- The Cardinals are struggling under offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. Can they finally get David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald more involved?
Three things to know before the Cardinals face the Broncos on Thursday Night Football (8:20 p.m. ET, FOX, NFL Network, Amazon Prime).
1. Cardinals offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has been under fire, including from his star veteran receiver’s father—longtime sports writer Larry Fitzgerald Sr.—who earlier this week tweeted (and later deleted), “Tough to win in the NFL Steve Wilks appears to have put offense in questionable hands.@LarryFitzgerald has never gone 6 games without a TD.”
McCoy has become a punching bag and may not survive an ugly showing from his offense on national TV Thursday night. Is that fair? Depends how you look at it. Below is a list of the major things that have stood out on Cardinals film:
• Rookie QB Josh Rosen is intriguing—nice arm, an understanding of route concepts, a willingness to play from the pocket—but not immune to the inconsistencies that plague most first-year quarterbacks. Rosen’s normally sharp accuracy vanished two weeks ago at San Francisco. His decision-making suffered on a few key plays at Minnesota last week. There’s much to like but, as expected, he’s a work in progress.
• Rosen is playing behind a mediocre offensive line. Last week it competed but was outclassed against a formidable Vikings front seven. That included down the stretch, when starting guards Mike Iupati and Justin Pugh were out with injuries. (Iupati has been ruled out for Thursday; Pugh is questionable.)
• Arizona doesn’t have much of an intermediate passing game. There have been a few designer deep shots early in games and some outside completions downfield, but nothing that consistently attacks a defense over the middle. The designs that once featured Larry Fitzgerald here have abated.
• It’s not a great receiving corps around Fitzgerald. Christian Kirk is coming along, but Chad Williams is all but invisible and speedster J.J. Nelson has played just 15% of the team’s offensive snaps.
• Running back David Johnson’s unique talent and versatility have not been leveraged. Besides the occasional backfield screen, Johnson is not featured in the passing game. Empty 3x2 formations, where a flex weapon like Johnson can really stress a D, have been few and far between. As Dan Bartfield of NFL.com tweeted, according to NextGen Stats, Johnson has lined up as a receiver on just 3.5% of snaps this year. In 2016 (Johnson’s last fully healthy season) it was 20%.
The question is: How much of the passing game’s issues stem from McCoy not trusting his personnel? But also, If McCoy doesn’t trust his personnel, why hasn’t there been more effort to feature the two players he surely does trust, Fitzgerald and Johnson? These are the things first-time head coach Steve Wilks is thinking about.
2. The Cardinals have denied rumors that Patrick Peterson is on the trading block. But if GM Steve Keim is indeed committed to Wilks long-term and can get a good package for his 28-year-old star corner, he should. Wilks plays a lot of two-deep zone coverage, which doesn’t capitalize on Peterson’s unique man-to-man prowess. Peterson is still an upper-tier corner in Wilks’s scheme, but not one worth $25 million in cap space over the next two years—especially if shedding his contract would bring Arizona a high draft pick in return. It’ll be interesting to see who Peterson matches up with this week. Demaryius Thomas is Denver’s best possession target. Emmanuel Sanders is the more dangerous all-around receiver, but some of Sanders’s best work comes in the slot, where Peterson doesn’t often align. Last week at Minnesota, Peterson took Stefon Diggs, not Adam Thielen. Style-wise, Sanders is Denver’s version of Diggs.
3. John Elway is right to criticize Denver’s “soft,” 32nd ranked run defense. Never has so much talent comprised the league’s worst run D. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb are monsters on the edges. Derek Wolfe makes five or six sensational individual run stops every game. Nose tackle Domata Peko plays with leverage, lateral mobility and keen veteran awareness. Adam Gotsis is a light blend of Wolfe and Peko. Linebacker Todd Davis is a fierce thumper who can blow up lead-blockers. And fellow ‘backer Brandon Marshall is a capable run-and-chase stopper. Denver’s defensive backs have been somewhat spotty in run support, but still, with such a gifted front seven this D should never rank lower than 10th against the rush.
Bold Prediction: The Broncos will hold the Cardinals to under 60 yards rushing.
Score Prediction: Denver 22, Arizona 16
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