The Arizona Cardinals kick off the second half of the season much the same way they started it: with an even record.
At 4-4, the Cardinals sit at the crossroads of their season. With a win or two in a row, they could find themselves in excellent position to contend for a Wild Card spot. With a loss or two in a row, they could have the eyes squarely set on a top 10 pick in April’s NFL Draft.
Entering 2013, Sunday’s opponent, the Houston Texans, thought they’d find themselves more in the former category than in the latter. A two-time defending AFC South champion, the Texans were being talked about as a potential conference representative in the Super Bowl.
Two months, a slew of injuries and a quarterback switch later, the Texans find themselves nowhere near the playoff picture as they head to University of Phoenix Stadium.
The non-conference showdown pits two teams who are potentially going in opposite directions.
Keys for the Cardinals offense:
1. Establish Ellington:
It’s been a couple of weeks, but Andre Ellington’s career performance — 15 carries for 154 yards and an 80-yard touchdown — in Arizona’s 27-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons back on Oct. 27 should not be far from anyone’s mind.
Despite their record, the Texans feast on opposing quarterbacks — leading the league with the fewest passing yards allowed per game (158.0). Wade Phillips’ defense, however, is not so strong against the run (115.5 yards per game).
So, whether it’s Ellington, Stepfan Taylor or a refreshed Rashard Mendenhall, the Cardinals need to use the run to setup the pass, not the other way around.
2. Find the one-on-one matchup:
In the first half of their 27-24 loss to Indianapolis last week, the Texans attempted to double team the Colts’ top receiving threat, T.Y. Hilton, given the absence of Reggie Wayne. That plan worked for a half, until Andrew Luck started finding targets like Griff Whalen and Coby Fleener on intermediate routes.
The Texans then backed off on their double team of Hilton, and the results, well speak for themselves. Taking advantage of one-on-one coverage, Hilton scored three second half touchdowns.
Houston might try to take Larry Fitzgerald or Michael Floyd out of the game at the start, but if Carson Palmer can exploit one-on-one matchups — especially in the middle part of the field where Brian Cushing is no longer patrolling the area — with Teddy Williams, Andre Roberts, Rob Housler or Jake Ballard, things will open up over the final 30 minutes of play.
3. Start fast:
In their last five games, the Cardinals’ offense has scored just seven points in the first quarter.
The Texans come to town down decimated and playing with virtually nothing to lose. It would behoove Arizona to recognize the situation early and put some distance between themselves and an inferior foe.
Noteworthy stat: In two career appearances against the Texans, Carson Palmer has thrown for 535 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Keys for the Houston offense:
1. Keep Keenum clean:
Rookie Case Keenum has been a bit of a revelation for the Texans over the past few weeks. In two games as a starter, the former Houston standout has thrown for 621 yards and four touchdowns.
He has, however, gotten awfully dirty.
Houston’s offensive line has yielded six sacks in losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and Colts.
Against a pass rush that has seven sacks in its last two contests, the Texans better protect Keenum, or his third career start could become one he’ll hope to soon forget.
2. Airing it out to Andre:
Andre Johnson is one of the premiere wide receivers in the game.
Patrick Peterson is one of the premiere cornerbacks in the game.
With that said, Keenum should not be afraid to go up top to No. 80, just as he did in the first half of the Texans’ Week 9 loss.
While Peterson is a better cover corner than Vontae Davis, who Johnson picked on to the tune of three touchdowns, he’s not an end-all, be-all line of defense.
Calvin Johnson proved just that, managing to catch six passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns against the third-year pro back in Week 2.
If the opportunity presents itself Sunday, Houston shouldn’t shy away from Peterson’s side, especially if the six-time Pro Bowler, Johnson, is the one roaming around.
3. Hold onto the ball:
Seems simple enough, but the last two teams — Buccaneers and Falcons — to fall in Arizona combined for eight turnovers.
The Cardinals have playmakers all over the field — be it Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Daryl Washington, Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett or John Abraham — who can change a game in a matter of instant.
