It always seems like the Panthers have at least one game against the Arizona Cardinals per season. This year's matchup isn't as interesting as last year's where the Panthers managed to dominate Arizona and get a bit of revenge for the humiliating playoff loss the Cards handed them in 2009. Instead, we see both teams both heading in the wrong direction with the Panthers destined for the #1 pick and the Cardinals sitting at 4-9 after winning the NFC West two years in a row. The most intriguing thing about this game is the 1-12 Panthers being 2.5 point favorites over a Cardinals team which put 43 points on the board against Denver last week. I'm assuming they're giving Carolina "home field advantage" for the spread. I'm not sure how much I agree with that but I do agree with the general consensus of this Sunday's game against Arizona being the only "winnable" one left on the schedule for the Panthers. It could determine whether or not we get the #1 pick, as well.
First off, what exactly has made the Cardinals such a bad team this year? Well, losing a QB like Kurt Warner and replacing him with a QB who has thrown 28 INTs in his last three seasons compared to only 19 TDs will definitely set you back a little. Losing two key defensive players in Karlos Dansby and Antrelle Rolle will put a heavy hit on almost any team's defense and it's left a big mark on Arizona's as they are 25th in passing yards allowed, have the third worst run defense in the league and give up an average of 27 points per game. You can definitely say they're rebuilding since they have a good chunk of newer players and recently switched to a 3-4 defense and tried to implement a more rushing based offense at first but there have been plenty of growing pains to go around.
One thing Arizona's had in common with Carolina this year is a rotating QB carousel. Theirs features veteran Derek Anderson along with rookies Max Hall and John Skelton. Likely starting for them this week is Skelton, who had an unimpressive but decent debut against Denver last week (18-43 for 191 yards, 55.5 QB Rating) but other than that, I don't know a lot about him. I do know he was highly touted by a few people coming out of college despite being a mid-late round pick. Scouting reports say that "he has ideal size and the skillset to be a starter in the league" and he played well in the pre-season so we should be able to find out more about him this week. I don't want to say his task this week is "easy" but when you have receivers like Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston at your disposal then things will be less difficult, especially if Richard Marshall is covering one of them. That's what concerns me most about Arizona even with a rookie QB. However, Fitzgerald hasn't exactly been lighting the world on fire this season but he is still dangerous and the Panthers need to be weary of him. I hope that Chris Gamble is active because that will definitely make things easier for us. Captain Munnerlyn has done a fine job in Gamble's place but if he's the one who ends up covering Fitz, then that's a clear mismatch in the Cardinals favor. Arizona mainly uses their tight ends for blocking instead of receiving, so that's one threat we won't have to worry about this week unless Ben Patrick suddenly is able to get open.
Coming into this year, I thought Ken Wisenhunt would try to make the Cardinals more of a run-first team similar to the system he ran when he was the Steelers offensive coordinator. Injuries to Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower's fumbling problems have put a damper on that plan. The Cards have remained a pass-first team and their rushing attack has really yet to take off aside from a few good games from Hightower. However, they can definitely do some damage against Carolina since this is the same rushing defense that allowed Marshawn Lynch run for 3 TDs on them a few weeks ago so I'm not holding any team's rushing game lightly. Hightower is also coming off a 148 yard performance against the Broncos and could do the same against us if the rush defense stays this poor. It doesn't help that we've received a few bad injuries at linebacker and it's made worse with James Anderson being questionable.
Arizona's offensive line has given up 40 sacks this year, third most in the NFL and one behind the Panthers. Though they did a good job of protecting Skelton last week by only allowing one sack but can they keep it up. Everette Brown recently being moved to the DL does make things a little easier for them but this is a good chance for Greg Hardy to have a really good game. I also would like to see Charles Johnson get his 10th sack of the year in this game since he's still the team's best pass rusher. Our pass rush has shown signs of life in the last few weeks so I'm hoping that continues and we can make Skelton have a rough day. He is a pocket passer with not a lot of mobility so that should work in our favor.
The Cardinals defense is experiencing some bigger growing pains than the offense as they sit near the bottom of the league in nearly every category. One main reason for this is their pass rush is well...just about as good as ours and no that is not a compliment. They are shifting to a 3-4 this year and brought in Joey Porter to help establish a pass rush and he is leading the team in sacks with 5. Calaias Campbell and Clark Haggans are also good pass rushers so Jordan Gross and Mackenzey Bernardeau need to able to pick the both of them up if they blitz. One of the biggest reasons for Clausen's struggles is that the line hasn't been protecting him that well and he barely has any time to throw. If the o-line manages to handle the blitzes fine then Clausen may have a better game this Sunday. Arizona isn't afraid to blitz at all so the linemen need to be ready.
Carolina has to like their matchup in the running game since Arizona has given up an average of about 143 yards per game. Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson are more than capable of picking up that kind of yardage as a tandem if they're given the space so here's hoping we can have another good game on the ground. The only real threat I see here is lienbacker Paris Lenon who has 103 tackles this year and only 7 of them were in the backfield. Nose tackle Dan Williams could cause a disturbance too but he's mainly more of a threat when creating room for their pass rushers. Adrian Wilson is also effective in stopping the run as well so be aware of him. Either way, this is definitely a favorable matchup for Carolina but I think it's been proven this year that Carolina can't win by only rushing the ball, the passing game has to show more life and this could be the game to do it.
Many Panthers fans are hoping the team can get the #1 pick and drafting Andrew Luck this April. Jimmy Clausen certainly hasn't won many fans this season with how he's played. The Cardinals have a bottom-10 pass defense so hopefully this is the "breakout game" we're all waiting for. He has failed to play well against weak pass defenses before (Seattle, for instance) so I'm not sure that breakout game will happen this week but as an optimist, I'll be hoping for the best. In the Cardinals secondary, we see two familiar faces in Adrian Wilson and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. We all know him from the NFC Divisional game a few years back and he's still somewhat dangerous and is tied for the team in passes defended this year. He's very good at zone coverage but is prone to give up a big play or two in man coverage and Steve Smith has made some big plays against new. One newcomer to the secondary is Kerry Rhodes and he's been a huge bright spot for this defense. He leads the team in interceptions with 4 and he's been helpful with the pass rush at times, too. Clausen had better be careful of throwing any wayward passes because Rhodes is capable of picking them off. As for receiver matchups, David Gettis could have an interesting one against Michael Adams or Greg Toler but I'm not completely sure who has the advantage in either. It will likely come down to whether or not Clausen has time or is able to get them the ball.
It's interesting that battle for the number one pick between the Panthers and the Bengals could depend on this week (and the Bengals game against the Browns) since this is Carolina's only real "winnable" game left on the schedule. Even if Carolina wins this game, they will still have a shot at the top pick if the Bengals win at least one game. Hopefully the team can at least look somewhat competent even if we do lose. Carolina might be favored to win this week but it's hard to win if you don't score and the Cards, despite their struggles, put up 43 points last week.