In the NFL preseason, Week 2 is generally considered more telling compared to Week 1. The starters are expected to see an increased number of snaps, which helps give a better indication of how a team is actually looking.
As the Cardinals return to the field Friday against the San Diego Chargers, with whom they spent part of this week practicing, they will undoubtedly be interested in learning certain things about certain players.
Of course, there is no way for us to know what specifically the coaches are hoping to see, but we can take some educated guesses. And with that in mind, here are five things to be on the lookout for Friday evening.
Will Brandon Williams bounce back?
The rookie cornerback was the talk of camp in its early days, seemingly making big plays on a daily basis. Sure, he got beat at times, but he had done enough to warrant legitimate excitement over just how ready to contribute he may be right now. Then the Raiders game happened, and the third-round pick was exposed as talented but raw. The ball was continuously thrown to open receivers he was covering. Then, during practices in San Diego, Williams was having trouble sticking with star Chargers receiver Keenan Allen. That would happen to many cornerbacks so it’s not necessarily reason to sound the alarm. However, given that the Cardinals may end up relying on him this season, it would be nice to see Williams take a substantial step forward Friday.
A Troy Niklas repeat performance?
Was last Friday an indication that the former second-round pick out of Notre Dame is ready to break out and make good on his potential? The tight end had two catches for 44 yards and was open for a third catch that would have gone for a touchdown, but the ball was overthrown. He punished would-be tacklers and showed a good blend of power, speed and hands that could make him an intriguing part of the team’s offense. Is that the real Niklas? Maybe. Talent was never really the issue with him; staying healthy was. There was talk this week of how the converted linebacker actually used to work out too hard in the offseason, and after scaling things back this year, is feeling better than he ever has. Either by way of injuries to others or his own production, Niklas was moved into the starting lineup during practice this week. If he stays there, the offense, which does not need a star at tight end, may have found one anyway.
Running game success
The Cardinals scored just 10 points in their preseason opener, but any struggles they had offensively could not be attributed to the running game. David Johnson, Chris Johnson, Andre Ellington, Kerwynn Williams, Stepfan Taylor and Elijhaa Penny combined for 168 yards and one touchdown on 34 carries, and while it would be unwise to draw any conclusions from that game, it did perhaps help to reaffirm the belief that this running back room is not only the deepest in Cardinals history, but one of the best in the entire NFL. Is it the result of a talented group of runners being combined with a much improved, at least when it comes to run blocking, offensive line? If you’re looking to temper your expectations, the Chargers’ defense might not help. Last week, the Tennessee Titans running backs gashed San Diego for 285 yards on 32 carries. And you thought the Cardinals had a good day on the ground.
Stopping tight end and running backs
Asked what he learned by practicing against the Chargers that he would not have practicing against his Cardinals teammates, linebacker Kevin Minter noted how difficult it was to track players like running back Danny Woodhead and tight end Antonio Gates in the passing game. No kidding. Woodhead is one of the best receiving backs in the NFL, and Gates has long been an elite pass-catching tight end. While Arizona’s defense is loaded at most levels, the one area they would perhaps appear to be vulnerable is when it comes to tracking down screen passes and throws to tight ends in the seam. The Chargers, whose offense is led by former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, certainly have the weapons to exploit the visiting team there.
Can the backup QBs get on track?
To be fair, it should be seen as a good thing when a team’s quarterback concern has nothing to do with the starter. Then again, just because Carson Palmer is playing at an elite level does not mean the Cardinals can gloss over the players behind him on the depth chart. See 2014, if you want. Anyway, last week’s game saw each of Drew Stanton, Matt Barkley and Jake Coker struggle. They combined to complete 12-of-35 passes for 173 yards and a pair of interceptions. Stanton’s struggles will not cost him a roster spot — the team trusts him and the veteran has proven he can succeed in the NFL — but Barkley’s issues were, if nothing else, disappointing. The former USC star may have a bit of an excuse as his wife was about to give birth last week, so it’s possible his mind was not 100 percent on football. That said, as he is locked in a battle with Coker to make the team as the third quarterback or perhaps land on the practice squad, he cannot afford too many rough outings.
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