Unlike the former starting QB in Houston, Keenum has managed to stay clean when it comes to interceptions. It’s a trend that must continue for the Texans to have a chance Sunday.
Noteworthy stat: Keenum will be the fifth rookie quarterback to start in Arizona since 2010. Three — Cam Newton, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson — out of the last four have left with losses. The only one to leave the Valley with a win, Sam Bradford back on Dec. 5, 2010.
Keys for the Arizona defense:
1. Clamp down:
In Arizona’s four wins this season, the defense has allowed just seven points in the second half.
Even with a balanced attack led by Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins and a stable of capable backs, the Texans’ offense is vulnerable with a rookie behind center.
Crowd noise will help, but getting a consistent pass rush on Keenum, especially late in the game, will negate any semblance of balance Houston tries to create.
Just ask the Colts.
2. Neutralize the rest:
Patrick Peterson will have his hands full with Andre Johnson. However, even if Johnson gets his numbers, it won’t matter much if Hopkins, Garrett Graham, Devier Posey and other complimentary pieces aren’t a factor.
Houston doesn’t employ a big-play tight end, so the Cardinals’ linebackers can roam a little bit more in coverage without fearing like the middle of the field is wide open.
If Johnson winds up as the Texans’ lone producer in the passing game, it bodes well for Todd Bowles and Co.
3. Deny the other Johnson:
Andre Johnson isn’t the only Johnson Arizona has to keep its eyes on this week.
With Foster (back) out and Tate’s status (ribs) up in the air for Sunday’s game, Dennis Johnson, an undrafted free agent out of Arkansas, may have a more prominent role in the offense.
It would seem like a downgrade for the Texans, but Johnson did run for 757 yards and eight touchdowns in the SEC during his senior year. And that came while splitting carries with Knile Davis.
At 5-foot-7, Johnson is by no means a bruiser, but he is dynamic. Take him out at the first point of contact, or he could make you play with big runs down field.
Noteworthy stat: The Cardinals have held four of the last five AFC opponents who have come to University of Phoenix Stadium under 21 points.
Keys for the Houston defense:
1. Pinch the pocket:
There are two Carson Palmers. The first excels when he has time in the pocket and doesn’t feel pressure at his feet or rushed to make a throw. The second gets overanxious at the sight of an oncoming pass rusher and often times makes a bad decision because of it.
Palmer has been both of these quarterbacks in 2013, which is why he has 10 touchdowns to go along with 14 interceptions.
If the Texans fail to turn the two-time Pro Bowler into the second guy, they’ll lose. It’s that simple.
Following his first quarter interception against Atlanta, Palmer was rarely threatened in the pocket, and in turn delivered dart upon dart to Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Teddy Williams.
Even at 33, if he’s given time, Palmer can be a very effective, efficient passer.
2. Avoid giving up the big play:
T.Y. Hilton’s 58-yard touchdown. Dexter McCluster’s 43-yard reception. Vernon Davis’ 64-yard grab.
While Houston’s offense has given up its fair share of big plays via the pick six this season, they haven’t been alone.
The Texans’ defense has been stout overall, but big plays at crucial times have hurt them. (See above)
Cut down on the amount of chunk plays, and the 60-minute effort likely gets rewarded — something that hasn’t happened since Week 2.
3. Make Wade a winner:
The Texans will be playing with heavy hearts Sunday, as head coach Gary Kubiak will be away from the team as he continues to recover from the mini stroke he suffered at halftime of the team’s loss to the Colts last Sunday.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will serve as the interim coach, but he’ll also resume his usual duties as well.
Playing for a cause can often bring a team together. Houston has two. Honor Kubiak and make their popular coordinator a winner in his return to the head coaching ranks.
Noteworthy Stat: In its last meeting against Larry Fitzgerald, the Texans’ defense allowed the seven-time Pro Bowler to haul in seven passes for 79 yards, including two touchdowns.