The Arizona Cardinals defense is playing at a very high level. The offense is a different story, potentially putting the NFC West lead in jeopardy down the stretch.
Heading to the Georgia Dome on Sunday seemingly provides that unit a good opportunity to get going despite facing a fellow division leader.
Not only do the Atlanta Falcons have a record five games worse than Arizona – with wins solely against fellow sub-.500 NFC South teams – but they own the league’s worst defense and have been dreadful at home lately.
The Cardinals (9-2) maintain the NFC’s best record but had their West lead cut to two games with last Sunday’s 19-3 loss in Seattle. Considering that game came in what is possibly the NFL’s toughest venue, not to mention against the defending champion Seahawks, coach Bruce Arians and his players weren’t too devastated.
"I think when you peak, you get momentum and you just ride it, and we’ve been riding it pretty good," Arians said. "We got knocked off the horse, so figure out why, get back on and let’s go."
Plus, his team gets another crack at the Seahawks in three weeks. Arizona’s only other loss was to last season’s Super Bowl loser, 41-20 at Denver in Week 5.
"When we lost to Denver, we lost pretty bad, but we bounced back, won six straight," Pro Bowl special teamer Justin Bethel told the Cardinals’ official website. "… We’ll come back and regroup. I just feel like it’ll give us more fuel to get ready for the next game and continue what we were doing before. There is definitely no panic."
While panic is too strong a word, there is major concern about the offense since the season-ending injury to quarterback Carson Palmer along with the ongoing struggles of the ground game.
Arizona has been held to a field goal over its last seven quarters and had a season-low 204 yards last week as Larry Fitzgerald (sprained knee) sat out. He’ll be a game-time decision after practicing on a limited basis Friday, and Drew Stanton clearly had problems without the star receiver as he finished 14 of 26 for 149 yards.
The Cardinals are 25th in the NFL with 321.3 yards per game and average an NFC-low 78.4 rushing.
Andre Ellington has a dreadful 89 yards on 47 carries over the past three weeks. He’s yet to produce a 100-yard game despite having the league’s third-most attempts (196).
"I’ve never been in a situation like this," offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said of the anemic rushing attack. "We just have to deliver. It’s about coaches and players being on the same page, and once we get to the grass, execute."
It’s possible Michael Bush gets some carries after being signed Tuesday. The seven-year veteran spent the past two seasons with Chicago but averaged 3.4 yards per carry.
Arizona’s rushing attack isn’t really in worse shape than that of Atlanta, which has run for 100 yards once in the past seven games. Steven Jackson has 75 yards on 30 carries over the last two.
That limited ground game is among a bevy of problems for coach Mike Smith, whose job could be at stake over the next five weeks. Atlanta (4-7) is tied with New Orleans atop the South, even after last week’s 26-24 loss to Cleveland for which Smith again received criticism for late-game clock management.
"I didn’t do the things that needed to be done to put our guys in the best position to win the game," Smith admitted after his team’s third consecutive home loss.
This is Atlanta’s worst skid at the Georgia Dome since 2007 and has seen the Falcons average just 297.7 yards.
They haven’t had a 100-yard rusher in 35 consecutive regular-season games – the longest current drought in the NFL.
Arizona’s defense hasn’t allowed one in 21 straight. That unit has held each of its last four opponents below 300 yards and is allowing 17.7 points per game this season, tied for second-best in the NFL.
The pass rush has been huge lately with 17 sacks in the past three games – five by Calais Campbell and four by Alex Okafor. Plus, the Cardinals’ 15 interceptions are tied for second-most in the NFL.
That doesn’t bode well for Matt Ryan, who had the two highest interception totals of his career against the Cardinals in the past two meetings. He had five in a 23-19 win in 2012 and four in a 27-13 loss last season.
Atlanta is 0-6 this season when Ryan has an interception.
"I think probably the biggest thing is you have to be patient," Ryan said. "You have to understand they’re going to make some plays, they’re going to get you off-schedule at certain times, but you’ve got to take what’s there and I’ve got to do a better job than I’ve done the previous two times against them."
The Falcons pass defense has surrendered more than 320 yards in each of the past three home losses and is allowing a league-worst 284.1 per game. Atlanta ranks last in total defense (409.9), has an NFC-low 14 sacks and allows opponents to convert on 47.0 percent of third downs – third-worst in the NFL.
"There should be no finger-pointing," safety Dwight Lowery said. "Your job is on the line every day. There’s somebody else that’s qualified to have your job. We approach it in the manner that this is our job, and we can lose this job quickly."
Ellington had his only 100-yard rushing performance in the last meeting with 154 and a TD on 15 carries.
That game, though, came in Arizona. The Cardinals have lost six straight in Atlanta since a win to close the 1993 regular season.
Falcons strong safety William Moore is set to return from a shoulder injury after missing seven straight games.