San Diego Chargers vs. Arizona Cardinals: Cards' Week 1 Game Preview
It’s go time.
With preseason in the rearview mirror and NFL rosters trimmed to 53 players, the chase for the Lombardi Trophy begins.
The Arizona Cardinals open their 2014 season on Monday Night Football against the San Diego Chargers in what should be a great contest. The two teams met in San Diego to close the preseason, but only a handful of players who will have any impact on this game took part.
While the preseason is over, a few kinks may still exist in certain areas of Arizona’s game. After all, 2013 first-round pick, guard Jonathan Cooper, was benched in favor of free-agent signee Ted Larsen. Cooper struggled in the playing time he received, and he missed two weeks of camp with a turf toe injury he suffered during the preseason-opening drive against the Houston Texans.
He continued to play the rest of the half with the injury, which likely made it worse.
And on defense, the outside linebacker shuffle is on, as the team last week signed former Chargers OLB Thomas Keiser, a 6’4”, 261-pound undrafted free agent out of Stanford.
It’s not crazy to think Keiser could see some playing time Monday night. He is a pass-rushing specialist who should know at least some of what Philip Rivers and San Diego’s offense is going to do.
Here is everything you need to know about this prime-time Week 1 matchup.
Cardinals’ Preseason Review
Offensively, the Cardinals looked crisp in the passing game. While third-year receiver Michael Floyd missed most of the action with a groin injury, rookie third-round pick John Brown filled in nicely, earning the starting slot receiver role over free-agent signee Ted Ginn Jr.
The protection of Carson Palmer was not great, but the offensive line held up for the most part. While the veteran quarterback took pressure on 41.2 percent of his dropbacks this preseason, opposing defenses sacked him just once—a 2.9-percent sack rate.
Compare that to last season, when Palmer experienced pressure on 40.3 percent of his dropbacks but had a 6.6-percent sack rate, and all that pressure is not so bad.
The run game struggled mightily to get going this preseason. Andre Ellington saw minimal action and never got going, and backups Jonathan Dwyer and Stepfan Taylor looked very average. For the most part, the running lanes were adequate; however, Dwyer and Taylor lacked the vision and quickness to hit holes before they closed.
In some cases, the pair chose to bounce outside in a failed attempt to outrun the defense. That’s not their strength.
On defense, with the exception of an underwhelming pass rush, everything looked great for coordinator Todd Bowles’ unit. The secondary proved early it will be a strength of the team and could spearhead an increase in turnovers created this season.
While it was originally thought this offseason that the safety position was a weak spot and needed an upgrade—hence the addition of first-round pick Deone Bucannon—the opposite appears to be true, at least in the months since the draft.
Second-year safety Tony Jefferson made a huge impact over the summer and earned the starting strong safety role heading into Week 1. Veteran Rashad Johnson will start at free safety, at least until Tyrann Mathieu is a full-go; even then, Mathieu is likely to assume the nickel cornerback role in which he thrived last season.
And Bucannon played well during the preseason. He earned starter snaps with the first-team dime package as Bowles’ "dollar" linebacker, which is essentially just a physical and athletic safety in the box to help cover tight ends and to help defend against the run.
The new inside linebackers provided hope the team may not miss Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby as much as outsiders expect. Veteran Larry Foote—whom the team added late in the offseason—played extremely well all preseason, locking down the second starter spot next to second-year man Kevin Minter.
Minter missed some time with a strained pectoral muscle but returned in time to start in and play most of the preseason finale. While he’s not the pure athlete Washington is, he’s quick to react and gets to the ball plenty fast, though the injury appeared to impact somewhat his ability to tackle during the final exhibition game.
Overall, the team looked solid in four preseason games. Are there question marks? Sure, but there is no time to worry about that now.
The regular season is here. It’s go time.
