Dealing Cards: Struggles in the red zone, finally division play

Sep 28, 2017, 7:06 AM | Updated: 11:53 am
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (11) stretches for yards as he is hit by Dallas Co...

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (11) stretches for yards as he is hit by Dallas Cowboys cornerback Jourdan Lewis during the first half of an NFL football game, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. – The sample size is small, yet, almost a fifth of the way through the season, the Arizona Cardinals have not performed well when the ball is placed inside the 20-yard line, either on their side of the field or the opponent’s.

Only three times in 11 red-zone trips have the Cardinals scored a touchdown, while their opponents — Detroit, Indianapolis and Dallas — have been successful punching the ball across the goal line seven times in eight chances.

“It’s kind of disappointing,” head coach Bruce Arians said Wednesday. “We’ve run, probably, too many RPOs (run-pass options) down there and didn’t execute them properly or didn’t make the catch or the throw, like the 4th-and-1 in Indianapolis. We’ve got to run the ball better, for sure.

“Defensively, we’ve got to stop the run better, and it’s usually after a big play. We’ve got to play better defense after a big play that put us down there.”

On Monday night, the Cowboys recorded touchdowns on all three of their trips inside the red zone; and all three scores followed big plays, as Arians referenced. A 13-yard pass and 20-yard run helped set up the first and second touchdowns, respectively, while a 53-yard completion came three plays prior to the third score, an Ezekiel Elliott touchdown to make it a two-score game, 28-17.

Offensively against the Cowboys, the Cardinals made four trips inside the red zone and came away with but a single touchdown.

“We just haven’t executed the way that we expect ourselves to execute,” quarterback Carson Palmer said.

Making life more difficult for the Cardinals offense when they reach their opponent’s 20-yard line has been the absence of running back David Johnson. A year ago, Johnson, currently on injured reserve, scored 16 of his NFL-leading and franchise-record 20 touchdowns in the red zone.

“Yeah, he was obviously a monster down there in the red zone because he caught a bunch of touchdowns, and he ran in a bunch of touchdowns,” Palmer said. “He’s one of those guys. He’s irreplaceable. No matter what team he’s on, if he gets injured, he’s irreplaceable. So, you go into the season with a ton of stuff built around him, and as soon as you lose him, you’ve got to change some things. Like I said, we’re still working on execution. We’re going to continue to do that as the season goes on with Dave.”

Division games count twice

Among the four NFC West teams, the Cardinals have yet to play a division game. That changes, of course, this Sunday when they host the San Francisco 49ers.

Games within the division are always tough, according to defensive lineman Frostee Rucker.

“There’s something about it. It’s almost like the teams are built to play verse each other, as for when you play outside your division you’re playing different teams and they’re built for a different style of play,” he said. “(The 49ers) are fighting and scratching to get a win and we want two wins.”

Only the Los Angeles Rams (2-1) have a winning record in the NFC West. Both the Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks are 1-2, while the 49ers are winless.

“Their record does not matter,” Palmer said. “Every time we play San Francisco, they give us their best shot. They’ve always played really, really well against us—really, really hard against us. They’re playing hard on film, and this is a very good defense.

“We’re in a difficult spot, coming off a loss on a short week with a team that’s got 10 or so days of rest. This is a huge game for us.”

Elijhaa Penny impresses on scout team

One option the Cardinals have not tried in the red zone, especially near the goal line, is running back Elijhaa Penny, who, at 6-2 and 234 pounds, may be able to overpower defenses because of his bigger size.

Thus far, much of Penny’s playing time has come on special teams. He does have 10 offensive snaps but no carries. No carries, yet, at least.

“He’s getting close to earning it,” Arians said. “He had a good preseason, but he’s still a little bit down the totem pole. If he got it, I’d have all the confidence in the world. The way he’s been (on the scout team)—Elliott, and then (Thursday) he’ll be (Carlos) Hyde—and he’s shown what he can do.”

Injury report

The list is a long one.

Arians rattled off seven different names as being limited in practice on Wednesday: wide receiver John Brown (quadricep), tight end Jermaine Gresham (ribs), tackle D.J. Humphries (knee), guard Mike Iupati (tricep), linebacker Chandler Jones, wide receiver J.J. Nelson (bicep) and tackle John Wetzel.

“I expect all those guys to be out in pads (Thursday),” Arians said.

Guard Alex Boone (chest) did not practice, while dollar linebacker Deone Bucannon (ankle) was a full participant.

For the 49ers, starting safety Eric Reid (knee) and rookie linebacker Reuben Foster (ankle) did not practice; neither did tackle Joe Staley, though his absence was not injury related. Also, linebacker Brock Coyle (concussion), running back Carlos Hyde (hip), fullback Kyle Juszczyk (concussion) and safety Jaquiski Tartt (concussion) were limited.

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Dealing Cards: Struggles in the red zone, finally division play