If he can push a sled, he can play.
“He’s a damn tackle, he ain’t no wide receiver,” Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “He don’t need to be worrying about making cuts, so he better have his ass back on the practice field next week.”
Niklas, Arizona’s rookie tight end, heard the same message in the training room Friday, when he missed his ninth straight practice with a sprained ankle suffered in Denver in Week 5. He’ll miss his third straight game Sunday when Arizona hosts Philadelphia.
This is just the lastest injury to plague Niklas’ six months in the NFL. He came into the league recovering from hernia surgery and then broke a bone in his right hand in June. And now the ankle.
“Definitely been a pretty unreal series of events,” Niklas said. “Unfortunate, I guess. I’m trying to stay positive and heal up as fast as I can so I can get back out there.”
But staying positive after three setbacks since he was drafted is much easier said than done.
“It’s pretty tough,” Niklas said. “Just being injured is one of the worst things about playing and for me, watching the team go and win games, it’s awesome seeing them win and having success. It just sucks that you’re not part of it.”
Every day he misses is another day Niklas feels like he’s falling behind. But his ankle is close enough where a return next week is a good possibility.
As Arians said, as long as Niklas can push a sled, he can return to practice.
“I just got to be out there and be able to do my job,” Niklas said. “As I heal up I’ll just be able to do more and more.
“I think just getting back out there is the biggest thing regardless of what I’m doing.”
They just needed a quarterback.
“I always knew we had enough talent to win,” said Kelly, now an Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle. “It was to the point where we just needed a quarterback, really.
Kelly lettered for the Bulldogs from 2001-03 and left school with an 8-27 record. But for years, Kelly said, Mississippi State and Ole Miss would recruit over each other, stealing the state’s best players from one another, which limited one school from being a powerhouse.
Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, Kelly saw football talent all around him. High school football in the Magnolia State was “very serious,” Kelly said. It was just a matter of time until the state’s two biggest colleges were able to attract big-time talent from outside Mississippi.
“Mississippi got a lot of talent,” Kelly said. “They have done a really good job starting to go into Louisiana and Alabama and steal a couple guys, so it kinda evens itself out.
“I’m happy for both schools right now, and it brings a lot of attention to my state.”
He’s not the only Cardinal who’s glad to see Mississippi State atop the rankings.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was an assistant coach there from 1978-80.
“Oh, man, that’s great. Stark Vegas,” Arians said, referring to Starkville's nickname. “Dan’s done a great job. I know Dan very well. I still have a lot of great friends down there in Starkville. My son graduated from Starkville High School. It’s really exciting to see them and Ole Miss up there, it really is. Having spent some time in Alabama and both places, really, really happy for them.”
With Mississippi State ranked No. 1 and Ole Miss No. 3 in this week’s Associated Press Top 25, rivalries continued to be put aside for a moment to bask in the state’s gridiron glory. Hailing from a state steeped in tradition, the state pride in Kelly came out this week.
“There’s tons (of state pride),” he said. “Huge rivalry. A lot of bragging rights. Now the nation gets to see how good of athletes we have in Mississippi.
“There’s a lot of pride. I just want them to keep it up. I don’t want them to just have a good start, I want them to have a great finish.”
But Kelly doesn’t want this to be a one-time thing in Starkville, and he knows that all depends on what Mullen decides to do after this season. There’s no doubt he’ll be the primary target for some major programs in the offseason, but Kelly wonders whether an extra million dollars or two can replace what Mullen has built at Mississippi State.
“Why would he leave?” Kelly said. “To me, it really don’t matter about money. How much money can you get? Your happiness and knowing that you built this program from what you built it from, shouldn’t that be enough? Why go somewhere and start over when you already got your ready-made program right here? Why go somewhere and have to compete with the someone like the legend of Steve Spurrier or the legend of Urban Meyer when you can be the greatest coach to ever coach at Mississippi State? Before Florida was Florida, they weren’t nobody. He can do the same thing at Mississippi State.
“To me, he’ll be crazy to leave.”
