3TFO: Panthers @ Cardinals, Week 5
After a pair of last-minute losses to open the season, Carolina finally put together a complete performance in their most recent outing two weeks ago against the surprisingly helpless Giants, thoroughly dominating on both sides of the ball. As Carolina flies into the desert refreshed from their bye week, Arizona heads home from a two-week road trip, having spent a week in Florida to avoid time-zone adjustment issues in returning to Glendale.
The Cardinals survived a “putrid” offensive performance (as Bruce Arians called it), thanks to a stalwart defense taking advantage of a rookie quarterback in Mike Glennon and the generally dysfunctional Buccaneers. Third down continued to paralyze the Arizona offense, however, as they converted on just 1 of 10 attempts, and their only touchdown “drive” consisted of one play after an interception. They hope some home cooking will help jump-start the offense as they face one of the best front-sevens in the NFL.
Bradley Sowell vs. Greg Hardy
With a sudden trade sending starting left tackle Levi Brown to Pittsburgh on Wednesday, backup Bradley Sowell went from complete unknown to the man to protect Carson Palmer’s blindside in the course of a single afternoon. Arizona had claimed him off the waiver wire from the Colts (where he played for Bruce Arians) at the end of the preseason in a seemingly unremarkable move, and yet here he is, thrust into the starting lineup in the beginning of October.
With a consistently inconsistent running game, Arians has often forgone the run and put the ball in the hands of Palmer, further stressing the pass blocking ability of the offensive line. As a result, Palmer has often been subjected to edge pressure from better defensive ends, and this week the Panthers bring one of the best combos in the league in the form of Charles Johnson (+5.8 pass rush) and Greg Hardy (+3.9 pass rush). They have combined for five sacks, five hits and 19 pressures in just three games, and terrorized Eli Manning in their most recent outing two weeks ago against the Giants. Johnson has been rushing exclusively from the left side, so Sowell will be seeing Hardy most of the afternoon. Hardy isn’t quite the rusher that Johnson is (Pass Rush Productivity of 9.9 vs. 15.4 for Johnson) but Sowell will certainly have his hands full nonetheless. Palmer’s game goes downhill quickly when hit or pressured, so Sowell’s ability to adjust to the speed of live action may make the difference in the final outcome.
Week 5 is becoming the NFL’s annual “Return of the Suspended Players”, given the standard four-game penalty the NFL hands out for most offseason transgressions. One of the biggest names on the list this year is Cardinals inside linebacker Daryl Washington (+12.8 in 2012). He could be the Cardinals’ best defender (obviously Patrick Peterson is in the conversation as well), and his return bolsters a linebacking corps desperately in need of athleticism. The inside linebackers have struggled in coverage against some of the better tight ends (Jared Cook Week 1, Jimmy Graham Week 3), and Washington offers much needed speed in the middle of the field. Factor in Cam Newton’s scrambling ability to the equation and Washington’s return couldn’t have come at a better time for the Cardinals. He also offers a pass rushing dimension inside that has been lacking for Arizona. Last year he managed nine sacks, four hits and 10 hurries, good enough for second most at the position.
Typically suspended players are eased back into their regular roles, if they even regain their starting position at all. But regardless of his missed playing time, look for defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to get Washington on the field as much as possible to maximize his unique playmaking ability.
DeAngelo Williams vs. Cardinals Rush Defense
After having shared so much backfield time with Jonathan Stewart in recent years, and with the attention Cam Newton and Steve Smith invariably receive, DeAngelo Williams had kind of been the forgotten man on the Carolina offense. With 62 carries for 291 yards (and a healthy 4.7 yards per carry average), Williams has been reminding people this year what a reliable back he can be. With a very respectable Elusive Rating of 35.9, he has been on the field for 59.1% of offensive snaps, his highest percentage since 2008. Newton is one of the best passers off play action, where he has a QB Rating of 127.3, so expect the Panthers to try and get Williams going early.
It may be a challenge for Williams however, as Arizona enters the game with the second-fewest rushing yards allowed in the league, and as our No. 3 ranked rush defense at +16.5. After missing 31 tackles in their first three games, the Arizona defense didn’t get charged with a single one last Sunday in Tampa Bay, and held stud running back Doug Martin to just 45 yards on 27 carries. They have been led by defensive end turned outside linebacker (due to injuries) Matt Shaughnessy (+5.5 in rush defense) as well as inside linebacker Jasper Brinkley (+7.7 and 14 stops). Brinkley will likely see his snap count reduced though, as he gives up playing time to Washington, who is much stronger in coverage. The return of Washington’s athleticism should help free up Karlos Dansby (who has yet to miss a snap), and others, to fill the void left by Brinkley in run support.
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