It’s a simple strategy, really. Controlling the ball, defending well and converting third downs have been ways to win games since football started over 100 years ago—long before a touchdown was worth six points and before the forward pass was legal.
With a 38-10 victory last week over the Detroit Lions, the Cardinals moved from a top-five pick in next year’s NFL draft to the No. 11 spot. Depending on whom you ask, fans may care only about winning football games, or they may be annoyed about the lower draft pick.
Both the Cardinals and Bears have been bitten by the injury bug significantly this season—more so for Arizona, but Chicago has its fair share of players on the injured reserve list.
Johnny Knox has been unable to play all season because of the brutal back injury he suffered at the tail-end of last year. The Bears will also be without running back Michael Bush (ribs) and kicker Robbie Gould (calf) for the remainder of the season, as both were recently added to IR.
Recently signed quarterback Brian Hoyer has “a chance” to be activated for Sunday’s game, according to coach Ken Whisenhunt (h/t Vince Marotta of ArizonaSports.com). Whether that means he will play at some point remains to be seen, but should he be active, expect John Skelton to be deactivated.
Here are your three keys to a Cards victory over the Bears, in no particular order of importance.
Convert Key Third Downs
It’s not that they have to do it more, which they do, it’s that they have to do it, period. This season, the Cardinals have converted just 25.6 percent of third-down opportunities, by far the worst in the league.
The offense scored three touchdowns last week while converting 2-of-12 (16.7 percent) on third down. Chicago allows third-down conversions at 35.6 percent—sixth in the league.
The only reason the offense scored three times against the Lions was because the defense set it up with a short field twice after turnovers. Rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley led just one touchdown drive that began inside the Cardinals' own territory.
A more consistent offense is important, but the team has won this season despite it. Taking pressure off the defense starts with extending drives by converting third downs. It’s time the offense makes it easy for the defense.
Dominate Up Front
Above is an update of a graph I created a few weeks ago to show how much Arizona’s offensive line had improved since the bye week. Its success has leveled off lately, but the individual success of rookie tackles Nate Potter and Bobby Massie is a good sign for the team.
Even if Potter ends the season on a high note and shows promise for the future, there is no way the team can pass up Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel if the opportunity should so present itself next April.
The offensive line is getting better, but Joeckel is an instant blind-side starter next season. Compared to the situation the team has had to deal with at the position, it would be like trading in your 1970 Ford Pinto for a 2013 Corvette.
Bleacher Report NFL draft lead writer Matt Miller offered this nugget Thursday on Joeckel:
If the world ends tomorrow, Luke Joeckel will be the best pass blocking left tackle I've ever scouted. #NFLDraft— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) December 21, 2012
The world did not, in fact, end Friday. Thanks, Mayans.
But for now, the line has to make do with how it is configured. Massie has not allowed a sack in six consecutive games—since the Monday night game against the San Francisco 49ers. Coincidentally, his six-game sack-free streak lines up perfectly with Potter’s entrance into the lineup.
Force Cutler into Making Decisions
The Cardinals are No. 1 in the NFL at Defensive Real Quarterback Rating (a Cold Hard Football Facts stat), at 61.05. They have caused a league-high 26 turnovers and just 2,904 net passing yards—the third-lowest total league-wide.
The defense thrives on making quarterbacks uncomfortable by getting pressure on them. It is tied for seventh with 36 sacks this season and gets pressure on opposing quarterbacks as regularly as any team in the league.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has been under pressure 38.6 percent of all drop-backs this season (fourth-highest in NFL) and sacked 35 times (sixth-highest).
When he is on, he and wide receiver Brandon Marshall can make it a long day for defenses. When he is pressured early, he gets frustrated with his offensive line—which is often of late. He lets his anger consume him, and it seems to affect his play.
Cutler has 17 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions this season. His 80.4 passer rating is No. 26 in the league, largely because of his performance under pressure. His frustration with offensive linemen can be attributed to his lackluster performance, so getting to him is in the defense’s best interest.
Matchup to Watch: Cards CB Patrick Peterson vs. Bears WR Brandon Marshall
For the second week in a row, Patrick Peterson will be matched up with a big, physical NFC North receiver.
Brandon Marshall is having the best season of his seven-year NFL career. His 107 receptions leads the NFL, his 1,398 yards receiving is second to Megatron and his 10 touchdowns is third to James Jones and A.J. Green. All three totals are already career-high marks with two games left to play.
Peterson allowed eight of Calvin Johnson’s 10 receptions last week and 101 of his 121 receiving yards. He did pick off Matthew Stafford against Johnson—his fourth interception in as many games. His seven interceptions are the NFL’s second-highest total, just one shy of the Bears’ Tim Jennings.
This one should be fun to watch.
If the Cardinals do everything listed here, that should be enough to win a second straight game. Doing so would perturb many fans hoping for the highest possible draft pick and those hoping Whisenhunt is fired following the season.
That won’t happen, however. Cutler, Marshall and running back Matt Forte will do just enough to outscore Arizona’s inept offense.
Cards receiver Larry Fitzgerald will be reduced to nothing once again, but not by Jennings or any Bears cornerback. Fitzgerald is having his worst statistical season since his rookie year; the problem has been the quarterbacks, who—no matter who is throwing the ball—have turned him into an average-looking receiver this season.
He could set a career-low in receiving yards if things continue as they have. He totaled 780 yards as a rookie, but he is on pace for just 770 this season.
Beanie Wells will not duplicate his three-touchdown performance from last week; Ryan Lindley will duplicate his average game of 122 passing yards, no TD and an INT.
Final Score: Bears 17, Cards 10