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What to watch for in Cardinals-Falcons

David Blough set to start at quarterback for Arizona

Atlanta Falcons v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

It was only a season ago when the Arizona Cardinals clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2015.

With the likes of Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, and Zach Ertz. the possibilities were endless for the offense.

Fast forward to Week 17 of the 2022 regular season, DeAndre Hopkins has been downgraded to out and both Murray and Ertz are on season-ending injured reserve.

The Cardinals will start a different quarterback in four consecutive weeks trickling down from Murray (ACL), Colt McCoy (concussion), Trace McSorley, and now David Blough this Sunday in what has been a disappointing season.

As the 4-11 Cardinals sit in last place in the NFC West and own the second-worst record in the NFC conference, the 5-10 Atlanta Falcons are not faring much better as another team having already been eliminated from playoff contention while riding a four-game losing streak.

These are two teams that have nothing to play for but pride as they begin the evaluation process ahead of the 2023 season.

Here are four things to watch in the Cardinals-Falcons matchup in Week 17:

Falcons’ sensational run offense

Atlanta Falcons v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Not many people would believe that the 27th ranked offense in the league owns the third-best rushing attack in the NFL. That is the case for the Atlanta Falcons. Until their pass offense shows more signs of improve with first-year quarterback Desmond Ridder at the helm, head coach Arthur Smith and the Falcons will continue to tread forward with his run-heavy offensive attack led by rookie running back Tyler Allgeier. We have heard of Jets’ Breece Hall, Seahawks’ Kenneth Walker, and Texans’ Dameon Pierce being talked about all year long for being the top running backs of the 2022 draft class but Allgeier deserves to be in the conversation as well.

Allgeier has 814 rushing yards (944 total yards) and two touchdowns while averaging 4.9 yards per carry this season. He had 253 total yards the last two weeks combined compared to starter Cordarrelle Patterson, who lost reps in favor of the hot rookie hand with only 83 total yards in that time. Cardinals’ defense struggled over the last two weeks against running backs, allowing Latavius Murray to rush for a season-high in yards (130) and Leonard Fournette with a season high in total scrimmage yards (162). Considering Allgeier is coming off a game where he saw a career high in touches (22) and the Cardinals’ difficulties to limit running back production, it could be a very long day for Arizona’s defense that will be without star safety Budda Baker (shoulder) for the rest of the season.

J.J. Watt closing in on another incentive

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Earlier this week, J.J. Watt announced that his current 12th season in the NFL will be his last as he is headed for retirement from football and starting the next chapter of his life in fatherhood with his wife and his newborn son. Before his football chapter officially closes and before he hangs up the cleats, there are still two games to be played and another incentive in reach for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer.

There should be no question that Watt is the Arizona Cardinals’ best player on defense this season and arguably the best player on their football team this year. He leads the Cardinals in sacks (9.5), pressures (50), and tackles for loss (14). Watt has earned a performance bonus for every sack this season and he is now a half sack away from pocketing another $100K that will make his incentive earnings climb up to a total of $1 million. With rookie Desmond Ridder quarterbacking the Falcons’ offense in his third-consecutive career start and considering he was sacked six times the last two weeks, Watt has a strong chance at reaching 10 sacks on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The 33-year-old is still playing at an elite level as one of the best pass rushers in NFL history.

Will Falcons’ pass rush come alive against Cardinals’ backup offensive line?

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

There is no sugarcoating the fact that the Atlanta Falcons own arguably the worst pass rush with 19 total sacks through 15 games this season which is the second-fewest in the NFL. According to Pro Football Reference, their pass rush success percentage is the worst (14.4%) in the league as Falcons’ defensive coordinator Dean Pees often avoids dialing up blitzes (15.1%) to make up for their lack of pass rush production. Grady Jarrett leads Atlanta in sacks (six) followed by Lorenzo Carter (four) and rookie second-round pick Arnold Ebiketie (2.5).

All that being said, that should make it easier for quarterback David Blough in his first start with the Cardinals right?

Well, Blough has been with Arizona for only two weeks. DeAndre Hopkins will miss the Week 17 matchup with a knee injury. And the Cardinals offensive line is missing three Week 1 starters with the interior struggling with the likes of Billy Price, Cody Ford and Max Garcia. Though I would like to think the Cardinals will rely more on James Conner against the Falcons’ 24th-ranked run defense, Kliff Kingsbury’s pass-heavy approach weekly could lead to many successful sack opportunities for Atlanta. If Arizona plans on going through with a pass happy attack, expect a lot of quick passes to the red hot Greg Dortch who is coming off a 123-yard performance and is arguably the second-best receiver on the team.

Opportunities for tight ends to thrive

New England Patriots v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Both the Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons own bottom 10 defenses when it comes to covering tight ends. The Cardinals are the worst of the two, allowing the second-most yards (1,006) to the position this season as well as being in a three-way tie for the most touchdowns allowed to a tight end. Falcons’ starter Kyle Pitts is out for the season but it would not be surprising in the slightest to see either Parker Hesse, Anthony Firkser, or MyCole Pruitt step up as the security blanket for quarterback Desmond Ridder against Arizona’s defense.

Atlanta on the other hand has allowed the seventh-most yards (877) to tight ends. Just like the Falcons, the Cardinals lost their starter (Zach Ertz) for the season but in his place is rookie second-round pick Trey McBride, who started the last six games in Ertz’s place. He was targeted 22 times during those span of games that equated to 15 catches and 115 yards. In David Blough’s five starts in 2019, he targeted tight ends 40 times. As the football saying goes, tight ends are a quarterback’s best friend. This could very well be the case on Sunday in what could be McBride’s possible career day on the horizon.

Quick Notes

Maybe it is a farfetched idea but Falcons’ No. 8 overall pick Drake London, who has 699 receiving yards, could be used sparingly at tight end as a 6-feet-5 210 pound target. Nonetheless, he should be a very impactful receiver against a Cardinals’ secondary plagued with injuries with Budda Baker, Byron Murphy, and Antonio Hamilton ruled out. Marco Wilson, who is coming off a breakout game with two interceptions, is questionable to play with a neck injury. With Hopkins ruled out, Falcons’ star cornerback A.J. Terrell will likely be tasked to cover Cardinals’ receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown for most of the game.