Coming off a bye and then 3 consecutive home games, the Vikings have fattened up their record to 10-1. But now they enter a tough final stretch of the season that begins with a road contest against the defending NFC champion Arizona Cardinals on Sunday evening.
Sunday’s contest at University of Phoenix Stadium will be the Vikings first road game since November 1 when they played at Green Bay. The Vikings will get used to life on the road quickly because 3 of their next 4 contests require them to travel, including back-to-back prime time road games against the Carolina Panthers on December 20 and Chicago Bears on December 28.
But let’s focus in on Arizona, a team sitting at 7-4 and atop the NFC West, battling for NFC playoff position along with the Vikings. The last 3 weeks we’ve set the table for a Vikings opponent, there’s been a significant statistical advantage for the Vikings. Matchups against the Lions, Seahawks and Bears have been lopsided, but that changes this week.
While the Cardinals don’t have an elite-level rushing attack, they do have a couple of talented RBs in Tim Hightower and Chris “Beanie” Wells. Together they pace a running game that ranks just 27th in the NFL at 92.4 yards per game, but the Cardinals offensive bread is buttered with the passing attack, where QB Kurt Warner leads a unit that ranks 5th in the NFL at 265.2 yards per game.
Warner currently ranks tied for 6th in TD passes with 20 and has the NFL’s 6th-highest completion percentage at 67.5%. He’s also only been sacked 16 times – as a comparison, Vikings QB Brett Favre has been sacked 22 times. Warner’s high completion percentage and low sack totals are a function of the Cardinals quick-strike passing attack as well as Warner’s awareness in the pocket and ability to deliver the ball on time.
Making Arizona’s offense even more dangerous is their talent at WR, where Minnesota native Larry Fitzgerald, Jr. is a standout and is tied for the league lead in TD receptions with 9. He’s complemented by Anquan Boldin, who is terrific after the catch, and the young Steve Breaston, who has established himself as one of the league’s best 3rd-option receivers.
A few more impressive aspects of Arizona’s offense:
– The Cardinals are 2nd in the NFL in points on their 1st possession of the game with 35. This presents us with a good matchup for Sunday because the Vikings rank tied for 2nd in the NFL for fewest points allowed on an opponent’s 1st possession with 6.
– Only the Chicago Bears pass more than the Cardinals. Arizona passes the ball 64.2% of the time and this high number is largely the function of Arizona’s passing tendency on 1st down, where Warner drops back 53% of the time. But it works, as Arizona boasts a 59.2% rate of 4 or more yards gained on 1st down passes.
– The Vikings have the NFL’s highest passer rating in the red zone with a 114.8 mark, but Arizona is close behind in 3rd place with a 110.3 rating and the Cardinals have the NFL’s best TD% in the red zone, where they score a TD 71.1% of the time.
Let’s move on to the Cardinals defense, a unit that doesn’t rate too well statistically but manages to get the job done anyway. They are one of the league’s worst against the pass, ranking 29th in passing yards allowed, but they balance that out with their rushing defense, which is ranked 14th in the NFL. Arizona also ranks 13th in scoring defense.
While those rankings aren’t going to make you shake in your boots, Arizona is the most impressive in the most important situations – 3rd down and the red zone. Arizona is 3rd in 3rd down defense, giving up 1st downs just 33.1% of the time, and they are tied for 9th in red zone defense, where they allow a TD just 45.5% of the time.
From a personnel standpoint, the Cardinals feature an athletic defensive line that is highlighted by Karlos Dansby, who leads the team in tackles with 82, Darnell Dockett, who leads the team in sacks with 7.0. Also adding firepower to this unit is Calais Campbell, a 2nd-year DE who has 35 tackles and 4.0 sacks.
In the secondary, watch out for S Adrian Wilson (53 tackles, 3 INTs, 1 FF), S Antrel Rolle (56 tackles, 4 INTs) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (16 passes defensed, 3 INTs and 2 FF).
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