@joshweinfuss: I don't, and it's mainly because Foles isn't the same quarterback he was in 2013, when he had that incredible streak without an interception. This year, he's thrown seven picks, and against a defense like Arizona's that's good at creating turnovers he may struggle. I don't think there'll be more pressure on the secondary, however, because of the Philadelphia Eagles' potent run game. Foles will give the ball to LeSean McCoy early and often, eliminating the idea of a pass. So when Foles does decide to test the secondary, it won't be as exhausted as if Foles comes out slinging from the beginning.
@joshweinfuss Foles carved us up last year, and now with this year's defensive system (more pressure on dbs), do you think we'll struggle?— Jason Hayes (@TheMightyHoz) October 21, 2014
@joshweinfuss: I think there'll be an extra emphasis to run the ball but it's not necessarily to keep the Eagles off the field. Arizona saw how effective Andre Ellington was last week running the ball more than 20 times a game, so I'd expect that to become the norm. Bruce Arians said Friday he wants Ellington to get 20 carries per game, which, if that happens Sunday, will force Philadelphia's defense to stay on the sideline. It won't be the reason Arizona runs but it'll be a byproduct.
@joshweinfuss Do you think there will be extra emphasis to run the ball to keep the defense off the field and well rested vs Kelly's offense— CEG (@GilaRiverArena) October 21, 2014
@joshweinfuss: The Cardinals have proven they're good at keeping their eyes on the waiver wire but finding a good enough pass-rusher on the open market to sign is a lot easier said than done. If he's so good, he won't be available. At this point, I don't see Arizona just giving a flier to anyone.
@joshweinfuss will cards b looking for a pass rusher to come in for a look? A few were cut this week— anthony (@anthonyacabrera) October 22, 2014
@joshweinfuss: Tyrann Mathieu's return started as a slow progression but then Arizona found a good rhythm with him as their nickel and dime safety, while playing Tony Jefferson against base offenses. Arians said that if the Eagles play three tight ends, Mathieu won't be on the field much, but if they line up three receivers, expect more snaps for Mathieu. I think there are a few reasons for Mathieu's new role. He's still working back to his 2013 pre-injury form. It's not like he's grown. Last season he wasn't effective against playing bigger tight ends, so the Cardinals have recognized his limits and are putting him in situations where he can succeed. I do think the more he's on the field, the better off Arizona is simply because of his ability to get his hands on the ball.
@joshweinfuss Last year Mathieu was FS and slot CB. This year? Are they just working him back in slowly? Had a pretty bad injury.— sacred reich (@SacredReich) October 22, 2014
@joshweinfuss: This is an interesting thought, and yes, I do. Arizona has until Oct. 28 to make a trade, and if another team calls about tight end Rob Housler, offering another good, big blocking tight end in return, I wouldn't put it past Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim to pull the trigger on the deal. Rob Housler is a free agent after this season so anytime they could get something in return for an expiring contract that would, in their eyes, at least, improve the team, I bet they would do it.
@joshweinfuss Do you think the Cardinals may consider trading Housler for a better blocking tight end since that's more of what they need?— Himself (@himself1234) October 23, 2014
@joshweinfuss: Yes. Carson Palmer's contract expires five days after the Super Bowl.
@joshweinfuss is Palmer a FA after the season?— Josh Berdads (@Lansman101) October 23, 2014
But he did and he kept his job as the Arizona Cardinals’ kickoff and punt returner for at least another game.
“The good thing about the whole situation is that it didn’t hurt us,” Ginn said. “So, that’s the biggest thing that keeps me afloat. If we didn’t recover the two, then it can be a possibility of a change or whatever coaches may feel.
Ginn muffed a punt by Oakland’s Marquette King less than a minute into the game. It dropped through Ginn’s hands and he fell on it just before the Raiders’ Neiko Thorpe could pounce on it.
The second muff came on a kickoff from Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski in the third quarter. Ginn appears to catch the kick and then it falls off his hands, but he cleanly recovers it in the end zone for a touchback.
Ginn was able to return just two of six punts for seven yards in Oakland but didn’t have a chance to return any of Janikowski’s four kickoffs.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians still supports Ginn as his returner.
“It’s been hit or miss,” Arians said.
“He’s a threat any time he touches it. Kickoffs have gotten – I don’t know if anybody’s returning kickoffs anymore – but if and when he gets an opportunity, he can crack any one. So, I’m still pleased, very pleased with him.”
