When the schedule came out in April, the Cardinals-Falcons duel in the desert looked like it could be pivotal for both. And it could still be, but not for the reasons they originally thought.
At 3-4, Arizona is vying for a win before its bye week. Atlanta, on the other hand, is a week removed from its bye and comes in at 2-4.
Injuries have hampered both clubs, which need to find their way back to the winning path.
Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure discussed Sunday’s game.
Weinfuss: At 2-4, I’m guessing this season hasn’t been what the Falcons had expected. What specifically has gone wrong and is this the week they rebound?
McClure: Josh, injuries have absolutely decimated the Falcons this season, none bigger than losing top receiver Julio Jones to season-ending foot surgery. A hamstring injury has kept Steven Jackson sidelined since Week 2, although he’s scheduled to return to practice this week. And No. 2 receiver Roddy White missed the first game of his NFL career in Week 7 while nursing hamstring and ankle injuries. Add on a season-ending injury to defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann (Achilles), a lingering knee issue for left tackle Sam Baker, and a short-term injured reserve situation for linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (foot), and you’re talking about a team with almost as many starters in street clothes as in uniform. That being said, I think the Falcons started the process of rebounding with Sunday’s 31-23 win over the Buccaneers, ending a three-game skid. Quarterback Matt Ryan was flawless while working with some unheralded receivers, and the defense ignited the team with an early touchdown off a sack-fumble play. The offensive line protected better than in any other game this season.
But I think the line will have a tough time against the Cardinals’ front. Wouldn’t you agree?
Weinfuss: I would, especially with the Cardinals playing the way they have. The front three of DT Darnell Dockett, DE Calais Campbell and NT Dan Williams have been rejuvenated under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. In his system, Bowles did away with the multigap format and took the reins off players. Now, when the ball is snapped, each lineman has one goal in mind: Get to the quarterback, which has also transformed one of the worst run defenses into one of the best. The more the Cards can push up the middle, the more quarterbacks and running backs are bolting outside, right into the arms of outside linebackers Matt Shaughnessy and, a familiar name for Falcons’ fans, John Abraham. Each lineman has his own strengths. Williams can fill a lot of space straight up the middle. At 6-foot-8, Campbell is a lot of body to handle for any lineman before he stands up and gets in the quarterback’s face. When Dockett comes with a full head of steam, he’s tough for anyone to stop.
Speaking of stopping, the Cardinals haven’t been able to contain tight ends this season. Will Tony Gonzalez be able to have a big day?
McClure: Gonzalez has had an incredible season, especially when you consider he’s 37 years old. I’ve watched him constantly beat double coverage. The Patriots and Jets decided to defend him in red zone situations like they do a gunner on special teams, which ticked off coach Mike Smith. That tells you what type of attention Gonzalez still draws. The thing that impresses me the most is how much Gonzalez works on his craft at the start of practice. He doesn’t just go out there and go through the motions. And he’s shared some of his knowledge with rookie tight end Levine Toilolo. Although Gonzalez was targeted just four times the last game as Harry Douglas emerged, I expect Ryan to look for him a lot more this Sunday.
Weinfuss: Everyone wishes Palmer was all about getting the ball to Fitzgerald, but that hasn’t been the case. But at the same time there hasn’t been a receiver who’s emerged. It seems to be a flavor of the day situation. One game it’s Fitzgerald, another game it’s Michael Floyd and yet another it’s Andre Roberts. The Cards don’t have any secret weapons. The receivers Palmer will be throwing to is pretty predictable. However, when Palmer goes through his progressions, he typically has more success. How often that happens is up for debate. And an issue around here lately is trying to get the tight ends more involved, specifically Rob Housler. During the offseason, Bruce Arians talked at length about how the tight end is an integral part of the offense, but after Housler missed the first two games with an ankle injury, Roberts shined. Since Housler returned, Roberts rarely has his number called, and the offense has struggled.
With all the injuries lately, how has receiver Harry Douglas handled the extra workload, filling in for guys like Julio Jones and Roddy White?
McClure: Douglas handled it better than anybody expected, at least anybody outside the locker room. He responded with a career-high 149 receiving yards last week against Tampa Bay, catching all seven passes thrown his way. Everybody talked about Douglas just being a slot receiver, but he pointed out to me how he always lined up outside in college at Louisville. He's no Julio Jones, but Douglas showed the ability to get vertical with receptions of 54 and 37 yards, the latter for a touchdown. I was surprised that the Bucs didn’t ask Darrelle Revis to cover Douglas all over the field, although they did have a couple of encounters. It might be hard for Douglas to have the same success against Patrick Peterson, a player one ex-defensive coordinator told me is the best cornerback in the league right now. But the Falcons need at least one of their unheralded receivers to step up if they hope to beat the Cardinals.
Speaking of Peterson, has he surpassed Revis?
Weinfuss: In some ways, yes, and others, no. Peterson is by far the most athletic cornerback in the league -- and I know that'll rankle Seattle fans, but even Richard Sherman has come out and said it. But is he as good of a shutdown corner as Revis? I don’t know if we can say that just yet. He’s very good and, only in his third season, getting better. Revis is better on man-to-man coverage and Peterson is better in making up lost space. But give Peterson time. Within a few years, he’ll be better.