Coming off what could very well be their most complete win of the season, the Arizona Cardinals travel to Jacksonville to take on the lowly Jaguars, who notched their first win of the season over the Titans while Arizona was dealing with the Texans.
Jacksonville is one of the leading contenders for the least amount of talent in the league, and until last week, they looked destined to join the 2008 Detroit Lions in the history books as an 0-16 team. Now that the monkey is off their back, Jacksonville looks to be a trap game in the making for the Arizona Cardinals, who have very little leeway in the NFC Wild Card race, competing with the likes of Carolina, San Francisco and Chicago.
Just because Jacksonville boasts a 1-8 record doesn’t mean the Cardinals should get complacent. Quite the opposite; trap games are an opportunity to work your gameplan and sand the edges.
Defensively, there is very little Arizona needs sanded down. Todd Bowles is executing his gameplan to perfection, as the Cards defense has done its part to keep the team in every game so far in 2013.
It is on the offensive side of things that intrigues me this game. Carson Palmer and company have been operating with greater cohesiveness these past couple weeks, showing steady improvement each week, moving the ball effectively and putting the team in a position to succeed.
Concerns still exist with third downs chief among them (30% conversion last week), but believe me when I say Arizona is a lot closer to being a great offensive team than many would have you believe. Against one of the worst teams in the NFL, Bruce Arians and company hope they can operate on all cylinders and notch a win come Sunday.
Here’s a look at some key matchups for the game:
Arizona tight ends vs. Jacksonville linebackers
Last week, Cardinals fans got to see something they’ve been waiting all season to see; the emergence of talented tight end Rob Housler.
The former FAU standout caught four passes for 57 yards and a touchdown, displaying some of that separation speed the coaching staff and Arizona sports writers were so high on. Of his catches, three were short screens that saw him get moderate gains, including his lone touchdown of the night.
Such playcalling shows an insistence to get Housler the ball, and why not? He’s one of Arizona’s best weapons, and hopefully he continues that against the Jags on Sunday.
Patrick Peterson vs. Cecil Shorts III
Due to Justin Blackmon’s suspension, Jacksonville’s offense isn’t what you’d call “multi-faceted.” Outside of three-time All-Pro running back Maurice Jones-Drew, there are very few impact playmakers for quarterback Chad Henne to work with, causing defenses to cheat in on the running game.
Looking at Jacksonville’s record, it’s a fair to conclude that it has worked; Jacksonville sports an ugly 2.8 yards per carry on the season.
One playmaker that could cause a huge wrinkle for Arizona, however, is third year wide receiver Cecil Shorts III. He’s a crisp route runner and demonstrates an above average knack for getting behind the secondary, as he had five touchdowns of 40 or more yards last season.
Patrick Peterson definitely has the speed and size to shut him down, but Shorts, much like the Cardinals, is sneaky good and has big play ability.
Rashard Mendenhall vs. Jags defense
Rashard Mendenhall is the Cardinals starter at running back, despite being routinely outperformed by the rookie Andre Ellington, as announced by Bruce Arians earlier in the week.
There must be something Arians sees at practice that we don’t see, because in game situations, Rashard Mendenhall looks downright dreadful at times. The former Steeler has 323 yards on 105 carries this season (3.1 yards per carry), with two lost fumbles on the year. One of them was last week against the Houston Texans that set up the score that put them within three points.
Compared to Ellington’s 388 yards on 54 carries (7.2 yards per carry), Mendenhall’s lack of production is making Arians look more and more like a fool each week for stubbornly sticking with Mendenhall.
Despite all this, one good game could put the critics (myself included) at ease for at least one more week. There isn’t a better defense to do that against than the Jacksonville Jaguars, who allow an NFL-high 153 rushing yards per game.
I’m a big fan of the underdog more often than not (usually because the Cardinals are in that role), but Jacksonville is a hard team to prognosticate success for. There are some very good players on the squad (I mentioned Shorts, and I also like what I’ve seen out of Paul Posluszny, Tyson Alualu and of course MJD), but the gross lack of competitiveness outside of the Denver and Tennessee games is still too much to not take notice. When a team is vastly out-talented, that team needs to be able to outwork a team, and I just don’t see Jacksonville outworking a team that embodies competitiveness like Arizona does. I like Arizona huge, ARZ 35-JAX 3.
The game will be televised on Fox at 1:00PM ET from EverBank Field in Jacksonville.
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