Ginn said his muffs are amplified more because there are so few of opportunities to return a punt or a kickoff. But he was glad to hear that Arians was still behind him.
“Always when your coach takes your back, it’s always a great deal,” Ginn said.
“It would’ve been game-changing plays but in the same sense, they wasn’t. So, just go on, move on. It ain’t no different than missing a pass or missing a block or missing a tackle. It’s all in the same boat. You just fight through.”
Fortunately for Sam, an Arizona Cardinals starting outside linebacker, he didn’t have to think twice about passing to Emmanuel often. Besides the occasional pickup game, the two never played on opposing teams growing up – even through college at the University of Texas.
“I’ll be more excited than anything,” Sam Acho said. “I’m so proud of him. I’m so proud of what he’s been able to accomplish if you look at the journey he’s been on.”
The two are still close, and make sure they text before every game. It’s usually something short and simple like: “Hey man, I’m praying for you. Ball out today. Do your thing. Love you, bro,” Sam said. They won’t need to text Sunday morning. Sam said the pregame message will given when the two get together Saturday night.
While they talk four or five times a week, the brothers Acho had different roads to the NFL. Sam was drafted in the fourth round in 2011 and made an immediate impact in his first two seasons before a broken fibula ended his 2013 season after three games. After suffering a quad injury at the NFL combine in 2012, Emmanuel was drafted in the sixth round by the Cleveland Browns. A knee injury suffered that preseason landed him on injured reserve for his rookie season. He was traded to the Eagles the following April, then was released that September and signed to the New York Giants practice squad about a week later.
In October 2013, Emmanuel Acho was signed off the Giants practice squad by the Eagles, who waived him in December but re-signed him to the practice squad the next day. He was released this August, re-signed to the practice squad a day later and then promoted to the active roster after Week 1. He’s since started one of five games for Philadelphia, totaling 17 tackles.
Sam has 18 tackles this season.
It’s a safe bet that Emmanuel is well aware that he has one fewer tackle than his older brother in one fewer game.
“He’s definitely the more competitive one,” Sam said. “I was the guy who said, ‘Hey, I just want to play. I want to have fun.”
Whether it was driveway basketball or the Madden video game, Emmanuel’s competitive streak was always on display. Sam said if his younger brother was losing at Madden – which wasn’t often – he’d turn it off midgame. Or if Sam ran up a big lead in the driveway, Emmanuel would put the ball down and storm off.
“So, I would start letting him get closer,” Sam said. “If I was up too much, I’d start sandbagging a little bit, but yeah, he’s definitely more competitive.”
That’s not to say Sam isn’t. When he talked to his mother, Christie, this week, she mentioned, “We're coming up to play the Cardinals this weekend.”
Sam noticed right away.
“I was like, ‘We? Who is we?’” Sam said with a laugh.
As he found out, his parents alternate daily between using “we” to identify with the Cardinals and the Eagles.
On Sunday, however, they Sonny and Christie Acho won’t need to decide one way or the other. Sam said his mother will be wearing a custom-tailored Acho jersey – Cardinals in the front, Eagles in the back.
“People will think they’re kind of confused,” Sam said.
But his parents will know exactly who they’re cheering for.
But Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians will be the one who makes that call, and Arians said Friday that that status of his 6-foot-8 defensive end will be a game-time decision.
“When he’s ready to go, he’s ready to go,” Arians said.
“I feel explosive and everything, so it depends on what you consider limited,” Campbell said. “In my opinion, I feel like I can play football and help the team win.”
Campbell has missed the last two games after suffering a knee injury when Denver tight end Julius Thomas illegally chop-blocked Campbell in Week 5. Without him, Arizona has continued its dominating pace against rushing offenses, ascending to the top of the NFL’s rush defense rankings.
If Campbell returns Sunday, he won’t be given a snap count, Arians said. Instead, the coach will trust Campbell to determine his own limits, leaving how many snaps Campbell plays “strictly” up to him. If he’s active, Campbell doesn’t think he’ll play the majority of the game.
