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Cardinals-giants what to watch: gardeck, dobbs, saquon

Howard Balzer Avatar
September 16, 2023

Markus Golden had two stints with the Cardinals after being a second-round pick in 2015: Four seasons in Arizona, then one-plus with the Giants before heading back to the desert after a trade during the 2020 season.

The outside linebacker totaled 35.5 sacks here, including 11 in 2021, and while he was released this past offseason on March 13 and is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, his attitude and passion still reverberates in the Cardinals’ edge-rusher room.

Fond of frequently saying how much he loved going “huntin’” for quarterbacks, Golden’s words were mimicked earlier this week by Dennis Gardeck, who had two of the team’s six sacks last Sunday against the Commanders. Outside linebacker Victor Dimukeje also had one.

Gardeck said, “We got dawgs in our room. Nobody’s worried about anything dropping off with X, Y or Z in the game. We’re all huntin’, we’re all in this together and we’re all confident with whoever’s out there.

“It’s a group that has a chip on their shoulder and wants to prove something. Scrappy comes to mind, but just tenacious I think is a better word. Everybody wants something out there.”

When it was noted that he engendered flashbacks of Golden’s interviews, Gardeck said,Markus is a huge influence on my own game. I remember, I had got in trouble in a team meeting for going a little bit too hard in a training camp practice and I ended up dragging somebody to the ground. I was an inside ‘backer at the time. He kinda pulled me aside and he said, ‘Uh uh, bro, you play hard every single play. Don’t change a thing.’”

Gardeck then added, “I think he was an incredible influence on our room last year on being able to (have) just that mentality and the drive and that it doesn’t matter what is in front of me, I’m gonna go hunt. I’m gonna go get to the quarterback. That’s something that he left behind in this room for sure.”

Gardeck is the grizzled veteran of the group at the age of 29 and in his sixth NFL season. Myjai Sanders, who is currently on reserve/injured, is 25 and in his second season. Dimukeje will be 24 in November and is in his third season, followed by Zaven Collins (24/third season), Jesse Luketa (24/second), Cameron Thomas (23/second) and rookie BJ Ojulari (21).

The six edge rushers were all active in Week 1 and none played more than the 59 percent of the snaps played by Collins: Gardeck 39, Thomas 37, Dimukeje 35, Luketa 25 and Ojulari 17.

Gardeck said that makes it tough on defenses.

“Everybody’s got a different style because everybody’s built differently,” he said. “I don’t look anything like most pass rushers, so I’ve got to manufacture my production other ways. Everybody’s got their own style and flavor and things that are their go-to fastball. I think that’s what makes the outside ‘backers so dangerous. Being able to Rolodex that and everybody’s got their own play-style, got their own unique twist on what that pass rush looks like; how are you ever getting settled in your sets or whatever as an offensive lineman?

“You got to be able to flip back and forth. ‘OK, 25’s (Collins) across from me, 45’s (Gardeck) across from me. How are they different? 43’s (Luketa) out there now. He’s running through me. I know 43’s hitting somethin’. Having somebody constantly rolling that stuff, it’s added to, ‘OK, what’s my job, what’s my assignment on this job?’ It just adds to their mental stress.”

Outside linebackers coach Rob Rodriguez loves what he is seeing from his room, but also emphasizes there’s still work to be done.

“Everybody that you saw make a play on Sunday can be better. Every single one,” he said. “So, as good as they played, they all have something to improve on.”

Noting that rotations might often change, Rodriguez gave a nod to coach Jonathan Gannon and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis.

Rodriguez said, “The thing I love about JG and Nick is that every week is new, every week is: ‘What is the best thing for the team?’ So, this week it may be different. This week you might see guys at different positions. Styles make fights. So we’re going to try and get the right matchups and the right people and what that means is the rotation is what was right for the team last Sunday, (but) we’re still going to continually try to keep fresh legs out there. That’s the nature of our front seven. I love that mindset because I’ve been at places where we wear those dudes out. We get to December; those dudes aren’t the same guys. You’re always most effective when you can have some energy and take a step back and get your breath.

