Sunday’s game in Dallas is a big one… well, as big as a preseason game can be, anyway. Even though the two teams no longer play in the same division, Cardinals fans still have a lingering distaste for the Cowboys. The game is also the Sunday night game this week, meaning it will be nationally televised. But, most importantly, it’s also the “dress rehearsal” game, so we’ll likely see the starters play the entire first half. This is as close to regular season football as we’ll get until September.
With that in mind, there will be a lot of eyes on the Cardinals this week. So, what should Cardinals fans be on the lookout for in Big D? I’ve identified five things to key on for this third—and most important—preseason game.
1. Sam Bradford
This is an easy one. How our new starting QB looks is critical to our season prospects. Bradford had a cup of coffee in the first game against the Chargers and little more than a cameo last week against the Saints. But he has looked good in limited playing time—7/7 for 67 yards and two TD drives in four series. His last drive against the Saints was especially impressive—completion for 15 yards, completion for 12 yards, completion for 17 yards, completion for 6 yards, easy David Johnson rushing TD.
Facing a weaker defense than either Los Angeles or New Orleans, he should be able to keep the momentum going. Obviously he won’t complete 100% of his passes again, but 65% is a good target. (Although note that he was a 70% passer during his time in Minnesota.) It will also be worth monitoring how he distributes the ball—against the Saints, each of his completions was to a different receiver. This is especially important given the uncertainty about the WR depth chart behind Fitz.
2. The WRs Behind Larry Fitzgerald
It’s been hard to gauge the WR depth chart thus far this preseason for a few reasons. One is that the presumptive #2, Brice Butler, has barely played—9 snaps against the Chargers and none against the Saints as he dealt with a foot injury. (Butler was back at practice on Wednesday and is expected to play against his old team this weekend.)
The most impressive WR this preseason, rookie Christian Kirk, figures to mostly play in the slot, a position occupied on most downs by Fitz, which further complicates things. The other two WRs who seem to be locks for the final 53—J.J. Nelson and Chad Williams—have been up and down thus far. (Although both had nice games against the Saints.) Jalen Tolliver and Trent Sherfield have both had their moments this preseason, but neither are a sure thing to make the regular season roster. (Greg Little has… little chance of making the roster after an unimpressive first two preseason contests.)
The game in Dallas will be the first time we’ll have our full complement of WRs available for extending playing time. If Butler can move the chains a couple times, Nelson makes a splash play or two, and Williams builds on his encouraging performance last week, I’ll feel a lot better about our WR depth. If not, newly reinstated GM Steve Keim might have to dip into the free agent pool after the September cutdown.
3. Run Blocking
The Redbirds O-line has done an admirable job protecting our QBs this preseason, only giving up 2 sacks thus far (including none last week on 32 attempts). Run blocking has been a different story, however. After an dominant first series against the Chargers, it’s been tough going for the Redbirds offensive line since then—our RBs have totaled 93 yards on 45 carries since then (a Chris Johnson-esque 2.1 YPC). A lot of that is the backups, yes, but 1) O-linemen get hurt so backups are important, and 2) DJ went for 6 carries and only 22 yards last week (3.7 YPC). We want our RBs to have nice, clear running lanes, not have to body surf over ineffective blockers.
While it’s clear that our O-line is still gelling in the running game, the Cowboys will be a good test (8th in total rushing yards against but 18th in YPC). If Bradford and the short passing game can spread the defense out and keep the LBs honest with play-fakes, it’ll make the OLs job a lot easier. OC Mike McCoy can also move personnel around to create mismatches if our blockers need a bit extra help. I’d love to see us be able to get northwards of 120 yards on the ground as a team this week.
4. Run Defense
Other than some garbage-time heroics from Geno Smith in the first game, there has been very little reason to worry about the Cardinals defense thus far. We’ve racked up 8 sacks and 4 INTs in two games, holding each of our opponents to less than 20 points. Steve Wilks and DC Al Holcomb have to like what they’ve seen thus far.
Except for our run defense, that is. After holding the Chargers to a good-not-great 97 yards on 24 carries (4.0 YPC), our front seven was gouged for 183 yards on 28 attempts (6.5 YPC) in New Orleans. Six different Saints logged a rush of at least 12 yards, including two different QBs.
Those numbers should be a big cause for concern as we prepare to face the Cowboys, who feature one of the best RBs in the game (Ezekiel Elliott) and a QB who’s dangerous when he tucks it and runs (Dak Prescott). This is even more worrisome knowing that the Redbirds are dealing with injuries at the DT position.
Will the Cardinals be able to contain the Cowboys rushing attack? The key may simply be loading up the box and daring them to throw—Dallas has one of the least-imposing WR rooms in the league. But if Elliott and Prescott are able to run wild even against loaded fronts, we may be in for a long night… and a long season.
Yes, it’s preseason—a lot of rookies and scrubs are playing, the refs and players are getting used to new rules, and the guys at the end of the depth chart are doing all they can to make that big play. So it’s expected that there will be more penalties than normal, and the numbers might not mean that much. Still, it’s worth pointing out that the Redbirds have had 10+ penalties for 100+ yards in each of the first two preseason games. Steve Wilks isn’t happy.
Last week in the Superdome, we had 4 false starts and a delay of game penalty—and we have yet another road game in a dome this week. We’ve also had several penalties on special teams. (I suppose we just have to hope the NFL fixes the helmet tackle rule before the regular season starts.) Penalties should be a point of emphasis this week. Let’s hope the Redbirds can button up these issues so we’re not giving away yards and first downs when the games start counting for real.
These are the areas I’ll be watching on Sunday night—most of them on the offensive side of the ball. What about the rest of you Cardinals fans—what are you watching for? Any specific concerns? Predictions for the game? Let us know what you’re looking for in Big D in the comments!