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Spotlight once again falls on Arizona Cardinals’ offensive line

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson, center, celebrates his touchdown with D.J. Humphries (74) and Arizona Earl Watford (78) during the first half of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Overpowered in Carolina. Roughed up by San Francisco.

It’s been a rough two-game stretch for the Arizona Cardinals’ offensive line.

Another challenge awaits on Sunday in Minnesota.

The Vikings, though they’re mired in a four-game losing streak, possess arguably the NFL’s best front four. Defensive ends Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter and Brian Robison plus tackles Tom Johnson, Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen help anchor a defense that ranks third overall (308.8 yards per game) and No. 1 in scoring (16.9 points per game).

“Their defense is legit, so definitely got to bring our lunch pail,” right tackle D.J. Humphries said. “But, we see a great defense every day, so nobody is walking around frantic. Everybody knows what they got to do.”

Griffen, out of Agua Fria High School in Avondale, leads the team sacks (six), tackles for loss (eight) and quarterback hits (44).

“Everson Griffen is, I think, one of the most underrated defensive ends in the league,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “Joseph has been doing it for a long time. Robison’s a high energy, very athletic guy. So this is a really, really good front.”

Each player Arians mentioned is at least 6-foot-3 and 260-pounds with Joseph tipping the scales at 329.

The responsibility for stopping, or at least slowing down, the Vikings’ defensive front falls on the interior of the Cardinals offensive line, according to Arians.

“We struggled in Carolina, and our guards have to play better for us to run and protect better,” he said.

Against the Panthers, the Cardinals allowed a season-high eight sacks.

Through nine games, Cardinals’ quarterbacks have been sacked 27 times, matching the season total from all of 2015.

“Execute. Execute,” right guard Earl Watford said. “Just got out there and do what we’re asked to do. No different. Just make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to and that’s it, that’s pretty much what that’s about.”

Arians pointed to technique for the problems in Carolina. Last week against the 49ers, when the Cardinals gained only 80 rushing yards on the league’s worst run defense, Arians was much more blunt.

“They kicked our butt,” he said, after reviewing the film. “We just didn’t block very well.”

Added offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, “It’s just an individual thing. Guys are on the right people. We’ve just got to win those one-on-one matchups. We’ve just got to make sure we get moving at the point (of attack) and not falling off our blocks. A lot of times last week that’s what happened. We’ve just got to make sure when we’re locked up one-on-one we win.”

The pass protection, however, was solid, enabling quarterback Carson Palmer to throw for a season-best 376 yards on 49 attempts. That included seven plays of 20 or more yards, plays Arians labeled as ‘explosive.’

“Which we had not been getting (this season),” he said. “We get teams that want to stop the run, you should be able to beat (your man) one-on-one and get your matchups.”

In other words, take what the defense gives you.

Entering Week 11, the Vikings defense ranks sixth against the pass (211.8) and 10th against the run (97.0). The unit has yet to allow 300 passing yards, but in three of the past four games, opponents have rushed for better than 100 yards.

“It’s just us coming to practice every week and perfecting our craft and not going through the motions, so when we get to game day we’re flying on a full ship. So, if they stop one phase of our game, we’ve been working hard enough in the pass game that we can lean on the pass,” Humphries said. “It’s crafting during the week…so if something happens in the game, where they’re like, ‘forget it, we’re fitting to be nine in the box and you’re not running it.’ Well, we’ve been working on our pass rush really well this week, so it’s time to start going (with an) empty (backfield). I think that’s a big part of it.”

And as if facing the Vikings defense wasn’t enough of a challenge, the Cardinals offensive line is still learning to play together as a unit. Saying that this late in a season is never good, until you account for the considerable amount of change the group has experienced, further complicating their jobs.

Humphries and center A.Q. Shipley are the only two who have started, and finished, every game; and both are first-year starters. Watford is playing because of an injury to Evan Mathis, who was signed in the offseason to provide some veteran leadership on the right side.

In addition, John Wetzel will make his second consecutive start at left tackle in place of Jared Veldheer, who, like Mathis, is done for the season because of injury.

Wetzel received praise from Arians for his effort last week, but the drop-off between he and Veldheer is significant, which is to take nothing away from Wetzel, who also spelled left guard Mike Iupati for a game this season.

“It’s been different for sure,” Humphries acknowledged. “(But) it’s expected for you to know what you’re doing when you come in. Everybody that’s came in to join the line, they know what they’re doing. It’s never been a lull where it’s like, ‘oh, we have to wait for this guy to learn this stuff’. Everybody that’s come in has been pretty ready to do what they got to do.”

And that’s keep Palmer upright and open up running lanes for David Johnson; all of which is easier said than done, especially this week on the road in Minnesota, where crowd noise will be a factor.

U.S. Bank Stadium is considered the loudest venue in the NFL.

“It should be all right. We had crowd noise today; we’ll have it again tomorrow,” Goodwin said. “We’ve been on the road already this season. We cannot let it be a factor. Hopefully, we can score early and often and take the crowd out of the game.”

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