It’s a short week for the Arizona Cardinals as prime time beckons and the lights come on for Thursday night football. Arizona welcomes the Denver Broncos to State Farm Stadium for a clash of struggling offenses. The Cardinals are looking to get their second victory of the season, their first at home. Denver has lost four in a row while Arizona is looking to avoid a losing streak of their own. Here are three things to watch for against the Broncos.
Can Arizona Run the Ball?
Arizona’s offense has done little in the ground game. On the year they are averaging just 64 yards a game. Star running back David Johnson has totaled just 297 yards. On Thursday, Denver brings the last ranked defense against the run. The Broncos started the season by keeping opponents under 100 yards rushing through the first three games. However, over the last three games, Denver has given up 142 yards to Kansas City, 323 yards to the Jets, and 270 yards to the Rams.
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The Cardinals face an uphill climb on the ground as four out of five offensive line starters were listed as questionable on Tuesday’s injury report. The only starter not listed is rookie center, Mason Cole. Arizona needs to get the ground game going to keep Denver from focusing solely on the pass rush. Denver employs a 3-4 defense so the Cardinals will need to win the battles along the inside of the line. The goal is utilize combo blocks on the nose or defensive tackle before peeling off to take on the second level. If the Cardinals can have a breakout on the ground, the offense will have more openings in the passing game.
Creative Play Calling
Discussions around the Cardinals have centered on the possible firing of offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. McCoy is facing the team which fired him midway through last season. At the time, many felt McCoy was choosing to remain rigid in his offensive philosophy. Fast forward to this season and both fans and media have voiced their displeasure with an anemic Arizona offense. The Cardinals currently have the least amount of yards in total offense, are second in least scored, and second to last in yards per play.
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A common theme throughout the season for the Arizona offense has been the lack of explosive plays. Part of the reason lies with mistakes by the offense. The other part however, lies with the overall play-calling by McCoy. Arizona has seemed hell-bent on running the football up the middle. The Cardinals lead the league in attempts to the middle of the line. With a misfiring run game, the passing attack has been stymied. Josh Rosen has shown signs of a true franchise quarterback but the offense has not seemed willing to take risks downfield. Thursday may be McCoy’s last game as coordinator if he is unable to get the offense firing.
Slowing Down Denver’s Stampede
Denver’s offense is predicated on the run. The offense features talented running backs Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. Denver has the eighth best ground attack, averaging 124 yards a game. The Broncos run game is a mix of zone and power schemes. Arizona has struggled to slow down opposing ground attacks, giving up just over 160 yards a game. Denver’s attack is similar to Arizona’s rivals, the 49ers and the Rams. Arizona gave up nearly 250 yards combined in two games against the 49ers and the Rams.
The Cardinals defensive line has been unable to control the line of scrimmage against the run. Even when the line gets penetration from Robert Nkemdiche or Corey Peters, the linebackers are unable to fill the hole and prevent cutbacks. Arizona needs to set the edge and maintain gap integrity along the interior of the line. With the front seven struggling, it will be interesting to see if the Cardinals decide to bring pressure to shore up the run defense as doing so could leave the back end vulnerable.
Prediction: Denver wins, 23-10
Ultimately the Cardinals and Broncos are two teams in similar situations. Both teams lack a functioning offense while the defenses are talented but underwhelming. McCoy needs to find new ways to run the football in order to take advantage of a struggling Denver defense. Defensively, Arizona needs to find a way to slow down Denver’s potent ground game. In the end the challenge is too great for the offense and the defense eventually falls apart. Arizona heads into the weekend with questions surrounding the coaching staff.