Okay, so the Arizona Cardinals are back on the proverbial track. The loss on Thursday Night Football was followed up by a summary smacking of the San Francisco 49ers behind big performances from the relief crew. So, 8-1. Next up, a familiar foe: the Carolina Panthers. Heading in, the Cardinals have lost five straight to the Panthers, a streak stretching back to 2013. The sting of that NFC Championship Game in 2015, the last time Arizona reached the playoffs, still looms around the fixture for Cardinals fans. Yet, this isn’t that Cam Newton team anymore; are they still a team the Cardinals should be wary of?
Now, this is absolutely a year for the Cardinals to buck some trends. They’ve swept the Niners and finally got a win against Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams. Beating the Panthers seems to be well and truly on the cards, not least because Carolina currently sits at a paltry 4-4. Coming off a dreadful loss to the New England Patriots, the Panthers may seem like a free lunch, but the Cardinals cannot afford the luxury of that thought. A sneaky-good defense and a wildcard at quarterback await the Cardinals on Sunday as they welcome a recent nemesis to the desert.
Cardinals Should Be Wary of Panthers Defense
Sam Darnold Is Making Them Look Bad
Carolina’s loss to the Patriots was nothing short of horrendous. Even just on paper, the Panthers got molly-whopped. Strange thing is, it was not even Mac Jones that handed out the beating. Sure, New England’s defense had a bit of day, but it was Agent Saboteur Sam Darnold that ultimately decided the game. The former New York Jets star seemed to be on the comeback trail after starting well with the Panthers, but has tailed off significantly in recent weeks. The Panthers picked up Stephon Gilmore from New England this season, but apparently, Darnold thought J.C. Jackson was the new Patriot-turned-Panther. Jackson picked off Darnold twice, including once in the endzone, and contributed to what was an overall dismal day for Carolina’s offense.
The final score of 24-6 is one-sided, to say the least. Yet it also does a real disservice to Carolina’s defense. A top-10 group this season, they spent a lot of time on the field against the Patriots. With Darnold giving the ball away and offering New England field position, Carolina’s defense struggled to contain an underwhelming Patriots offense. They put up 24 with a squad lacking much offensive firepower, and it was a rough outing for Carolina.
Darnold’s performances leave Arizona in a unique situation, wherein they’d probably rather line up against the starting quarterback than the backup. It’s even weirder that it’s happened twice this year, with Trey Lance and the Niners, but whatever. Darnold won’t play after being ruled out with a shoulder injury. Instead, former XFL star P.J. Walker will get the start. Albeit a more dynamic dual-threat, there’s a reason Walker isn’t the starter, but he’d have to play pretty poorly to cost the team like Darnold did in Week 9.
Inside Game Will Beat Carolina’s Edge Stars
Carolina’s young pass-rushing duo have earned plaudits this year, and for good reason. Brian Burns and Haason Reddick have 14 sacks between them, and have been a focal point of Carolina’s defensive success this season. Predicated on speed off the edge, their athleticism makes them a threat to shut down plays early. Their physical talents in space should give Kyler Murray some questions before he peels out of the pocket. They can run, tackle, and get after the quarterback. Reddick in particular has been noticeable, and will play in his first return to the desert since leaving the team that drafted him, adding another level of intrigue to the game.
Thankfully, these are not quite All-Pro players just yet. The Cardinals should be wary of them, but they not absolute game changers right now. They do not take plays off, but they are definitely more effective on some plays than others. It also does not help that much of Carolina’s pressure up front has to come from them; Carolina’s interior is not great. Carolina’s linemen run a tonne of wide formations designed to free up opportunities for the stars on the edge. However, structurally, and from a personnel sense, they’re vulnerable to a decent inside running game. Their top 10 defense ranks only 19th against the run, and with James Conner set to come in as RB1 after starring against the Niners, the Cardinals are well-poised to run over the Panthers.
Cardinals Should Be Wary of Stephon Gilmore
Running the ball might be key here, but this is still a Kliff Kingsbury team; the Cardinals are going to be throwing the ball all over the place. The trick for Murray, or Colt McCoy, in this game will be to simply avoid Stephon Gilmore as much as possible. The former DPOY was heavily linked with Arizona, and it’s easy to see why the Cardinals had interest. His phenomenal coverage skills complement his natural ability to create turnovers; he’s played for the Panthers twice and has come out of each game with an interception. Gilmore a new face, but he might just be Carolina’s best defensive player.
If Jaycee Horn had not gone down, the Cardinals might have had some issues. However, the Panthers don’t match up across the board with Arizona’s depth at receiver. The expectation is, as with most top corners, that Gilmore will travel with DeAndre Hopkins, which is more than fine; the Cardinals have the talent to exploit other matchups. The Cardinals just have to keep the ball away from Gilmore, but fortunately, Arizona’s extensive armory should present a wealth of other options. The Panthers may be 4-4, but this is likely the best 4-4 defense in the NFL. The Cardinals should be wary of this in Sunday’s clash.