Arizona Cardinals offense entering MNF vs. 49ers with new look
TEMPE — The season of change has officially hit the Arizona Cardinals offense.
What we get on the other side remains anyone’s guess.
On one side, you have the loss of starting tight end Zach Ertz, who is done for the season with a knee injury that required surgery.
Included in the team’s subtractions is No. 2 running back Eno Benjamin, who was released after Arizona’s win over the Los Angeles Rams in Week 10.
And we still don’t have a clear picture as to which quarterback is getting the starting nod when the Cardinals face the San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football in Mexico City.
On the other, there’s the potential return of wide receiver Hollywood Brown in Week 11.
After spending four weeks on injured reserve with a foot injury, the wideout was back looking much more like his speedy self on the practice field following his designation to return from the IR on Wednesday.
Hollywood Brown was back on the practice field on Thursday.
Did not see D.J. Humphries, Byron Murphy or DeAndre Hopkins.
Budda Baker was seen leaving the field shortly after the open portion of practice kicked off. Looked like he got some stretching in. pic.twitter.com/Mi7pqHCr1G
— Tyler Drake (@Tdrake4sports) November 17, 2022
For the first time in his Cardinals career, the wide receiver finally has the chance to share the field with DeAndre Hopkins.
It’s a pairing many have awaited and one not yet seen by the 49ers, tape or otherwise.
“There could be some (advantage),” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said Friday. “Moving guys around different positions, being able to put different speed inside, outside, the lack of seeing it on tape can definitely give us an advantage early in the game maybe on some matchups.”
But the biggest obstacle facing Hopkins and Brown isn’t the 49ers secondary, it’s availability.
While Brown has appeared to make strides in his return, Kingsbury wasn’t definitive when asked if the wideout could be back for the Mexico City matchup.
Hopkins, however, appears to have escaped anything major after popping up on the injury report this past Thursday with a hamstring injury. He was an active participant at practice the following day and his head coach was not overly concerned with the injury following practice.
#AZCardinals WR DeAndre Hopkins was back at practice on Friday.
Same with Budda Baker.
Did not see D.J. Humphries or Byron Murphy. pic.twitter.com/zb9LC2aeJo
— Tyler Drake (@Tdrake4sports) November 18, 2022
That’s good news for a wideout who missed three games due to hamstring issues and another four due to a knee injury.
“It’s a maintenance deal I think,” Kingsbury said. “We’re going to be precautious and make sure he feels 100% before the game, but I don’t think it’s close to what it was.”
Unfortunately for Arizona, the same can’t be said for Ertz.
With Kingsbury confirming Ertz was out for the season — on top of the tight end posting to Instagram following successful surgery — the door is officially shut on seeing Arizona’s offense fully loaded in 2022.
Ertz heads to the shelf leading the team in catches (47) and receiving touchdowns (four) to go along with 406 yards. His role within the offense cannot be overstated, making his absence that much more glaring.
Now, it’s on the shoulders of rookie Trey McBride and veterans Maxx Williams and Stephen Anderson to fill the void.
While he hasn’t been a factor in the passing game, McBride has seen double-digit snap counts since Week 4, including a season-high 62 reps (92% of available snaps) this past Sunday due largely in part to Ertz’s injury. He has six starts under his belt.
“To keep seeing him continue to get better and better and growing as a player (is great),” general manager Steve Keim told Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo on Friday. “There’s probably people that scratched their head and said, ‘Why would you take a tight end at that spot?’ No. 1, he was the best player on our board. No. 2, your needs in April are never the same as they are in November, which right now is a different need.
“I’m not saying I’m the smartest guy in the room or we made the right decisions every time, but these are the times you look back and say, ‘Take the best player available that can help you win football games.”
Then there’s Williams, who showed he could be a threat as a pass-catching tight end last season before a knee injury ended his promising year short.
Known for his blocking prowess, Williams caught 16 balls for 193 yards and score in five games played. He was a security blanket in the middle of the field for quarterback Kyler Murray.
Since then, it’s been a battle for playing time for Williams. He’s played in just four games and was released and later re-signed to the practice squad as he continued to get back to full strength from his injury. He hasn’t seen the field since Week 4 and still needs to be elevated to the practice squad, though Kingsbury said Friday things were trending that way.
Practice squad? More like (soon to be) active squad. 😉 pic.twitter.com/OrCOu7TSww
— Tyler Drake (@Tdrake4sports) November 17, 2022
“It’s never fun when No. 86 gets hurt, but I’m ready to go,” Williams said Thursday. “Excited to play football again. … That’s the best answer I got. … We got to keep playing winning football in my opinion.”
The changes aren’t just revolving around Arizona’s primary pass catchers, either, with rookie running back Keaontay Ingram expected to see more time after Benjamin’s release.
Injured back Darrel Williams is another name that could see more run once he returns from IR.
“My preparation actually hasn’t changed,” Ingram said Friday. I’ve been doing the same thing. Every week I approach the week as if I’m getting ready to play and this week, I’m No. 2, so nothing new, not getting rattled, just staying neutral.”
Regardless of who is on the field, the Cardinals will need max effort against a difficult 49ers defense.
Ranked as the No. 1 defense entering the matchup, San Francisco has once again hung its hat on its ability to keep most opposing offenses at bay.
They’ve been especially good against the run in 2022, allowing just 82.7 yards per game. Only the Tennessee Titans are posting a better mark (82.2).
The 49ers are also one of eight teams allowing under 200 yards per game through the air this season.
And much like previous seasons, the unit starts and stops with Nick Bosa.
Tied for second in sacks with 9.5, Bosa continues to be a problem for opposing quarterbacks.
That is, if he can get to them.
A big reason the Cardinals take home the W from L.A. last week centered around quarterback Colt McCoy having a quick trigger of just over two seconds per pass attempt and not allowing the Rams pass rush led by Aaron Donald take the game over.
You have to imagine that’ll be the plan against another tough front.
And when Bosa isn’t getting home, two names behind him in linebacker Fred Warner and safety Talanoa Hufanga are likely making an impact elsewhere on the field.
After an inconsistent start to the season, Warner has turned things around of late. Since Week 3, Warner has recorded at least nine tackles in four outings and hasn’t seen anything less than seven in all but one game over seven contests.
With Jimmie Ward dealing with injuries this season, Hufanga has gotten more time on task and so far, has ran with the opportunity.
Entering the week, Hufanga is tied for third in the NFL in interceptions with four. He’s also got a sack, five tackles for loss, seven passes defensed and an interception returned for a touchdown in nine games.
“They’re pretty good up front, shoot up the field,” Ingram said. “They got some good safeties on the back end. We just got to go out there and execute and at the end of the day, just play football.
“It’s the NFL, everybody’s good and that’s just how we’re going to approach it.”