The New England Patriots’ chances of beating the Arizona Cardinals decreased significantly Friday, when starting tight end Rob Gronkowski, starting left tackle Nate Solder and projected starting right guard Jonathan Cooper were ruled out for Sunday night’s game due to injuries. But the Patriots can still beat the Cardinals.
The Patriots must rely heavily on their defense, which should be one of the best in the NFL. They’ll need productive, disruptive performances from linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, pass rushers Jabaal Sheard, Trey Flowers and Chris Long and defensive backs Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung.
It’s not just the stars who have to shine against a loaded Cardinals team, however.
Here are the Patriots’ keys to victory.
NICKEL DEFENSIVE BACK MUST EMERGE
Butler and Ryan will be the Patriots’ top two cornerbacks this season, but the Patriots essentially have four options for their nickel role: cornerbacks Justin Coleman, Cyrus Jones and Eric Rowe and safety Duron Harmon. If Harmon takes the field in nickel, then Chung would slide down from safety and cover a receiver.
The Patriots’ nickel defensive back will be nearly as important as the starters against the Cardinals, since John Brown, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd are equally talented. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer likely will try to throw where Butler and Ryan aren’t.
LIMIT DAVID JOHNSON
The Cardinals’ running back is among the top pass-catchers in the NFL. He averaged 12.7 yards per reception as a rookie in 2015, an absurd number for a player coming out of the backfield.
Hightower doesn’t have the speed to match up with Johnson downfield but he’s a sure tackler who rarely is shaken on swing passes out of the backfield. When Johnson splits out, a safety, likely Chung, will take over coverage. Collins also could be used against Johnson.
ATTACK CORNERBACKS NOT NAMED PATRICK PETERSON AND TYRANN MATHIEU
The Cardinals No. 2 cornerback spot is a bit of a mess. Patrick Peterson is the No. 1, and Tyrann Mathieu moves into the slot in three-receiver sets. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians announced rookie Brandon Williams, who was playing running back as recently as two years ago, will start opposite Peterson. His other options were Justin Bethel, a special-teams ace, and Marcus Cooper, whom Arizona recently acquired from the Kansas City Chiefs.
With Rob Gronkowski out, the Patriots could go heavier on three-receiver sets. Expect quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to target wideouts Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola frequently. Whoever draws Williams likely will see the first look from Garoppolo.
DON’T LET CHANDLER JONES GO WILD
Chandler Jones undoubtedly will be extra motivated in going against his old team. It’s unclear who will line up at left tackle to block him. The Patriots have multiple options. They can start Marcus Cannon, their best healthy offensive tackle, on the left side and have either Cameron Fleming or LaAdrian Waddle take Cannon’s spot on the right side. They also could keep Cannon on the right side and have Fleming or Waddle take over the left side with help from tight ends Martellus Bennett, Clay Harbor and AJ Derby.
Regardless, Jones could have a field day if the Patriots aren’t careful.
One way to limit Jones might be to force the Cardinals to use their base defense, where Jones plays outside linebacker. That could force him into coverage more frequently. The Patriots could force the Cardinals into their base defense by using two-tight-end or two-running-back sets.
JIMMY GAROPPOLO MUST AVOID MISTAKES
Since the Patriots will have to rely on their defense to win this one, Garoppolo and the offense will have to play conservatively. If that means Garoppolo dinks and dunks down the field and relies heavily on the run game, then so be it. The Patriots don’t have the wiggle room to beat the Cardinals if they turn over the ball and make other costly mistakes.
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