The Cardinals have made three East Coast trips as underdogs this season, and they have two victories to show for it—albeit over the hapless Bengals and Giants. This week’s East Coast opponent—Bruce Arians’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers—aren’t quite as hapless as their 2-6 record suggests. They’ve played the toughest schedule in the league and they’ve been in every game.
The Cardinals will arrive in Tampa as 5-point underdogs to a team led by perhaps the most successful coach in Arizona Cardinals history. Despite a rocky final season and exit, Arians is remembered (mostly) fondly in the Valley—but that won’t matter on Sunday. Both sides want this win badly.
What do the Redbirds need to do to make Arians wish he’d stayed retired? Let’s identify one key from each phase of the offense and defense needed to pull off the upset.
Key #1 – Passing Offense: Go Through Fitz and Kirk
The Air Raid has been mostly grounded in the three weeks since Kyler Murray won the NFC Offensive Player of the Week against the Falcons. He has averaged just 183.3 YPG in a waterlogged game in the Meadowlands and against tough Saints and 49ers defenses. But his receivers haven’t exactly been helping him out—Andy Isabella’s one catch last week and Christian Kirk’s game against the Saints are the only two instances of a Cardinals receiver going over 40 yards since the Falcons game. These guys need a get-right game. Fortunately, the Bucs’ secondary (#31 YPG, #26 DVOA) has been roasted by WRs all year. Check out some of the recent numbers put up against them: Robert Woods (13/164) and Cooper Kupp (9/121/1), Michael Thomas (11/182/2), and Tyler Lockett (13/152/2) and DK Metcalf (6/123/1). If Kyler can successfully attack their corners, expect another vintage game from Fitz and a breakout game from Kirk. And another long TD from Isabella wouldn’t hurt either.
Key #2 – Rushing Offense: Keep Them Honest (Especially in the Second Half)
There are some interesting numbers at play in this phase. The Redbirds’ Ground Raid rushing attack has been one of the biggest success stories for the team in 2019, no matter who’s been toting the rock. David Johnson, Chase Edmonds, Kenyan Drake, Kyler Murray—they’ve all been successful. We’re #14 in YPG and boast the #3 rushing attack by DVOA. But—and it’s a but Sir Mix-A-Lot wouldn’t be able to lie about—the Bucs have the #1 rush defense in the league by YPG (78.1) and DVOA both. Only Chris Carson last week has been able to crack triple digits against them. I wouldn’t expect a returning DJ or surging Drake to have a huge game, as I’m not expecting a run-heavy gameplan from Kliff Kingsbury given how beatable their secondary is. I expect us to run just enough to keep them honest—even if this game turns into the shootout it looks like it could become. Sticking with a balanced offense into the second half could be just the key to outlasting their prolific passing offense.
Key #3 – Passing Defense: Jameis Gonna Jameis
Let’s get one thing straight: the Cardinals aren’t going to stop or even slow down Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, especially with the way Patrick Peterson has been playing. (It’s hard to say whether he’s been roasted worse on the field or on Twitter lately.) Godwin has been one of the true breakout players in the league, and Evans has simply been dominant—and he’s had at least 70 yards and a TD in both of his career games against the Redbirds. (Both Buccaneers losses, however.) But the guy who’s been getting them the ball also has a much-publicized propensity to give the ball to the other team as well. Jameis Winston has thrown a league-leading 12 INTs and has fumbled the ball 9 times (lost 4). He’s also taken a league-high 30 sacks. Jameis will almost certainly turn the ball over once or twice—although with the kind of games Evans and Godwin are likely to have, we might need one of his patented 4-turnover meltdowns to keep pace. Peterson, Byron Murphy, and Budda Baker should be looking to get their hands on the ball, and Chandler Jones is probably licking his chops right about now. Turnovers will be the key to eating that W in Tampa.
Key #4 – Rushing Defense: Keep the Momentum Going
The run defense stepped up big-time last Thursday against the imposing 49ers rushing attack, holding Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida, and Co. to just 101 yards on 31 carries (3.3 YPC). It was an encouraging performance after the Saints were largely able to run at will on them the previous week. The Redbirds should be able to keep that momentum going this week against a middling Bucs rushing attack that ranks #19 in YPG and #21 in DVOA. Peyton Barber has mostly been phased out in favor of second-year RB Ronald Jones II, but neither player is particularly imposing. The Cardinals front seven should be able to handle them. Losing to the Bucs because Evans and Godwin shredded you is one thing, but losing because Barber and Jones ran all over you would be inexcusable. (Not that that’s likely with a BA-coached team, but you never know.)
The Buccaneers might have a worse record than the Redbirds, but they’ve arguably played better against a tougher schedule, so this should be a fairly even matchup—especially with the Bucs still searching for their first home win of the season.
This one’s too close to call. But as often was the case when BA was in the desert, I think this one will come down to turnovers. That bodes well for the Cardinals, given Jameis’s turnover issues and how well Kyler has taken care of the ball. But if Kyler is uncharacteristically sloppy or Jameis keeps the stat sheet clean? Uh oh. Whoever wins the turnover battle will win this one.
Time to weigh in, Cardinals fans. How are you feeling as we prepare to take on BA? Do you think this trip will be a victorious one? Or will BA be lighting a victory cigar? Give us your keys and predictions in the comments.