Five things to watch for Sunday when the Cardinals play the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta:
A defense growing more stingy
The loss to the Lions was disheartening to be sure, against a struggling team and coming off a win in Green Bay. But the Cardinals’ defense played pretty well yet again. Matthew Stafford had a mere 101 yards passing, and while you cannot overlook the 75-yard-mostly-on-the-ground Lions’ drive for the back-breaking touchdown in the fourth quarter, the Cards’ D allowed only 10 points – they were good enough to have won much of the time. That’s after a week in which they gave Aaron Rodgers fits on the frozen tundra. Now they get yet another struggling offense, where Matt Ryan and the Falcons have lost much of their running production (the Falcons have the worst rushing attack in the league, with the Cardinals 31st) and much of their offensive mojo. Coach Steve Wilks certainly knows the Falcons well from his time as a Panthers’ defensive coach. Can his unit make it three good outings in a row?
A Rosen in any other game …
Week to week, Josh Rosen has a chance to improve. There are plays where he does, and plays when it is hard to tell. The rookie quarterback says it’s for others to analyze exactly how much progress he is making, but as the weeks go on, that progress remains the first, second and third top story surrounding this team. Nothing else comes close. Wilks made it clear this week there was no reason to sit Rosen – the question raised ostensibly for his own protection – and that he needs the reps in these final three games. Wilks is correct. How many strides Rosen can make in an offense held together with duct tape can be debated, but they will be game reps than can’t be replicated in the offseason and really should serve him well next season.
Pat P vs. Julio
Back in 2014, the Falcons beat the Cardinals and Julio Jones had a great game – at the expense of Patrick Peterson. Peterson took ownership that day after Jones had 189 yards, but he has made sure it hasn’t happened again. (The next time the teams played, Jones had only 35 yards). Pro Football Focus has Peterson having not given up 80 yards receiving in a game since that day. In a year in which both teams Sunday have fallen far short of what they expected, the Pro Bowl cornerback and the Pro Bowl wide receiver remain at the top of their respective games. Watching the two of them match up Sunday will be one of the more interesting parts of the game.
Catch as catch can
The Cardinals found out, painfully, that the loss of Christian Kirk was going have a major impact. Now that the offense has seen it play out in real time during a game, the question becomes who can be that guy to help at receiver? There has been a lot of chatter about targeting Larry Fitzgerald more often, and that is possible. But the Falcons know this too, and they would rather see if Trent Sherfield or Jalen Tolliver or J.J. Nelson would be the one to beat them rather than Fitzgerald.
The impact of draft position
While tanking and/or losing for draft position remains mostly a myth in the NFL – in a league full of no-guaranteed contracts, quick triggers on coaches and a draft in which one player can rarely change a franchise – it is noteworthy that while the Cardinals struggled at 3-10 and currently sit among the top three in the draft order, the Falcons’ season has tumbled so that with their four wins, they currently sit fourth. That really has little impact on the game itself, but the result will have an impact on how that will/can shake out the rest of the season. One small note – because the weakness of a team’s strength of schedule matters in draft tiebreaks, the Cardinals actually help that part of their draft situation by beating the Falcons. Of course, beating the Falcons also moves the Cards down the draft order too.