When the Cardinals opened the season against the Titans, the concern – understandably – was how the defense was going to be able to hold up against the league's top running back, Derrick Henry.
The Cards ended up mucking up Henry's 2021 debut, holding him to 58 yards in a 38-13 victory in Tennessee.
As the Cardinals enter what has become a crucial game Christmas night against the Colts, the concern – understandably – is how the defense is going to hold up against the league's top running back, Jonathan Taylor.
"We've played a bunch of good running teams all year. It won't be any different Christmas night," defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. "When he's playing good, they win. That's our first issue to deal with."
To say Taylor is playing well is an understatement. He won't win MVP, because as good as he's been, running backs don't carry that value anymore. But he's a huge reason why the Colts (8-6) have a chance at the postseason.
Once Henry went down with serious foot injury, Taylor took up the mantle of best back in the league. He has gained 1,518 yards on a league-high 270 carries – Taylor told Indianapolis reporters Wednesday his body feels good despite all the work, although it's notable the Colts last played last Thursday – for an incredible 5.6 yards a carry. He has 17 touchdowns rushing and another two receiving (on 36 catches for 336 yards.)
Barring an injury, Taylor will lead the league in rushing, although he shrugs that off compared to getting a Super Bowl win.
"There have been guys that have won the rushing title before and not won a Super Bowl, so with that being my ultimate end goal, I knew that wouldn't be that big of a factor," Taylor said Wednesday. "Of course, if you win the rushing title it means you're doing a good job running the ball which could ultimately lead to that end goal."
The Cardinals need to put a dent in both those things for Taylor, mostly for the Cards' own goals.
The Cardinals are hurting inside the defensive line. J.J. Watt is trying to come back but he's on IR, and Jordan Phillips is expected to be down too. The Cards are already 28th in the NFL in giving up 4.6 yards per carry between the tackles, and give up at least 10 yards runs up the middle 14 percent of the time – last in the NFL.
Tight end Zach Ertz noted that the Cardinals are built to have their defense play with a lead, and that's a big reason – knowing teams that are trailing usually have to resort to the pass.
"(The run defense) is going to be continued to be talked about until we stop it," defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence said. "We've had spurts of shutting down running backs. You go back to Week 1 against Derrick Henry, (and) a good Cleveland rushing attack. But in this league each week teams are going to exploit your weaknesses and right now, that's one of our weaknesses. We have to continue to make it dark for running backs each and every game."
The Colts are a certain amount of old school, Joseph acknowledged. "It's Tennessee. It's a direct running game. They block and they run, and they block and they run."
Even without much room, the offensive line is good enough to clear space for Taylor to fall ahead for three or four yards. Four straight plays like that is a first down.
"Stopping the run is going to be at a premium," Joseph said.
It doesn't stop with Taylor and the Colts. Next week, the Cowboys await in Dallas with Zeke Elliott and Tony Pollard.
"I know we can handle it," defensive tackle Corey Peters said. "I think (defending the run) has been an inconsistent thing for us this season.
"It's going to be a great challenge for us."