The Opposite Sideline: Cardinals flying

Stu Courtney
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Each week, Press-Gazette Media will get the lowdown on the Green Bay Packers’ next opponent from a beat writer who covers that team.

Arizona Cardinals David Johnson runs against the New Orleans Saints during a September game.

The Arizona Cardinals got a big win while suffering a big loss last Sunday.

The Cardinals (12-2) crushed the Philadelphia Eagles 40-17 to clinch the NFC West. They became the first team in franchise history to notch 12 victories and won their eighth straight game for the first time since 1948.

But they also lost star safety Tyrann Mathieu to a torn ACL. The versatile Mathieu was a disruptive force who played all over the field, accumulating five interceptions (tied for the team lead) and 89 tackles (second to safety Deone Bucannon).

Under head coach Bruce Arians, the Cardinals’ offense has blossomed into perhaps the most dangerous in the NFL, averaging a league-leading 422.9 yards per game. Rookie sensation David Johnson rushed for 187 yards and three touchdowns against the Eagles in only his third game since replacing injured starter Chris Johnson.

Quarterback Carson Palmer has thrown for 4,277 yards, which trails only the Patriots’ Tom Brady (4,405) and the Chargers’ Philip Rivers (4,287). At age 35, Palmer has 32 TD passes and only nine interceptions for a passer rating of 106.7. He throws to an array of young speedsters complemented by crafty veteran Larry Fitzgerald.

We asked beat writer Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic to answer a few questions about what the Packers can expect Sunday when they visit the Cardinals:

The Cardinals got some bad injury news this week on safety Tyrann Mathieu. How big of a loss is it?

KS: “It’s a significant loss because he did so much for them. They list him as a safety, which he is in their base defense, but he plays nickel corner more than anything else. And he was having a really good season doing that. He can cover, he plays the run really well, especially for a guy who’s no more than 180 pounds. And he was an effective blitzer, too, so it’s a big loss. It does come at a position where they have some depth. Their secondary is really the strength of the team, so I think they can compensate for his loss.”

Who leads the Cardinals’ defense now and how will it attack Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense?

KS: “They’ve got Patrick Peterson at cornerback, and this has been his best season by far since he entered the league in 2011. He’s been really good and people aren’t testing him at all. They should get Rashad Johnson back at safety, he’s sort of the guy who controls everything at the back end, a really smart player.

“It’ll be interesting with Aaron Rodgers. The one weakness of the Cardinals is that it’s not a great pass-rush team. They don’t get a lot of sacks, they don’t have that elite outside rusher. They blitz a ton, they do hit the quarterback. So I think they’ll do what they usually do: You’ll see a lot of blitzes, a ton of man coverage and they’ll take their chances and rely on their secondary to make some plays.”

David Johnson had a monster game at Philadelphia. Where has he been all season?

KS: “He was injured in camp so his development was a little bit slow. They went out and got Chris Johnson, who played really well for the first couple months of the season. He was slowing down a little bit before he fractured his tibia, but they’ve been high on David Johnson all along. They just were kind of able to bring him along in situations and not beat him to death because they had Chris Johnson. But he has a chance to be special. He’s 6-1, 224, very powerful and has just deceptive speed. You can see sometimes defensive backs take angles on him and they just underestimate how fast he is. And he’s an excellent receiver. He went to Northern Iowa out of high school as a receiver and then just kind of grew out of the position. So they use him a lot out of the backfield. He’s got just about everything. He’s pretty decent at picking up the blitz, too.”

Has this been Carson Palmer’s best season, and what does he do best?

KS: “Yeah, no question. You could see this coming in the latter half of 2013 and then ’14 before he got hurt. He was playing really well. You could see in camp he was back all the way from the knee injury and he also spent time rehabbing his right shoulder. … He’s just so comfortable now in Arians’ system. He throws a great deep ball, very accurate, and they’ve got guys who can go get it. They have three guys – John Brown, Michael Floyd and J.J. Nelson – that they will throw deep to, and then you’ve got Larry Fitzgerald working the slot. With his hands and his size, he’s very dangerous. Palmer has been very accurate and he also has been moving around in the pocket very well. He’s not Aaron Rodgers running around, but he’s been very good at slipping and sliding in the pocket and creating some space and time for himself. There’s really not anything that he’s not doing well.”

We remember Larry Fitzgerald when he teamed with Kurt Warner to torment the Packers in the 2009 playoffs. Is he more of a possession receiver now?

KS: “Yeah, they rarely run him deep outside the numbers. He works the middle of the field, intermediate routes to the sidelines; they use him in the slot when they go to three receivers. It’s been an adjustment for him over the last three years but he’s been really good at it. He uses his size and he still has those great hands. He can still break it if you miss a tackle or two. … Statistically, he’s having his best season ever (99 catches, which ranks third in the league, for 1,131 yards) at age 32.”

What has been Bruce Arian’s impact on this team’s turnaround?

KS: “Just a tremendous confidence in himself and his scheme and that this is going to work. He’s very honest with players, he’s blunt, he coaches them hard, gets on them in practice. But he really has an ability to have a relationship with them, outside of that, so that guys aren’t offended by it. He repeats the mantra that he did with the Colts in 2012 when they went through all those injuries – next man up, etc. – and it’s a cliché and we’re all sick of hearing it, but the players seem to really buy it. The general manager, Steve Keim, should get a lot of credit, too. They’ve drafted better and he’s had really good luck in free agency, picking up older free agents on one-year deals; guys like Chris Johnson have been very productive. It’s the best management/coaching setup this franchise probably has ever had.

The Cardinals celebrated Sunday after clinching the NFC West title. Any chance of a letdown against the Packers?

KS: “I don’t think so because the first-round bye is on the line. Arians immediately was tamping down any excitement over winning the NFC West. They had hats and T-shirts on, but his comment was, ‘I’ve got a closet full of these. I’m looking for a hat with a lot more on it than this.’”

scourtney@pressgazettemedia.comand follow him on Twitter@Stucourt

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