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Saturday before football Sunday: What to watch for in Panthers-Cardinals

Panthers have won their last five matchups against the Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Arizona Cardinals are on top of the NFC with an 8-1 record where as the Carolina Panthers are on the bottom of the NFC South at 4-5. No matter what their records are, the Cardinals should not be complacent or gloat heading into Sunday. As the world watched on Thursday night when the Miami Dolphins pulled off a huge upset over the Baltimore Ravens and last weekend when the Jacksonville Jaguars stunned the Buffalo Bills, no games are in the bag or guaranteed.

Panthers’ starting quarterback Sam Darnold was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury as he faces 4-6 weeks of recovery time. In place of Darnold will be P.J. Walker, who was XFL’s passing yards and touchdown leader. There remains so many unknowns with him but based on his XFL tape alone, he has a cannon of an arm and can do plenty of damage with his legs. I doubt the Panthers’ recently-signed Cam Newton will play against the Cardinals but he could be active as Walker’s backup.

The Panthers have won their last five matchups against the Cardinals, most recently being last year with a final score of 31-21.

Looks like Cardinals’ quarterback Kyler Murray is trending towards playing but it could be another game-time decision for him. DeAndre Hopkins might miss another game but the Cardinals get A.J. Green back from the COVID-19/Reserve list.

Can Kliff Kingsbury break the Cardinals losing streak against the Panthers and get a win against Matt Rhule’s Panthers?

Here are five Arizona Cardinals things to watch for in Week 10:

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

1. Kyler Murray’s athletic ability with injury as Haason Reddick and Brian Burns come to town

With Kyler Murray practicing in limited capacity on Friday compared to not practicing at all the last two weeks due to his high ankle injury, there is a strong chance he will suit up on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. If he does play, he must stay in the pocket. Murray’s speed and athletic ability is a big part of what makes him an elite quarterback. He is not a quarterback that just tucks and runs with the football but one that uses his speed to escape pressure to roll out of the pocket to buy more time in finding his receivers downfield.

I highly doubt Murray is fully recovered from his high ankle sprain and if that is true, he will not be able scramble out of the pocket or escape pressure like he is normally used to. Especially with a speedy pass rush duo the Panthers have in Haason Reddick (4.52 40) and Brian Burns (4.53 40) that have a combined 14 sacks this season, the offensive line will need to hold up. Sean Harlow will make the start at left guard with Justin Pugh out but will be tasked to block 2020 first-round pick Derrick Brown. Harlow has impressed greatly in place of Pugh.

Arizona Cardinals v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

2. Cardinals’ pass rush will need to hit home again

Speaking of the talented pass rush duo the Panthers have, the Cardinals have a very talented duo of their own. Markus Golden is coming off a three-sack game against the San Francisco 49ers. He is third in the NFL in sacks (9) and is tied for the most forced fumbles (4) in the NFL. Chandler Jones became the Cardinals’ all-time sack leader last weekend and has six sacks on the season. These are two relentless pass rushers that continue to be trouble for opposing teams.

Earlier in the week, the Panthers placed two starting offensive lineman on injured reserve in left tackle Cam Erving and center Matt Paradis. As of Tuesday, 2019 sixth-round pick Dennis Daley will start at tackle and Pat Elflein at center in place of their injured players. With the Panthers’ interior struggles, can Jordan Phillips duplicate the success he had last weekend when he had four pressures and a sack? Might have been his best game as a Cardinal. This would be P.J. Walker’s second career start so the key is to make him uncomfortable. Whichever team that has the better pass rush on Sunday will likely win this game.

Carolina Panthers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

3. Stopping Christian McCaffrey

Reiterating my point in the last section, winning in the trenches will be key to victory. If the Panthers’ offensive line holds up, Christian McCaffrey will be even more difficult to stop. If the Cardinals’ front seven has another dominant showing this Sunday, McCaffrey will still likely produce good numbers but not to the point where he is taking over the game. More turnover worthy opportunities the Cardinals can capitalize on to add to their growing momentum.

There is a reason why Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey are widely considered the top two running backs in the NFL. Sometimes there is no stopping a player. All you can do is try to contain them. McCaffrey can do damage as a ball carrier and a pass catcher at an elite level. The Panthers’ offense runs through McCaffrey. Cardinals’ Isaiah Simmons has shown week after week he can run stride for stride and cover well against the best of the best. McCaffrey vs Simmons will be a fun one.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Jacksonville Jaguars Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

4. Byron Murphy-D.J. Moore matchup

After McCaffrey, the Panthers next best weapon is D.J. Moore. Their 2018 first-round pick out of Maryland has the eighth-most receptions (53) and seventh-most receiving yards (677) in the NFL. No other Panther has more than 217 receiving yards and that stat belongs to McCaffrey.

Byron Murphy is having a breakout season with three interceptions, eight pass breakups, and being one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in single coverage according to Pro Football Focus. No one really knows how quarterback P.J. Walker will perform but Moore has been targeted 85 times, the fourth-most targets in the NFL. Expect Walker to heave it up to Moore early and often. Cardinals best cornerback vs the Panthers best wide receiver will be a fun physical battle worth watching.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

5. ENO!

With Chase Edmonds on injured reserve, it will be very interesting to see how the backfield carries will be split. We know for a fact James Conner will have an increased workload but what about Eno Benjamin?

In seven games this season, Edmonds has played in 59 percent of the Cardinals’ offensive snaps or more. In nine game, he had 106 touches, 641 scrimmage yards, and a touchdown. If Benjamin get Edmonds’ workload, he should have around 11 touches on Sunday. He had nine carries, 39 rushing yards, and a touchdown against the 49ers after all. And if people are worried about his ability as a pass catcher, Benjamin had 82 receptions in three years at Arizona State. With all things considered, the former Sun Devil has earned his opportunities to play and should have a huge role on the offense on Sunday in the Cardinals’ running back committee with Conner.

Overall

Haason Reddick and Zane Gonzalez will return to State Farm Stadium for the first time since their departure from the Cardinals this past free agency. In a small note, Zach Kerr will get to play against a Panthers team that released him mid way through his two-year contract last season. I guess you can call it a revenge game for these players. The Panthers may be 4-5 but a change in quarterback could help them right their ship. Kyler Murray might be back tomorrow but if he is not ready, Colt McCoy will be prepared to lead Arizona again.

A note on the injury front. Long snapper Aaron Brewer is out with a broken arm but the newly signed 10-year veteran Beau Brinkley will be elevated from the practice squad to the active roster tomorrow. Sean Harlow will serve as the starting left guard and emergency long snapper. Both teams present each other with unique challenges. This game should be a fun one!