“So we’re going to try to keep those guys fresh, but the style and the rotations will change weekly and where those guys are lined up will change weekly. We’re always going to match up what’s best to beat that team that week. All we’re doing is putting these guys in the best position to be successful. Just because Dennis lacks something doesn’t mean he’s not extraordinary at all these other things. In this organization right now with JG and (general manager) Monti (Ossenfort), we focus more on what these guys can do as opposed to what they can’t do.”

Gardeck hit on what he says is the camaraderie of the group.

He said, “I think when the competition goes from me vs. the offense to the defense competing amongst each other for the hardest hit or who’s getting to the ball first or who’s stripping it; when the competition is within the team, I think that’s when it kinda kicks into that next gear.

“I love this front seven because everybody feeds off of each other. It’s no, ‘Oh, he made a play, I gotta get mine.’ It’s, ‘I’m excited for whoever’s making that play.’ And when they come, they come in bunches. So everybody was just taking their turn. And everybody was celebrating for whoever it was that was up at that time. It’s awesome to see on the tape.”

Now we’ll see if it can be duplicated Sunday.

Week 2 for Dobbs

Needless to say, the season opener was a struggle for the Cardinals offense and Joshua Dobbs.

But the quarterback believes things will be different with another week of practice under his belt and playing inside at home.

He said this week, “From where we were last Wednesday to this Wednesday, it’s like night and day, understanding each other and understanding the flow and rhythm of the offense. So just continuing to grow as we get more time on task on the field.

“Just being able to get on the same page, talk ball, pick each other’s mind, I know where we’re going to be whether it’s on time or we have to go out and make off-schedule plays. It just continues to grow each and every day. It’s taking advantage of every single rep or manufacturing extra reps to be able to get on the same page as quickly as possible. This was my first time throwing that route to that guy at full speed.”

Wide receiver Michael Wilson said, “When (he) first got here, I wouldn’t say it felt discombobulated, but anytime you have a new quarterback, on the first day the cadence isn’t as sound as it needs to be, the decision-making and the chemistry isn’t quite there. So if you watch the tape from last week, it does feel like night and day as a whole.

“I definitely would consider it growing pains. We have a lot of guys in our room that operate on a high level and will be their own biggest critics.”

Offensive coordinator Drew Petzing said what he wants to see improved is “the operation out of the huddle, him being cleaner, crisper, more concise. And then, I think, just the familiarity with how guys are coming out of their breaks, where they’re going to be down the field, how that relates to what we’re trying to accomplish relative to the defense we’re attacking.

“I certainly think he took a lot of steps in a short amount of time and I’m really looking forward to that growth to continue.”

Quarterbacks coach Israel Woolfork said Friday of Dobbs, “He’s done a good job of communicating what he needs from the coaching staff: ‘Hey, Izzy, I need to watch more red zone, I need more of that,’ so I think Josh has really good self-realization of where he is and what he needs help with.

“He’s a great professional. He adds a lot to our room. And the guys in that room have helped him a lot, too. Kyler (Murray), Clayton (Tune) and Jeff (Driskel). It’s been a collective group thing.”

When asked about Dobbs’ Wednesday to Wednesday comment, Woolfork said, “Just prep and practice and putting in the time. Every day we’re here eight to nine hours a day accumulating those reps, whether it’s in the classroom or on the field. No one sees the prep that goes into it, him getting ready to play. He has done this (play in short time) in Tennessee and then Arizona because of how he prepares. That’s the key of it. Him studying it.

“Him writing down … he draws up every single play. He comes in and whatever doesn’t make sense, he asks questions. That’s the biggest key. Sometimes guys; they’re too afraid to admit when they don’t know anything. But he’s the complete opposite. If something doesn’t make sense or something sounds like Spanish to him, he asks.”

While there is often criticism from the outside when there aren’t many plays attempted downfield, Dobbs insisted, “The goal is to get the ball in playmakers’ hands quickly. We had shots (called), but they started playing two-high in the second quarter and you can’t just throw it up. You have to be smart with the ball. Patience is a virtue.”

