Cardinals vs. Titans: 3 keys to an Arizona Week 15 win over Tennessee

Christian Petersen

Three keys to the Cardinals success on the road this Sunday and a matchup to watch against the Titans.

It was apparent from the first snap last week that quarterback Carson Palmer's elbow was not going to bother him. The Arizona Cardinals rode that confidence to a 30-10 smashing of the St. Louis Rams en route to guaranteeing themselves a non-losing record.

Palmer was sharp, finishing with the fourth-highest recorded completion percentage in the NFL this season (84.38%). It's the second-highest ever recorded by a Cardinals quarterback -- only Kurt Warner's NFL-record 92.31 completion percentage (minimum 20 attempts) was better.

Arizona's defense was fantastic as well, holding the Rams to just 3-of-11 on third downs (27.3%). Of five drives that began inside St. Louis' own 20-yard line, four resulted in punts -- with two of those three-and-outs -- and the other ended when outside linebacker John Abraham sacked quarterback Kellen Clemens in the end zone for a safety.

The only touchdown drive the Cardinals allowed started near midfield.

For the Cardinals to beat the Tennessee Titans in Nashville this weekend, more of the same recipe on offense and defense would seem to be the way to go. Will it be?

We shall see.

Here are three keys to a Cardinals victory over the Titans.

Pressure Fitzpatrick with minimal blitzing

It's not that hard to understand: Ryan Fitzpatrick does not have a strong arm, so he's been trained to work short to deep his entire career. That means he doesn't go deep often -- only 11.1 percent of his throws this season have traveled 20 yards and beyond -- and he reads blitzes quickly enough to beat them with dump-offs.

The only game Fitzpatrick won as a starter this season was Week 12 against the Oakland Raiders. Sure, you can say it's just the Raiders. But that's too easy.

The fact is that Oakland blitzed Fitzpatrick 22 times on 49 drop-backs and sacked him just once. He was under some kind of pressure on 21 snaps, but the dump-off receivers were hard at work this day. Four receivers -- including running backs Chris Johnson and Collin Mooney -- averaged a combined 2.1 yards per catch on eight total receptions to counter the pass rush.

Two other receivers -- tight end Delanie Walker and receiver Nate Washington -- averaged 9.1 YPC on 10 receptions as short-to-intermediate checkdown options.

Fitzpatrick completed 30 of 42 passes (71.4%) for 320 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 109.2 passer rating in the 23-19 win.

The Cardinals can get pressure on quarterbacks without sending five rushers. They are among the NFL leaders in blitz percentage this season, at a staggering 49.5 percent. But what's interesting is that they are more successful the less they blitz.

Arizona_pass_rush_by_game_result__2013_medium

In Cardinals losses this season, opposing quarterbacks have completed 111 of 176 passes (63.1%) for 1,267 yards, 13 touchdowns and three interceptions for a 102.2 passer rating. In Cardinals wins, they completed 188 of 330 passes (57.0%) for 1,686 yards, 10 touchdowns and an astounding 14 interceptions for a 63.3 rating.

So stop blitzing, Todd Bowles. Send your down-linemen and a linebacker and let your secondary do work. They're pretty good.

Continue solid situational offensive football

The Cardinals enjoyed their best day converting third downs in over three calendar years (no joke) when they went 8-of-14 (57.1%) last week. It helped them control the ball for over 35 minutes en route to their 30-10 beatdown of NFC West-rival St. Louis.

As they say, the best defense is a good offense, and a good offense puts together long scoring drives by converting its third-down and red-zone opportunities.

But a good offense doesn't need to score every time it has the ball. Avoiding three-and-outs is just as important as putting together long scoring drives.

Palmer and Co. did a great job avoiding these momentum-killing drives, as they recorded only one against the Rams.

Their drives averaged 6.6 plays, 41.5 yards and took 3:28 off the clock -- all three are the second-highest totals they've recorded this season.

Situational football also includes special teams. The most important position on special teams is the punter, followed closely by the gunners. Good for the Cardinals, they have two of the best players at their respective positions in punter Dave Zastudil and gunner Justin Bethel. (Even recent re-signee Bryan McCann has been solid in downing punts of late.)

Zastudil leads the NFL with 33 punts downed inside the 20-yard line after setting the NFL record with 48 last year. He likely won't get there this season, but that's not because he's struggling. On the contrary, he's been among the best punters in the league all season.

The offense is better this season, so his opportunities to drop one inside the 20 have been limited compared to last season.

Elevate Palmer's passer rating

This may sound like a weird key to the game, and it probably is. But I don't care. Here it is: When Palmer has a passer rating above 100.0 this season, the Cardinals are 4-0 and have outscored opponents by a combined 124-48.

It's not so weird now, is it?

Getting Palmer to a passer rating north of 100.0 is easiest by giving him protection. His accuracy comes into question when the offensive line breaks down and he's forced to move around in -- or escape -- the pocket. He's been better of late in this department, but it's still not great.

The line did a phenomenal job protecting Palmer last week against the great St. Louis pass rush. The Rams sent five or more 15 times on Palmer's 33 drop-backs (45.5%) but generated pressure on only seven snaps, sacking him just once.

In the teams' first meeting during Week 1, they blitzed 15 times on 44 drop-backs (34.1%). The percentage was down compared to last week, but they forced 15 pressures and sacked Palmer four times in that game -- a Rams win.

Pressure forces Palmer to make bad decisions. This season, 10 of his 17 picks occurred while he was under pressure, and he has a 47.8 passer rating when feeling the heat. Conversely, he has a 106.3 rating when under no pressure.

The Titans are tied for 18th this season with 31 sacks. Most of their pressure comes from the interior defensive line, believe it or not, and it starts with third-year tackle Jurrell Casey.

Casey leads the team with nine sacks and 47 total pressures this season. According to Pro Football Focus' metrics, he's the fourth-highest-graded DT in the league, at +30.6, and is third in pass-rushing, at +24.7.

And that leads perfectly into the matchup to watch.

Matchup to watch: Paul Fanaika vs. Jurrell Casey

This wasn't the matchup I wanted to highlight originally (Tennessee's corner duo vs. Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd), but after doing some research, it was too good to pass up.

Mainly, because there's a good possibility Casey will destroy everything the Cardinals hope to do on offense -- from A-gap running to the passing game (watch Casey walk Paul Fanaika directly into Palmer multiple times on Sunday).

Only five offensive guards are rated lower than Fanaika this season. His biggest issue is run blocking (-15.2), which happens to be Casey's weak point (he still has a +2.9 run-defense grade, though).

Based on what Casey does well -- rush the passer -- and what Fanaika struggles to do -- protect the passer -- this could get out of hand. Expect more jumbo protection with backup right tackle Bobby Massie at times so right tackle Eric Winston can help Fanaika with Casey.

This is how quick and athletic Casey is: Tennessee is comfortable dropping him into coverage.

*****

Stats provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com and ProFootballFocus.com

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