You are the Arizona Cardinals. You are looking at the video of the Eagles’ most-recent game. It is three days before your game on Thanksgiving night in Philadelphia.
The video is of the Eagles’ game at Baltimore. You remember. It was the game where Donovan McNabb, under-performing for a month and terrible for the second straight game, was benched at halftime. It was the game where Brian Westbrook, with ankle and knee issues, looked really affected by the injuries, just lacking any burst. Remember that the Eagles appeared as if they were going to dust off Correll Buckhalter against the Ravens only to see him get hurt on his second carry.
So there was all of that. The Cardinals also knew that they were going to be without Rod Hood, the former Eagle, who is one of their starting cornerbacks. Faced with all of that, they made a decision. They decided to play a more conservative defense than their usual single deep safety (Cover-3), more bend but don’t break, with a second safety playing deep (Cover-2 or Cover-4, depending upon where the cornerbacks are). Maybe it was because of Hood. Maybe it was because it just didn’t appear as if the Eagles would be able to run it, given their physical condition, given the short turnaround for a Thursday game. But the Cardinals made a conscious choice to pull that extra safety back from the line of scrimmage.
And the result was that the Eagles ran it and short-passed it down their throats in the first half.
The next day, Eagles coach Andy Reid explained:
“They had been a Cover-3 team, primarily. Single safety middle, and brought one of the two safeties up into the box. Either (Antrel) Rolle or (Pro Bowler Adrian) Wilson, who are both very good. Wilson is probably, if not the best in the league right now, one of the best. With that, they decided they were going to change against us and play a soft Cover-2, Cover-4, and kind of blend that in there. That's the way they started the game for the first couple of series. With that, what that does is it limits your down-the-field throws and makes you concentrate more on catching the football and running with it in a little shorter of a passing game. Then, running the football. Those were the two things we did and that's why you saw what you saw. Then they changed. They kind of went back as the game went on. By that time, we had a pretty decent lead.”
After the Cardinals changed, the Eagles primarily threw the ball in the second half and did great with that, too. They scored every-which-way in a 48-20 win. And as you look back on it, the Cardinals might have been the last team to try to start the game against the Eagles with that soft approach, with a bias toward shutting off the home-run passing game.
And now the Cardinals are look at the video again. In the Eagles’ last two games, they have run the ball ineffectively – same as last time. Westbrook looks gimpy again and the blocking in front of him looks unexceptional – same as last time. Teams seem to have gone out of their way to commit their extra attention to Westbrook, and it has worked (with the exception of a single 71-yard screen pass against Minnesota).
So what will the Cardinals do? Would they even consider playing that safety back again, as on Thanksgiving? Would they really encourage the Eagles to run? Would they dare?