The honeymoon is over for the Cardinals’ new coaching staff, and already, the marriage needs work.
Coach Steve Wilks was crystal clear this week: After a 1-5 start, jobs will be on the line if the Cardinals’ results don’t improve. A national television audience will peer in Thursday night to see if the Cardinals can cure their ills against the Broncos.
“We want to get a win,” guard Justin Pugh said. “Bad.”
Even though this is a matchup of two under-.500 teams, there are plenty of subplots. Denver (2-4) has lost four in a row and is feeling similar heat, as General Manager John Elway told DenverBroncos.com the team is “fighting for our lives” against the Cardinals.
Outside linebacker Von Miller responded with some bluster, confidently exclaiming to reporters that the Broncos would “kick their ass.” The Cardinals parried the verbal assault, but if either team gets its rear end whooped, another barrage of questions will be forthcoming.
“I think both teams are desperate to get a win,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “I know we are. It all comes down to that – who is more desperate? If both teams are desperate, who plays the best football? Who takes the game plan, executes the game plan and makes the most plays? That’s what wins football games. I think both teams will show up desperate, so I’m expecting a hard-hitting, fast-paced football game on Thursday night.”
There will be a lot of attention on the Cardinals’ offense as it attempts to wake from a season-long slumber. It found some success late last week against the Vikings with a no-huddle approach, which pleased Wilks as he searches for answers.
“It was very effective for us,” Wilks said. “It’s something that we’ve got to definitely consider. It’s part of (rookie quarterback Josh Rosen’s) comfort zone, based off college and the things he did back there.”
Wilks likes the idea of incorporating more concepts from Rosen’s days at UCLA. That could lead to an uptick in run-pass options, which, for an immobile quarterback like Rosen, means pulling the ball back and throwing it on zone-read play calls.
“You’re just basically shifting the read from a defensive end with a run-to-pull read to a linebacker with a run-to-pass read,” Rosen said. “That’s what I was raised on.”
The Cardinals would love to make life easy on Rosen by running the ball effectively. David Johnson was held in check again last week by the Vikings – he had 18 carries for 55 yards and a touchdown – but the Broncos have allowed the Jets’ Isaiah Crowell and the Rams’ Todd Gurley to each surpass 200 rushing yards the past two weeks.
The Cardinals’ defense had its bright spots in last week’s loss to the Vikings -- forcing two turnovers, scoring a touchdown and pressuring quarterback Kirk Cousins consistently -- but those were overshadowed by a poor run defense. Defensive tackle Corey Peters wondered aloud afterward about the players’ effort, and Wilks hinted at possible changes in the front seven.
“I’ve got to put the guys out there that are going to do the things that we ask them to do,” Wilks said. “Regardless of status, draft pick or whoever, if you’re not doing the things that we ask you to do, you can’t be out there on the field.”
Both the Cardinals and Broncos are dealing with key injuries. The Cardinals will be without guard Mike Iupati (back) and safety Tre Boston (shoulder/ribs) while Pugh hopes to play with a cast on his left hand. The Broncos won’t have starting linemen Jared Veldheer (knee) and Ronald Leary (Achilles) or pass-rusher Shane Ray (ankle/wrist).
For those who will suit up, the recuperation period is only three days instead of the usual six. There are plenty of hurdles to overcome, both physical and mental, for the Cardinals, and the players must dig deep to avoid making Miller’s taunt become prophetic.
“If we want to turn it around, it’s going to start with us,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “I’ll continue preaching the message that we want to trust the process, but also look the man in the mirror and see what you can do better to help this football team.”
Images of key players for Thursday night's opponent, the Denver Broncos