The Cardinals emerge from the cactus for Sunday's game against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) with both teams thirsting to end their season-long drought. Both are led by first-year head coaches searching for that offensive oasis they hope to settle their respective franchises.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable toasts the first Bengals-Arizona matchup at PBS since Jerome Simpson so famously flipped the Cards eight years ago when the Bengals' Andy Dalton was the rookie quarterback. Now Arizona's Kyler Murry, the draft's overall No. 1 pick, is the rookie and Dalton is making his 125th NFL start.
We turned on the radio to get the velvet tones of Bengals-play-by-play man Dan Hoard and Cincinnati's award-winning Renaissance Man Wayne Box Miller, the host of the Bengals Radio Network's pre-game and post-game shows. Two seasoned desert foxes join them.
Kent Somers is the long-time estimable Cards beat reporter for The Arizona Republic, where he's now a sports columnist. Darren Urban, the relentless reporter for azcardinals.com in his 20th season covering the Cards during a stint that began with The East Valley Tribune before he moved to the team in 2007, when the head coaches in this game were backup quarterbacks in Winnipeg.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and the alphabet first:
I think it's going be a really close game. I haven't seen much of the Bengals, but I think the Cardinals are going to struggle throughout the year. But their offense has shown signs it's going to start clicking. Quarterback Kyler Murray has been up and down. But you can see through play design and other things what new head coach Kliff Kingsbury is trying to do. I think it's going to work and maybe especially against the Bengals.
They haven't done much of the zone read or Murray running at all. The only game he ran consistently on designed stuff was the Panthers and it worked to an extent (eight carries for 69 yards). There have been a few run-pass options, but we haven't even seen much of that. A lot of it has been just four and five wides and spread them out and get rid of the ball quickly.
What people have done the last two weeks, the Panthers and Seattle, they're just keeping everything in front of them. Make the Cardinals throw five-yard horizontal outs and tackle and make the bet the Cardinals can't go on 10, 12-play drives enough to beat you. And they're right and it's worked.
Pass rusher Chandler Jones already has three forced fumbles and Terrell Suggs on the other side is playing well. They try to limit his snaps and when he's been in there he's been fairly productive so that could be dangerous for the Bengals.
But the Cardinals are banged up at receiver, too, with Christian Kirk (ankle) out, that's a big loss. He was a big part of what they were doing. That's one of the things. They want to run a spread offense with a lot of receivers and you get a couple of the receivers banged up and all of a sudden you're in a little bit of trouble.
THE EDGE: Something tells me the Cardinals are going to pull this one out. I think they'll get their first one on the road. They still have deficiencies on both sides of the ball. Their defense isn't playing great but their offense is on a pace that they're going to win a game here pretty soon. CARDS, 23-20
It's going to be very interesting to me to see how this one plays out, especially with both teams down receivers. The Bengals don't have John Ross and A.J. Green and the Cardinals are also probably down two without Kirk and Damiere Byrd. Kirk is especially a guy they've been leaning on besides Larry Fitzgerald. I'm curious to see if either team can get a consistent running game going because that's a big part of fixing problems for both teams.
The Cardinals have not been great consistently stopping the run and they haven't been consistently running the ball. To take them across county and have a 10 a.m. body clock start time is probably not the ideal way to try and get your first win.
Murray has done OK. He's a rookie quarterback It's easy to lose sight of that. He started from the moment he was drafted, essentially, but he's only four games into his rookie season. There's no question he has the talent. I've seen him do some things both in practice and in games where I'm, 'OK, that's definitely a guy who could really be good somewhere down the road.' And there are other plays where he runs around and takes a sack when he probably should have just thrown the ball away. That's just stuff you have to live with right now as he develops.
The roster isn't where they want it to be. The receiving corps even when healthy is not where it needs to be quite yet. They still probably need to do some things on the offensive line. So for what Murray has around him is probably what's expected.
THE EDGE: It's going to be a close game. It's going to be awfully tough around here if they don't win this weekend. I'm sure the Bengals are saying the same thing. I think the Cardinals find a way to pull it out. Their defense isn't great but I think they have ways to stop the Bengals and I think with Kyler they'll find a way to score just enough points. CARDS, 24-20.
I think the team that has given up eight sacks in a game this season is going to lose. But not the Bengals. The Cardinals gave up eight sacks two weeks ago against the Panthers. As badly as the Bengals offensive line performed last week, the Cardinals have had similar problems. Their left tackle is struggling, they're going through two right tackles, they gave up five sacks in the fourth quarter last week. I think this is the week the Bengals offense puts up a decent number and gets the job done.