“I know that no matter what, going out there having the last two weeks off, my reps won’t be as high,” Campbell said. “I’ll have to rotate, even if I’m going to be able to be out there. The big thing is giving everything I have and being honest with the training staff and my coaches and myself, and just making sure I’m doing what’s best to help the team.”
Campbell’s toughest obstacle to overcome might be the brace on his right leg.
He’s said Friday it’s more of a preventative measure than anything so he doesn’t further injure his knee. Campbell said he has “pretty good” function with the brace on, though.
“That’s different,” Campbell said. “I’ve never played with a brace on my knee before. So, I just got to get used to it. I felt explosive and I was able to play football the way I like to play football.”
If Campbell arrives at University of Phoenix Stadium feeling as well as he did after Friday’s practice, he said he’ll be good to play. But the decision will still be left to Arians.
“There’s nobody quite like him,” Arians said. “Even if he’s 90 percent, the energy he brings, just the respect that he brings, that you want him on the field.”
“[It’s been] a chance to do more since everybody’s been down, and also, too, probably show that I really can help this team out a lot,” Williams said. “I’m more valuable than probably what people (think).
“People thought I was just a nose tackle but I can do a lot more than what, I guess, is already assumed or people’s assumptions of what they have of me.”
Williams played 36 snaps Sunday, his highest of the season by 10, and the most since that Week 17 loss to San Francisco. His body felt good a few days after the game, he said. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Williams has played more snaps in a game just seven times since he was drafted in 2010.
As Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has been figuring out how to line up the players he has left, Williams has played some end and been in on some nickel packages.
“I think a lot of times people just think I’m just a nose tackle, just eating up people, clogging a gap, or just get up the field every now and then,” Williams said.
“I hate the circumstances that I have gotten the opportunity, but at the same time I have just been trying to take full advantage of it.”
Williams’ stats don’t tell the whole story. He only has 12 tackles and one quarterback hurry, according to Pro Football Focus, but Williams was responsible for seven stops. But without Williams, Arizona likely doesn’t own the league’s best run defense.
“I just try to show the coaches and the people upstairs that I can play a lot more than just the regular 15-20 snaps I usually get,” Williams said.
“I think Sunday they asked me to do more and I helped the team out a lot. It’s just, in the end just the fact that I helped the team get a win. I’m definitely a team guy and I think I pretty much do what you tell me to do. You say, ‘Dan, I need you to go in there and play. We need you to step up and do a little bit more.’ I know for a fact I can definitely answer the bell and help the team succeed.”
All while proving he’s more than a nose tackle.
The Cardinals’ defense is good at stopping the run; Philadelphia likes to run. The Cardinals are good at creating turnovers; Philadelphia is good at turning the ball over.
Arizona became the top-ranked defense against the run this week, allowing 72.5 rushing yards per game. It’s also allowing a league-low 3.15 yards per rush. Their work will be cut out for them with the Eagles, who are averaging 116 yards per game on the ground and 4.19 yards per rush. But, if Philadelphia wins this game, it’ll have to come in the air, where the Eagles are averaging 262.3 yards per game -- seventh best in the NFL.
While that number may sound intimidating, the impact of Eagles quarterback Nick Foles’ potency is negated by the seven interceptions and three fumbles he’s lost in six games. Arizona is plus-7 in the turnover margin, intercepting eight passes and recovering three fumbles, while scoring 26 points off those turnovers.
But Arizona can give itself a better chance to win if it can limit Philadelphia’s returns. The Eagles are one of three teams to return a kickoff for a touchdown and lead the league with 30.9 yards per kick return. The Cardinals are allowing 22.6 yards per kickoff return. Philadelphia has also returned a punt for a touchdown, but Arizona hasn’t given up a return touchdown while allowing just 6.7 yards per punt return.
Prediction: Cardinals 27, Eagles 17
When that team plays in the toughest division in the NFL and is led by a no-nonsense, straight shooting, offensive minded coach, who resurrected the career of a quarterback and changed the fortunes of a franchise, it becomes a story.
Stop me if you've heard this before, because in all likelihood you haven't.
No, this isn't about Bruce Arians and the 2014 Arizona Cardinals. Although it very well could be.
