The road-weary Arizona Cardinals come limping into Sunday’s contest at Raymond James Stadium fresh off a 31-7 loss in New Orleans. To add injury to insult, Arizona also lost three key defensive contributors — Sam Acho (broken fibula), Lorenzo Alexander (Lisfranc fracture) and Alex Okakor (torn biceps tendon) — for the season in the rout.
All is not lost just three weeks into the season for Bruce Arians and Co., though.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, their Week 4 opponent, come into into Sunday’s NFC showdown in far worse shape with an 0-3 record, an embattled coach (Greg Schiano) and a rookie quarterback (Mike Glennon) making his NFL debut under center.
Arians noted this week that the Cardinals “should have the advantage” with Glennon in place as the Bucs’ starting QB, but his team hasn’t exactly been all that successful away from home of late — nine straight road loses dating back to Week 2 of the 2012 season.
Keys for the Cardinals offense:
1. Protect the edge:
It’s been an important key for the better part of 2013, but especially against the Buccaneers, Arizona’s two tackles — Levi Brown and Eric Winston — will need to be stout against edge rushers.
Tampa Bay has 12 sacks in three games, five of which have been recorded by outside linebacker Lavonte David and defensive end Adrian Clayborn.
2. Don’t be scared of Revis Island:
Larry Fitzgerald led the team with 64 yards receiving in New Orleans, but he still hasn’t had the type of breakout performance most expected by this point with the offseason addition of quarterback Carson Palmer.
Part of that is related to a hamstring injury, which has plagued him since Week 2, however as long as he’s on the field, the All-Pro should be used as a weapon, not a decoy.
While Fitzgerald will be matched up one-on-one with arguably the most-talented cornerback in the game in Darrell Revis, the Cardinals’ wideout did have eight catches for 122 yards when the two faced off back in 2008.
3. Feast off of penalties:
Discipline is not exactly a forte for Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers have already amassed 12 defensive penalties, including four unnecessary roughness infractions.
Lavonte David and Dashon Goldson, the team’s two most notable culprits, calmed down a bit last weekend in Foxborough, but the probability of a boneheaded play is still very high Sunday.
Penalties don’t mean much, though, if they aren’t capitalized on. For a team that only made it inside of their opponent’s 20-yard line once in the second half of Week 3, the Cardinals would wise to take what they can get in the form of gifted yards.
Noteworthy stat: Quarterback Carson Palmer is winless in three career starts against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He did, however, throw for 414 yards and four touchdowns against them in 2012.
Keys for the Tampa Bay offense:
1. New quarterback, new start:
Mike Glennon wasn’t good enough to beat out Josh Freeman in training camp, but three weeks into the season he apparently gives the team the best chance to win, according to head coach Greg Schiano.
Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen, but the Buccaneers need to believe it.
Tampa Bay has been dreadful offensively in 2013, ranking second-worst in total offense (282 yards/game), second-worst in passing offense (174 yards/game) and second-worst in points per game (11.3).
Glennon might not be ready to start in the NFL just yet, but he’s the guy in control now. If the Bucs are going to wake up from their 0-3 slumber, they’d be wise to embrace the change starting Sunday.
2. Just look for Jackson:
Glennon put up big numbers in college despite not having much of a down-the-field threat.
The same is not true for him when it comes to the NFL personnel he has at his disposal. Tampa Bay has a terrific receiving duo of Vincent Jackson (15 catches for 265 yards) and Mike Williams (11 catches for 126 yards and a touchdown). Both present problems on intermediate and deep routes, and should be used early and often when Glennon does decide to air it out. Although it should be noted that both receivers were limited in practice Friday and are listed as questionable for Sunday.
While Patrick Peterson, who will likely defend Jackson Sunday, made it to the Pro Bowl as a cornerback in 2012, he has struggled at times in 2013 when paired against some of the league’s big-play pass catchers.
Glennon shouldn’t be afraid to look in Jackson’s direction when/if open opportunities present themselves.
3. Safety first:
Jackson or second-year running back Doug Martin would seem like the best safety blankets for Glennon Sunday, but that might not be the case.
While Tampa Bay hasn’t exactly featured tight end Nate Byham (three catches for 38 yards), given the fact that the Cardinals will be relying primarily on John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy at outside linebacker, and inside linebacker Daryl Washington is still suspended, the rookie QB’s best option when things break down might be of all people, his starting tight end.
