The Minnesota Vikings have faced their share of tough opponents this season, but perhaps none that are as difficult a matchup as what they face on a short week, heading into Arizona to face a Cardinals team that is 10-2 and has its sights once again on a Super Bowl run. Perhaps no team in the NFC is as balanced on both offense and defense as the Cardinals and, despite having already played teams like Denver, Green Bay and Seattle – all with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations – Arizona is arguably the best team on the Vikings’ 2015 schedule.
The Cardinals finished 11-5 last year, but sputtered down the stretch after a 9-1 start. Their collapse coincided with the season-ending injury to QB Carson Palmer. He’s been healthy this year and the results have been amazing. In his last two seasons, he has started 18 games and has a record of 16-2. He is at or near the top of every important passing category, including yards (3,693), touchdowns (29) and passer rating (106.3). He’s a stationary pocket passer, but has only been sacked 19 times. When given time, he can pick a defense apart. Unless the Vikings can put pressure on Palmer with the pass rush, he has the ability to make them pay.
As recently as two weeks ago, the Cardinals had one of the deepest backfields in the league. That changed quickly. Leading rusher Chris Johnson is on the I.R. designated to return list, but won’t be back for tonight’s game. Backup Andre Ellington is also out, leaving rookie David Johnson as the featured back. Johnson has just 57 carries through 12 games, but that’s more than double the total of the other two backs on the roster – Kerwynn Williams (14 carries) and Stepfan Taylor (7). If the Vikings can stuff Johnson, who was a third-down back/receiving specialist prior to getting the call as the starter last week, they might be able to turn the Cardinals one-dimensional.
But if the Cardinals can’t run, perhaps the worst thing that could happen to the Vikings is forcing the Cards to pass against their injury-depleted secondary. The receivers have been nothing short of deadly. Larry Fitzgerald remains one of game’s elite wide receivers despite his advancing age. He’s having one of the best seasons of his career. He has caught 91 passes for 1,047 yards and seven touchdowns. Yet, Fitzgerald is far from alone.
Michael Floyd is a dynamic receiver, but was hampered by injuries early in the season. He’s healthy now and, despite having 35 catches for 550 yards and five touchdowns, is viewed as the top receiving threat. Speedster John Brown, who emerged last season as a big-play threat over the top, has picked up where he left off, catching 51 passes for 807 yards and four TDs. Also in the mix is J.J. Nelson, a lightning-fast receiver who has emerged over the last month. He has caught just 11 passes, but has averaged more than 27 yards per reception. The tight end position has been largely irrelevant other than blocking, but their top receiver at the position, Jermaine Gresham, is doubtful for Thursday with a knee injury.
The Cardinals have an unheralded but strong offensive line that has been effective in both opening running lanes and protecting Palmer, allowing just 19 sacks of a QB with the mobility of a statue. They imported the left side of the line with tackle Jared Veldheer and guard Mike Iupati and drafted the right side of the line – tackle Bobby Massie (fourth round, 2012) and guard Jonathan Cooper (first round, 2013). Along with nine-year veteran center Lyle Sendlein, the unit has been greater than the sum of its parts and will put up a big challenge for the Vikings’ defensive front.
As impressive as the Cardinals offense has been, its defense has been its calling card since Bruce Arians arrived in Arizona. The 3-4 defense the Cardinals run will be a bit shorthanded. DE Calais Campbell and rookie nose tackle Rodney Gunter will start, but the third starter, Frostee Rucker, has been ruled out, and backup Cory Redding is questionable with an ankle injury. It could be an advantage for the Vikings, who clearly sound like they plan to run Adrian Peterson early and often, but the back end of the defense is stout and will more than hold up its end of the equation.
The Cardinals have spent the last three years investing in linebackers. Three of their starters were drafted in the last three years, including inside linebacker Kevin Minter (second round, 2013) and Deone Bucannon (first round, 2014) and weakside linebacker Alex Okafor (fourth round, 2013). Combined with veteran Dwight Freeney, who, while on a pitch count, is a big playmaker who can blow up a drive, it helps explain why the Cardinals defense is one of the best on third down.
While the Cards are strong up front and at linebacker, their primary strength is in the secondary. They will be without starting cornerback Jerraud Powers, but have fifth-year blue chipper Patrick Peterson at cornerback and he is a true shutdown-style CB that can dominate anyone he goes up against. The Vikings are struggling at safety due to injuries, but the Cardinals have arguably the best group of safeties in the NFL. Rashad Johnson and Tyrann Mathieu are not only big hitters when they attack the ball, they’re ball hawks who make plays. The two of them have combined for nine interceptions and, along with young veterans Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger, the Cardinals are deep and talented and cause problems for any quarterback they face.
The Vikings are facing long odds against a Cardinals team that appears to be hitting its stride and playing at a high level and that could be legitimate cause for concern as they try to solidify their playoff positioning. A short week, injured players and heading into a hornet’s nest in Glendale don’t add up to a good mix. The Vikings may have to play a near-perfect game to win, because the Cardinals appear to be a team on a mission that may end up in the Super Bowl come February.