Cardinals run game vs. stingy Bears defense among Week 16 factors to watch

Dec 21, 2023, 5:30 PM

TEMPE — The Arizona Cardinals and Chicago Bears are gearing up for a ground-and-pound affair in Week 16.

On one side of the coin, you have a Cardinals run game coming off an impressive showing in a 45-29 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. Racking up 234 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries against one of the toughest defenses in the league is nothing to scoff at.

But on the other, you have a Bears run defense looking to add another shutdown performance to its resume in 2023.

As Arizona Sports’ Wolf & Luke co-host and Cardinals color commentator Ron Wolfley has said, “it’s time to strap up the boots and scrape up the knuckles” this week for the Cardinals run game.

“It’s a combination of players and coaching,” offensive coordinator Drew Petzing said Tuesday. “(Chicago Bears head coach) Matt Eberflus is an unbelievable coach. He does a great job of coaching that defense.

“He’s had success everywhere he’s been and certainly they have players that fit that system. They play hard, they play at the level he wants it to. They’re really disciplined in their run fits and really aggressive and have a dynamic front seven that really makes it go.”

Entering Week 16, the Bears are tops in the league in fewest rushing yards allowed per game with 79.8, third in rushing touchdowns given up with seven and third in yards allowed per attempt with 3.5.

Simply put, James Conner, Kyler Murray and the rest of the Arizona’s stable of runners have their work cut out for them on Sunday.

“They’re playing really good football right now,” quarterback Kyler Murray said Wednesday. “Statistically, they’re up there as one of the best defenses in the league. They’ve got a lot of great players over there that play hard, play fast, play physical and we’ve got to be ready to play.”

But if James Conner, Murray and the rest of Arizona’s rushing attack can take hold early on, there’s a good chance Arizona walks out of Chicago with a W.

In the four times the Bears have allowed at least 100 rushing yards this season, they’re 1-3. Pull back the metrics to 87 or more yards and that number jumps to 1-6.

The Cardinals meanwhile have seen all of their wins come when they top 122 yards or more on the ground and are seventh in the league in rushing yards per game with 131.8.

It truly is iron against iron in that regard.

Flip things around, though, and there’s a clear favorite.

For as good as the Bears run defense has been in 2023, the run offense isn’t that far behind, sitting fifth in the NFL with 134.4 yards per game.

Arizona on the other hand is sporting the second worst run defense in the NFL, allowing nearly 140 yards per game to opposing rushers and is in the bottom five in touchdowns given up with 17.

Matt Prater, the underrated X-factor

When you think Cardinals and points scored, Trey McBride, Hollywood Brown, Murray and Conner typically come to mind first given their big-play abilities on offense.

But if you look at the Cardinals’ 2023 leader for points, it’s none of the four and it’s not even close.

No, that honor belongs to kicker Matt Prater, who has racked up 85 points this season and is averaging just over a touchdown per game in 2023. The next closest Cardinal is Conner at 35.

That’ll happen when the kicker has converted 23 of his 26 field goal attempts in addition to his 16-of-17 mark on extra points this year.

“Having Matt, that’s a game changer,” Murray said Wednesday. “A guy that if you can get it to the (40- or 45-yard line), he’ll have a chance to knock those in. You see it across the league with some of these games that these guys are making incredible field goals. It’s huge.

“He’s an X-factor for sure. Obviously, we don’t want him out there kicking 50- and 60-yarders. We want to put the ball in the end zone, but knowing that he’s out there, he’s got our back and we rely on him is a big deal.”

It’s just another season of getting it done for Prater, who not only established a new franchise single-season record with eight field goals of at least 50 yards, but also sits 13th in the NFL’s all-time list for career field goals. With two more field goals, he’ll surpass Matt Bryant (397) for the 12th spot.

He’s also served as another voice for both Gannon and special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers to lean on, especially when the elements come into play.

“Him and Jeff communicate to me extremely well,” Gannon said Wednesday. “Before the game, as the game’s going on and right now how we’re kind of setting those things up. … He’s obviously a huge asset to our team, but yeah, I’ll lean heavily on him, and he played in that division for a long time, so he knows that stadium — Soldier Field.”

Master vs. apprentice

At the top of the matchup sits a couple of head coaches who know a thing or two about the other.

The two spent three seasons together (2018-20) during their time together in Indianapolis, with Gannon serving under then-defensive coordinator Eberflus as the Colts’ defensive backs coach.

Eberflus is one of Gannon’s biggest mentors and the Cardinals’ coach credits a lot of his style to the former DC.

“The first thing that comes to my mind that I saw for three years working for him was his elite leadership skills. I learned so much about how to practice, player management, what’s important and how to get guys to hit their ceiling. Schematics were completely different for me, which we use a lot of those things now. The way you play the game, how you measure that and how you hold guys accountable,” Gannon said.

“It’s not surprising at all that team has (improved), because when I was with him for three years, our defense was always (going up) for three years. It started kind of somewhere, and then as the year went on, we got better and better and better. … I can’t say enough good things about him. It’ll be good to see him. He is a great man. His family’s fantastic. They’ve helped me a ton, so it’ll be good to see him but he’s a head coach for a reason. He’s one of those guys.”

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