Strategy And Personnel

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

GAME PLAN: Expect the Steve Wilks’ era to kick off with a healthy dose of an aggressive running game featuring David Johnson and a rebuilt offensive line that loves to run-block for him. After missing the final 15 games last season with a fractured wrist, Johnson is eager to return to 2016 form when he led the league in yards (2,118) from scrimmage and touchdowns (20). Expect him to see a heavy workload with quarterback Sam Bradford utilizing play action repeatedly when Washington tries to stuff the box to slow down Johnson. For Bradford’s short and quick passes to work, the line has to hold up, everyone must chip in with blocks, and the receivers can’t afford to drop any passes. That was a problem throughout preseason, so look for Larry Fitzgerald to be Bradford’s primary and reliable go-to guy. Defensively, the Cardinals will look to rush the passer at every opportunity and use a safety-heavy secondary to swarm to the ball and battle for deflections and interceptions.

–Cardinals C Mason Cole, the team’s rookie third-round pick out of Michigan, vs. Redskins DE Daron Payne, Washington’s rookie first-round pick out of Alabama. Cole has been working with the first-team offensive line since the beginning of the preseason after veteran A.Q. Shipley suffered a torn ACL early in training camp. He’s handled the promotion almost flawlessly, but will have to raise his game to fend off Payne, who has great push and projects to be an overpowering force for years to come.

–Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald, who has averaged more than 100 catches and 1,000 receptions each of the last three years, vs. Redskins CB Josh Norman, who didn’t register an interception last season. Fitzgerald is sneaky good at getting open and turning short receptions into bigger gains. Norman is still an elite corner who knows how to lock down receivers and the best way to handle Fitzgerald is by being physical with him and hitting him at the snap of the ball. One mistake, though, and Fitzgerald can still burn you.

–Cardinals DE Chandler Jones, who led the NFL with 17 sacks last season, vs. Redskins LT Trent Williams, who has been selected to six straight Pro Bowls. Jones has an array of moves he likes to use when motoring his way into opponents’ backfields and his repertoire makes it difficult for tackles and tight ends to slow him down because he’s hard to game-plan against. Williams, though, is a savvy, nine-year vet who has virtually seen it all, making this one of the best individual NFC matchups to watch in Week 1.


QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Sam Bradford. Backups — Josh Rosen, Mike Glennon.

Bradford will remain the starter as long as he stays healthy and can be productive. There are concerns about his oft-injured left knee, but he’s one of the most accurate quarterbacks in NFL history and when he’s on, he’s lights out. That will be incredibly important for an offense looking to establish its new identity, which is run first, pass later. The Cardinals won’t throw the ball deep down the field very much under Bradford, but if the offense turns over to Rosen, the rookie isn’t afraid to sling it around and take his shots. His time is coming; it’s just a matter of when. Glennon provides experienced depth, just in case.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter — David Johnson. Backups — Chase Edmonds, T.J. Logan, FB Derrick Coleman.

There will be times when the Cardinals showcase a two-back set where Johnson is the lead ball carrier and Coleman provides an up-front blocking charge at fullback. Johnson enjoyed running with a fullback during his college days at Northern Iowa, it should be noted. In Edmonds, the team’s rookie fourth-round pick out of Fordham, the Cardinals have an electrifying backup who has greet speed and elusiveness and is more than just adequate in pass-pro blocking. Logan adds even greater breakaway speed as an occasional, third-down option back and pass catcher. All three running backs are exceptional receivers, especially Johnson.

TIGHT ENDS: Starters — Jermaine Gresham, Ricky Seals-Jones. Backup — Gabe Holmes.

Gresham missed all of training camp and the preseason while on the PUP list recovering from an Achilles’ injury he suffered in the final game of the 2017 season. He played with Bradford in college at Oklahoma and should provide a steady target for the quarterback as well as NFL-level blocking. Seals-Jones is the real wild card at the position. He’s a matchup nightmare for defensive backs and linebackers because of his catch radius and leaping ability. Holmes is more of a blocker than anything and will be utilized regularly in that capacity.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk. Backups — Chad Williams, J.J. Nelson, Trent Sherfield.

