The Battle of the Birds
The Arizona Cardinals are in third place in the NFC West. A divisional win against the 49ers kept the Cardinals in early contention for a playoff team, even if the game did not look as promising. The Cardinals need to step up in the coming weeks to make a serious case for the playoffs. This week the Cardinals are up against the Philadelphia Eagles; another tough road game, another playoff contender. There are question marks on both sides of the ball for the Cardinals, questions that will be answered come Sunday. Here are three keys to an Arizona victory.
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Get Pressure on Carson Wentz
During their win against the 49ers, the Arizona defense lost starting outside linebacker Maruks Golden. Golden was injured as he attempted to bring down quarterback Brian Hoyer, getting rolled up on his right knee by a teammate. The loss of Golden for the rest of the season is a significant blow to the pass rush. Golden contributed 12.5 sacks in 2016, but had yet to get on the board this season. That said, Golden was routinely the first to the quarterback this year and should have recorded a few sacks if not for some poor tackling against the Colts in Week 2. Now the Cardinals will need to find a suitable replacement for the talented linebacker. This comes at a time when the Cardinals take on an explosive Philly offense and quarterback Carson Wentz. Through four games this season, Wentz has thrown six touchdowns to just two interceptions. The second year quarterback comes into Sunday with back to back 300 yard passing games against the Chiefs and Redskins.
The Eagles’ offensive line have given up 12 sacks on Wentz, half of those coming against a dangerous Kansas City defense, their only loss of the season thus far. The Cardinals’ pass rush is not in the same caliber as Kansas City. They will need to utilize James Betcher’s blitz happy strategy and execute it to perfection. Wentz needs to feel uncomfortable in the pocket and the blitz will allow that to happen. That said, Wentz is a physically gifted athlete and has shown tremendous ability to avoid sacks with his feet, often scrambling out of the pocket to find an open Eagles receiver. Part of the solution will be the interior part of the defensive line maintaining lane integrity while the outside rusher maintain outside leverage and keep Wentz contained in the pocket. Think of it as a placing Wentz in a bowl shaped area (normal pocket) to throw the football. The pass rush needs to make the bowl smaller and smaller as they push their blockers further into the backfield. This creates a pocket that envelops Wentz without allowing open lanes for the quarterback to run out of. The Cardinals secondary has the coverage ability to hold up their end of the bargain. The blitz and pass rush will need to get home. Doing so will be a major key to victory.
Protect Carson Palmer
If the Cardinals offensive line plays this week in similar fashion as they did against the 49ers, quarterback Carson Palmer will need to worry about finding a nice masseuse on Monday. Palmer was sacked six times against the 49ers, a seventh sack wiped away on a holding call which was accepted. The Eagles have a more experienced and explosive defense than what San Francisco brought last week. Palmer has been sacked 17 times this season with 12 coming the last two weeks against Dallas and San Francisco. The line lost left guard Mike Iupati for the season while backup Alex Boone is likely out for the second consecutive week with an injury of his own. Left tackle D.J. Humphries did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday according to the team and is likely to sit out against the Eagles as well. That leaves John Wetzel as the starting left tackle and rookie Will Holden at left guard. If Boone can play, he will be taking the starting guard spot.
The offensive line needs to play better. Palmer cannot continue to take the beating he has through the first four weeks. Hits on a quarterback are cumulative and there is only so many hits that a person can take. At this point in the season, Palmer is the only chance the Cardinals have at a winning season, much less the playoffs. The Eagles utilize a wide-9 defensive front with the ends playing outside the tight end. Talented defensive tackle, Fletcher Cox, is out with a calf injury but the line also features talented tackle Tim Jernigan and veteran pass rusher Chris Long. The Eagles have racked up 10 sacks as a team, but those are spread throughout the defensive line. The Cardinals will need their running backs and tight ends to provide assistance with chip blocks and creating traffic at the line of scrimmage. Keeping Carson Palmer upright gives Arizona a puncher’s chance.
Take Advantage of Injured Eagles Secondary
The Eagles secondary is battling through missing players due to injury. Top cornerback Ronald Darby has been out since Week 1 with an ankle injury. Safeties Rodney McLeod and Corey Graham have both been battling injuries but have been able to practice this week. The Cardinals enter Sunday with the passing game beginning to find its 2015 rhythm. Palmer has thrown for more than 300 yards the last three games and the receivers have been running wild. Receivers Jaron Brown, J.J. Nelson, John Brown, and Larry Fitzgerald will need to dominate the undermanned Eagles secondary. Fitzgerald has won five of his seven career regular season games against the Eagles, six from eight if postseason is included, while catching 50 passes for 845 yards and 11 touchdowns all time against Philadelphia. If the secondary decides to focus on Fitzgerald, the Cardinals expect the rest of the cast to step up.
The Cardinals’ receiving corps has speed. Speed is something which has caused an issue for the Philadelphia secondary. Last week against the Chargers saw two deep passes of more than 50 yards. The Cardinals have better receivers than the Chargers do. Expect a lot of three and four receiver sets for the Cardinals with deep routes to put pressure on the safeties to decide which side of the field they will favor. Each receiver has the ability to go deep on any play as well as stay underneath with drag and dig routes. If the offensive line can hold, there will be open receivers for Palmer to hit for large gains down field. The offense will need the passing game to being firing on all cylinders if the Cardinals are to do anything on Sunday.
The Cardinals are a tough team that is well coached and filled with veteran leaders. They will need to rely on their on-field leaders to play better than they have the first four weeks of the season. The biggest question will be the offensive line for Arizona. The Eagles are a playoff contender this season and will take jump on the mistakes that the 49ers and Colts were unable to take advantage of. Another 300 yard day for Palmer and a couple of touchdowns from Fitzgerald will go a long way towards a victory. Eagles beat the Cardinals, 31-17.
*all stats courtesy of NFL.com