It was practically an annual ritual.
The Cardinals and Falcons have faced off five times in the past seven years, which meant plenty of titanic battles between one of the game’s best receivers, Julio Jones, and one of its best cornerbacks, Patrick Peterson.
On Thursdays leading up to those contests, the Arizona media horde would sidle up to Peterson’s locker to discuss the upcoming showdown and battles of games past.
This year, there was no Peterson to be found.
While Jones and the Falcons come to State Farm Stadium on Sunday, Peterson will be serving the last of his six-game suspension. It robs the viewing public of a marquee matchup, and more concerning for the Cardinals, the absence of Peterson as Jones’ shadow means an all-too-real risk of getting lit up.
“Any time you’re trying to stop him, no matter who you have, it’s going to be a tall task,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “He’s phenomenal. I’ve always watched him from afar, but watching it on tape and really studying him, he’s an absolute freak.”
Jones – who missed practice Wednesday with a hip injury -- has 26 catches for 359 yards and four touchdowns in 2019 and is one of the most prolific receivers in NFL history, averaging more than 100 receiving yards per game in five of his first eight seasons.
“There’s nobody like Julio in the game,” said fellow future Hall of Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. “He’s a mutant, a superhero.”
The Cardinals are without not only Peterson, but fellow projected starter Robert Alford, who is still recovering from a broken leg suffered in training camp. Tramaine Brock has a shoulder injury but seems on track to play, while rookie Byron Murphy and preseason waiver claim Kevin Peterson could also match up with Jones.
“This game is going to be a lot for us, knowing that their offense is going to come in and attack our defense,” Murphy said. “But I feel like if we can get this one down, we can keep this thing rolling, obviously gaining Pat P back (afterward).”
The Cardinals’ pass defense had easily its best performance of the season through three-and-a-half quarters Sunday against the Bengals, but folded late, allowing a pair of Andy Dalton touchdown passes.
Dalton finished with a passer rating of 102.8, the fifth quarterback in five weeks with a rating above 100 against the Cardinals. The defense has allowed 12 passing touchdowns and has yet to get an interception.
The Cardinals are the only team in the league without a pick, which has rankled defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, but he is cautioning his players not to press.
“Interceptions come in bunches, but you can’t cheat,” Joseph said. “You can’t bust the scheme to make plays on the ball. We’ve had our chances and we haven’t made those plays. Hopefully, as we go along and as we rush the passer better, we’ll have more chances at balls being tipped, overthrown, thrown behind receivers.”
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is a former MVP, and if the Cardinals choose to bracket Jones, he has other options in wide receiver Calvin Ridley, tight end Austin Hooper and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu.
Ryan is averaging 331 passing yards per game and completing 70.3 percent of his passes, but has thrown seven interceptions to go along with his 11 touchdowns.
“Schematically they do some really good things,” Kingsbury said. “They challenge you in every way. They stretch the field and can hurt you underneath.”
The Cardinals know Peterson will be back in Week 7 against the Giants, which will take some pressure off everyone else in the secondary, but that’s still a game away.
“We’d love to have him back against Julio this weekend,” Fitzgerald said. “That (would have been) nice.”
Images from practice at the Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center