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Wild horses: Can the Cardinals contain the Broncos running attack?

The Broncos have a suspect QB, but a strong secondary and running game. Do the Redbirds have what it takes to tame these wild horses?

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Arizona Cardinals v San Francisco 49ers
Chandler Jones is primed for another monster game on Thursday Night Football.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

We’ve got quite the scintillating matchup tonight on Thursday night football: the 1-5 Arizona Cardinals host the 2-4 Denver Broncos. To say things have not gone according to plan this season for either team would be an understatement. Things have gone so poorly that both head coaches (and several coordinators) enter the game on the hot seat. Jobs could very well be on the line for tonight’s losing team.

But someone has to be favored to win, and that honor goes to the road team this week, as the Broncos, fresh off a close loss to the Rams, are favored by 1.5 points. As usual, we’ll take a look at each team’s QB situation and see what the numbers have to say, relying once again on Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings and Pro Football Focus’s player grades/rankings. We predicted the Redbirds’ first win two weeks ago and came within a point of predicting the final score with this approach last week, so we’ll look to go 3 for 3 this week. Can the Cardinals earn their first home win of 2018 tonight?

QB Comparison

Josh Rosen threw for a career-high 240 yards against the Vikings last week, going 21/31 with no TDs and one pick. (He also took 4 sacks for a brutal -32 yards.) The offense as a whole showed some signs of life, running a few successful screens and using more WR motion, but the result was more of the same: under 20 points and 300 total yards. The extent to which Mike McCoy is dragging this team down and stunting Rosen’s development cannot be overstated. I wish the man no ill will personally, but I sincerely hope this is the last time I have to drop the #firemikemccoy hashtag.

The two main QB rating metrics have Rosen about as average as can be: 75.5 QB rating and 49.7 QBR. PFF is a little more bullish, grading him an above-average 65.9 (#25 QB). That he’s been able to play at a league-average level in McCoy’s wet blanket offense bodes well for his future once he’s paired with a capable OC, but Cardinals fans should expect another mediocre stat line this week. (Call it around 200 yards with a TD and a pick.)

For the moment, the Broncos’ starting QB is Case Keenum. The metrics by and large are more down on Keenum than Rosen—38.0 QBR and a 59.6 grade from PFF. (Although he does sport an 80.5 QB rating.) Negative plays have been Keenum’s bugaboo thus far—8 picks and 4 fumbles (although he has miraculously not lost any of them), as well as 15 sacks taken. So the Redbirds’ defensive playmakers are likely licking their chops. If things get ugly for Keenum, fan favorite Chad Kelly is waiting in the wings.

Bottom Line: The Cardinals will have a slight advantage at the game’s most important position tonight. This doesn’t figure to be a shootout though (over/under of 41.5), so it might not matter much.

Cardinals Offense vs. Broncos Defense

Those Cardinals numbers are just depressing, and I don’t see them getting any better after tonight. Even without Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. (PFF’s #9 CB) and the Denver secondary have been strong against the pass—hence my somewhat pessimistic prediction for Rosen above. When your best WRs are a rookie (Christian Kirk) and a hobbled veteran (Larry Fitzgerald), you’re gonna struggle against a secondary like this. Denver has been somewhat vulnerable to the TE though, so maybe Ricky Seals-Jones can make a big play or two.

That said, the big number here is Denver’s #32 ranking against the run—yep, they have an even worse run defense than we do. It might not matter though, given our own #32 ranking running the football. The old stoppable force versus movable object. In theory, this should be a plus matchup for us with David Johnson in our backfield, but given that McCoy calls runs up the middle almost twice as much as any other type of running play, I don’t see us being able to take advantage. (Barring a massive shift in philosophy with his job on the line, that is.) DJ (only PFF’s #52 RB) might get closer to 80 yards than 60, but expecting a true breakout is a sucker’s bet.

Bottom Line: Even given Denver’s struggles against the run, this is still a respectable defense. And until Mike McCoy is gone, our offense’s ceiling is laughably low. It’s going to be a struggle to top 20 points and 300 yards yet again.

Cardinals Defense vs. Broncos Offense

As I mentioned earlier, our playmakers are likely salivating at the prospect of facing Case Keenum. We’ve picked off 5 passes and amassed 18 sacks—expect both of those numbers to increase tonight. I expect Chandler Jones (PFF’s #11 edge rusher) in particular to have another monster game. But the Broncos do have a somewhat formidable WR duo in Demaryius Thomas (PFF’s #31 WR) and Emmanuel Sanders (PFF’s #15 WR). Like last week, we should be able to bottle up the outside guy (Thomas), but the slot guy (Sanders) will do some damage. In all, Keenum might be able to put up somewhat useful fantasy numbers, but he won’t look good doing it. (And there is the chance he gets benched.)

But like I said above, this likely isn’t going to be a shootout, so whoever does a better job containing the run will have an enormous advantage. And I don’t like our chances against the Broncos’ rookie RB duo of Phillip Lindsay (PFF’s #14 RB) and Royce Freeman (PFF’s #17 RB). Lindsay in particular has been dynamite, averaging 5.7 YPC and catching 14 balls. Unless Al Holcomb and the Redbirds’ front seven have made a deal with the devil in the last four days, expect us to give up another buck-fifty on the ground.

Bottom Line: The Broncos should be able to roll up plenty of yards on the ground and through the air, but sacks and turnovers should keep the Cardinals in the game.

Special Teams

The Cardinals continue to rise (to #20) in special teams DVOA due to solid kick coverage and strong punting from Andy Lee. (Penalties on teams continue to be an issue, however.) Phil Dawson has only kicked two FGs this season though, with a long of just 26 yards… so let’s hope we don’t need him to make any long kicks this week. Denver ranks a bit lower at #23. They have a strong kicker in Brandon McManus, but they’re down to their practice squad punter, so field position might be in the Cardinals’ favor.

Bottom Line: If this turns into a kicking duel—and it just might—the Broncos will have a decided advantage. But if the Cardinals can keep the special teams penalties in check, they should have a field position advantage.

Final Thoughts

Given the quick turnaround from Sunday and both team’s general ineptitude, this looks like it’ll be a sloppy, low-scoring game. It’s certainly a winnable game for the Redbirds, but the Broncos’ secondary and power running attack will be hard to overcome. It might be possible if we had any kind of a homefield advantage, but there have been a lot of empty seats at State Farm Stadium lately. And who can blame Cardinals fans for staying home given the embarrassing product on the field this season?

But the fans that do show up will be let down, as the Cardinals lose, 24-16. McCoy tries a few new things on offense, but with the short week and challenging opponent, they never have a chance to work. But hopefully this is the last game he ever calls on offense for the Cardinals.

What do we think, Cardinals fans? Can we get our first home win of the season? Or is another disappointing loss in store? Share your predictions in the comments.