CARDINALS // CHARGERS OVERVIEW
The going-nowhere, 2-8 Cardinals will do battle this week with a 7-3 Chargers team that is coming off a tough home loss to the Broncos and will be looking to get back on track heading into the stretch run of the season. This game presents us with one of the bigger mismatches on the slate, as the Chargers are allowing the seventh fewest points per game in the league, and the Cardinals have scored the second fewest points per game. In all games that were not against the Raiders or 49ers, the Cardinals have failed to top even 17 points. In this age of incredible offensive explosiveness, the Cardinals are averaging only 240.8 yards per game — on track to be one of the worst seasons in decades.
The Chargers are set up to control this game from start to finish, as the Cardinals rank 31st in drive success rate on offense and are dead last in time of possession, with a remarkably low mark of 25:46. Only three teams have allowed more opponent plays per game than Arizona — and with this team constantly playing from behind, they are facing the second lowest opponent pass play rate in the league.
This should set up the Chargers for a run-heavy game script, as they already rank 11th in rush play rate and have incredibly failed to top even 30 pass attempts in seven of their first 10 games. The Chargers play at the slowest pace in the league and run the fourth fewest plays per game in the league, but there is an opportunity in this spot for them to see a few more plays than normal. With the Chargers going out of their way this year to limit touches for Melvin Gordon (no games all season of more than 19 carries), there is an outside chance we see a bit more of Austin Ekeler in this spot as well. Ekeler had double-digit touches in three of the Chargers’ first four games and has not reached that mark in any of the five games he has shared with Gordon since then.
It comes as no surprise that the Chargers are expected to smash in this spot. They have been installed as early 12.0 point favorites, and the Cardinals are tied with the hapless Raiders with the lowest Vegas-implied team total on the slate.
CARDINALS PASS OFFENSE
The Chargers’ pass defense has rounded into form as the season has moved along — and they are now forcing the third shallowest average depth of target in the league, while shaving almost 3.5% off the league-average catch rate. Last week against the Broncos, the Chargers also returned superstar defensive end Joey Bosa, who played 31 snaps in his first bit of action (in spite of the Chargers planning to limit him to 15 to 20 plays). The Chargers rank 11th in yards allowed per pass attempt and 10th in interceptions, while only eight teams have allowed fewer passing touchdowns on the year.
All of this is a bad setup for an Arizona offense that has averaged the second fewest passing yards per game this year while throwing the third fewest touchdown passes and the fourth most interceptions. It goes without saying that there are much better spots on the Week 12 slate than the Cardinals’ passing attack. Arizona averages only 55.3 plays per game. Only four teams have scored fewer touchdowns per game than the Cardinals this year, and the Chargers boast the fourth best red zone touchdown defense in the league.
One thing that Josh Rosen should find on his side is volume, as Byron Leftwich called on the rookie to throw 40 and 39 times in his first two games as the offensive coordinator (before dropping him to only 20 pass attempts against a Raiders team that everyone attacks on the ground). Volume will be important for any of Rosen’s pass catchers to pile up useful statistics, as his completion rate on the year sits at a pathetic 54.8% — the worst mark in the league. Even more troubling is Rosen’s expected completion rate of 59.2% — also the worst mark in the league. Rosen has nine touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. Through seven starts, his best yardage games have gone for 252 // 240 // 208. He has finished below 200 yards in his other four games.
Football Outsiders has the Chargers graded out as the best defense in football against passes of 15 or fewer yards, which will likely force the Cardinals to go deep in order to find any sort of breathing room. Deep passes to Christian Kirk will likely be thrown into shadow coverage from stud corner Casey Hayward. Larry Fitzgerald will be forced to deal with stud corner Desmond King in the slot.
With the Cardinals likely to fire off a decent number of pass attempts again in this spot, we should expect Kirk to settle back into his range of six to seven targets (which is where he had been for a month before his four-target game last week), and we should expect Fitz to pile up eight to 10 looks. Each guy should be expected to connect on about half of the passes that come his way. Either guy will need a broken play or a touchdown in order to matter on this slate.
This passing attack wraps up with Ricky Seals-Jones, who will do battle with Derwin James. RSJ has failed to top 12 receiving yards in four of his last six games, and the Chargers have been above-average against tight ends. He’s a salary-saver dart throw in this spot.
CARDINALS RUN OFFENSE
The Chargers are more attackable on the ground, where they have allowed 4.6 yards per carry (21st in the league) while ranking middle of the pack in run defense DVOA. They have also allowed the fourth most receptions and the third most yards to the running back position. Because they are typically playing with a lead (while slowing down the game when they have the ball), this defense has faced the 10th fewest rush attempts in the league — and their solid red zone defense has allowed them to give up only eight touchdowns to running backs (only 10 teams have given up fewer). But given the consistent usage David Johnson is seeing (touch counts under Byron Leftwich of 20 // 28 // 26), he’ll certainly have an opportunity to hit. A fair projection in this spot is 16 to 18 carries and four to seven targets. While the red zone matchup is poor, DJ does rank 14th in the NFL with 20 carries in the red zone — giving him some opportunity to score even on this low-scoring squad.