This season's edition of the Cardinals has started 5-1, the first time the franchise has reached that mark since 1976, when it was led by that no-nonsense, straight shooting, offensive minded Don Coryell.
"He was a player's coach," said Mel Gray, a wide receiver on that 1976 team. "He didn't lie to us, he told us what he wanted, and then explained it to us. His attitude toward us and winning and losing was, well, different."
Coryell and Arians have many similarities, but they've never been so obvious as now, with the Cardinals reaching heights not seen around this franchise since the "Cardiac Cards" were born.
When Coryell took over in 1973, the Cardinals were coming off back-to-back 4-9-1 seasons. His first season ended with the same record, leading fans of the franchise, then located in St. Louis, to think this first-time NFL head coach was like all the others.
Coryell became an NFL head coach when he was 49, a little younger than Arians was, but not a hot-shot up-and-comer, either.
By Year 2, Coryell had the Cardinals off to a 7-0 start, which led to a 10-4 record and the team's first playoff berth since it won the NFL Championship in 1948. A year later, the Cardinals went 11-3 during a season that included a six-game streak and ended with a second-straight playoff berth.
But it was 1976 that resonates most with this season's Cardinals.
That team won its first two, lost one, and then won its next three starting 5-1. This year's team won three, lost one, then won its next two.
"It was a big deal," Gray said. "I mean, golly, any time you can get a win in that division, that was awesome, playing against Washington and Dallas and the Giants and Philadelphia. Man. On the other hand, with Don Coryell, who turned everything around for us. I'm not going to say it was easy, but it was fun. It was fun."
The Cardinals had experienced success not seen since their days in Chicago, and it was all credited to Coryell, who brought a pass-first offense to St. Louis.
While he became famous for his passing game in San Diego, it began with the Cardinals. Gray remembered how Coryell would disguise offensive schemes -- like defenses do nowadays -- and the layers to his offense.
Gray likened the offense those years to an "arsenal."
It didn't take long for Coryell to earn his player's trust. They could sense something was changing, even if the wins weren't coming at first.
"I think that it happened right away," Hart said. "Just that he treated us like men. He didn't talk down to us. We had fun with him. He'd do silly things. I don't remember them specifically [but] he had a way of talking that was kinda silly.
"Guys nicknamed him Daffy Duck -- not to his face, obviously."
The year before Coryell arrived in St. Louis, Hart started three of the six games he played. Coryell was hired and told Hart he was the quarterback. His yards were on a steady climb from 1973 on, topping, under Coryell at least, at 2,946 in 1976.
Coryell knew who he wanted on his team.
When he was hired, very similarly to Hart, Coryell told Gray he was his starting receiver.
"I was overwhelmed," Gray said. "I said, 'Oh man.' I had to get my [stuff] together."
But that's what his players liked about Coryell. He was focused -- he was one of the first coaches to sleep in his office early in the week during the season -- but when he believed in his players, he was all-in.
And, to them, he was human.
He could have fun with them and they'd reciprocate.
On Saturday nights before games, Coryell would gather the Cardinals in a ballroom at a hotel for his pregame speech. There'd be an aisle splitting the team in two, but the toughest seats in the house were in the middle. Coryell liked his martinis, Hart said. After more than one or two and the team settled in for a long talk.
But Coryell would get animated. He'd walk up and down the aisle, slapping those Cardinals fortunate enough to be on the aisle seats on the back to make his points. The players listened -- and ducked.
Being treated like men went a long way with the Cardinals. They respected Coryell. Coryell respected them.
His approach isn't unlike Arians'. Both seemed to work. Both won.
"No sugar coating with him," Hart said of Coryell. "He was very honest. He just would never give up and would not allow us to give up."
"With Charles [Woodson], it is," Oakland Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck said. "He's getting better. There's not too many players that I can think of who get better at 38, but Charles has stayed young."
"I really think he's getting better in the past few years," Tuck said. "It's something else. He is so physically gifted and then he uses his brain to figure things out so well, too. It's just a special combination."
Woodson returned to Oakland -- which drafted him in 1998 -- in 2013 after seven seasons with the Green Bay Packers. The Raiders were hoping they were bringing back a former star who could be an inspirational leader at the end of his career. Woodson has been so much more.