Arizona has also already allowed two tight ends — Jared Cook and Jimmy Graham — to go over 130 yards receiving this season.
Noteworthy stat: Glennon will be one of three former North Carolina State quarterbacks (Phillip Rivers and Russell Wilson) to start Sunday — the most by any NCAA program.
Keys for the Arizona defense:
1. Welcome the rookie to the NFL:
At NC State, Mike Glennon threw a combined 62 touchdowns during his junior and senior year. The 6-foot-6 quarterback has a big arm and has no problem showing it off when given time in the pocket. Although the Cardinals’ pass rush is a bit depleted going into Sunday’s game, putting the third-round pick in uncomfortable situations in his NFL debut could lead to key takeaways.
As a senior, the former Wolfpack standout threw 17 interceptions and fumbled the ball 12 times. And that was in the ACC, not the NFL.
2. Shrink the muscle:
The Cardinals got a little taste of trying to contain an undersized running back when they went up against the Saints’ Darren Sproles in Week 3. But whereas Sproles is utilized as a playmaker all over the field, Doug Martin is a pure tailback — and a very good one at that.
During his rookie season, Martin rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns, and that was probably the tip of the iceberg. Through three games in 2013, the former Boise State star already has one 144-yard performance under his belt.
Martin has averaged more than 20 carries per game this season, and that workload will likely go up Sunday with a rookie quarterback behind center.
Arizona has stopped the run very well so far in 2013 — third-best in the league allowing 73.3 yards/game — and
Todd Bowles’ unit would be well-served to continue that trend in Tampa. Limiting Martin means the Buccaneers would have to resort to being one-dimensional offensively with the pressure firmly back in Glennon’s hand. That would certainly be an advantage for the Cardinals.
3. Feel the Power(s)
It’s safe to say cornerback Jerraud Powers hasn’t gotten off to the best start in Arizona.
He has nine tackles in three games, but has been a liability at times in the secondary — as was illustrated on Robert Meachem’s 27-yard touchdown catch in last Sunday’s loss.
The Rams and Saints had a big tight end to throw at the Cardinals’ defense, but the Buccaneers do not. Instead, Tampa Bay relies on the one-two tandem of Jackson and Williams. Patrick Peterson will likely spent most of the afternoon on Jackson, meaning the onus will be on Powers to limit Williams’ production.
Noteworthy stat: Since 2010, the Cardinals have faced three quarterbacks — Sam Bradford (2010), Cam Newton (2011) and Russell Wilson (2012) — making their NFL debuts. In those three games, Arizona has allowed an average of 16.7 points per contest.
Keys for the Tampa Bay defense:
1. Turn to takeaways:
Like clockwork, Carson Palmer has thrown at least one interception in each of his first three games as a member of the Arizona Cardinals.
On the flip side, the Buccaneers’ defense is tied for seventh in the NFL with four interceptions of their own.
Palmer will likely try to make amends for his sub-par performance in Week 3, which means he’ll probably go down field more on more than a few occasions.
Taking the big play away and/or turning it into a big plays of their own could prove important for coordinator Bill Sheridan’s unit.
2. Focus on strengths:
The Buccaneers have excelled at getting to the quarterback (12 sacks). The Cardinals, and in particular left tackle Levi Brown, have struggled to protect their own quarterback.
The Saints limited red zone chances largely because they collapsed the pocket on Palmer and hit him even he was able to get passes away.
With its offense virtually starting over with a rookie quarterback, Tampa Bay’s biggest strength Sunday will be the defense.
The best way to employ that strength is to consistently put pressure on Arizona’s offensive line.
3. Be unwelcoming to the guests:
In two road games this season, Tampa Bay has allowed just five first quarter points. In their lone home game, the Bucs gave up 10 points through the first 15 minutes to the Saints.
With a bad road team coming to town in the Cardinals, Tampa Bay’s defense needs to make a statement early. Whether it’s forcing a turnover or a simple three-and-out, the most deflating thing for a visiting team is an early hole in a hostile environment.
Buccaneers fans desperately need something to cheer about, and a quick defensive stop might just do the trick.
Noteworthy Stat: Tampa Bay has gone 12 straight games without allowing a 100-yard performance by an opposing running back. Adrian Peterson (123 yards) was the last to do so back in Week 8 of the 2012 season.