On Sunday, we will see the Patriots face off against the Cardinals in what many are calling a potential Super Bowl match-up. With so many different story-lines going into this Sunday Night Football match-up, we’ll break down the five keys to this game.
How will Jimmy Garoppolo fare against one of the toughest defenses in the NFL in his first career start?
- Garoppolo, a third round draft pick in 2014 is going into his first career start against one of the best defenses in the NFL. On top of that, it is a prime-time game at Arizona. As he has had an up-and-down preseason, Garoppolo will head into this game with a lot on his plate. With injuries and releases (Sebastian Vollmer, Bryan Stork, Josh Kline) already impacting the offensive line, the Patriots will head into game much like they did in 2015, with a make-shift unit. He is expected to have a full unit of play-makers at his disposal including Julian Edelman, Martellus Bennett and Chris Hogan, so that will be a plus.
- The team will most likely rely heavily on the run game including LeGarrette Blount while having a passing attack consisting mostly in the short to intermediate game. Overall, the Patriots offense will not be as dynamic with Garoppolo under center as opposed to Tom Brady, but it certainly will have the weapons to put up a good amount of points. Garoppolo may be relegated to more of a “game manager” role, keeping him relegated to mostly short-to-intermediate passes. But the team will likely try to run the same sort of game-plan as they would with Brady at quarterback.
Can the Patriots contain David Johnson?
- David Johnson, a third round draft pick in 2015, emerged late last season as a major offensive weapon in both the run and receiving game. Coming into his sophomore season, he is player that needs to be accounted for at all times. The Patriots have a young, emerging defense including Malcom Brown, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Malcolm Butler. If there is a team that can game-plan accordingly for a player of Johnson’s talent, it is the Patriots.
- New England has a solid front seven including Brown, Hightower, Collins and Chris Long, who will all have important parts to sealing the inside running lanes while also containing the edge and outside. Johnson will see a lot of looks out of the backfield, so sealing the edge will be key as Johnson has shown to be difficult to stop in the open field. With two good offensive guards in Mike Iupati and Evan Mathis, the interior defensive line of the Patriots will have to work even harder to plug their lanes in order to prevent any major damage in-between the tackles. After giving up only 3.93 yards per carry and only seven rushing touchdowns to running backs in 2015, the Patriots are going to give Johnson a difficult time on Sunday.
How does New England contain the trio of John Brown, Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald?
- Boasting one of the best secondaries in the NFL including Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty, the Patriots will have their work cut out for them against the Cardinals wide receivers. All three top wide receivers for Arizona are capable of making big plays. Brown, Floyd and Fitzgerald can all function in the short passing game along with the deep game as well. In man coverage, we could see Butler against Floyd, Ryan against Brown and Fitzgerald face Justin Coleman or perhaps rookie Cyrus Jones.
- The Cardinals will likely have those three wide receivers line up often as they don’t use their tight ends often in the receiving game anyway and David Johnson could slot out and line up as a wide receiver on some plays as well. The key for the Patriots is to eliminate the deep ball and keep the primary focus on containing the short to intermediate passing plays.
What happens if Rob Gronkowski doesn’t play?
- Undoubtedly one of the best offensive play-makers for the Patriots, if not the best, may not suit up on Sunday night depending on how his hamstring injury heals between now and Sunday. He has dealt with it since the early portion of the preseason and has kept him limited in practice all week. Despite that, there has been little to no reason to believe he won’t be on the field against Arizona on Sunday night as he has participated in practice in some form all week. But if he wasn’t able to play, the Patriots would be prepared to see how Martellus Bennett functions in his debut for New England.
- “Gronk” is a difference maker in not only the passing game but also in the blocking game, so how the team would be able to deal with his loss on run plays along would be important to watch for as well. Bennett is a very solid receiving tight end who comes over from the Bears, but he had a rough preseason and it would be interesting to see if he turns it around once the regular season started. Expect Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Bennett to be the primary targets in the pass game if Gronkowski wasn’t able to suit up. But rest assured, he seems likely to play on Sunday as of now.
Can the Patriots offensive line handle the pass rush of the Cardinals?
- As discussed above, the Patriots have already dealt with multiple shifts on the offensive line. Vollmer is on the PUP list, Stork and Kline have been released, and Shaq Mason and Jonathan Cooper are dealing with injuries at the moment as well. That may put the Patriots at a disadvantage against a solid Cardinals front seven that includes former Patriot Chandler Jones, Calais Campbell and rookie Robert Nkemdiche. With the Patriots probably having a starting offensive line of Nate Solder at left tackle, Joe Thuney at left guard, David Andrews at center, Jonathan Cooper at right guard and Marcus Cannon at right tackle, the Patriots may have to rely more on quick passes before any sort of pass rush can develop.
— Levan Reid (@LevanReid) September 7, 2016
- If the team focuses more on short-to-intermediate plays, it can allow Garoppolo to get the ball out of his hands quicker and potentially deal with less pressure from the Arizona defense. Screen plays could be useful as well, which we have seen White and Edelman be able to function well on those types of plays as the receiver. The big match-up will be to see how the tackles handle Jones and Campbell rushing from the outside on the edge. If they can keep those two at bay, the Patriots may have an easier time on Sunday.