On Thursday evening in San Francisco, Arizona Cardinals' running back David Johnson willed the team to a victory with a 27-carry, 157-yard performance on the ground.
Perhaps most impressively, Johnson ran behind a patchwork offensive line, earning his second half yardage without starting left guard Mike Iupati and starting right guard Evan Mathis. Iupati and Mathis both exited Thursday's contest with ankle injuries that will put each player on the shelf for a significant amount of time.
Iupati is reportedly expected to miss two-to-four weeks, while Mathis was placed on injured reserve Saturday, likely bringing an end to his season and probably bringing an end to his professional football career. Mathis was signed to a one-year, $6 million deal this offseason and lured away from the possibility of retirement to chase one more championship with the Cardinals, but after playing through a significant amount of pain last season, Mathis knew health wasn't on his side.
The Cardinals took a risk with Mathis, knowing his age (34) and his injury history up front, but they took it because they knew he was still one of the league's most dominant run blockers last season and his veteran presence could aid the development of first-year starter D.J. Humphries at right tackle.
Throughout camp and into the season, Humphries and the Cardinals' coaches publicly offered glowing reviews of Mathis' leadership, to the point where it was obvious Arizona wasn't the same team when he took a veterans' day off at practice or missed important snaps. When Mathis sat out against Buffalo on the road in week three, the Cardinals' offensive line struggled through a miserable performance, giving up five sacks and failing to pave open paths for Johnson out of the backfield.
When Mathis was hurt against Buffalo and again hurt against San Francisco, top reserve Earl Watford stepped in and filled his void, but Watford is nowhere near the type of X-factor Mathis is on the offensive line. A former fourth round draft pick of the Cardinals out of James Madison, Watford is a swing lineman who can make a few spot starts, but not the type of player the Cardinals would like to depend on for the remainder of the regular season.
Putting Watford on the same side of the line as Humphries as well as inexperienced center A.Q. Shipley should give the Cardinals' great concerns about the potential health risks Johnson and quarterback Carson Palmer will face, as it would be rather heroic if the pair played the remainder of the regular season injury-free.
To compound matters, Arizona doesn't exactly have an answer for Iupati's imminent absence, as either reserve tackle John Wetzel or recent addition Ulrick John appears poised to take over for the Pro Bowl left guard. While Wetzel performed admirably in Iupati's place against San Francisco, the Cardinals were up against a depleted 49ers' front that isn't very talented to begin with.
Over the next two games, the Cardinals will learn quite a bit about their offensive capabilities, and about their playoff chances. At 2-3, the Cardinals cannot afford to lose at home, where the team has already lost a pair of important games.
Of Arizona's next two games, both of which will be played in Glendale, the Cardinals are up against the league's No. 2 rushing defense in New York and the NFL's top overall defense in Seattle. So long as Arizona splits those two games, the Cardinals should actually remain in contention for a Wild Card berth.
Nevertheless, a pair of losses would devastate the Cardinals, and it's almost certain the team's lack of offensive line depth, an issue from the outset of the season, would come back to haunt it. With Iupati out of the lineup, the Cardinals don't have a top 15 player at the league at any respective position up front, and left tackle Jared Veldheer is probably the only player in the top 20 at his respective spot.
That's a warning sign, and it's up to the Cardinals' opponents to capitalize.