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Once Again, Cardinals Must Focus Against Premier Run Game

Last time Panthers came to State Farm Stadium, McCaffery ran for 153

The Cardinals gang-tackle a 49ers ballcarrier during last week's game.
The Cardinals gang-tackle a 49ers ballcarrier during last week's game.

The Cardinals' run defense has had impressive moments this season.

They shut down Cleveland's rushing attack, which ranks No.1 in the NFL, in Week 6. And they are fresh off holding San Francisco last week to just 39 rushing yards, the fewest it has allowed in a game this season.

With the Panthers (4-5) coming to State Farm Stadium on Sunday, the defense aims to have similar success against All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey.

McCaffrey last faced the Cardinals' defense in 2019 and piled up nearly 200 yards from scrimmage. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph was year one into his position as head coach of the defense when McCaffrey had a field day.

"He's tough to tackle and makes little plays that lead to touchdowns," Joseph said. "He's a guy who can hurt you in the run and pass game, on every down. It's going to be a challenge to stop him."

Their defense is dramatically better than the unit McCaffrey faced two seasons ago, ranking fourth in total yards allowed and third in points allowed.

Through nine games, however, the Cardinals are surrendering 111.1 rushing yards per game.

The Cardinals have seen their share of Pro Bowl running back talent this season. They shut down Tennessee's Derrick Henry in the season-opener; the only time this season the rusher had less than 60 rushing yards. Minnesota's Dalvin Cook had better success, rushing for 131 yards.

For the Cardinals to improve to 9-1 (which would tie a franchise record through 10 games), a significant factor hinges on their defense being Henry-like instead of Cook-like against McCaffrey.

Given the Panthers' quarterback situation, coach Matt Rhule will likely lean on McCaffrey offensively to generate points and upset the team with the NFL's best record.

"He's big-time back," linebacker Markus Golden said. "He's proved that since he entered the league. He's different because he can run the ball between the tackles, break a big run, and catch the ball out the backfield. We'll have to stop him for sure."

Quarterback P.J. Walker will make his second NFL start after Sam Darnold landed on injured reserve this week. Recently signed quarterback Cam Newton has not officially been ruled out of playing Sunday, needing time to learn the playbook, but the signal-caller could be featured in certain packages.

Walker completed 21.4 percent (3 of 14) of his passes for 33 yards in his most recent action against the Giants in October. The quarterback also has one touchdown and five interceptions in his NFL career. Despite what the numbers show, coach Kliff Kingsbury does not view Walker as an afterthought.

"Going up against a backup quarterback is always a challenge," Kingsbury said. "We scouted P.J. coming out of the XFL, and he was playing at a high level; I think he was the MVP of that league. We liked him and even tried to get him here at some point.

"He's a smart player, gets the ball out quick and to the right spot. He's athletic and can move around and make plays. Anytime you have a new quarterback coming in, it's a challenge for the defense."