Game Preview: Cardinals @ Panthers

An in-depth preview of the Cardinals road matchup against the Panthers.

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 12/19/10
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: FOX, Ron Pitts, John Lynch

PREDICTION: Panthers 25-24

KEYS TO THE GAME: In his first career start last Sunday, Cardinals fifth-round QB John Skelton managed something fellow rookie Jimmy Clausen hasn't been able to do in seven starts and 10 appearances - win a game. Arizona's veterans lauded Skelton's calm in the huddle, and he should again be able to work with short fields considering Carolina's inept offense. The Cardinals do allow 143.3 rushing yards per game, so the Panthers will go to RBs Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson and attempt to win a field-position game.

FAST FACTS: Cardinals RB Tim Hightower rushed for a career-high 148 yards last week. ... Panthers WR Steve Smith has gone 11 games without a touchdown catch.



Quarterback John Skelton will start his second consecutive game on Sunday, but the Cardinals likely won't expand the playbook beyond last week's size.

Skelton, a rookie, handled that well last week, although he did bungle a couple of play calls, flipping formations to the wrong side of the field.

There are some changes to this week's game plan, of course, and coach Ken Whisenhunt said he could see Skelton's mind spinning with the new information.

But Skelton, who went to Fordham, is bright and picks them up quickly. He was poised in last week's victory over the Broncos. While he completed just 15 of 37 passes, Skelton was the victim of four dropped passes and never seemed to get flustered.

"I didn't realize I had seven straight incompletions to start the game," said Skelton, a fifth-round pick. "When you see a stat like that, it's kind of eye-popping."

Three of the drops came in those first seven passes, but Skelton was never flustered. It's a trait that should serve him well down the stretch as the Cardinals try to salvage something positive from a disastrous season.

To win in Carolina, the Cardinals are going to need another solid defensive effort like they've had the last two weeks.

They have been hoping for that kind of performance all season, because Whisenhunt knew the offense was going to struggle. The defense didn't come through, and that's a big factor in the team's 4-9 record.


The Carolina Panthers seem to have found their running game. Now where is the passing game?

The Panthers have piled up 494 yards and four touchdowns on the ground over the past three weeks. That's considerable progress from a team that averaged just 96.4 yards per game and scored only three rushing touchdowns the first 10 games of the season.

But despite posting their top three rushing totals of the season their last three games -- 151 yards against the Browns, 131 against the Seahawks and 212 against the Falcons - the Panthers' passing game hasn't improved.

If anything, those numbers are in decline.

Conventional wisdom suggests that once the Panthers figure out the run it automatically opens up the passing game for rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen.

But that simply hasn't been the case.

Clausen hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in his last six games and his passer rating (55) remains the worst in the league. And the Panthers remain last in the league in passing - by a wide margin and are on pace to finish among the top 10 worst passing teams in the NFL in the past 16 years.

So why has the passing game not taken off?

"I think it's kind of twofold," tight end Jeff King said. "We got behind early in games and our team is built to run to set up the pass, so I think when you get behind the eight-ball early you are forced into that passing mode. It's a little bit more difficult.

"And second, when you have a rookie quarterback, well, that's going to be the smell. He's going through some growing pains as well. But we all need to step up and help him out. But he's getting better every week. We have to keep taking steps and hopefully we take another one this week."

Clausen hasn't had a breakout game this season.

In fact, he's thrown only one touchdown pass all season, that coming on blown coverage against the New Orleans Saints back on Oct. 4. Only one time this season has Clausen posted a passer rating above 76 - that coming in that same game against the Saints in Week 4.

Coach John Fox is hesitant to blame Clausen for anything, perhaps fearful of ruining his confidence.

When he answers questions about the team's woeful passing game he almost always goes to his standard response of "there are a lot of working parts in the passing game."

"We obviously get a pretty strong dose of pressure from the defense," Fox said. "I think it makes it even harder to operate and I think that's why people do it. I think the more you see it -- and not just the quarterback, but our offense in general -- the better you get at it. That's what we'll continue to do."



--QB Derek Anderson, who has started nine games, has yet to pass neurological tests required to play after suffering a concussion. Anderson is suffering from headaches after physical exertion and must be free of symptoms for 24 hours before receiving clearance.

--QB John Skelton, a rookie, will start his second consecutive game this Sunday. Skelton is 1-0 as a starter but completed only 15 of 37 passes for 146 yards in the victory over Denver.

--QB Richard Bartel, signed just more than a week ago, likely will be the backup quarterback against the Panthers. He has never taken a snap in a regular-season game.

--RB Tim Hightower continues to start ahead of Beanie Wells but the club has struggled to stick with the run because it's fallen behind in games. Hightower rushed for 148 yards last week, a career high.

--RB Beanie Wells has been ill since last Saturday, but was starting to recover by the end of this week. Provided he is properly hydrated, Wells should be fine for Sunday's game.

--RB LaRod Stephens-Howling will play on third downs. He could see more action if either Tim Hightower or Beanie Wells is limited for some reason.

--RB Jason Wright will play a limited amount in some passing situations.

--WR Steve Breaston continues to be the team's biggest downfield threat. Breaston has the speed to stretch the field and runs well after the catch.

--WR Early Doucet is playing the third receiver and has done little this year. He rarely seems open and he's not doing anything with the ball once he gets it.

--WR Larry Fitzgerald passed Anquan Boldin to become the team's all-time leader in receptions. Fitzgerald needs two touchdowns to tie Roy Green for the franchise lead at 66. Fitzgerald has not scored in the last three games and has only one touchdown in the last six.

--TE Stephen Spach is mainly a blocker and will rarely be a target in the passing game.

--TE Jim Dray has moved ahead of Ben Patrick as the backup tight end. Dray isn't much of a receiving threat.

--PK Jay Feely has a strong leg and had made 18 consecutive field goals until missing last week from 49 yards. He is dealing with a groin strain that has limited him in practice.


--WR Steve Smith has not caught a touchdown pass since Week 2.

--RB Jonathan Stewart is averaging 107.6 yards per game on the ground the last three weeks and the Panthers are averaging more than 160 rushing yards per game as a team. They averaged less than 100 the first 10 games of the season.

--WR Armanti Edwards was held out of practice for the second straight day Thursday with an illness.

--WLB Nic Harris is likely to return to the starting lineup this week.

--SLB James Anderson (ankle) was limited in practice for the second straight day Thursday. His status for Sunday is up in the air.

--S Marcus Hudson was limited in practice Thursday with an ankle injury but should play Sunday.

--LB Jordan Senn was limited in practice with an ankle injury Thursday but should be fine for Sunday. He won't start this week.

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