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Scouting the enemy: Arizona Cardinals

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The Denver Broncos look to stop their four-game losing streak when they battle the Arizona Cardinals tomorrow on Thursday Night Football. Here is a deeper look at the Cardinals, my keys to the game and prediction.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Minnesota Vikings Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t too long ago that the Denver Broncos and the Arizona Cardinals were battling it out in the final game of this year’s preseason, with the Broncos securing a 21-10 victory in late August. Fan bases of both franchises appeared to be relatively optimistic about their teams entering the regular season, but a lot has changed in two months and sometimes change isn’t for the better. Tomorrow evening on Thursday Night Football, the two struggling franchises will both be looking for victories in order to salvage their remainder of their respective seasons.

Under the guidance of first-year head coach Steve Wilks, the Cardinals are off to an even worse start than the Broncos sporting a 1-5 record. Each team is desperate for a win, so it will be interesting to see who prevails. Von Miller has stated he is confident that the Broncos are going to kick the Cardinals’ asses, but we will just have to wait and see if that actually happens. Historically, the Broncos and Cardinals haven’t met often in the regular season (only 10 times since 1973) with the last time being in 2014. Overall, Denver holds a significant advantage in head-to-head competition with 8 wins, 1 loss and 1 tie.

A quick glance at the Cardinals’ offense

In the offseason the Cardinals signed free agent quarterback Sam Bradford to a one-year deal worth $20 million dollars. Bradford’s heist of reaping mega-millions despite never showcasing what made him a top pick out of the University of Oklahoma years ago continued. With that contract, he was was unquestionably expected to start, but it also signified he would only be a stop-gap for their franchise who like the Broncos, were in pursuit of a long-term solution at quarterback.

Their search for the future didn’t take too long. In April, the Cardinals found their future signal caller in UCLA’s Josh Rosen who fell to the tenth pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, which prompted Arizona to move up five spots in order to secure him. Though Rosen wasn’t too happy to be the fourth quarterback taken in the draft behind Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and Josh Allen and was quite vocal with his criticism of the other franchises who took a pass on him, the Cardinals and their fans were elated he endured a draft day slide.

After losing their first three games and only scoring 20 points offensively, the Cardinals decided to end the short-lived Bradford era and opted to start Rosen in the fourth week of season against the Seattle Seahawks. In that time frame the Cardinals have only beaten one team (San Francisco 49ers), but have been much more competitive with Rosen at the helm. In three games as a starter, Rosen has completed 55.6 percent of his passes for 626 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions — good enough for a 75.5 QBR. He has also taken 7 sacks in those three starts.

Rookie receiver Christian Kirk has been a favorite target of Rosen’s and has reeled in 13 receptions for 190 yards since he has taken over. Long-time veteran and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald is the Cardinals’ second-ranked receiver from a production standpoint with 22 catches for 215 yards on the season. The Cardinals haven’t had a reliable third wide out, but have gotten quality production from tight end Ricky Seals-Jones who has 15 catches for 192 yards and a touchdown this season. Though he has scored five touchdowns in six games, the Cardinals would like to see better production from David Johnson, who has only 297 yards on 92 carries and is sporting a low 3.2 yard per carry average. But with the Broncos giving up 200 yard rushers the past two games, the team will likely look to establish the run in order to help out their rookie quarterback.

Overall, the Cardinals have the worst offense in the NFL, averaging only 13.7 points a game, 220.5 yards (156.5 yards passing, 64 yards rushing) per contest. Broncos fans shouldn’t be surprised with that — considering Mike McCoy is the one who is calling their plays offensively — but who knows, maybe McCoy will do his best in a “revenge” game against Denver.

A quick glance at the Cardinals’ defense

While the Cardinals’ offense is lackluster, its defense is somewhat respectable. Headlined by Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson and Budda Baker, the defense is ranked 13th in the league in points given up per game and 24th in yardage allowed. Their passing defense is 12th best giving up just 243 yards per game. One of the reasons why they are successful against the pass is because of their pass rush. Their defense has the second most sacks in the National Football League with 18. Additionally, they have racked up 5 interceptions, as well as forced 9 fumbles and have scored two defensive touchdowns.

On the flip side, their rushing defense is one of the league’s worst and their biggest weakness on that side of the ball. They are allowing over 151 yards per contest and have also given up 10 touchdowns on the season. Opposing running backs are averaging 4.4 yards per carry. So if the Broncos want to have success against Arizona the formula should be quite simple — run the ball.

Two Keys to the Game

The Broncos need to run the ball and stop the run

This is quite obvious, but as mentioned above, the Cardinals run defense is horrendous. If the Broncos’ coaching staff hasn’t figured that out and developed an offensive game plan that features a heavy dose of Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay — I would be absolutely flabbergasted. Moreover, the Cardinals have struggled to get David Johnson going, but Denver’s defense has been atrocious against the run the past few weeks, though they are apparently working on that. If the Broncos can keep Johnson at the pace he has been at and limit his overall impact, it will force the game into Rosen’s hands. Though I was very high on him in this past draft, I’m not so sure the rookie is ready to devour the Broncos’ secondary quite yet.

Keep the pass rush going and rattle Rosen

Even though the Broncos lost to the Los Angeles Rams, one of the bright spots was their pass rush which racked up a lot of sacks against Jared Goff. If Bradley Chubb, Von Miller and company can continue their efforts from last week that should benefit the Broncos greatly. The Cardinals have allowed 13 sacks on the season and have a relatively average offensive line, so I expect them to be able to extend last week’s performance on the road against Arizona.

Hart’s Prediction

After a brutal four-game losing streak, the Broncos’ season is on the verge of total collapse. While it’s unlikely that a win against the Cardinals will spark a multi-game winning streak that would change the overall course of the season, notching a win would help bring some confidence to the coaching staff and players. I’m predicting big games for Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay. I believe they will provide the necessary offensive spark to help the Broncos get out of their recent slump and the Broncos’ defense will be out on the prowl and rebound from their last two woeful performances.

Broncos 30, Cardinals 17.