News and Notes
Larsen Over Cooper
We heard all preseason that Larsen was playing well and could earn a starting spot over Cooper if things kept going the way they were. Well, here we are in the shadow of Week 1 and Larsen is, indeed, the starting left guard. Cooper understands the reasoning, according to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com.
With my performance and injuries and the time I’ve had off, I have not earned that spot. I understand what they are doing. …
They just want me to continue to improve and be the player they drafted. I felt like last year I was on the verge of being a pretty good player. So [I need to] get back on that track and work to be a great NFL player.
How long will it take Cooper before he’s back to being on that track?
John Brown’s locker was moved away from the other receivers and directly next to Palmer’s at the request of the quarterback. Why, you ask? Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com gives us the scoop from Palmer himself.
He’s over here in the suburbs with us. He’s a guy that I like to be talking with through certain situations as practice comes up. He and I have had a great working relationship, and this gives us a chance to go over some things during practice that we can cover after practice.
Brown told Odegard he would “talk [Palmer’s] ear off when it comes to football,” so nothing but good things could possibly come of this. We’ll see how long Palmer lasts before he tells the rookie to stop asking questions and just go play.
Honey Badger Tackling Some
Something as simple as lowering your shoulder into another human being and thrusting forward could be all that stands in the way of Mathieu playing Monday night. He did so this week, according to Craig Grialou of ArizonaSports.com:
Arians said #Cards Mathieu "tackled about 4,5 times, missed 3 and tackled 3 or 4. It's new to him again."— Craig Grialou (@CraigAZSports) September 4, 2014
He’s the only player left over from the injured reserve list last season not to play in a preseason game this year. He has to be itching to hit people and sniff out a bubble screen.
Will he be ready Monday night?
*All injury statuses provided by AZCardinals.com
The fact that nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu is not on the injury report at all is a testament to how hard he worked to rehab his torn ACL this offseason. Remember, he suffered the injury during the final game of the 2013 season against the San Francisco 49ers.
It's also good to see safety Tyrann Mathieu as a full practice participant. He's had an even longer journey back from his own torn ACL and LCL, so that he's this close to being ready is exciting.
Outside linebacker Alex Okafor has been on the sidelines all week with his thigh injury. Not sure what it means in terms of Monday's opener yet, but the extra day of rest should help him be ready come game time. We'll see how that plays out.
It appears inside linebacker Kevin Minter will be ready to start Monday night. That's big because he's solid in stopping the run, and Chargers running back Ryan Mathews is a good between-the-tackles back who will lower his shoulder to gain extra yards. Minter will be needed to help thwart Mathews' efforts—especially on early-down situations.
While Cooper is a full-go for practice, he still won't start Monday. He needs to work through his offseason struggles, which include trusting his previously broken leg and dealing with the turf toe injury. He is not yet playing to his full capability, so until that happens, he won't play.
X-Factors and Matchups to Watch
Jared Veldheer vs. Melvin Ingram
The big-money pickup for the Cardinals this offseason was left tackle Jared Veldheer. In 37 pass-blocking opportunities this preseason, the former Oakland Raiders behemoth allowed only one pressure—a lone quarterback hurry against the Cincinnati Bengals.
While Chargers outside linebacker Melvin Ingram will move all over the field as an outside linebacker, defensive end, inside linebacker and even a defensive tackle at times, his primary spot will be lining up across Veldheer and getting after Palmer.
Ingram is immensely talented, so this will be a good test right off the bat for Arizona's $35-million left tackle.
Patrick Peterson vs. Keenan Allen
Peterson has the contract of a top NFL cornerback.
Now it’s time he performs like one.
Peterson struggled at times last season in covering No. 1 receivers, finishing with only three interceptions after seven in 2012. And Chargers top target Keenan Allen will be a great test for the fourth-year cornerback.
A 2013 third-round pick, Allen enjoyed a fantastic rookie campaign, hauling in 71 receptions for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. His catches and yards set a Chargers rookie record, and his touchdowns were second behind only John Jefferson of the Air Coryell era.
