The Arizona Cardinals offense was “putrid” last Sunday in Tampa Bay, at least according to coach Bruce Arians.
So, if numbers can prophesy, Arians’ description of his offense following this weekend’s contest against the Carolina Panthers shouldn’t be any more amicable, given their opponent’s defensive dominance.
The Panthers, who will be visiting University of Phoenix Stadium for the first time since Week 1 of the 2011-12 season, arrive in Glendale with one of the NFL’s best defenses — ranked 10th in the league in yards per game. Through the first four weeks of the season, they have given up just 93 rushing yards per game and 225 passing yards per game. The last time they took the field, on Sept. 22 when they faced the New York Giants, they won in a dominant 38-0 shutout. Their 12 points-per-game average is second to only the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks.
Meanwhile, only six offenses in the NFL have been less productive than the Cardinals’ unit, which is averaging 17.3 points per game after Arizona’s 13-10 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 4.
One offense that has been about as bad as Arizona is that of their opponent, Cam Newton and the Panthers.
Carolina has averaged less than one more yard-per-game than Arizona, while scoring 22.7 points-per-game.
The Panthers (1-2) are looking to climb to .500 while Arians and the Cardinals are aiming to improve to 3-2 in their third straight game against an NFC South opponent.
Keys for the Cardinals offense:
1. Convert on third down:
In last week’s narrow win in Tampa Bay, the Cardinals converted just one of their 10 third downs. Quarterback Carson Palmer and the offense managed just 17 first downs in total — two from penalties — while turning the ball over three times.
Against the Panthers’ stout defense, the Cardinals are sure to face their share of third downs. As always when playing a dominant defense, diversifying their playcalling will be vital Sunday. A defense like Carolina’s will take over as soon as the Cardinals become predictable, as they were in their 1-for-10 third down conversion performance in Tampa Bay.
2. Get the ball to Fitz:
Though he ultimately accrued 68 yards on six catches against the Buccaneers, Larry Fitzgerald wasn’t even targeted by Palmer in the first half of the game.
With a struggling ground offense, an immobile quarterback and a tight end who, along with Andre Roberts, managed just one reception last week, Fitzgerald’s importance to the Cardinals’ offense can’t possibly be understated. Case in point: again, the contest with the Bucs, in which the Cardinals’ offense didn’t begin to gain traction until they began to look to Fitzgerald in the fourth quarter.
3. Sowell’s showing:
Of course, the big story of the Cardinals’ week was the trade of left tackle Levi Brown to the Pittsburgh Steelers. A former first-round pick and, by the standards of most Cardinals’ fans, a revolving door on the left side of the team’s troubled O-line, Brown cleared the way for Sept. 1 waiver pickup Bradley Sowell, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts, to try his luck at the position.
In his first career start, Sowell will try to offer Palmer more peace of mind than he’s been given so far in the Cardinals’ young season. Palmer has been sacked 10 times and pressured a lot, especially from his blind side.
The Panthers, meanwhile, were able to sack Eli Manning seven times in their blowout of the Giants and, given Palmer’s lack of mobility, Sowell and the offensive line will be heavily relied upon Sunday.
Keys for the Carolina offense:
1. Debut all over again:
Cam Newton’s much anticipated NFL debut came at University of Phoenix Stadium back in 2011, of course. And, of course, it was unforgettable.
Although the Cardinals eventually prevailed in a 28-21 win, Newton set an NFL debutante record with his 24-for-37, 422-yard passing performance, throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for one.
Now, two years later, Newton has only once passed for more yards than he did in his debut, and that effort came in week two of his rookie season. In order to revive an otherwise-stagnant offense, the Panthers will look to Newton to put together something resembling the act he was able to conjure in Glendale a couple of years ago.
2. Stick with Smith:
Other than himself, Newton’s most consistent playmaker is still veteran wide receiver Steve Smith.
Smith’s career numbers are incredibly comparable to Larry Fitzgerald’s and he has been a bona fide receiving star for years. He leads the Panthers in targets, and that’s not a coincidence. Newton’s ability to find his main target will only open the door for other members of the Panthers’ receiving core — namely Ted Ginn, Brandon LaFell and Greg Olsen — to contribute.
3. Run, then pass:
The Cardinals’ rushing defense is stout. But Newton, running back DeAngelo Williams and the Panthers’ backfield come to town with the league’s third-best ground attack.
Establishing the run against the Cardinals will be a challenge, but it will be key for the Panthers to figure out as much if they have any plans of attacking through the air.
Keys for the Arizona defense:
1. Stay home at home:
The Cardinals linebackers will need to consistently “stay home” when facing Cam Newton and the Panthers. When the Carolina quarterback gets outside the pocket and sends defenders every which way, the Panthers are at their best.
It will be vital for the Cardinals to protect the box and not enter futile chases of Newton, who especially likes to target his tight ends and backs when under pressure.
2. Daryl’s day:
Following a four-game suspension to begin the season, Daryl Washington will return to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday and he’ll be a more-than-welcomed addition to the defensive unit.
Washington’s speed will be extremely important when matched up against Panthers’ tight end Greg Olsen, who leads his teams in receptions this year, with 16, and receiving yards, with 194.
Beyond pass coverage, Washington is, of course, the Cardinals’ best past rusher, recording a career-best nine sacks last season. One of the quickest linebackers in the NFL, Washington will be key in pressuring Newton, who will likely be able to outrun all other Cardinals’ pass rushers.
3. More of the Martin tactics
Part of the Cardinals’ silver lining in a bad showing against the Buccaneers last weekend was their ability to stop Doug Martin and the run game.
The Cardinals’ defense utilized strong, consistent tackling along with the ability to fill would-be gaps created by a strong opposing offensive front in order to hold the second-year back — who tallied 1,454 yards in his rookie season — to just 45 yards.
They’ll have to do more of the same against speedy DeAngelo Williams and the Panthers Sunday in order to force Newton to put the ball in the air, where the Cardinals’ turnover-hungry secondary can make plays.
Keys for the Carolina defense:
1. Pressure Palmer:
The Panthers’ defense will be licking its chops Sunday when it stares through the Cardinals’ offensive line at quarterback Carson Palmer.
With momentum from their seven-sack performance against Eli Manning and the Giants, the Carolina pass rushers will look to exploit the lowly Arizona offensive line, eliminating their opponent’s main offensive dimension — passing. The Panthers will look to make the Cardinals choose between putting Palmer under pressure or resorting to a stagnant, struggling rushing attack, led by Rashad Mendenhall and Andre Ellington.
If they can take out the former and cause the Cardinals to rely on the latter, they’ll be in complete control of the game.
2. Show up Sowell:
Key No. 2 will be a big part of key No. 1 here. Bradley Sowell faces one heck of a challenge in his first career start.
The aforementioned Panthers’ pass rush will surely put the Cardinals’ offensive line on trial all day. And they’ll likely be most successful if they focus on the left side, occupied by Sowell and left guard Daryn Colledge.
If the Panthers can exploit Sowell early in his first start, they’ll open pass rush lanes up the middle for defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei.
3. Control the middle:
Luke Kuechly and the Panthers’ ability to control the middle of the field will be a huge factor. If Carolina can make Cardinals’ tight end Rob Housler a non-factor, forcing Palmer to look to exclusively look to the sidelines while also matching up well in coverage of Arizona’s running backs, they’ll enjoy success Sunday.