A glance at five top storylines for Sunday’s Cardinals-Texans game at University of Phoenix Stadium:
- Slowing Watt and Mr. Smith
Pass protection has been an issue with the Cardinals all season. Carson Palmer is a better quarterback when he has a clean pocket. The Cards are still looking to improve in that area, but what is sitting there waiting post-bye? The No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL, the top pass defense and two impressive pass rushers in J.J. Watt and former Cardinal Antonio Smith. The Cardinals found their run game against Atlanta and need to keep that balance to help keep Palmer upright (although Watt is outstanding against the run too), but in the end, they will need to pass some. Can they give pause to Watt and Smith?
- Plug-in runners
Star running back Arian Foster isn’t going to play for the Texans in all likelihood with his bad back. Houston’s No. 2 runner, Ben Tate, is very good in his own right. But he is playing with four broken ribs that you could see against the Colts were still bothering him. The Texans’ offense is based on play-action, zone-blocking and running the football. Even if undrafted Dennis Johnson has to play, the Cards are still wary. “I don’t think they are affected (by injuries) because of their scheme,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “It’s like the old Denver Broncos, if they put anybody back there that can run, with their offensive line, they are effective.”
- A healthy Fitz
Larry Fitzgerald was not on the injury report this week. Since he pulled a hamstring in practice before the second game, this was only the second week he hasn’t been on the report (he wasn’t on it the week before the Panthers’ game, before he tweaked the hamstring in his other leg.) Fitz said he is feeling fine. He’s had two weeks off. That’s important. The Cardinals need Fitzgerald, and in reality, Fitzgerald needs to be Fitzgerald. The injury has to be taken out of the equation so he can show what he remains capable of. Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said the Cards will need Fitz down the stretch. That’s true. They also need him to stay off the injury report.
- Ellington’s encore
Rookie running back Andre Ellington has had one NFL start. It translated into 154 yards rushing. Houston presents a much different (and much better) rushing defense than the one the Falcons brought to town, but Ellington has shown how dynamic he can be. Coach Bruce Arians said he wants to get Ellington to around 20 touches a game, and even with Rashard Mendenhall slated to return (and perhaps start) I expect the Cards to understand the weapon they have with Ellington and use him as such the rest of the way.
- P-Twice vs. Dre
Texans receiver Andre Johnson has had a good season, in part because of his Sunday night explosion last week in which he torched the Colts for nine catches, 229 yards and three touchdowns. Johnson isn’t the same physically as he once was – he came into the league in 2003, a year before Fitzgerald – but he can still be beastly. The Colts, however, do not have a cover man like Patrick Peterson, who is quietly having a superb season. Peterson hasn’t allowed a touchdown catch since Jimmy Graham got one on him in New Orleans back in Week 3, and teams often don’t throw against him. I’d expect young Case Keenum to do so this weekend, trusting in his wily veteran receiver. I’d expect Peterson to get some chances to make a play or two.