Allen should be a top receiver in the NFL for the better part of the next decade, and for Peterson to shut him down, he needs to play smarter football.
Many times when he gets beat deep, it’s because he is biting on underneath routes, as if he's assuming that he can make up the separation the receiver's established with his speed.
That hasn’t been the case recently. Playing the way he has works better when there’s a safety helping over the top, but Peterson rarely has safety help. He’s one of the few cornerbacks in the league who does not get that kind of assistance on the back end.
Even Richard Sherman has Earl Thomas help him on the vast majority of plays—it’s just Seattle’s scheme.
Peterson is on an island. To shut Allen down, he must not dive in on underneath routes.
Cardinals’ X-factor of the Week: Carson Palmer
Palmer’s career with the Cardinals was off to a solid start until the St. Louis Rams came back from a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit to beat Arizona to open the 2013 season. For this season to begin with an Arizona win, Palmer has to be as good as he was in St. Louis last year when he completed 26 of 40 passes for 327 yards, two touchdowns and a pick for a 96.6 passer rating.
His interception—much like the one against Cincinnati this preseason—came on a miscommunication with Fitzgerald, where the receiver kept running when Palmer thought he would break off his route.
That type of thing shouldn’t happen anymore. In his second season in Arians’ offense, Palmer can be expected to start strong on Monday night. He and his team need a fast start.
As much as they have changed this offseason—Arizona has five new starters on each side of the ball—and as much as people assume that means disaster is afoot, Monday night kicks off what should be a great season for the Cardinals.
For each positional loss, there appears to be a solid replacement ready to fill in. Replacing Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby won’t be easy, but Foote and Minter will be as good as Bowles’ scheme allows them to be.
What does that mean?
Bowles’ defense is such that the defensive line does all the work to free up inside linebackers to go make plays on the ball, be it as pass-rushers or run defenders. All the ‘backers have to do is flow to the ball.
How good were Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Dan Williams at freeing up linebackers in 2013? According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), they were class of the NFL.
Arizona totaled 49 unblocked pressures last year, which was five better than the Kansas City Chiefs.
And what about those two inside linebackers?
Despite missing the first month of the season because of a suspension, Washington finished 12th in the NFL with six unblocked pressures. Dansby was even better, finishing fourth with 10. Scheming pressure for inside linebackers is what Bowles does. Foote and Minter will be just fine this season. All they have to do is flow to the ball—something both do very well.
Offensively, look for the Cardinals to test the shaky secondary of the Chargers early. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Palmer go deep on the first play from scrimmage to get the ball rolling. So look for that.
With Ellington missing some practice time with a foot injury, it’s unknown how limited he will be or if he will be cleared to start. Assuming he’s good to go, he should have a solid night against a defense that finished 27th in run defense a year ago, allowing 4.6 yards per carry.
The Chiefs’ Jamaal Charles, to whom Ellington draws many comparisons, torched the Chargers late last November to the tune of 14 carries for 115 yards (8.2 YPC) and two scores. He added four receptions for 42 yards.
Where the Cardinals could run into a problem is in covering San Diego tight end Antonio Gates. Though Gates is getting up there in years and has had injury issues of late, he’s still a big threat to a team notorious for struggling against tight ends.
Rookie safety Deone Bucannon could be used in coverage, as could Antonio Cromartie. That will be something to watch as the game progresses—who is “manned up” against Gates.
In the end, the Cardinals’ ability to stop the run and defend the pass will be what sets these two teams apart. Rivers may not come under much pressure with how quickly he gets the ball out and Arizona’s faulty pass rush, but that won’t matter down the stretch.
Rivers will struggle to find open receivers as Arizona’s improved secondary covers Allen, Malcolm Floyd, Eddie Royal and Co. like a glove. The veteran QB will get frustrated and make a fatal error late, leading to a decisive turnover.
Prediction: Cardinals 27, Chargers 23
All stats provided by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) unless otherwise noted