The Arizona Cardinals have a chance to show they are true contenders in 2017. They take on the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football, in University of Phoenix Stadium, a big stage for what previously looked like a battle of title contenders. The Cardinals and Cowboys may not have performed to expectations thus far, but a win on Monday night would re-energize the victors and relegate the losers to a long and frustrating season. In Week 2 the Cardinals survived a scare in Indianapolis. Week 3 brings a different set of challenges and on paper, a better opponent. Can Arizona keep the momentum going and make a statement in front of the nation? Here are three keys to a Cardinals victory on Monday night.
Find Offensive Balance
The Cardinals are looking for a consistent run game. Through two games, against Detroit and Indianapolis, the Cardinals have rushed for 128 yards on 43 carries. The run game has accounted for an average of 64 yards per game. Not quite an effective attack if the goal is to relieve some pressure from quarterback Carson Palmer and the passing game. This lack of balance allows opposing defenses to focus on getting to the quarterback and has led to five sacks and 16 hits on Palmer this season. The offensive line will likely be without the services of left tackle D.J. Humphries and left guard Mike Iupati for the second straight game. John Wetzel and Alex Boone will be filling those roles respectively. The line needs to be consistent in the run game.
It appears that Chris Johnson will be the main running back for Arizona. He performed admirably against the Colts even though he was signed earlier in the week. Johnson and the rest of the running back coalition need to mimic what the Denver Broncos did last week and run the ball with success. Dallas will need a strong game from interior linemen Maliek Collins and Stephen Paea to stuff the middle against the run. The Cowboys have the most talented defensive line that the Cardinals have faced this season. If the Cardinals can find early success, Palmer and the receiving threats will feast in the passing game. The run game will open opportunities outside against a depleted Dallas secondary. The Cowboys are likely missing three cornerbacks on Monday. Big games for Larry Fitzgerald, J.J. Nelson, and the rest of the receiving corps can be had if the Cardinals can find some semblance of balance on offense. Anything less than 25 rushing attempts for Arizona will be a sign they are behind and struggling to stay in the game.
Make Cowboys One-Dimensional
Ezekiel Elliott had the worst game of his young career on Sunday. The Broncos essentially built a wall around Elliot in the run game, holding the second year running back to just eight yards on nine carries. The Cardinals will need big games from the front seven, including continued stellar play from outside linebackers Chandler Jones and Markus Golden. Both defenders have been great at setting the edge on run plays and have done a superb job at bottling play back towards inside linebacker Karlos Dansby and Haason Reddick. The Cardinals will likely rely on a similar game plan to what was used by Denver. Expect an extra man in the box on run plays to overwhelm the Cowboys’ defense. The weakest link on the offensive line for Dallas is left guard Chaz Green. A big game from defensive tackle Corey Peters will be a boost and will reduce the need for run blitzing.
Bottling Elliott forces the Cowboys to become one-dimensional on offense. Expect defensive coordinator James Bettcher to blitz early and often to set the tone and keep Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott from getting his feet set and in rhythm. The secondary is talented enough to match up with the threats outside for the Cowboys. Prescott has already thrown two interceptions thus far in 2017 and has been sacked three times. Increasing those numbers are a must for the Cardinals to have a chance at winning the game.
Win Special Teams
The Cardinals likely would have been a playoff team last year if it weren’t for mistakes in the kicking game. Kicker Phil Dawson and punter Andy Lee were brought in to shore up special teams. Dawson and Lee spent time together in San Francisco and provide veteran leadership on the often-forgotten unit. Dawson has already come up clutch this season as he kicked the winning field goal in overtime against the Colts. Knowing that three points are nearly guaranteed once inside the opponents 30-yard line allows head coach Bruce Arians to be aggressive in the red zone. Lee has provided stability in the punt game which was lacking last season. He has averaged 46.2 yards per punt. The Cardinals need to work on their coverage teams and must dominate this aspect of the game. Arizona has allowed an average of ten yards per punt return and 21 yards per kick return. A long field forces the Cowboys to have sustained drives, increasing the risk of mistakes.
The Cardinals are in the bottom half of teams in average yards per kickoff returns. Their 20.3 yard average means the offense starts drives inside their own 20-yard line, putting added pressure to move the ball and flip field position. Kerwynn Williams has been the primary returner on kickoffs but has also spent increased time as running back with the injury to David Johnson. With Chris Johnson taking more snaps on offense, Williams should be better rested to help on the return team and put the Cardinals in good starting position. Dallas has struggled with consistency on kickoffs and punts, so the Cardinals must take advantage and get every yard possible. In what will likely be a close game, field position will be a major player in who will be victorious.
The Cardinals are playing their first home game in 2017. It is Monday night, national television crowd, and against a rival from their days in the NFC East. The fans will be wild with likely a very strong contingent of fans wearing Cowboys gear. It will be a fun one, Cowboys 24-20.
*all stats courtesy of NFL.com