There is already clamoring for rookie Clayton Tune to replace Dobbs if the offense doesn’t improve this week, but that could be extremely difficult with Dallas and San Francisco the next two teams on the schedule. It’s also unlikely Dobbs would be abandoned after only two games. That would be the definition of a knee-jerk reaction.

Asked about Tune, Woolfork said, “Clayton has done a great job because the biggest thing for him is he has to prepare like the starter because you don’t know. This is the NFL. At any given time, someone can come into the game. His approach to coming to the building every single day has to be as the starter. Between him and Dobbs, those guys watch the tape together. They communicate what they like, what they don’t like and talk about ‘Hey, I see this, I see that.’ That’s been awesome.

“And then him going against the first-team defense. He’s going against Budda Baker, going against Kyzir (White), Zaven and those guys. Dennis. You’re going to get better over time and that’s helped him out. And then like I said, time. He’s been here like what, going on five or six months so the offense is starting to click in his head. Starting to get it over and over again so that’s what happening, just accumulating reps over time.”

As for playing inside, Dobb said Wednesday, “Before I got here, I was like, ‘Damn, I would love to play inside in a dome.’ I see all these guys just sling the ball in domes. That looks like so much fun. So, I got here and obviously it’s a dome, and I’m like, ‘That’s awesome.’

“So I’m excited about a nice, indoor 75-degree game on the grass in there. It’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re going to sling it around and have some fun with it.”

We’ll see how much fun it is quickly enough.

After all, in New York, the thinking is that the Giants’ defense can capitalize on Dobbs’ inexperience. After all, despite losing to the Cowboys 40-0, the defense allowed only 265 yards and 4.8 yards per play. Quarterback Dak Prescott was 13-for-24 for 143 yards with a passer rating of 72.0.

Dallas built a 26-0 halftime lead on a blocked field goal for a touchdown, an interception return for a score and a 38-yard touchdown drive after another interception. On an 11-play, 60-yard drive that resulted in a field goal, those 11 plays totaled only 23 yards and there was a 37-yard pass interference penalty.

Giants safety Jason Pinnock told the New York Post “I don’t think it’s unfair,” to think that way, and then added, “But we are in the NFL and anything can happen.”

As for what he saw of Dobbs on tape, Pinnock said, “Confident in his feet, quick reads. They’re trying not to do too much with him right now, so they’re real vanilla with him.”

We’ll also see if that flavor changes much Sunday.

Home woes

The last time the Cardinals won a Sunday home game was on Oct. 24, 2021, a 31-5 victory over the Houston Texans that moved their record to 7-0.

Since then, the Cardinals are 8-21 overall including the playoff loss to the Rams and 1-12 in State Farm Stadium. The lone success was a 42-34 win over the Saints on Thursday night Oct. 20 last season. Eight of the 12 losses were one-score games, including four by three points or fewer.

Of course, one-score games are what usually separates teams in the NFL. Last season, 156 of the 272 games (57.3 percent) were decided by eight points or fewer and 203 (74.6 percent) were one-score games in the fourth quarter. The average scoring margin of 9.7 was the lowest for a full season since 1932. In Week 1, there were eight one-score games and another three within one score in the fourth quarter.

The Cardinals were 2-6 in one-score games during their 4-13 2022 season and Kliff Kingsbury was fired. Four of the losses were by a total of eight points with one in overtime. Since that 2021 home win over the Texans, the Cardinals are 3-11 in one-score games. The Giants, 9-7-1 and in the playoffs last season, were 8-4 in one-score games and Brian Daboll was named Coach of the Year.

Get the picture?

When safety Budda Baker was asked about the home struggles this week, he said, “It means so much for us to have the fans there cheering us on and on defense to have the stadium as loud as possible because it’s going to be hard for the other team to hear their calls and the things they call in the huddle or pre-snap. It means a lot for us, especially me, to see those fans out there yelling, screaming and having a good time.

“Our goal is, of course, to win. We know we haven’t really done that these past few years. We’re not trying to lose, we’re trying to win. It’s a matter of us just continuing to take it one day at a time, one week at a time.”

