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Another bird battle: 5 keys for the Cardinals to get a second-straight victory

It seems all the Cardinals have faced are cats and birds. What will it take to come away with a victory in this latest battle of the birds?

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Cincinnati Bengals
The Falcons are vulnerable to the deep ball. Can Kyler take advantage on Sunday?
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Even though the Cardinals flew across the country and got their first win on the road last week, they’re still home underdogs (-2.5) to the 1-4 Atlanta Falcons in Week 6. There’s probably still some preseason bias in this line—Atlanta was expected to be a playoff contender, while the Cardinals were projected as one of the worst teams in the league—but the Falcons are still ostensibly the more talented team on paper, with an enviable collection of playmakers.

But only on the offensive side of the ball, as their defense is up there with the Cardinals’ as one of the least effective units in the league. And at least one analyst thinks their offensive line is the worst in the league—even worse than our much-maligned (at least until last week) line.

So this is a beatable team. (As if their 1-4 record wasn’t a big enough clue.) But what do the Redbirds have to do to get past the Dirty Birds and pick up win #2? Let’s take a look at each phase of the game and find out.

Key #1 – Passing Offense: Get the Ball Downfield

The Falcons’ pass defense gives up 257.4 YPG (#20) at a generous 8.5 YPA (#29), which adds up to the league’s third-worst pass defense by DVOA. That’s hardly surprising given what Deshaun Watson did to them last week (426 yards and 5 TDs). I don’t expect Kyler Murray to match those numbers, but he should have similar success pushing the ball downfield—especially if Christian Kirk is back to play the Will Fuller role. Either way, I expect Kliff Kingsbury to try to get back to the downfield passing game that was working so well at the beginning of the season but has disappeared of late (6 receptions of 30+ yards for Cardinals WRs in the first two weeks; none since). Given the Redbirds’ improving O-line play and the Falcons’ lack of a pass rush (a league-low 5 sacks), Kyler should have plenty of time to throw. Look for him to connect on a deep shot or two this week.

Key #2 – Rushing Offense: Impose Your Will

The Falcons aren’t exactly pushovers on defense in the running game—they do give up 120.8 YPG (#19) but at a relatively stingy 4.0 YPC (#11), which contributes to their surprising #7 ranking in rush defense DVOA. But believe it or not, the Redbirds actually have the #1 rushing offense in the league by DVOA. The surface stats aren’t quite as impressive but are still solid—126.8 YPG (#11) at a 5.4 YPC (#3). So while I don’t expect another “Ground Raid” effort like last week (266 yards), at least meeting our season average would be considered a win—and it would help keep the ball out of Matt Ryan’s hands. Of course, this could depend of David Johnson’s availability—he’s purported to be a game-time call. Chase Edmonds excelled last week in a supporting role, but would he be as effective as a lead back? Let’s hope we don’t have to find out on Sunday.

Key #3 – Passing Defense: Make Matt Ryan Turn It Over

Matty Ice has put up big numbers so far this season—he’s second in the league in both passing yards (1,655) and TDs (11). That doesn’t bode well against our #24 pass defense (269.2 YPG, #27 DVOA). But Ryan has also struggled to avoid negative plays—he’s #2 in the league in interceptions with 7, and he’s lost a fumble to boot. Unfortunately, the Cardinals are the only team in the league without an interception yet this season. So something will have to give. Can Ryan play a clean game on the road? Or can the Cardinals’ secondary break through and finally pick off a pass? If it’s the latter, our chances at an upset go way up. Also worth noting: Opposing QBs have 7 fumbles against us this season (although only 2 lost). Can Chandler Jones or Terrell Suggs make another big play off the edge against the Falcons’ vulnerable line?

Key #4 – Rushing Defense: Shut Them Down

The Redbirds have obviously struggled against the run thus far—they give up 138.8 YPG (#27) at a 4.8 YPC clip (#24), good for the #22 rush defense by DVOA. They did show signs of life last week, shutting down Joe Mixon after an impressive opening drive. But how much of that was due to the Bengals switching to a pass-first offense after they fell behind? Sunday’s game should be a good litmus test as to where our run defense is at, as the Falcons bring one of the league’s worst rushing offenses to the desert. They average just 67.6 YPG (#28) at 3.7 YPC (#25), making them the #25 rushing offense by DVOA. Those same numbers for the Redbirds defense are 138.8 YPG (#27), 4.8 YPC (#24), and #22 DVOA. Again, something will have to give—let’s just hope it’s not our front seven. Keeping Devonta Freeman and Co. in check will keep their offense off the field and our defense fresh. But if the Falcons can establish the run, we might not possess the ball enough to keep up with Ryan, Julio Jones, and Calvin Ridley.

Key #5 – Special Teams: Leave the Kickers on the Sideline in Plus Territory

I’m going to keep harping on this point until Kliff Kingsbury consistently shows some stones on 4th down. He’s left too many points on the field in his first 5 games, and you just can’t do that against a former league MVP like Matt Ryan. Now, obviously I’m not suggesting that we go for it on every 4th down on the Falcons side of the field, but I will say that I’ll be in the market for new flatscreen (and remote) if we kick another field goal from inside the 5 yard line this week. A dynamic QB like Kyler opens up so many possibilities in short yardage situations, so why not take advantage and try to maximize each drive? Put the ball in your players’ hands and let them try to win the game. Enough of this scaredy-cat coaching. Let’s hope the only time we see Zane Gonzalez is on extra points and that we see as little of Andy Lee as possible.

Final Thoughts

Sunday’s game is huge for both teams—one team’s season will effectively be over, while the other one will scratch their way closer to .500. That might benefit the Cardinals, as nothing was expected from them this season anyway—but a desperate Matt Ryan is also a dangerous proposition.

I think all outcomes are in play here—close Cardinals win, close Falcons win, Cardinals blowout, Falcons blowout. With such a range of outcomes, I won’t offer a prediction, but I will say that whoever wins the turnover battle will win this one. If Kyler keeps the stat sheet clean and Ryan has another turnover or two, the Redbirds should get their second victory of the season. But if Ryan plays like an MVP and Kyler plays like a rookie, the home crowd will be let down.

What do you think, Bird Gang? How do you like our chances in this one? What are your keys to the game? Let’s talk bird on bird violence in the comments.