The challenge for the Arizona Cardinals this weekend is more than just the Cleveland Browns team. The Cardinals took a huge hit with COVID yesterday with General Manager Steve Keim, Head coach Kliff Kingsbury, QB coach Cam Turner, star pass rusher Chandler Jones, and starting defensive end Zach Allen ruled out against the Browns. Also out are starting center Rodney Hudson (ribs/shoulder) and top reserve linebacker Tanner Vallejo (hand) with injuries.
They are not the only team in this matchup that will be missing many of their key players. Injuries have taken a toll on the Browns as well with running back Nick Chubb (calf) and linebacker Malcolm Smith (abdomen) already ruled out ahead of Sunday. They have 10 players listed as questionable with notable players such as Kareem Hunt, J.C. Tretter, Denzel Ward, and Jedrick Wills on that list.
So honestly on paper with both teams dealing with many bumps and bruises, it is a fairly even matchup in my honest opinion. The Cardinals signed veteran players such as J.J. Watt and A.J. Green for a reason to not only produce on the football field but to be leader of men especially in tough situations such as the one they are in right now.
Who will win in the battle of the Oklahoma quarterbacks? Will Kyler Murray and his Cardinals overcome their obstacles to remain undefeated? Or will Baker Mayfield get his first win against Kyler Murray in their second meeting of their young careers?
Here are five Arizona Cardinals things to watch for in Week 6:
1. Kyler Murray stepping into an even greater leadership role
With Kliff Kingsbury out for the Browns game, Kyler Murray should be expected to call a lot of his own plays in a more prominent vocal role as the leader of the Cardinals’ offense. Every single game this season, we have seen Murray adjust the offense based on the coverages and formations that he identifies and reads from opposing defenses. Murray is playing in his third season with the Cardinals and has already mastered Kingsbury’s playbook from top to bottom. A collaborative effort in play calling will be in store so expect Sean Kugler and backup quarterback Colt McCoy to give input in aiding Murray.
The Cardinals are ranked seventh in the NFL in total passing yards (1,426) and eighth in rushing (640) through five weeks of the 2021 season. Murray will have most of his weapons on Sunday in DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore, and others in what should be a high-scoring game. Last weekend, Chargers’ quarterback Justin Herbert obliterated the Browns’ secondary by throwing a season-high 398 passing yards and four touchdowns. Murray will be fine from an injury standpoint and should have one of the best performances of his career on Sunday.
2. Vance Joseph, Jeff Rodgers, and Sean Kugler’s moment to shine
With #Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury out because of a positive COVID test, DC Vance Joseph and assistant head coach/special teams Jeff Rodgers will split his duties Sunday against the #Browns, I’m told.— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) October 16, 2021
Vance Joseph has done a fantastic job with the Cardinals’ defense that is ranked 12th overall in total yards allowed and seventh-best against the pass. He steps in for Kliff Kingsbury as the only person on the Cardinals’ staff with prior NFL head coaching experience. Jeff Rodgers has been their special teams coordinator since 2018 and has produced Pro Bowl caliber special teams players such as Dennis Gardeck, Zeke Turner, Tanner Vallejo, and Trent Sherfield. This will be the first chance for the world to see what Rodgers can do in a head coaching role as one of the top special teams coordinators in the NFL.
Sean Kugler deserves plenty of credit for all the run plays and blocking schemes that we have seen from Cardinals players this season such as Kyler Murray, James Conner, Rondale Moore, and more. Widely regarded as one of the best offensive line coaches over the last decade, Kugler could very well put his name on the map as a future head coach for another NFL club if the Cardinals offense performs well.
3. Stopping the Browns’ rushing attack now led by Kareem Hunt
The Cleveland Browns own the best rushing offense in the NFL with 938 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Their No. 1 running back Nick Chubb is out with a calf injury which means Kareem Hunt is in line for an expanded workload on Sunday. Hunt’s 5.4 yards per carry is a career best and he leads the Browns with five rushing touchdowns. People forget he was one of the top running backs in the NFL in the first two seasons of his career with the Chiefs before being released due to off-field issues.
In Hunt’s last meeting against the Cardinals, he had only 14 rush yards but had 62 receiving yards on eight receptions. He is a dangerous pass catcher out of the backfield and a difficult ball carrier to stuff at the line of scrimmage. Although I praised Vance Joseph for his phenomenal work on the defense, the only downside with his unit is his rush defense which has allowed the fifth-most rushing yards (695) in the NFL and second-most yards per carry (5.4) to ball carriers through five weeks. Chubb might be out but Kareem Hunt is more than capable to excel on the field in his return to a starting role. It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals will slow down the top rush offense in the NFL.
4. Expect a lot of different pass rush/blitz looks with Chandler Jones and Zach Allen out
Browns’ starting offensive tackles have missed plenty of practice time this week and are currently listed as questionable. Left tackle Jedrick Wills missed Thursday and Friday practice with an ankle injury. Right tackle Jack Conklin missed Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday practice with a knee injury. Their top backup offensive tackle Chris Hubbard is on injured reserve. Whether they play or not, expect the Cardinals to take advantage of the Browns’ tackles with various pass rush looks on the defense.
Dennis Gardeck and Isaiah Simmons will have expanded roles on the edge with Chandler Jones out with some mid blitz opportunities in the interior as two of the Cardinals’ fastest front seven players. Rookie Zaven Collins could play on the edge as well. J.J. Watt took advantage of 49ers’ right tackle Mike McGlinchey last Sunday as he racked up six pressures in the win and I expect no less in tomorrow’s game against the Browns. Huge sack opportunities for the Cardinals with a banged up Browns’ offensive line up next.
5. Protecting Kyler Murray against the Browns’ top-3 pass rush unit
The Arizona Cardinals’ offensive line is one of the better units in the NFL but had a tough time blocking 49ers’ Nick Bosa last week, who had a sack, a QB hit, and four total pressures. Kyler Murray ended up injuring his right shoulder in the process. Protecting Kyler Murray this weekend will be even more difficult with the Browns’ ferocious pass rush led by Myles Garrett, who leads the NFL with seven sacks this season. Let’s not forget about Jadeveon Clowney and his accumulation of 21 pressures so far this year. He might not have the sack numbers but his presence has been felt in the NFL. The Browns overall have the third-most sacks (16) on defense through five weeks.
Josh Jones has struggled at right guard and the right side of the offensive line has been a big weakness for the Cardinals especially with Justin Murray on injured reserve. The Browns have the second-best run defense in the NFL so expect the Cardinals to prioritize quick passes and screens if the offensive line has difficulty stopping the pass rush.
Overall, there are many obstacles in the Cardinals way for tomorrow’s game and how they respond to this adversity is key for the outlook of this football team for the remainder of the season. This is the chance to see what the Cardinals are truly made of with quite a few of their top coaches and players ruled out. The Browns know first hand what it is like without Head coach Kevin Stefanski after he was out with COVID for the 2020 AFC Wild Card round but still managed to win the game. If the Browns can do this, then why not the Cardinals?
Let the battle of the former No. 1 overall picks and Oklahoma quarterbacks begin!