense
The Cardinal offense has the potential for puttiing mega-points up on the board. Palmer throwing to Fitz, Floyd, Nelson and the two Browns along with TE's Gresham and Niklas and Fells and any of the 3 starting RB's out of the backfield is a handful for any defense. Only potential weakness (& the one thing that can cost us a game) is Palmer's tendency to make bad throwing decisions that result in turnovers. That plus early blocking-assignment screw-ups that eventually are addressed but not until mistakes are already made.
An SI analyst describes the NE defense as "remarkably well coached, consistently rallying to theball and tackling; quality depth provided by no-name guys, versatility in front seven looks, versatility of safeties in man coverage." In short, sound execution; not crafty scheming - your classic bend but don't break defense that does a lot of fundamental things well. In terms of the secondary, we don't know lot about Ran, but the other three members of the NE secondary (Butler, Chung and McCourty are as good as they get). Butler, however, said to walk a fine line between aggressive play and getting torched deep too often. Mingo is considered a notable edge rusher. Keep an eye on Flowers's pass rush potencial.
Card run game looked good during the latter part of preseason. Threat of the run sets up Palmer's play action passing and the offense's chunk yardage capability.
Key Matchups: Expect Fitz, Floyd, Jaron, Smokey and JJ to see a lot of zone. Fitz vs. Butler. Smokey Brown vs. Ryan. Cardinal RB's/TE's vs. Chung or McCourty. Mingo vs. Velhdeer. Grissom or Flowers vs. Humphries
Matchup: Cardinal Running Attack vs. Pat Run Defense
Cardinal running attack this preseason looked markedly improved compared to last year (i.e. gains for zero yards have morphed into +3 yard pickups. There are more long runs in the running play mix. Much of the credit goes to the Cardinal OL which sports three new starters from C to RT. Cards are three deep in quality RB's in David Johnson, Chris Johnson and Andre Johnson. All are capable of gaining the edge, cutting up inside the tackle, breaking tackles or taking it to the house. All can catch out of the backfield.
Jamie Collins is arguably NE's best run defender - his range, open space speed and ability to sift thru traffic is (in the words of andy Benoit of SI): "unmatched."Important Patriot run defender is former Cardinal NT Alan Branch. Cards like to test the perimeter and counter this with zone misdirection up the middle. Starting DE Ninkowich is suspended. Next man up is Long.
Key Matchup: Johnson, Johnson or Ellington vs. Long and Sheard. Watford and Cooper vs. Jenkins, Hicks etc. C Johnson, Ellington or D Johnson vs. Breaux or Swann.
K 03 Gostowski
P 06 Allen
H 04 Lee
LS 49 Cardona
KR 80 Amendola
PR 11 Edelman
K 07 Catanzaro
P 02 Butler
H 02 Butler
LS 86 Canaday
KR .38 Ellington
PR 38 Ellington
Matchup: Pats Special Teams vs. Cardinal Special Teams
It's hard to know how special teams will shake out this early in the season - especially teams experiencing high personnel turnover. Card coverage and return teams have underperformed during preseason. Cards still have Bethel and Campbell to block kicks. Ellington has a lot of speed, but speed is only part of the equation when it comes to returning punts. A few Cardinal late personnel decisions were predicated on special teams versatility and efectiveness. Perhaps this will bode well for Cardinals special teams improvement. Catanzaro (who did blast a FG 59 yards in the final preseason game) did leave several points on the field last year. Butller was less shaky in preseason.On the other side, Amendola (who can break it long at any time) and Edeman are seasoned return men. I confess to knowing absoutely nothing about NE's key coverage personnel.
Key matchups: Campbell and Bethel vs. NE blockers. Amendola and Edelman vs. Cardinal coverage team.
NE: Bill Belicheck has had to cope with the loss of Tom Brady for the first four games (including this one). due to suspension. Pats also lost their starting DE (Ninkovich) to four game suspension. Because he will be going with a novice QB and facing an opponent with a high-powered offense, it would make logical sense that Belicheck would resort to a ball-controlled offense designed to keep the Cards off the field, keep mistakes to a minimum and not expose a novice QB to the fury of a blitz-happy pass rush. (That said - I don't have a clue about Bill will or will not do). One other (mutually exclusive) possibility would be to lead from strength and match Gronk & Bennett vs. Cardinal safeties.
AZ: Coach Arians says he likes this year's rendition of the Cards a lot (most notably his DL and his RB's). His major challenge - a football media inclined to anoint the Cardinals best in the NFC and most likely to be in the Super Bowl. Getting his players to once again buy into a one-down-at-a-time/ fix what's broke, keep your head down and move on approach is easier said than done. But, when it comes to winning, team attitude is as important as each opponent you play..maybe even more.
On paper, we're an improved team facing an elite NFL team who's missing their star QB. we should, therefore, win Sunday's game. But the Cards have been known in the past to "underperform paper." Key to a win: Keep mistakes (turnovers, blown assignments, penalties) to a minimum.