Big opportunity for Cardinals in Big D

TEMPE, Ariz. — As Monday night’s game unfolded between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, you had to wonder how much the Cardinals were learning from all those effective Washington blitzes in a 20-17 Redskins win.

Was blitz-loving defensive coordinator Todd Bowles licking his lips over a bowl of popcorn. Was Calais Campbell taking notes? Was Texas native Alex Okafor practicing sack dances?

"Everything that’s on tape is on tape," coach Bruce Arians said. "You can’t take it back."

Turns out inside linebacker Larry Foote had an entirely different reaction.

"I wish Washington hadn’t done all that they did with the blitzes," Foote said. "They’re going to fix the problems and you knew coming in what we were going to do.

"We’re one week late."

Maybe so. Bowles insists there isn’t much to take from that game because the Cardinals run a different scheme.

Whether you believe him or not, there are bigger things for the Cardinals to worry about, starting with the NFL’s top-ranked running game, which features running back DeMarco Murray, but exists because an offensive line that harkens back to the Cowboys’ Super Bowl days of the 1990s.

"When you think back to (Troy) Aikman and (Emmitt) Smith and (Michael) Irvin, they had the best offensive line in football, bar none, but you never heard about them. You just heard about the three superstars," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "I think they’re going back to their roots."

The Cowboys have three first-round picks on their offensive line: right guard Zack Martin (2014), left tackle Tyron Smith (2011) and center Travis Frederick (2013). They are a big reason the Cowboys are off to a 6-2 start, and they are a big reason why Murray leads the NFL by a wide margin with 1,054 rushing yards (Arian Foster is second with 766).

CARDINALS (6-1) at COWBOYS (6-2)

When: 11 a.m. Sunday
Where: AT&T Stadium, Dallas
TV: FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews)
Radio: KTAR 98.7 FM (Dave Pasch, Ron Wolfley, Paul Calvisi)
Spanish radio: KVVA 107.1 FM (Gabrielle Trujillo, Rolandu Cantu)

INJURY REPORT

For the Cardinals, running back Stepfan Taylor (calf) is out. Safety Tony Jefferson (concussion) and tight end Troy Niklas (foot) are questionable. Linebacker Kenny Demens (knee), running back Andre Ellington (foot), cornerback Patrick Peterson (concussion), defensive end Calais Campbell (knee), receiver Michael Floyd (knee) and safety Rashad Johnson (knee) are probable.

For the Cowboys, QB Tony Romo (back) and tackle Doug Free (foot) are out. Guard Ronald Leary (groin) are questionable. Linebacker Rolando McClain (shoulder), defensive end Jack Crawford (calf), defensive end Anthony Spencer (knee/foot), CB Brandon Carr (hamstring), LB Bruce Carter (thigh/finger), defensive end Jeremy Mincey (ill) and T Jermey Parnell (chest) are probable.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

The top spot in the NFC. The winner will have it, the loser will fall back into a pack of teams fighting for home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. There’s also the national respect thing for the Cardinals. Most pundits believe Arizona is a good team. Few believe that with their personnel losses, they are a Super Bowl contender.

OUTLOOK

With linebacker Justin Durant (torn biceps) out for the season and Romo out with a back injury, the Cardinals have an opportunity to cap this remarkable first half of the season with an exclamation point. Call us crazy, but we think they will find a way to do it.

PREDICTION

Cardinals 24, Cowboys 23

"We felt like we solidified our offensive line when we drafted Zack Martin in the first round," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "We really felt like we could be the physical kind of football team that we want to be, and running the football is a big part of that. Certainly, DeMarco has benefitted a great deal."

The Cardinals are ranked third in the NFL against the run and Bowles has always emphasized stopping the run first to make teams one-dimensional. Given the Cardinals’ myriad personnel losses along the front seven, it’s a wonder they hadn’t allowed a team to rush for 100 yards before Philadelphia did it last week. 

Some of that success comes from effective blitzing that isn’t designed to rush the passer so much as it is to plug gaps and stop the running game. But it is also crucial to have an anchor at the point of attack.

"I know a lot of people say this is a passing league but if an offense gets the running game going it opens up the whole offense to running, passing and screens," Cardinals nose tackle Dan Williams said. "Just look at Denver with (running back) Ronnie Hillman. Once he gets in there and runs for a 100 yards (two of the last three weeks), the passing game just takes over."

Williams understands he will be a point of emphasis for the Dallas offensive line. 

"The life of a nose is hard," Williams said. "I’m just one piece of this defense and you never know how the game plan will shape up over the course of a week. At the same time, I’m pretty sure they’re looking at me and I know they’ve got a few plays where they do a double-play and come up the middle so we’ll see." 

Williams emphasized how vital it is to stop Murray — and how little success anybody has had doing it. Murray has rushed for at least 100 yards in all eight Dallas games, an NFL record to start a season. He’s also on a pace to set the NFL record for rushing yards in a season (2,105, Eric Dickerson).

"He has 1,000 yards in eight games!" Williams said. "He’s got numbers that people have at the end of the season!"

The Cardinals should benefit from another week of practice for defensive Calais Campbell, who is getting healthier and more accustomed to a brace after he suffered an MCL strain against the Broncos on Oct. 5. But in terms of motivation, it’s pretty easy for Arizona to get for this game. They’re playing at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, the crown jewel of NFL stadiums, and they’re in what is arguably the capital of American football, Dallas.

If that’s not enough, the winner of this game knows that it will have the NFC’s best record. Wouldn’t that be a feather in the over-achieving Cardinals’ cap at the midpoint of the season?

"To know that we can go on the road and beat a quality team like? That’s going to do big things for our confidence and our psyche," Foote said. "Our confidence would be spilling over."

The blitz: As we noted, the Cardinals likely learned a lot from watching the game tape of Washington’s win over the Cowboys on Monday night. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles likes to bring the house anyway, and he’s had to with s many personnel losses in the front seven. What wrinkles will he have in store for ailing QB Tony Romo?

The turnovers: You want to know the biggest reason the Cardinals are winning despite all the personnel losses and the inconsistency of the offense? Turnovers, or lack thereof. Arizona has turned the ball over just five times (four fumbles, one interception) and has a turnover margin of plus-9. That’s the second best mark in the league to New England’s plus-11. Dallas is even with 13 turnovers ad 13 takeaways. As always, that stat will play a major role in the outcome of this game.

Brandon Weeden: Cowboys QB Tony Romo was officially ruled out wth a back injury early Sunday, leaving the game in Weeden’s hands. Weeden was Cleveland’s first-round pick in 2012 and has 20 NFL starts under his belt, but clearly there is a drop-off here. Weeden has completed just 55.9 percet of his passes in his career with 24 TDs and 26 interceptions. What will Bowles do?The Cardinals haven’t been effective at sacking the quarterback this season (seven sacks), but pressure and disguised coverages could force Weeden into critical turnovers.

— Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was the Cowboys secondary coach from 2005-07.

— The Cardinals have won the last three meetings with the Cowboys, but all of those were played in Arizona. The cardinals have a 9-32 record all-time in Dallas, but this is their first trip to AT&T Stadium.

— Arizona has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 17 straight games. Dallas running back DeMarco Murray has opened the season with eight straight 100-plus yard rushing games.