Chargers’ Austin Ekeler presents ‘tough out’ for Cardinals defense
TEMPE — There has been no shortage of legit running backs the Arizona Cardinals have had the tall task of facing in 2022.
A quick refresher for those at home:
– Josh Jacobs (Week 2)
– Christian McCaffrey x2 (Weeks 4 and 11)
– Miles Sanders (Week 5)
– Kenneth Walker x2 (Weeks 6 and 9)
– Alvin Kamara (Week 7)
– Dalvin Cook (Week 8)
And it doesn’t get any easier for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph and the defense in Week 12 when do-it-all running back Austin Ekeler and the Los Angeles Chargers come to town on Sunday.
Pacing the team in carries (123), rushing yards (534), targets (83), catches (69) and touchdowns (11), there’s not much Ekeler isn’t involved in when it comes to the L.A. offense.
“He’s a self-made guy, he’s a Western Colorado guy,” Joseph said Thursday. “He’s an undersized guy that probably shouldn’t be in this league probably, but he’s the leading receiver … and the leading rusher. … He is carrying the football team. He takes checkdowns for 7-8 yards a crack and that’s huge for an offense.
“As a runner, he’s slippery. He’s got a low center of gravity, he breaks tackles, he has great hands out of the backfield, he protects. He’s a football player, and obviously when you watch him, he’s going to be a tough out like most good backs are in this league. He is definitely their guy right now.”
While quarterback Justin Herbert usually gets Ekeler his fair share of targets on the regular, he’s seen more than normal in 2022 with starting wide receivers Mike Williams and Keenan Allen dealing with their respective injuries over the course of the season.
Compared to the first 11 games in 2021, the RB saw more work on the ground (135 carries) but less targets (66) and catches (51) than this year.
Herbert’s knack of getting Ekeler involved in the passing game should continue in Arizona, too, with Williams already ruled out for the contest due to an ankle injury.
And if it’s not Ekeler or the aforementioned Allen, who has 11 receptions for 171 yards over three games, it’ll likely be Josh Palmer filling the void.
Seeing at least eight targets come his way over the past four matchups, Palmer has racked up 28 catches for 313 yards and two scores.
But for all the talk of the pass catchers, the success really starts behind the arm of Herbert, a player Joseph has studied over the years.
“He’s a long athlete with a great arm. He can make every throw,” Joseph said. “And what’s surprising with this guy is he doesn’t see the pressure. His eyes are down the field. He’s making throws from different arm angles, he can scramble, he can run with the ball.
“He takes some (hits), which young guys do. That’s got to stop, he won’t last a long time doing that. He’s awkward when he slides. … He’s got great poise, he’s got courage, he’s playing good football. When he has time to make throws, he’s making throws.”
Emphasis on the “When.”
Herbert has put together a solid season so far behind 2,730 yards and 16 touchdowns on 66.6% passing. That’s not to say it’s been a clean pocket for the signal caller to operate in, tallying 17 sacks taken.
Per Pro Football Focus, Herbert has dropped back 123 times under pressure, tied for fifth most in the league with the Houston Texans’ Davis Mills.
He’s also turned the ball over more than he’d like to with seven interceptions on the season, tied for the fourth-highest mark in the league.
For the Cardinals defense to get the better of Herbert and Co., it all starts up front, most notably with J.J. Watt and Zach Allen. Over the past four games combined, the duo has amassed 4.5 sacks, five tackles for loss and 14 QB hits.
With Byron Murphy Jr. out with a back injury, getting to the quarterback is going to be key given the loss of the team’s No. 1 cornerback.
Aside from them, it’s on the shoulders of Markus Golden, Myjai Sanders and Dennis Gardeck to help set the tone on the outside, an area of the field Arizona has lacked consistency in.
Golden is still looking for that breakout game in 2022, recording just 1.5 sacks and 15 QB hits across 11 games. Sanders has shown flashes but has not more than 21 defensive snaps and is coming off a single digit showing (nine reps) this past week. Gardeck still has that high motor but has been held back a bit due to injury this season.
Look for cornerback Antonio Hamilton to make up for last week, too.
While it wasn’t all on him, the cornerback didn’t do his team any favors on Monday night, highlighted by him letting up on a touchdown-saving tackle of San Francisco tight end George Kittle late in the matchup.
“Obviously on Monday night, no one was good enough. I wasn’t good enough, either,” Joseph said. “They made some plays there but again, pass coverage is both ends. It’s rushing and coverage. We have to get better in both areas. And myself, helping those guys make more plays and get closer in coverage. It’s all of us.
“It always starts with me and moves downhill, but I’ll figure it out to get more pressure and get closer in coverage.”