The Arizona Cardinals are coming off a disappointing finish in which they were upset by the undermanned New England Patriots, 23-21. They faced a young quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo, one they had never seen before. This week they face a similar, yet more daunting task, as they prepare to go up against Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay is coming off a 31-24 road win over the Atlanta Falcons in which Winston threw for 281 yards and four touchdowns. That performance led to Winston being named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for the first week of the season.
The 22-year old has shown his potential in the short amount of time he’s been in the league, and if the Cardinals are to avoid the same mistakes they made against Garoppolo, they’re going to have to do a couple of things.
First, the offense needs to get to a quicker start. Last week, they only scored seven points in the first half, as it seemed there was miscommunication on several of the team’s passing plays to start off. The offense was a huge part of the team’s success last year, a year in which they scored more than 500 points. That spark seemed to be lacking. Arizona only had three plays of 20-plus yards, and weren’t really able to drive down the length of the field, with their first two scores coming off New England turnovers that gave Arizona a short field.
Running back David Johnson let people know the hype surrounding him was justified, highlighted by an impressive 45-yard run in the second half where Johnson exhibited his speed, quickness and ability to break tackles. Nonetheless, the running game could still be better. Johnson finished the night with 16 carries for 89 yards and a touchdown, and while at first sight, it looks fine and dandy, it also means that if it wasn’t for that 45-yard run, Johnson would’ve finished with 15 carries for 44 yards. All in all, the offense averaged 5.8 yards per play. Those numbers don’t scream amazing, which is why Arizona needs to get the ball in the hands of their play makers like Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Michael Floyd more often.
They’ll have to do so against a Tampa defense who might not be as big in size up front as the Patriots, but possess speedy linebackers in Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David, as well as a tough matchup between Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and whoever gets the start at guard between Evan Mathis or Earl Watford. Mathis is currently dealing with a foot injury he suffered in Week One, and it’s still uncertain whether or not he’ll be ready to play Sunday. If not, it will be up to Watford, also known as “the Swiss Army Knife”, to get the job done.
Arizona will also need to fix their defense, as they struggled to get off the field on third down in their first game of the season. New England converted 10 of their 16 opportunities on third down, which resulted in a 7:58 edge in time of possession. Most of these conversions were on third-and-long, with the average distance to gain on third down being 7.68 yards.
A large reason for the third-and-long struggles were due to the Cardinals inability to get pressure on Garoppolo. It obviously helps when you have a great coaching staff such as Bill Belichick’s to simplify the game plan, but when you’re facing a young quarterback, putting pressure on him is crucial. Arizona only blitzed Garoppolo eight times throughout the entire game.
Winston is a different type of quarterback. Garoppolo released the ball as quick as possible, whereas with Winston, he’s allowed more freedom and holds on to the ball longer in order to let the plays develop and go through his multiple reads. That’s why it’s essential for Arizona to put pressure on Winston and force him to commit turnovers because as much he is a good quarterback, he’s also prone to throwing interceptions. Last year, Winston threw seven interceptions in his first four games, so the opportunities will be there for this Arizona defense, which leads me to another point of emphasis — the secondary.
More likely than not, Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson will be covering Bucs receiver Mike Evans. Peterson isn’t the issue in the secondary, that problem lies on the other side with rookie cornerback Brandon Williams, who had some trouble last week. Williams was beat on deep touchdown pass from Garoppolo to receiver Chris Hogan, and this week’s job doesn’t get any easier. Tampa Bay has some lengthy targets in Evans, Vincent Jackson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, with all three being at least 6-feet-5. Don’t be surprised if you see more help go toward Williams’s side, whether it be from Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu, Tony Jefferson or Tyvon Branch. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of game plan Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher comes up with for this week.
Tackling was also an issue in Week One for Arizona and this week they face one of the NFL’s better running backs in Doug Martin. Martin’s short and stocky size, combined with his burst of speed makes it difficult for defenses to slow down the Boise State product. A lot of that pressure will fall on Cardinals inside linebackers Kevin Minter and Deone Bucannon.
Lastly, the group that received the most attention at the end of last week’s game — the special teams. Arizona’s special teams struggled mightily last week. They couldn’t get anything going with their kickoff-return unit, punter Drew Butler was delivering short punts that gave New England a short field (much of that can be attributed to a sprained ankle Butler suffered on his first punt), and the bad day culminated with a bad snap from rookie long snapper Kameron Canaday resulting in a missed game-winning field goal by Chandler Catanzaro. There’s nowhere to go but up for this unit, so at least they have that going for them this week.
With all that being said, I don’t see Arizona losing back-to-back games at home and starting the season 0-2. Arizona wins by a score of 27-20 against a talented and up-and-coming team in Tampa Bay.