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Patrick Peterson’s absence could be most glaring for Arizona this week

Patrick Peterson #21 of the Arizona Cardinals looks on during a preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers at State Farm Stadium on August 08, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. – The Arizona Cardinals’ secondary is about to get better. No really, it is. Patrick Peterson is nearly done serving his six-game PED suspension, Robert Alford is going to return at some point after missing every game so far with a fractured tibia and rookies like Byron Murphy, Deionte Thompson and Jalen Thompson all figure to improve simply by logging more snaps each week.

That means Arizona will be adding one of the best pure cover corners in football, a six-year vet with 10 career interceptions and two scores (plus another in the Super Bowl) and more experience for the youngsters who are just breaking into the league. So yes, this secondary will absolutely get better.

Problem is, none of that is happening before the game against Atlanta this Sunday.

That could be the biggest challenge facing the Cards this weekend. Granted, they got by last week in a similar situation, even picking up their first win of the season. But that was against a struggling Bengals team with a depleted receiving core. And now there are even questions about Tramaine Brock’s availability after he left the Cincinnati game with a shoulder injury.

The Falcons are struggling too, at a disappointing 1-4 through the first five games. But they have the sort of weapons that could exploit a depleted secondary.

“Great group.” Kliff Kingsbury acknowledged. “They have a great chemistry with their quarterback; you can tell they’ve played together. Schematically they do some really good things. They challenge you in every way. They stretch the field and can hurt you underneath. Each guy kind of has their own specific role, and they’re really good at it.”

Matt Ryan ranks second among all quarterbacks with 1,655 passing yards, trailing only Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs. And he’s tied with Mahomes behind only the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson with 11 scores. Mohamed Sanu leads all Atlanta wide receivers with 29 catches, but 2018 first-round pick Calvin Ridley has 21 of his own. And Devonta Freeman ranks seventh among all NFL running backs with 22 catches as well.

Those are all issues Vance Joseph and his defense will have to deal with at State Farm Stadium on Sunday. But none of them compare to Julio Jones.

“Obviously I think he’s one of the best in the league, to be honest,” Murphy admitted. “Watching the tape, he’s a big physical receiver. He has good route running skills. Obviously he can attack the ball, so just coming into this game knowing what type of receivers we’re going against. We’ll prepare our best, and keep watching film this whole week to get ready for Sunday.”

Jones has twice led the league in receiving yards, and is a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. The Falcons’ one victory this season came when the six-time Pro Bowler took a short fourth-down pass from Ryan and sprinted 54 yards for the winning score late in a Week 2 matchup with Philadelphia.

Aside from deciding that game, the play was a reminder of what Jones is capable of whenever he gets the ball in his hands.

“Any time you’re trying to stop him, no matter who you have, it’s going to be a tall task,” Kingsbury explained. “He’s phenomenal. Watching the tape from this season, I’ve always watched him from afar, but watching it on tape and really studying him, he’s an absolute freak. He plays hard every snap. You can tell he’s passionate about the game and does everything right.”

Even Peterson has struggled to contain Jones in the past, so finding a way to slow him down as a team will be the top priority this weekend. And then there’s Austin Hooper.

Hooper ranks second among all NFL tight ends with 34 receptions, and third in yards, with 363. He’s emerged as one of Ryan’s most steady options in the passing game and – perhaps most concerning for the Cardinals – he’s done it all from the position that has burned them most this year.

Through five games, Arizona has allowed six touchdowns to tight ends. Last week was the first time they didn’t let one get into the end zone, though Tyler Eifert wasn’t that far from keeping the streak alive. So while Hooper’s not anywhere near the level of talent that Jones is, he’s emerging as a dangerous player at the worst possible position for the Cards.

In other words, following up the win over Cincinnati with another victory at home this weekend won’t be easy for Kingsbury’s group. Atlanta certainly comes in with more pressure, seemingly weighed down by the preseason projections that had them going as far as the Super Bowl. But that also brings desperation, and they might be playing for head coach Dan Quinn’s job.

For the Cardinals, this is the toughest aerial attack they’ve faced all year. And it’s ironic that it lands on the schedule the week before Peterson returns. Still, getting No. 21 back after this is the light at the end of the tunnel now.

“I think that’s obviously a positive,” Kingsbury pointed out. “That even though we have some banged up guys in that position, we’re getting him back soon. There’s nothing drastic that needs to be done. We know he’s been working hard and is ready to go.”

They just have to survive one more week.

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