He is getting better at the safety position, which he converted to from cornerback in 2012. Tuck said Woodson never stops working at his craft. They sit near each other on flights and Tuck said Woodson is always studying the game.
"He's gotten better at the safety position," Oakland defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said. "He's gotten better with his breaks, his angles, what we call 'eyes before feet,' because the further you are away from the ball, you find the angle with your eyes before your feet take you there. He's gotten better and better on that. The tipped pick last week was an example of that. He was a little deeper like he was supposed to be, maybe last year he was tighter, and now he gets the ball. He's gotten better ... It's amazing that he can get that much better."
In previous games this season, opposing defenses had settled on one personnel grouping that could handle most of what the Eagles tried to do. That was not the case last year, however, when the Eagles met the Arizona Cardinals.
The teams play each other again Sunday, and Kelly expects the Cardinals to be as varied in their defensive approach as they were in 2013.
The Eagles got out to a 24-7 lead early in the third quarter of that game. Nick Foles threw three touchdown passes to tight ends. After the third, to Brent Celek, the Cardinals shut out the Eagles the rest of the game. Arizona scored two touchdowns to get within 24-21, but were unable to close the gap.
While time of possession is not important to Kelly, that was one game where the Eagles held the ball nearly as long as their opponent: 29 minutes, 21 seconds compared to 30:39.
“We were just trying to work the clock a little bit more,” Kelly said. “So we were running the ball, and I think everybody in the stadium knew we were running the ball. So they went to some zero-blitz stuff and kind of crowded the line of scrimmage. But you're still working the clock. If you throw the ball in those situations and it's incomplete, you stop the clock.
“You're in that bleed-the-clock -- you're obviously trying to get first downs to stay on the field, but there's kind of a risk-reward situation if you say, ‘All right, now let's just throw the ball over the top.’ They are forcing you to throw it over the top -- if it's an incomplete pass, it stops the clock also.”
Kelly said it helps preparations when facing a team with the same coaching staff and offensive and defensive approaches. But quarterback Nick Foles said there wasn’t much benefit for him in facing the same defense he’s already played against.
“You go into each game as prepared as possible, whether you’ve played them or you haven’t,” Foles said. “Everybody switches up players from year to year, guys are injured. They might add different things. So maybe you’re used to seeing the jerseys a little bit more, but when it comes to playing each week, you try to treat it the same.”
The Cardinals are especially challenging because they change their defensive approach so much, even within the same game.
“Their scheme is somewhat unique in terms of getting in and out of fronts,” Kelly said. “They run a lot of different looks on the defensive side of the ball, so they can confuse you a little bit, but also they've got some really, really good football players on the defensive side of the ball.”
“That next day it was boom, boom, boom,” Fitzgerald said. “[When his passes] hit your hands, there was some zip and velocity on it, and we knew he was ready to roll.”
He’s been rolling ever since.
Palmer is preparing for his third game since returning from a five-week absence because of an axillary nerve contusion in his right throwing shoulder, and the 34-year-old feels like he’s back to full strength.
“I’m there,” Palmer said. “I’m there right now, and I’m actually able to lift in my upper body, which I wasn’t able to lift for, I think, five weeks, is what it was. Definitely had a lot of atrophies. Starting to get some strength back and starting to put on a little extra weight up top, which is good.
“You get sick of going into the weight room and not being able to do things. It was a month of that. It’s good to be back doing that stuff.”
Heading into Sunday’s game against Philadelphia, Palmer’s right shoulder is as close to its pre-injury state as it’s been since he suffered the injury on “Monday Night Football” in Week 1.
“It’s improved,” receiver John Brown said. “Seemed like the old Carson when we first started camp and everything. Carson’s looking real good.”
Brown, who spent time with Palmer in California this summer, knew Palmer was back when the quarterback sent the rookie on a deep route a couple weeks ago. Palmer let it fly about 50 to 60 yards, Brown said, and hit the speedster in stride.
To get his timing back with his receivers, Palmer put in extra time with them, receiver Michael Floyd said. It was “pretty tough” but they’re “making it work,” he added.
The past two weeks have been about getting back to a normal rhythm for Palmer.
