Arizona Cardinals: Defense, Pass-Rush Must Lead vs Vikings

For the Arizona Cardinals to get above .500 and beat the Minnesota Vikings in Week 11, their pass-rush has to set the tone and lead the way.

Things haven’t gone nearly as planned for the Arizona Cardinals in the 2016 season. Crowned as NFC Champions before the year even started, they now find themselves jockeying to stay in contention for a playoff berth. A win in Week 11 on the road against the Minnesota Vikings would go a long way in aiding that cause. However, the recipe for a victory might not be what you’d expect.

When dissecting the struggles of the Cardinals this season, your eyes gravitate to their offense. Their offensive line has been both ineffective and injured throughout the year, the latter still being the case coming into this matchup with Minnesota. Moreover, Carson Palmer has severely regressed from his 2015 level of performance. Thus, they’ve become heavily reliant on David Johnson making plays rather than taking shots downfield and keeping opponents on their toes.

However, their defense has hit highs this season that their offense hasn’t. Particularly with their pass-rush thanks to the addition of Chandler Jones and the solid play of Markus Golden and Calais Campbell, the defense has caused problems throughout the season. Yes, they too have been inconsistent for Arizona. However, they’ve been far more reliable than the offense. What’s more, they’ll need to lead the way against this Vikings team come Sunday afternoon.

Perhaps the last thing you want a middling offense with injuries on an already-bad offensive line to face is the Minnesota defense. Even with injuries at cornerback to Xavier Rhodes and possibly being without Eric Kendricks, the Vikings defense still serves as their lifeblood. Thus, the Cardinals defense becomes that much more pivotal. Not only will they have to make up for possible shortcomings of their offense, but can also assist the offense by keeping the Minnesota defense on the field.

Over the course of the Vikings’ current four-game losing streak, the hallmark of their struggles has been their own offensive line. This is a unit that was bad even at the start of the year, but has since imploded further. They had resorted to starting the miserable Jake Long last week, but now even he’s injured. T.J. Clemmings is expected to return and start at left tackle in Week 11, but that’s hardly comforting to Minnesota fans. This becomes the area that the Cardinals have to exploit.

In his first season with the Cards, Jones has been a monster game-in and game-out. When lined up on the right side of the defense, he’s been a beast. Per Pro Football Focus, Jones has forced 35 quarterback pressures from that spot. That’s the second-most of any edge-rusher in 2016. And with Clemmings returning to line up on the left side, that could be an enormous advantage for Arizona.

On two separate occasions this season, Clemmings has been listed among the 10 worst-graded players by Pro Football Focus. Throw in the possibility that he’s not going to be 100 percent healthy as he returns to fill a need on the line and that spells trouble for the Vikings.

Even early in the season when Minnesota was reeling off five-straight wins to start the year, we’ve seen what happens to Sam Bradford whenever he’s pressured over his career. Though he’s been improved for the Vikings, he tends to force throws or simply go down. That opens the door for this Cardinals pass-rush to attack Clemmings (and the rest of a weak offensive line) consistently and relentlessly. It also wouldn’t be shocking to see Bruce Arians turn to rookie Robert Nkemdiche for some snaps to give the pass-rush and even larger boost.

Consistently getting a strong pass-rush in Week 11 is going to be pivotal to picking up a necessary victory that would move them to 5-4-1 on the year. Not only will it get the Vikings off the field quickly and possibly force turnovers (both Bradford fumbles and interceptions), but it will then help to tire out the Minnesota defense and allow Johnson and Palmer a bit more room to effectively move the ball.

In theory with the talent they have, the Cardinals could still win this game without a dominant pass-rush. However, that theory has been disproven on several occasions already in 2016. Arians and Arizona need to exploit the glaring weakness of this Vikings team and attack with reckless abandon in the pass-rush. If they do and succeed, things could start looking up down the stretch for the Arizona Cardinals.

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