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Doug Farrar

Fire in the hole: The Cardinals-Saints divisional round preview

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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It doesn't take a degree in statistics to know that if your quarterback throws more touchdown passes than incompletions in a game, winning is probably on the agenda. That was the case with Kurt Warner's(notes) ridiculous performance for the Arizona Cardinals in their 51-45 overtime wild-card victory over the Green Bay Packers last week. Warner went 29 of 33 for 379 yards and five touchdowns against a Packers defense boasting the Defensive Player of the Year in Charles Woodson(notes) by exploiting intermediate and deep zone spaces left open by Green Bay's scheme. There were those who believed that Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers was caught sleeping by Warner's approach, and they may have been right.

Going forward, Warner will face a New Orleans Saints pass defense with more formation diversity -- defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will run all kinds of blitz packages. However, given the speed with which Warner processes information and gets the ball where it needs to go, pressure might not be the best way to go. A Saints secondary flush with the return of cornerback Jabari Greer(notes) and safety Usama Young(notes) from various injuries will be pressed to the limit. According to Football Outsiders' advanced metrics, the Saints ranked second against #1 receivers this year (only the Jets were better, and we all know why), but other receivers give them fits. This speaks to the disappointment that rookie Malcolm Jenkins(notes) has been in coverage, as well as the fact that speedy Tracy Porter(notes) has once again been bedeviled by injuries. The Saints employ a lot of man coverage concepts, but against Warner, they may want to stuff the blitz and work on some other things. There's another reason the Saints should avoid blitzing Warner too often -- the Cardinals' secret offensive weapon is their running game, and the Saints can't stop the run at all. It would be ironic (but entirely possible) for Beanie Wells(notes) or Tim Hightower(notes) to be the deciding factor in a game most expect to be a shootout.

The Saints' side of that shootout is led by head coach Sean Payton and his able on-field assistant, quarterback Drew Brees(notes). Payton is the most creative diagrammer of passing formations in the NFL -- when we talk about formation diversity, it all starts here. Payton will have his receivers run effective route combinations that virtually guarantee an open receiver on every play. The question is how much pressure Brees will be under -- can the Cards get to him after sacking Aaron Rodgers(notes) five times last week and harassing him throughout the game? Brees is as good as Warner when it comes to getting the ball out and in play off pressure -- he was sacked only 20 times this season despite the inconsistent play of rookie Jermon Bushrod(notes) at left tackle. Brees completed over 70 percent of his passes in 2009 and threw 34 touchdown passes for the second straight season. If Warner wasn't still the Warner of old, Brees would be.

Arizona's defense has to be concerned about what Brees can do to them after they gave up 45 points to the Packers (and who knows -- they may not get the ridiculous calls they received in that game), but the Saints should be equally (if not more) concerned about Warner. If the playoffs are all about who's hot at the right time, it's difficult to imagine anyone on more of a run than Warner is right now. Scary stuff against a Saints team that lost their last three regular-season games...

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