Now 35, Fitzgerald has shown no signs of slowing down. It’s the receivers behind him that will be intriguing to watch because it will help determine just how much Fitzgerald will be asked to contribute. In Kirk and Williams, the Cardinals have a pair of fresh faces ready to blossom. They each flashed during the preseason, but will have to prove they can get it done, consistently. Nelson is the team’s main deep threat, for what that’s worth. He’s had problems hanging onto the ball. Sherfield won a roster spot because of a great camp and preseason.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT D.J. Humphries, LG Mike Iupati, C Mason Cole, RG Justin Pugh, RT Andre Smith. Backups — LT John Wetzel, G Jeremy Vujnovich, C Daniel Munyer, RT Blaine Clausell, T Korey Cunningham.

Four of the five starters all missed time last season on injured reserve, which could be a concern moving forward. You can also look at it as a positive — that they are healthy again. Featuring two new additions on the right side and a rookie in the middle, there naturally are questions about chemistry and a working rhythm but this unit seemed to find it early on. Expect Iupati to return to the Pro Bowl. The depth behind the starters is serviceable and improved with the late additions of Vujnovich and Clausell. Cunningham could develop into a stud with the right coaching.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DLE Markus Golden, DT Corey Peters, DT Robert Nkemdiche, DRE Chandler Jones. Backups — DE Benson Mayowa, DT Rodney Gunter, DT Olsen Pierre, DE Jacquies Smith, DT Zach Moore.

The key question up front is health. Golden was just activated off the PUP list after suffering a torn ACL last October and it will take him some time to get back into game shape. Mayowa’s presence there will be a blessing, just in case. Peters and Nkemdiche missed most of the preseason with knee and foot issues, respectively. Jones could vie for Defensive Player of the Year honors with another brilliant season like the one he had a year ago. In Pierre and Gunter, the Cardinals have two excellent rotational tackles who can step in and not miss a beat.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — SLB Haason Reddick, MLB Josh Bynes, WLB Deone Bucannon. Backups — LB Gerald Hodges, LB Zeke Jones, LB Dennis Gardeck.

There is exceptional speed and hitting ability here between Reddick, Bynes and Bucannon. If they can wrap up and tackle, things should be just fine. Hodges turned out to be a valuable preseason addition when injuries began to really rock this unit. Jones and Gardeck are two of five undrafted rookie free agents who made the initial 53-man roster and will have to keep practicing harder than ever to stay on the team. There will be plenty of times during games this season where you can expect Arizona to go with just two linebackers and play five defensive backs — and not just in regular nickel situations, either.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Patrick Peterson, RCB Jamar Taylor, SS Budda Baker, FS Antoine Bethea. Backups — CB Deatrick Nichols, CB Bene’ Benwikere, FS Tre Boston, SS Rudy Ford, CB Brandon Williams.

Peterson expects to get his hands on more footballs now that he’s playing in more zone-coverage situations. Although he will still shadow opponents’ No. 1 wide receivers, he’s going to play off them a few yards on occasion and have the ability to jump routes because of it. The Cardinals hope they’ve found a long-term solution as the starter opposite him in Taylor, whom they acquired from the Browns for a sixth-round pick. The safety trio of Bethea, Baker and Boston will be on the field together more times than not and when that happens, so do multiple splash plays. Benwikere leads a handful of decent reserves.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Phil Dawson, P Andy Lee, LS Aaron Brewer, KR T.J. Logan, PR Christian Kirk.

The Cardinals gave a rookie kicker every opportunity to beat out the 43-year-old Dawson, but the veteran held off the challenge from Kansas State’s Matt McCrane and head coach Steve Wilks better hope he made the right decision. Dawson missed a career high-tying eight field goals last year, although he rebounded well down the stretch. Lee remains one of the league’s most accountable punters, especially as it relates to kicks downed inside the 20. It’s the return game where things get exciting, as youngsters Kirk and Logan have a knack for eluding tacklers and showing breakaway speed once they do. Brewer doesn’t make mistakes on his snaps.

PRACTICE SQUAD: LB B.J. Bello, S Demetrious Cox, OL Will House, DE Alec James, CB Chris Jones, QB Charles Kanoff, RB Elijhaa Penny, DE Pasoni Tasini, WR Jalen Tolliver, TE Andrew Vollert.