Falcons vs. Cardinals: 3 keys to an Arizona Week 8 win over Atlanta

Kevin C. Cox

Three keys to the Cardinals success this Sunday and a matchup to watch against the Falcons.

Heading into their Week 8 game against the Atlanta Falcons -- the final game before the bye week and the halfway point in the season -- the Arizona Cardinals have experienced some good times on offense in between a lot of bad times.

The offensive line has proved to be a major problem once again, which many expected. What started out as a line surrendering too many hits and hurries of quarterback Carson Palmer but somehow keeping him upright has turned into too many sacks surrendered over the past few weeks.

Palmer took 10 sacks through the first four games, which, while not great is respectable. But he has taken 10 sacks over the past three games, bringing his season total to 20 -- the ninth-most in the NFL.

Here is what it will take for the Cardinals (3-4) to knock off the Falcons (2-4) heading into the bye.

Someone stop that Hall-of-Fame tight end

If Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez scores a touchdown on Sunday, the Cardinals will lose the game. That is not a fact, but it has been the trend so far this season.

In its three wins, Arizona has held opposing tight ends out of the end zone completely. In four losses, however, it has allowed at least one receiving touchdown to the starting tight end -- two touchdowns in three of those games, and two in every loss when counting backups, as Seahawks tight end Kellen Davis added one last week (h/t Darren Urban for the chart, which I beefed up for my own use).

Starting_tight_ends_vs

Something is clearly wrong with Arizona's coverage of tight ends. There may not be a sure-fire way to stop Gonzalez, but here is a way to make it harder for the future Hall of Famer: Keep safety Yeremiah Bell away from him in coverage.

Bell has allowed five of the eight touchdowns to tight ends this season, including three in the past two weeks -- two to Vernon Davis and one to Zach Miller -- and is responsible for at least one in all four losses.

That is not a coincidence. Bell is terrible in coverage and must stay away from Gonzalez at all costs.

It may even be best to keep him off the field this week, allowing Rashad Johnson to play strong safety while rookies Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson split free safety snaps.

Free Juke Ellington

Okay, Bruce Arians. We get it -- you don't believe rookie running back Andre Ellington can be a three-down back. You don't believe he can take the punishment of more touches, and you believe your starting back should be heftier than he is.

Question: How many big shots have you seen Ellington take through seven games this season?

10? Five? Three? One?

I haven't seen him take even one bone-crunching hit. Why? Because he's an elusive back who knows how to avoid taking the big shots that cause smaller backs to break down over time.

Now, how many linebackers have you seen Ellington dodge en route to a key first down?

One? Three? Five? 10?

Though it's likely not quite 10, Ellington has juked at least five linebackers who had him squared up, ready to punish the speedy back.

Ellington has caused a missed tackle on 22.9 percent of his touches this season. That's the exact same rate as Minnesota Vikings All-Pro back Adrian Peterson, who leads all running backs with a 76.7 Elusive Rating -- that's Pro Football Focus' formula to try and accurately gauge which backs are the best at eluding tackles.

Ellington_and_mendenhall__total_touches_2013_medium

If Ellington qualified, he would be the ninth-most elusive RB in the league, at 54.0. But he doesn't have at least 25 percent of the carries, so Arians has rendered him useless. (Does Arians realize Ellington has generated more offense than Rashard Mendenhall has in less than half the touches?)

In case you're wondering, Mendenhall has an Elusive Rating of 22.7, which ranks No. 35 out of 50 backs who qualify. His 1.65 yards after contact per attempt (both rushing and receiving) rank No. 45 out of 50.

If Ellington qualified, his 2.36 YAC/A would tie for 11th with the New York Giants' David Wilson.

There is a chance Mendenhall doesn't play on Sunday, as he's missed valuable practice time this week with a toe injury. Even if he gives it a go, Ellington must see more touches than the almost seven per game he's averaged so far.

Protect the Palmer

Allowing seven sacks in one game is completely unacceptable. After the most recent seven-sack debacle, last week against Seattle, the Cardinals have the most games since 2010 allowing at least seven sacks (5).

Not surprisingly, the team struggled to a 1-4 record in those five games with their only win coming in overtime last season, a 24-21 Week 4 triumph over the Miami Dolphins.

Through Week 7, no offensive line has allowed more pressures than Arizona's. Its 122 are just ahead of the Giants (113) and Cleveland Browns (112).

The book-ends have been horrible this season for the Cardinals. Starting tackles Bradley Sowell and Eric Winston allowed a combined 41 quarterback pressures in the past three games alone.

Whether it's the play-calling, the quarterbacking, the blocking itself or a combination of it all, something must change for the offense to work as it should.

Matchup to watch: Tony Gonzalez vs. Patrick Peterson

There is no guarantee we will see this matchup, but it is a must if Arizona wants to shut down Gonzalez. The combination of Bell, Mathieu and Jerraud Powers won't get it done covering the legend from Torrance, California.

It would be a new venture for Peterson, who has one target in coverage of a tight end this season -- he allowed a 7-yard touchdown to New Orleans Saints TE Jimmy Graham (seemingly everyone had a target while covering Graham in New Orleans).

Peterson's never covered a tight end outright in his career. If Todd Bowles is interested in limiting Gonzalez, the first-year defensive coordinator will put Peterson on Gonzalez at least in some key situations (third downs, red zone).

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