He then said smiling, “Hopefully, we can pack the house up. If you guys have a job on Sunday, just let me know. Message me, fans. I’ll try to get you an off day and let’s have a good time. And most importantly, let’s get a W.”

Said Gannon, “I can’t wait. I want it to be live when we’re on defense and quiet when we’re on offense. So pass the word along.”

Rebounding from good plays

The accolades have been abundant after the performance of the defense against the Commanders, but Rallis addressed the disappointment of the drive at the end of the first half after Gardeck’s strip-sack was recovered by linebacker Cameron Thomas and returned two yards for a touchdown giving the Cardinals a 13-7 lead with 55 seconds remaining.

Six seconds later and starting from the 19-yard line, quarterback Sam Howell connected with wide receiver Curtis Samuel for 18 yards and then completed a 19-yard pass to tight end Logan Thomas to the Arizona 44-yard line with 19 seconds remaining.

The crusher came two plays later on a 32-yard pass to Samuel to the 12-yard line that led to a 30-yard field goal by Joey Slye. Samuel had five catches for only 54 yards in the game, but 50 came on those two plays. Howell passed for only 202 yards in the game with 69 in that drive.

Rallis said Tuesday, “That’s something we need to learn from because we talk a lot about being resilient and we always use it in the face of adversity, but what about in the face of a successful play? Anytime you score on defense, you go right back out there. And yeah, you can celebrate all you want, but you better be able to lock right back in to what do we have to do, how much time is on the clock, how many timeouts do they have, what’s the field-goal line, what do they need to get to and reset yourself for the next drive and that’s something coaches and players need to learn to be better at.

“I didn’t love every call that I had on that drive and there’s a couple of things we could have executed better. So it’s a good learning lesson for having that response and resiliency to the good or the bad. It’s a 60-minue ballgame and you have to play all 60 minutes locked in. I’m not saying we weren’t locked in, but we need to improve on when something good happens to play good and we can’t let three points up at the end of the half.”

A family affair

Rookie linebacker BJ Ojulari will have about 15 family members at Sunday’s game to see him and his brother, Azeez, who is a linebacker for the Giants but is doubtful for the game because of a hamstring injury. They will be wearing special T-shirts and sitting on the Cardinals side of State Farm Stadium.

Both were second-round picks, Azeez in 2021, but they never played against each other. BJ went to LSU and Azeez to Georgia, but in their only concurrent college season in 2020, the two teams didn’t play.

“We always played together. But growing up we always butted heads. We always competed in everything we do,” BJ said.

Azeez told giants.com, “We speak every day; that’s my guy, I love him. I’m so happy for him. It’s like a dream come true for both of us. Two brothers in the NFL. We’ve been watching the NFL since we were little, so it’s like a dream come true, now it’s happening.”

BJ had a hamstring injury in the run-up to the draft and then suffered a knee injury after joining the Cardinals, so he did little in the offseason program and training camp. He opened camp on physically unable to perform and passed his physical Aug. 7.

Getting up to speed, he said, “It’s been very good for me, especially with the guys I have in my room. Being able to encourage me, keep pushing me. Coach Rob does a great job with me, pulling me to the side. Anything that I need extra. Understanding, asking questions. Just to be able to catch up to the other guys. But just being out there on the field, getting more reps each and every day is going to help me develop and be ready to play on Sunday.”

He played only 12 snaps against Washington (17 percent), but Rodriguez said his time is coming.

“The thing you can’t do with guys like that is give them too much,” he said. “You can’t throw a bunch of expectations on them. I just want him to be at his best self and keep learning and keep progressing. I’m extremely happy with that process.

“I just want him to be in the best position to be successful, just enough for him to eat and then when he shows that he can do a little more, let’s give him some more and we’re going to just keep riding that wave until he’s got his feet under him. In time, he’s going to get there.”

Stopping Saquon

Falling behind as quickly as they did last week against the Cowboys prevented the Giants from sticking with their game plan.

Running back Saquon Barkley rushed for 19 yards on four attempts on the opening possession of the game, but had only eight carries the remainder of the way for 32 yards.

