The Cardinals return home in Week 3 for a matchup I have had circled since early August. Is this the best matchup the Cardinals will have this season? Absolutely not. (In fact, the Cardinals schedule is about to lighten up considerably over the next several weeks.) But after the Cardinals opened the season against a disciplined Matt Patricia defense that had all offseason to prepare for them and then traveled to take on Baltimore, they now get to play at home against a Carolina secondary that doesn’t have the pieces to hang with them (more on this in a bit).
So far this year, the Cardinals rank second in pace of play, fifth in plays per game, first in most opponent plays allowed per game, and second in passing play rate. Their goal on offense is to spread out the defense, attack with a ball-out-quick offense that pokes holes all game before eventually springing a big play downfield, and make the opposing defense tired so that they can increase their edge as the game moves along.
Carolina enters this game ranking 19th in pass defense DVOA after ranking 24th last year, and while James Bradberry is a solid corner, he’s too passive to be a threat against a shorter-area attack like this, and the secondary behind him is full of question marks, with guys like Donte Jackson and Javien Elliott really no match for what the Cardinals are looking to do.
Through two weeks, targets on the Cardinals have looked like this:
>> Larry Fitzgerald :: 13 // 11
>> Christian Kirk :: 12 // 8
>> KeeSean Johnson :: 10 // 2
>> Damiere Byrd :: 7 // 7
(Michael Crabtree was also involved with three targets last week, though he’s more in place to steal targets than to provide targetable upside.)
Fitz and Kirk both carry the highest combination of floor/ceiling, as each has been used on a variety of precision-oriented short-area routes and downfield looks intended to strain the defense; though Byrd is also intriguing, as he has a legitimate role (and a revenge game narrative) in which the Cardinals are looking to get the ball into his hands in the shorter-areas of the field in the hopes that his speed can lead to a big play. Even KeeSean is viable (in spite of the two-target showing last week), as he leads this team in average depth of target at a strong 13.6 mark and is a big body to target in the red zone.
The Cardinals passing attack is going to be heavy on volume, and the targets will be largely concentrated around the guys listed above, creating a situation in which all of them need to be considered this week.
On the other side of this matchup, the Cardinals defense appears to be deploying a quietly brilliant strategy: focusing a large chunk of their defensive attention on the run in order to effectively force opponents to attack through the air (if the Cardinals feel that one of their biggest edges is their ability to tire out a defense, then they know an opponent will look to counter by slowing down the game on the ground; as such, Arizona has been sticking to a largely zone-based defense that keeps eyes on the backfield and maintains strong gap discipline to prevent teams grinding out games this way). The Cardinals rank middle of the pack so far in opponent pass play rate, but this has come after facing a pair of run-dominant teams — with the Cardinals allowing the ninth fewest rushing yards to enemy backs so far, at only 3.38 yards per carry.
None of this is any guarantee that the Cardinals find a way to slow down Christian McCaffrey, who is sure to be a focal point for the Panthers with Cam Newton expected to miss this game; but especially with Kyle Allen taking over for the Panthers (in his home state! against a quarterback who was once his teammate and beat him out of a job at Texas A&M! narratives!), we can expect the Cardinals to double-down on this strategy in Week 3, trying to force Carolina to the air.
As noted above, the Cardinals have faced the most opponent plays per game this season. They also saw Danny Amendola, T.J. Hockenson, and Kenny Golladay combine for 31 targets in Week 1, while Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews combined for 22 targets in Week 2.
Tight end coverage has been a weakness early on for the Cardinals, with holes opening up in the zone that seam-stretchers can exploit. Kyle Allen leaned heavily on Ian Thomas in his Week 17 start last year — and while this is no guarantee that he does the same with Greg Olsen this week (Thomas was used primarily on short slants in that game, while Olsen will likely be used in more of a downfield role), this is a great matchup, and Allen should be nearly as capable as Cam of playing pitch-and-catch here.
The Panthers should also make life easy on Allen with D.J. Moore giving him an easy target in the short areas of the field, with YAC upside from there. Moore has shown out so far with 10 and 14 targets; and while it’s dangerous to ever project double-digit looks, this is another clear spot for volume to stay high.
The wildcard on this side of the ball is Curtis Samuel, who has 4.31 speed and is a tremendous route-runner; and while he was force-fed downfield looks last week (that Cam was, sadly, incapable of hitting), his 13 targets remind us that the Panthers want to keep him involved. Samuel has an extensive route tree and can be used short if the Panthers don’t feel comfortable attacking deep with Allen, so the volume — while a little less secure than Moore’s and Olsen’s — should be there again this week. (It’s also worth keeping in mind that if Samuel had hit on just one more of his many deep balls from Cam, he could have left last week with something like a 5-130-1 line; and with literally nothing different in his usage from that line to the reality, people would have been somewhat scared to not play him this week.)
JM’s Interpretation ::
On the Cardinals’ side, the only player I’m not highly interested in is David Johnson — and that’s only because the price is still a bit high for his inconsistent pass game role on a team that doesn’t care all that much about running the ball. (I will have some DJ in large-field tourneys as I gather up pieces of this offense, but the floor is too low for me to be interested too far beyond that.) But Kyler, Fitz, Kirk, and (on DK, where he costs 6.0% of the salary cap after seeing seven targets per game) even Byrd could all be viable as Tier 1 plays, and are attractive in a block as well. (The first three guys from that block nearly went 4x their Week 3 DK salary last week at Baltimore.) Much like the Bills down the stretch last year: even if you load up on this group and it misses, this simply lowers the price and ownership for the week when they hit.
On the Panthers’ side — vs this Cardinals defense that wants to stop the run and is attackable through the air — I don’t see Kyle Allen as much of a downgrade from Cam right now, given how the latter has played so far this year, and this makes Olsen, Moore, and (to a lesser extent — simply because we know less about Allen’s willingness to push the ball downfield) Samuel all completely viable plays as well, while CMC is going to be on the field for right around 100% of the snaps in this pace-up game against an opponent that allows a ton of plays to be run, giving him a clear shot at ceiling in spite of the run-focused nature of the Cardinals defense.
It’s early enough in the week that I’m not quite sure where all these players will land in the Player Grid; but I expect the Player Grid to be littered with options from this game.