For this week’s Getting to Know segment, we turned to Kent Somers, the excellent beat guy for the Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. He has covered the Cardinals and the NFL since the mid-1990s and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s board of selectors.
MC: It isn’t often in an NFL game when one team looks like it has no shot of winning. The short week, the travel and facing Arizona’s offense without four starting defenders — nose tackle Linval Joseph, linebacker Anthony Barr and safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo – looks like an impossible assignment for a Vikings team that couldn’t compete with Seattle at home on Sunday. What injuries and issues are the Cardinals dealing with as they prepare to face the Vikings?
KS: “The Cardinals also have an injury issue on defense but it’s not as severe as the Vikings’. Tackle Frostee Rucker will miss a third consecutive game with an ankle sprain. He is a very good player. Cornerback Jerraud Powers (calf) will miss a second consecutive game. Justin Bethel has replaced him and he played well last week (targeted 10 times, two completions). He’s the starter of the future at that spot, but this team isn’t deep at cornerback. If another one goes down, they are in trouble. Tackle Corey Redding (ankle) might not play (he’s questionable). He’s a solid rotational player.
“On offense, the Cardinals are without running back Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington. But they are deep at the position. Rookie David Johnson is powerful (224 pounds) and fast. He has fumbled four times this year but lost only one. Kerwynn Williams was promoted from the practice squad a week ago. He played last year, so he’s a decent backup.”
MC: Most of us knew Carson Palmer was pretty good. Few of us could have imagined him being MVP-caliber good. His sacks are low, his top receiver is elite and everything appears to be perfect on an offense that’s leading the league in yards (419.5) and points (31.8). What are a few of the reasons that Palmer has been so exceptional in this particular offense?
KS: “It took Palmer a while to learn Bruce Arians’ offense, which puts a ton on the quarterback’s shoulders. He came back from the torn ACL in better shape than ever, and he was in good shape before. While rehabbing the knee, he also worked on strengthening his right shoulder. His arm is noticeably stronger. He works really hard on the mental side of the game, studies video like crazy and has fallen in love with the virtual reality technology the team bought for this season. He’s also worked with his top receivers for at least two years now. Rarely has there been a breakdown between what Palmer expects an what a receiver runs.”
MC: The offense has been so good that people overlook the fact Arizona is fourth in yards allowed (316.8) and tied for fourth in points allowed (19.3). The Cardinals also are giving up only 89 yards rushing per game, also good for No. 4 in the league. How do you see this defense matching up with the Vikings, particularly the running game, which fell from first to fifth in rushing after gaining only 31 yards against Seattle?
KS: “The Cardinals have had some letdowns this year, but not many. In their first game against St. Louis, Todd Gurley rushed for 146 yards, all but two coming in the second half. The Cardinals are fast on defense, and they get by with playing 211-pound Deone Bucannon, drafted as a safety, at inside linebacker. He’s tough and fast. Their safeties provide excellent run support, especially Tony Jefferson. Their philosophy is to devote every resource necessary to stopping the run. If teams have to pass, the Cardinals like the matchup of their secondary against any other team’s receivers.”
MC: Like Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, Bruce Arians had to wait longer than he should have to get a head coaching opportunity. What would you say are some of the key strengths that have made Arians so successful?
KS: “He’s bluntly honest. He plays no games with players. He’s able to be critical of them on the field and still have a good relationship off of it. As he tells it, he can basically say to guys, “I like you. You’re a good guy. It’s your football that stinks.” The players get a kick out of him because he’s confident and definitely has a swagger. In addition, he has a keen offensive mind. He’s a daring play caller with a thick play book.”
MC: Twin Cities native Larry Fitzgerald Jr. is on pace for 121 catches for 1,396 yards and nine touchdowns. The catches would be a career high for him. Is he, at 32, having his best season and, if so, what are some of the keys to his success at this age and in this particular season?
KS: “This definitely has been among his best seasons. It’s the first time since 2011 that he’s had more than 1,000 yards.
Fitz has really taken care of himself over the years, eaten right, says he’s in bed by 9 every night, etc. He and Palmer really started to click before Palmer’s ACL injury a year ago. In the last five or six games together that year, Fitzgerald averaged about six receptions and 80 yards. So this is really a continuation of 2014.
“Fitzgerald has adapted well to playing in the slot. Rarely does he run the nine routes down the sidelines any more. He misses that. For Arians, he’s playing the role Hines Ward did in Pittsburgh and Reggie Wayne did in Indianapolis in 2012. Fitz is a matchup problem in the slot. He’s so big that he breaks tackles and we all know how good his hands are. He’s been a tremendous blocker, something I never dreamed he would be. They use him a lot on linebackers, defensive ends and safeties in the run game. He hates being known as a good blocker, but he is.”