“It’s just nice to practice and be able to study the night before and know what you’re putting in and then go out and test it in practice and kind of have some trial and error of different coverages, different plays,” Palmer said. “It’s nice to be psychologically prepared because you know you’ve done it in practice and you know you’ve repped those plays and had those looks.”
At this point, with the injury seven weeks old and his return about to be three games old, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians feels Arizona and Palmer can put the shoulder injury behind him.
“Knock on wood,” Arians said. “Hopefully, we don’t have to talk about that one anymore.”
Anyone looking for a good, old-fashioned running battle won’t have to look further than University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday.
The Arizona Cardinals' top-ranked rushing defense will have its hands full trying to corral Philadelphia Eagles running backs LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles. Can Arizona retain that No. 1 ranking after just a week?
Though the focus will be on the ground games, the matchup of 5-1 teams might be decided in the air. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles' penchant for interceptions will be countered by Arizona’s 31st-ranked pass defense.
Then there is the battle for the end zone. Arizona is allowing 19.8 points per game, and the Eagles are scoring 30.5 points per game, the third-highest clip in the league.
Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan discuss Sunday’s game.
Weinfuss: The start to Foles' season is dramatically different than a year ago. What is the biggest reason he has been prone to so many interceptions? How does he fix it?
Sheridan: This is the single most puzzling aspect of the Eagles' season so far. We all kind of suspected Foles wouldn’t throw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions again, as he did while leading the NFL in passer rating last season. I thought there was plenty of room for him to come back toward earth without crash landing too hard.
For Foles to have seven interceptions, and 10 turnovers altogether, is surprising. Even more stunning, he has done all that while going 5-1. It doesn’t seem possible, and it’s widely assumed Foles can’t keep this up. Sooner or later, those turnovers are going to lead to losses, so he has to find a way to turn it around.
There are several possible reasons for all this. The most disturbing for Eagles fans would be this is just the real Nick Foles. During his six-game stint as a starter in 2012, rookie Foles threw six touchdown passes and five picks. So 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions might just be a typical season, with 27 and two as the outlier.
But there are other variables. Foles’ quarterbacks coach last season, Bill Lazor, left to become offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins. That could be part of it, especially when you watch Foles’ throwing mechanics on some of those interceptions. There is also the offensive line situation. Though he hasn’t been sacked much, Foles has had to deal with pressure and a not completely secure pocket because of injuries along the line.
Ultimately, Foles has to get himself out of this. The interceptions have mostly resulted from the kind of ill-conceived throws that he never made last season. If he started making them, he can stop. At least that is what Eagles fans hope.
Asked about the Cardinals’ 31st-ranked pass defense, Eagles coach Chip Kelly said it was misleading. The Cards rank first against the run and are 5-1. That means teams are usually trailing late in games and forced to pile up empty passing yards against the Cards. Is that how it looks when you’re watching the team every week?
Weinfuss: That is exactly how it looks to me. It seems like Arizona’s defense swarms offenses in the second half, especially the fourth quarter, forcing them to abandon the run and start passing the ball more than they did in the first half. But that is actually not the case. Arizona is allowing eight fewer passing yards per game in the second half than in the first, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Teams are attempting more passes in the second half (115) than the first (110) with more than half of those coming in the fourth quarter. Arizona’s run defense has locked teams down in the fourth quarter, allowing just 16.5 yards per game, which is forcing teams to pass to catch up. Opposing quarterbacks have thrown 60 attempts against Arizona in the fourth quarter this season. Arizona is allowing just 10.5 dropbacks in the fourth quarter, compared to 11.5 in the second. As games go on, teams seem to start with the run in the first quarter and turn to the pass in the second quarter, and then the Cardinals’ defense begins to eliminate the running game in the second half, forcing teams to keep passing.
To show that, here’s a quick stat: Last weekend against Oakland, Arizona allowed just four rushing yards in the final 23:49.
How do you explain the Eagles' seven return touchdowns? Is it luck? An improved special-teams unit?
Sheridan: Probably a mixture. The Eagles did put some focus on signing good special-teams players in free agency. There weren’t any marquee acquisitions, but they did add Chris Maragos, Bryan Braman and Nolan Carroll. Those guys have been part of the improvement. So was the trade that brought Sproles from New Orleans.
