3TFO: Cardinals @ Jaguars, Week 11
Jacksonville enters Week 11 of the NFL season finally having gotten off the schneid for new head coach Gus Bradley, having beaten division rival Tennessee 29-27 in Nashville. The win came in large part to a solid defensive performance, forcing four turnovers from the Titans’ offense. It didn’t hurt that Tennessee starter Jake Locker was injured during the game, and the Jaguars were able to hold running back Chris Johnson to just 30 yards rushing.
Arizona arrives in Jacksonville in the thick of the wild card race, having escaped with a 27-24 victory at home against the slumping Texans. This is the Cardinals’ first road game in a month, having played three straight at home around their bye week. They always have had trouble playing on the East Coast and they will have to maintain their focus if they want keep pace with the other playoff hopefuls in the NFC. Here are a few of the players who could make a difference in the game.
Chad Henne vs. Arizona Blitz
Since taking over for the injured and much-maligned Blaine Gabbert, Chad Henne has not been able to do much to right the ship at quarterback, and is actually coming off his worst game (-4.9) of the year against the Titans, despite the victory. He has been getting little help from his running game, and the suspension of Justin Blackmon at wide receiver has taken away their best playmaker on offense (2.58 Yards Per Route Run). So far this year he has three touchdowns to go along with seven interceptions, for 1,630 yards. By far his most successful area on the field to target has been between the numbers and outside left, from 10 to 19 yards downfield, where he has completed 23 of 38 passes for 493, two touchdowns, and just one interception. He has graded out at +7.6 throwing to those two areas of the field, while coming in at -15.6 everywhere else. The blitz hasn’t affected him too much, with an NFL QB rating of 66.6 (75.0 when not blitzed), which may certainly help against the Cardinals’ defense.
Entering Week 11, Arizona has blitzed more than any team in the league. They have sent five or more rushers on 51.6% of passing plays. In fact, their lowest percentage of the year came Week 2 against Detroit, when they only blitzed Matthew Stafford 35.0% of the time, still beating the league average of 31.6%. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles loves to blitz on third and long, having done so 65% of the time in those situations. The Cardinals’ pass rush is led by John Abraham, who has really picked up his game recently; he is coming off a three sack performance against the Texans, and now has six in his last three games after failing to reach the quarterback in the first six contests. That has helped vault him up the Pass Rush Productivity leaderboard, where he is up to eighth in the league at his position. Linebackers Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby also blitz often up the middle, and cornerback Tyrann Mathieu leads all NFL defensive backs with 10 total quarterback pressures.
Andre Ellington vs. Rashard Mendenhall
Yes these are two teammates, but there has been a lot of discussion both around the team and in the national media as well as to why Rashard Mendenhall is still the Cardinals’ starter. Mendenhall, playing on a one-year “prove it” contract, hasn’t proven much. He has history with head coach Bruce Arians, of course, from their years together in Pittsburgh, but he is averaging a measly 3.1 yards per carry. Add to that his three fumbles this year, including a potential killer last week against Houston, when he got stripped with five minutes left as Arizona was running out the clock, nursing a ten point lead. He has shown little explosion out of the backfield, and his longest run this year is 12 yards. Meanwhile, Andre Ellington has been just the opposite, looking like a home run threat every time he touches the ball, leading all running backs with a Breakaway Percentage of 58.2. He is averaging 7.2 YPC, has the fifth-highest Elusive Rating in the league, and has added 24 catches to go with his rushing totals. Regardless, head coach Bruce Arians continues to stick with Mendenhall as his starter, expressing concern for Ellington’s ability to withstand the punishment of too many touches. A lot of people are wondering if Arians is showing too much loyalty to his veteran back, and those voices will only grow louder if the gap in production continues to grow. Look for Arizona to continue to establish its running game, something it has only done with any success in the last few weeks. Jacksonville comes in last in terms of rushing yards allowed, and is second-worst only to the Bears in our rush defense grading at -42.7.
Sen’Derrick Marks, the fifth-year player out of Auburn, has been the lone bright spot on the Jaguars’ defensive line this year. After grading negatively his first four years in the league, he seems to be quietly coming into his own this season. He has graded at +8.3 in the pass rush from his tackle spot, and any pressure he can generate on Carson Palmer up the middle will go a long way toward helping the Jaguars’ cause on Sunday. He has totaled two sacks, eight hits, and 14 pressures this year, as well as three batted passes while playing 531 snaps, the most of any Jacksonville defensive lineman. Arizona still has the worst Pass Blocking Efficiency of any offensive line in the NFL, and the Jags’ defense will have to exploit this weakness for them to pull off the upset.
Turnovers can be the great equalizer in the NFL, and Palmer really struggles when pressured. He is the only quarterback in the league to throw at least one interception in every single game. The four turnovers forced by the Jaguars’ defense was key to defeating the Titans last week, and it will be incumbent upon them to take advantage of any mistakes they can force from the Cardinals’ offense. Ironically, Palmer actually does better against the blitz, (80.9 NFL QB rating vs. 72.2 when not blitzed), but is terrible when pressured (36.6 NFL QB rating vs. 96.6 when not pressured) , which indicates that the Cardinals are good at picking up blitzers, though they really struggle against a standard four-man rush.
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