This Sunday, the Denver Broncos will host a very good football team. Namely, the Arizona Cardinals. This isn't the Kevin Kolb-led Cardinals. This is a Bruce Arians team and with that comes physicality, toughness and the ability to overcome adversity. This is a resilient football club.
Don't think that because they missed the playoffs last year, the Cardinals aren't a force to be reckoned with. They finished the year at 10-6. Were they an AFC team, they would have stolen a Wild Card slot from the San Diego Chargers.
One of the first things that Arians did when he was hired, was set about to find a quality quarterback. Arians knows quarterbacks. As a former QB coach and offensive coordinator, he has worked with the likes of Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck. When Indianapolis Colts head coach, Chuck Pagano, was diagnosed with lukemia, back in 2012, Arians took over the team and led them to a Division title and post-season berth. This led to him being named the AP Coach of the Year in 2012.
In a division as tough as the NFC West, Arians knew that he wasn't going to get by with the likes of Ryan Lindley and Kolb. In April of 2013, he orchestrated a trade with the Oakland Raiders that brought Carson Palmer to Arizona. Now, let it be said that Palmer isn't the quarterback that he was in days of yore. In his prime, he was a Pro Bowler.
Now, like any aged veteran, Palmer's learned all of the tricks of the trade. His arm strength isn't what it used to be, but is still top-notch. Any physical gifts he's lost to Father Time, he's more than made up for with his savvy. In his first full season under Arians, Palmer went 362/572, for 4,274 yards, 24 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. It marked his fourth career 4,000-yard passing season.
But you'll notice that although his production was prolific, he turned the ball over a lot. 22 interceptions would have led the league, had Eli Manning not totally forgotten how to throw the football. One of the reasons for his high turnover percentage, was a porous offensive line.
But the Cardinals have improved some in the trenches since then. They signed former Oakland Raider, Jared Veldheer, to play left tackle. So far, in 3 games, he has allowed zero sacks, which has earned him a +1.0 overall grade via ProFootballFocus.com. He's improved the line by keeping edge rushers off of his quarterbacks.
Like most pocket quaterbacks, Palmer struggles when under pressure. And although he's missed the last two games with a nerve injury in his shoulder, he's been hopeful that he can suit up this Sunday. However, his status is uncertain, for now, vs the Broncos. If he misses his 3rd straight game, Drew Stanton will get the start. Regardless of which quarterback plays, this will be the Broncos front seven's first swing at a pocket quarterback thus far. In each of their first three games, the Broncos have faced a mobile, elusive signal caller.
DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller have a great opportunity to officially begin their push to lead the league in sacks, starting this Sunday. Veldheer is a worthy opponent, but both of the Broncos edge rushers are elite. To really take away what the Cardinals hope to do on Sunday, these two will have to bring pressure, early and often, on Palmer.
Palmer has a trio of weapons at wide receiver, who each know how to get open and find the soft spot in the zone. Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown, make up one of the better starting receiving corps in the league. The best approach to stopping them is to man up. Play man coverage and give Ware and Miller time to get to Palmer. Broncos Country hopes that defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, takes heed.
The Cardinals will certainly try to establish the run with Andre Ellington, who happens to be one of the most talented up and coming running backs in the league. On the season, he has averageda healthy 4.5 yards per carry. But he's also a true dual threat. He has very soft hands and can gash the opposition by catching balls out of the backfield. The return of Danny Trevathan could be the Broncos trump card here.
The crown jewel of the Arizona Cardinals, and there's no bones about this, is their defense. They are stout in all three levels; defensive line, linebackers, and secondary. Up front, they feature the behemoth, Calais Campbell. At 6'8, 300lbs, Campbell is one of the most physically imposing defensive linemen in the league. He is a top producer, both in run defense, and in rushing the passer. Ryan Clady and company will have their hands full with him. Neutralizing him will be key in establishing the run. I like the Broncos chances at containing him in pass protection, however. Manning's lightning-quick release will be the best weapon to combat that threat.
Who I consider to be the best shutdown corner in the NFL today, Patrick Peterson, leads a young and talented Cardinals secondary. Unlike his trash talking contemporary, Richard Sherman, Peterson is tasked each week with shadowing the opposition's primary receiver. This week, his assignment will likely come in the form of Demaryius Thomas.
Over the last two seasons, Thomas has established himself as one of the best wide receivers in the game. But it's no secret that he has struggled a bit to start this season, primarily due to a lingering foot injury. Fortunately for him, the bye week came at just the right time, so Broncos fans should see a fully healthy Thomas on Sunday.
Tyrann Mathieu starts at free safety for the Cardinals. Although he missed the team's opening matchup vs the Chargers, as he continued to recover from an ACL injury he suffered in 2013, Mathieu only played in 20 defensive snaps combined in weeks 2 and 3. That will likely change this Sunday, as the Cardinals certainly hoped to ease him back into action, and take advantage of an early week 4 bye, to get him back to full speed. Expect to see him in full effect this Sunday.
Mathieu will likely be tasked with covering tight end, Julius Thomas. Thomas has gotten off to a prolific start this season, catching 5 of Manning's 8 touchdown passes. Like any defense that faces the Broncos this year, the Cardinals will have to pick their poison. They'll hope to take Demaryius Thomas out of the game, by assigning Peterson to cover him. But that still leaves Emmanuel Sanders, who leads the league in receptions, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas to worry about.
At 3-0, the Cardinals sit alone atop the NFC West. And they surely aim to keep it that way. Expect to see a Cardinals team at full strength on Sunday. With the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers in their division, the margin for error is very small for them. They can't afford to lose this game. The Broncos will get their best shot.
Whether or not the Broncos can withstand it, is contingent on if they utilized the bye week to iron out some of their respective kinks. The run game and third down defense have been areas of concern. Hopefully, the coaching staff emphasized them throughout the bye. The biggest issue holding back the Broncos from being a dominant team in all three phases, has been execution. Or a lack thereof. Even though they're at home this week, they'll need to play a full 60 minutes to emerge 3-1 and continue to keep the Chargers at bay in the AFC West.