The Arizona Cardinals offense has scored six points through their first two games. To say the unit has underachieved is an understatement. The Cardinals enter week three looking to find consistency and to avoid an 0-3 start. Standing in the way of the Cardinals is a suffocating Chicago Bears defense. Can the offense get the ball moving? Today we take a look at what the Cardinals need to do on offense to have a chance at victory on Sunday.
Rediscover David Johnson
David Johnson watched his Cardinals teammates struggle offensively in 2017. Johnson broke his wrist in the 2017 season opener and was lost for the season. The offense attempted to replace the running and receiving capabilities of Johnson with the likes of Adrian Peterson and Kerwynn Williams. Try as they may, the Cardinals were unable to replace Johnson’s productivity from 2016. Fast forward a year later and the Cardinals are still struggling on offense. However, this time the team has Johnson healthy and starting.
Johnson was used as a utility weapon when Bruce Arians was the man in charge. Not just resigned to coming out of the backfield, Johnson was split out wide or in the slot. The move allowed the offense to create mismatches against the defense as Johnson is a more than capable receiving threat. In 2017, Johnson played in just one game, the opener against Detroit where he suffered the wrist injury. In that game alone he received 17 touches in about 50 minutes of play. Through two games in 2018, Johnson is averaging just 14 touches a game.
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The Cardinals need to find ways to get Johnson involved offensively. The simplest way to get him touches would be to pair Johnson with rookie Chase Edmonds. Using both running backs allows the offense to split Johnson out wide and run the ball with Edmonds or vice versa. This is also important as the Cardinals are struggling to find a third wide receiver outside of Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. Edmonds or Johnson would need to be accounted for in the passing game as both are talented pass catchers.
Using Johnson on offense is more than a handoff on every play. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy needs to move Johnson around the field and force the Bears to keep a watchful eye on the talented running back. Johnson should be averaging about 20-25 touches a game. He averaged 23 touches in 2016 and gave the offense a new dimension. Expect much more outside runs and new alignments for Johnson. The Cardinals need their best player to make plays. This can only happen if Johnson gets the football.
Protect the Quarterback
Chicago’s pass rush leads the NFL with 10 sacks through two games. The unit is led by Khalil Mack who has collected two sacks, forced two fumbles, recovered one, and returned an interception for a touchdown. Mack has been a disruptive force and is still getting into playing shape after missing the entire preseason. The Cardinals will need to find a way to contain Mack.
The Bears received a boost when the team added Mack via trade with Oakland. Chicago added to a young and talented core including Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan, and rookie Roquan Smith. The Cardinals can attack the Bears pass rush by getting the ground game going early. The best way to keep the Bears from pinning their ears back and going after quarterback Sam Bradford is to force the pass rush to respect the run. It is difficult to get after the quarterback if you have been burned by the run game after getting out of position.
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Expect the Cardinals to run out of many of the same formations the offense favors to throw the football. This helps to keep the defense guessing and potentially slows down the pass rush. Arizona must also prepare to chip and help the offensive line in passing situations. Getting rid of the football quickly only works if your receiving options are able to get separation. As the first two games have shown, the quick passing game has not been successful for Bradford and the offense.
Arizona will be without starting right tackle Andre Smith. The veteran tackle is ruled out with an elbow injury. In his place is John Wetzel. Wetzel started 11 games in 2017 for the Cardinals and played both tackle positions. He will likely face Mack throughout the game on Sunday as the pass rusher typically lines up on the offense’s right side. Expect the Cardinals to mix up the blocking strategy. Expect chips on Mack before Wetzel gets his chance, in addition to double teams from either a guard or tight end. The goal will be to give Bradford as much time as possible to find a receiver open down the field. Failing to slow down the pass rush will make for a very long Sunday afternoon for the offense.
Can it Happen?
At the end of the day the offense will need to score points to have any shot at winning the football game. The Bears defense is the toughest the Cardinals have faced thus far. The week of preparation began with head coach Steve Wilks saying he wanted the offense simplified. A simple offense means nothing if you are unable to execute the game plan. If McCoy finds a way to integrate Johnson into the offense and keep Bradford clean in the pocket, the Cardinals have a puncher’s chance. If the offense struggles again, Wilks will need to wait another week for his first victory.