Budda Baker returned to practice on Friday morning, and it seems unlikely a groin injury will keep the Pro Bowl safety off the field Sunday.
If he does play as expected, the secondary will be in rare full form against the Bills, as the starting defensive back quintet of Baker, Patrick Peterson, Jalen Thompson, Byron Murphy Jr. and Dre Kirkpatrick has been together for a grand total of only two snaps this season.
Thompson, the second-year safety, hurt his ankle almost immediately in Week 1 against the 49ers and didn't return until Sunday against the Dolphins. The Cardinals had their safeties against Miami, but Murphy (COVID-19) and Kirkpatrick (thigh) were sidelined.
Baker also missed a game with a thumb injury earlier this year – and projected No. 2 cornerback Robert Alford suffered a season-ending injury in training camp -- so it's no surprise that defensive coordinator Vance Joseph is relishing the thought of a full-strength group in Week 10.
"It means a lot," said Joseph, who also expects to have the services of recently-signed veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph. "If you're going to play defense in this league these days, that secondary has got to be on point. Not just making plays from a physical perspective, but being on the same page from a mental perspective. That's the biggest thing we're stressing. Great communication first, and then we can make plays on the ball."
Baker has solidified himself as one of the best defensive players in the NFL. Thompson, a fifth-round supplemental pick in 2019, had an encouraging rookie season and was Pro Football Focus' highest-graded player on the Cardinals’ defense Sunday in his first full game of the year.
While the long-term cornerback situation is a little fuzzy with Peterson and Kirkpatrick on expiring contracts, the Cardinals seem to be in great shape at safety with Baker and Thompson.
"I feel like we can be the best safeties in the league," Thompson said. "Obviously I need to get a little bit more work. He needs to get a little bit more work, too, we both do, but I feel like overall we can be the best two safeties in the league. It's going to take a lot of work and a lot of studying, a lot of film work, and just grinding every day."
KENYAN DRAKE A GAME-DAY DECISION
Running back Kenyan Drake (ankle) practiced each day this week in a limited capacity, but it's uncertain if he will play against Buffalo. He missed last week's game against the Dolphins after suffering the injury in Week 7 against the Seahawks.
"We want to make sure he feels good pregame and can do what he does best," coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "If not, he won't go."
Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (hamstring), guard Justin Murray (hand) and defensive tackle Leki Fotu (ankle) won't play against Buffalo. Baker, Drake, Kirkpatrick, safety Deionte Thompson (knee) and tight end Maxx Williams (ankle) are listed as questionable.
Guard J.R. Sweezy (elbow) and defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence (calf) are on injured reserve but returned to practice this week.
For the Bills, guard Cody Ford (ankle) and safety Micah Hyde (ankle) are questionable. Running back Taiwan Jones (hamstring) and linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips (quad) are out. Cornerback Josh Norman (hamstring) will play after missing the past three games.
CARDINALS DON'T CARE WHERE RUSHING PRODUCTION COMES FROM
There has been less balance in the rushing game this season, as quarterback Kyler Murray has done the heavy lifting behind his league-leading 7.1 yards per carry. In 2019, Murray, Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds all averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry.
Center Mason Cole is hoping to pave better lanes for the running backs in the second half of the season but isn't going to quibble much with a rushing attack on pace to set a franchise-record at 5.2 yards per attempt.
"It's something we're working on, and we want to get better, but in saying that, it's a big difference when in almost every run play Kyler has the option to pull it," Cole said. "Half the time or whatever it is, Kyler's pulling it and he's rushing for 50, 60, 70, 100 yards per game. It doesn't matter how we get it. We want the running backs to pound the ball, but if we're rushing for 170 yards a game, whether it be Kyler or Kenyan or Chase, those yards add up big-time, no matter who it is."
Images from practice at the Dignity Health Training Center, presented by Hyundai.