The Cardinals offense hasn't been great. They had a decent performance in week one in their overtime loss to the Lions. I don't think they've scored more than 20 since. Kyler Murray's numbers are very modest. Passer rating in the 70s. He's been sacked 20 times and that suggests maybe he's not seeing things great yet, which is normal for a quarterback four games into his NFL career.
I think this is the week that the Bengals' intention to get running back Joe Mixon heavily involved will come true. As badly as the Bengals have struggled to stop the run the Cardinals have been even worse. Every team they've played this year has rushed for more than 100 yards. Individuals have topped 100 yards the last two weeks. The Bengals will find something to get Joe going.
THE EDGE: I've said this to you before. I usually go with the more desperate team when the two teams are close. They're both desperate, but I think at home and having two close calls against Seattle and Buffalo on the road I think this is the week that the Bengals manage to squeak one out. I'll take them by three at home. BENGALS, 30-27
I think the advantage is to the Bengals with a veteran quarterback against the rookie quarterback. But I'm more concerned about the body language when one team has a bad series or a big play against them. Will they start to dwell on the fact that 'We're 0 and 4?' Will they respond to that?
I think the Bengals are still strong at wide receiver. I think Tyler Boyd is a threat because he's so good now. He knows A.J. Green is down and John Ross is down and it's an opportunity for him and this is when players step up and try to make big plays. I'm looking for Boyd to have a big game.
The Cardinals have a crafty wide receiver in the great Larry Fitzgerald, but I think when a play breaks down with a guy like Kyler Murray, that really concerns you, because his feet are probably better than his arm. As we all know in the NFL, when a play breaks down its just talent against talent.
THE EDGE: The Bengals are hungry. Obviously the Cardinals are, too. But the Bengals are back at home. They didn't like what happened in Pittsburgh and they really need to make a statement. *BENGALS, 24-14 *
THE BOTTOM LINE
This is the kind of game where you expect the intensity to be at almost play-off level. Not so much because each team needs that first win. Even more, neither team wants the feeling having to face the next week with a loss in this one.
The head coaches, the Bengals' Zac Taylor and the Cards' Kingsbury, shared a bench as back-up quarterbacks in the CFL a dozen years ago. They share a lot more than that Sunday. Both spread game architects seek their first NFL victory with a reduced corps of wide receivers while trying not to get their quarterbacks maimed six days after Dalton got sacked eight times in Pittsburgh and two weeks after Murray got a standing eight count at home against Carolina. Yet, both teams insist on throwing it. Murray has thrown the third most passes in the league, Dalton the fourth.
Murray has to scare a Bengals defense that for the last two seasons has struggled to contain athletic quarterbacks. Cam Newton, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield last year. Josh Allen this year. Here's the next generation. Throw in some mid-direction and zone reads and they don't even have to be all that athletic, as Mason Rudolph reflected Monday night.
But this Bengals defense showed they can contain one when they hemmed in Seattle's Russell Wilson and they'll take an effort like that against Murray, still trying to find his legs after four starts and a league-high 20 sacks. Plus that Bengals' front in Seattle is reunited with the return of pass rusher Carl Lawson and Ryan Glasgow after they missed the last two games. They've had just one sack in the three games since they got to Wilson four times in Seattle and Lawson should give them a lift against tackles that have allowed a combined 10 pressures and three sacks. Plus, they've got a back-up left guard in there.
The Bengals have quite a chore in protection, too. On one edge they face Chandler Jones, the NFL's most prolific sacker since 2016, and on the other edge, Terrell Suggs, the most prolific sacker ever against the Bengals and the 11th all-time.
The answers to lack of protection and receivers would seem to lie in the running game, dormant in both the desert and on The Banks the first month of the season. But both teams have formidable running backs in the Bengals' Joe Mixon and the Cards' David Johnson. Both need more than the 47 carries they each currently have, but Johnson was their leading receiver last week with eight catches for 99 yards. With Kirk and Byrd expected to be out and the Bengals linebackers trying to get a footing in coverage, look for more of that.
But the Bengals can counter Murray, Suggs and Chandler with Mixon, the defending AFC rushing champion looking for the big bust-out in a game they can keep danger off the field and at bay. The Cards are giving up 4.8 yards per carry and are coming of two games they allowed 104 yards to Seattle running back Chris Carson last week and 153 yards to Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey the week before that.
So which first-year offensive head coach adjusts his scheme the best to injury and inexperience? Naturally, the stat that is probably going to decide which one of these guys that combined for 140 touchdown passes as college quarterbacks gets their first NFL coaching victory is the rushing number.