CHARGERS PASS OFFENSE
The Colts are the only team in the NFL that has forced a lower average depth of target than the Cardinals, with this team getting after the quarterback (second in adjusted sack rate) and doing what they can to take away downfield passing (the fourth fewest pass plays allowed of 20+ yards). I have a dream that someday, NFL teams will realize that the skills required to be a good coordinator are very different from the skills required to run a team. Steve Wilks is a good defensive mind, and it’s too bad that his reputation is going to take a hit over the next couple years as he struggles to pull the Cardinals up from the bottom. Arizona allowed 45 points to Denver, 27 points to Minnesota, and 34 points to the Rams, but they also held the Chiefs to only 26 (at Arrowhead), they held the Seahawks to 20, and they held the Bears to 16. No team in football has allowed fewer passing touchdowns than the Cardinals. Only three teams are allowing fewer passing yards per game.
The Chargers’ low-volume passing attack will be an interesting study in this matchup, as this team ranks ninth in passing yards per game in spite of ranking 26th in pass attempts — with Philip Rivers putting together the fourth most yards per pass attempt in the league, aided by the two or three passes every single game that travel 30 or more yards downfield. Outside of these throws, Rivers essentially operates like any other quarterback (with lower volume than most), but these throws each week are enough to boost his season-long stats — and on the weeks in which these passes connect, they are enough to raise his line for the game. (Ultimately, he needs to connect on these looks, as he has six games this year with fewer than 260 passing yards.) This is a spot in which volume on this low-volume passing attack is almost guaranteed to suffer, so your best bet in targeting the Chargers is to grab the guys who see downfield looks…and to then hope they hit against this team that does not allow many downfield passes to connect.
The majority of these downfield targets are going to Tyrell Williams (recent target counts of 3 // 4 // 4 // 3 // 6 // 6), making him a boom/bust play.
In two of the last three weeks, Keenan Allen has also added one downfield shot to his otherwise-possession-receiver role. This started after Allen lodged some public complaints about his role in the offense, so look for him to get a few more of these deep throws through the last month and a half of the season. Allen also has target counts of 10 // 9 // 12 in this stretch, in spite of Rivers throwing only 26 times in two of those games. His nine red zone targets (and four targets inside the 10) are non-thrilling, but the short middle of the field is the one area where this Cardinals team can be hammered for wide receiver production.
Behind these guys, Mike Williams has topped one catch only a single time since Week 5. Travis Benjamin has zero catches in his last three games. The tight ends are uninvolved outside of rare, outlier setups.
CHARGERS RUN OFFENSE
There was a public narrative earlier in the year that the Cardinals were awful against the run — not true; they rank a respectable 16th in yards allowed per carry. But because the Arizona offense cannot hold onto the ball and this team is so frequently playing from behind, they have faced more rush attempts than any team in football, which has led to them allowing the fourth most rushing yards in the league, while also giving up the sixth most running back touchdowns in the league. On average, the Cardinals are facing an incredible 28.7 running back rush attempts per game — and with the Chargers holding Gordon under 20 carries in every game this year, it won’t be surprising to see Ekeler pile up eight to 10 carries of his own. (I’m not sure this is actionable information on a slate with Gus Edwards, Josh Adams, and possibly even Elijah McGuire all projected to touch the ball more times than Ekeler — especially as the Ekeler projection takes a bit of guesswork — but it’s an interesting thought to hold onto in large-field tourneys.) The Chargers have been one of the best rushing attacks in the league, ranking fifth as a team in yards per carry and seventh in run offense DVOA. Given Gordon’s DFS price, it should be noted that Arizona has posted strong numbers against pass-catching running backs, allowing the third fewest receptions to the position — though a lot of this is due to the low passing volume they have faced as a team (a trend that should continue this week). A fair projection for Gordon in this spot is around 18 to 20 carries and three to five receptions, with his touchdown upside keeping him in the conversation among the top raw-projected backs on the slate.
I will be surprised if I end up on any players on the Cardinals, as I prefer to target higher-scoring offenses — and this is especially the case when a low-scoring offense is playing a tough defense. It won’t be crazy to see Kirk or Fitz post a solid game, but a big game would be surprising. As for DJ: he should post another respectable score, but there are running backs priced around him who are far more likely to hit for a week-winning output.
Realistically, I will also be surprised if I end up on any players on the Chargers’ side of the ball, as this game projects to be a low-volume affair for their passing attack, and Gordon’s workload has been managed all year — making it difficult for him to take advantage of the edge this matchup gives us: volume. (To be clear: as always, I expect a strong game from Gordon; but I’d have a hard time justifying this play on my roster at the price tag he carries.) Allen is the most interesting play to me, as he has squeezed a couple high-target games out of low-volume outputs from the Chargers’ passing attack lately, and he runs the routes that are likeliest to be effective against this defense.
I’ll also have interest in Ekeler as a large-field tourney “upside play,” though he’s not a top on-paper play.
Unsurprisingly, the Chargers’ defense also stands out to me as one of the top plays on the slate.