And the Eagles' defense has been a work in progress since new coordinator Bill Davis switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base last season. That group has started making some big plays -- sacks, pressures that lead to turnovers, interceptions returned for touchdowns and so forth. Between the defense and special teams, the Eagles are getting plenty of big plays and even touchdowns from returns.
The Eagles beat the Cardinals last season when Arizona running back Andre Ellington didn’t play. How much of a difference-maker is Ellington, and is he likely to be active and effective with his sore ribs?
Weinfuss: First, I’ll address his ribs. They seem to be fine. There wasn’t structural damage to them after the Oakland game, and he returned to practice in a limited manner Wednesday.
As for how much of a difference-maker he is, he's a major reason the Cardinals are 5-1 -- maybe the biggest reason. He is dynamic out of the backfield as both a runner and a receiver. He is quick enough to break free for 80 yards but smart enough to get out of bounds or get down before taking a huge hit. But it’s his versatility that coach Bruce Arians loves. During the offseason, Arians said he wanted to give Ellington 25 to 30 touches per game -- a bit ambitious if you ask me -- but Ellington had exactly 30 on Sunday (24 carries and 6 catches) and was the workhorse for the offense. When Ellington is playing as well as he has been recently, despite a foot injury, he is the difference between wins and losses for Arizona.
How is this Eagles team still scoring 30 points a game and sitting at 5-1 when it has given the ball away 14 times?
Sheridan: The answer is twofold. Those return touchdowns have a lot to do with it. In San Francisco, the Eagles lost 26-21 without scoring a single point on offense. They had three return touchdowns. They got two more in their win against St. Louis the next week.
But the other part of the equation is Kelly's offensive approach. The Eagles are third in the NFL in offensive plays run per game. They would be even higher if they could avoid turnovers and sustain more long drives. But Kelly's up-tempo offense is all about creating as many opportunities to score as possible. So even when they have a few turnovers or fizzle in the red zone a bit, they still score some points. Add the offensive production to all the return touchdowns and you get a deceptively high number on the scoreboard.
The Cardinals are sitting atop perhaps (on paper) the toughest division in the NFL this season. Is that just a temporary aberration, or are they capable of fending off Seattle and San Francisco?
Weinfuss: This is a tough question. It might look like an aberration -- or a typo, for that matter -- but I think the Cardinals can give Seattle and San Francisco fits this season. When they beat the 49ers in Week 3, San Francisco was reeling and missing a few key players because of injuries. One would expect Seattle and San Francisco to figure out their woes and get healthy for the meetings in the second half of the season, but the same could be said about the Cardinals. When this team puts together a total offensive game, it can be among the most potent in the league. It has already showed on occasion this season how tough it is to be slowed down. But the key to winning the West comes on defense. Against the run Arizona is fine, but making sure the secondary doesn’t give up big yardage to receivers could be the difference between another disappointing January and keeping the season going.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- In a piece for The MMQB, former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb wrote about the lasting impact of his concussions in the context of riding out a hurricane in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
His last concussion came during a preseason game with the Buffalo Bills in 2013. Kolb retired right after that hit.
"I suffered two more concussions and a very serious rib injury when I was with Arizona in 2012," he wrote.
The 30-year-old wrote that he suffered from ringing in his ears and sensitivity to light -- which would impact him during business meetings. He'd have to rush to put on sunglasses before the headaches and double visions started.
"But I can deal with those symptoms," Kolb wrote. "The short-term memory loss is more difficult. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m just busy with a very full schedule and that’s why I can’t remember everything, or if it’s a concussion symptom."
Kolb spent two seasons in Arizona and never played more than nine games in a year.
In other news...
Kent Somers of azcentral.com writes about the Brothers Acho facing each other.
Bob McManaman of azcentral.com writes about the defensive line being a unified force.
Craig Morgan of Fox Sports Arizona writes that Todd Bowles has checked all the boxes to be a head coach.
Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times writes about how the Cardinals are rebranding themselves.
Kyle Odegard of azcardinals.com writes about why the run defense is No. 1.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com writes about Larry Fitzgerald's touches this season.