On that drive, they drove to the 8-yard line, but a false start on tackle Andrew Thomas and a botched center exchange pushed the ball back to the 27 and a 45-yard field-goal attempt was blocked and returned for a touchdown.

The next three possessions were three plays for minus-10 yards and a punt, three plays for minus-9 yards and a pick-six, three plays for three yards and a punt and an interception on first down. There were two sacks for the minus-19 yardage. The score was 26-0 at halftime.

Barkley had 12 rushes for 51 yards and three receptions for 12 in the game. Last season, he totaled 1,650 yards from scrimmage (103.1 yards per game played), that included 1,312 rushing yards (82.0 per game) and 10 touchdowns.

Giants quarterback Daniel Jones was intercepted twice and the Giants lost one of their five fumbles last Sunday night, two by Jones.

The Cardinals know what they will be up against, while noting that Thomas is questionable because of a hamstring injury and center John Michael Schmitz is a rookie second-round pick.

Rallis understated when he said, “Saquon’s a good player, just so we’re all clear. You have to tackle really well. He is unbelievable on contact as far as being able to break free. His balance is phenomenal. You really don’t want to let him get in open field with space because he can pull away. The one thing that I think is really unique with Saquon is he’ll make some hidden yardage out of what doesn’t look to be there. You think, ‘OK, the way that we’re fitting this, the way that we’re playing these blocks, this run’s going to go for two.’

“He’s very patient. He can find those cuts. He can find those cuts late because he’s got unreal ability to make drastic cuts and he’ll make a four- or five-yard gain out of it and you’re like, ‘Now I’m in second- and-5 instead of second-and-8.’ That’s what really makes Saquon special in the run game and then they’re using him in the pass game very well too whether it’s out of the backfield or split out wide and just his ability to run and catch, he’s really got all of it.”

“It’s always difficult and it always takes a village,” Rodriguez said. “If you’re trying to get one individual to stop a guy like Saquon, then guess what, that’s a bad game plan. You have to get multiple hats to him and you got to hit him a certain way. You can’t treat him the same. Again, style makes fights, man. And you gotta have a community of guys who are willing to be physical.

“You want to talk about putting your face in the fan? He brings the fan to you. With those big legs and the way he runs and he can do so much. Catch the ball, protect. There’s so much that he can do to help his team and so he challenges you in many ways. It’s difficult; it’s gonna be difficult every week, but especially for a guy who has that much potential to make big plays.”

Finally, Baker said, “He’s very good at hitting that hole and making moves off whoever it is. He’s a very downhill runner, a guy who can make all the cuts. They also like to throw him the ball as well. An all-down, every-down back. One of the great backs in this league and a guy that we’re of course going to be heavily dialed into in the game.”

As for Thomas, he acknowledged how hard it was to play through his hamstring injury last week.

“You definitely feel it,” he said. “Playing with a hamstring, trying to anchor, trying to get off the ball, it’s not easy. But everyone plays with injuries. You try not to make excuses, just get healthy.”

Simmons returns to Arizona

Traded for a seventh-round pick on Aug. 24, Isaiah Simmons will be on the field Sunday against the Cardinals.

“I’ve got no animosity towards them,” he said this week. “I’m just happy to be with the Giants, because that’s who wants to give me my opportunity.”

Simmons claims he won’t make anything personal.

“No. It wouldn’t make sense for me,” he said. “I understand it’d be human to, but for the best of me, it wouldn’t make sense to go to another team still fixated on the old team I was on. So I tried to completely turn over a new leaf, a new page.

“I’m not an emotionless person so I’m sure there will be some emotions flowing through me but nothing that’s going to affect me and make me do anything crazy. I’m not a person to go out there and be like, ‘rah, rah, rah,’ so I’m not going to go out there doing that or try to make an extra play because then that’s when you end up hurting yourself in the long run.”

Baker said this week, “That’s little bro, of course. He’s not really a teammate of ours this week so it won’t be much of anything until after the game. Love him, but at the end of the day he’s a Giant and that’s who we are going against. There won’t be many words until after the game.”

Simmons is still fitting in with the Giants, but the consistent issue in Arizona was figuring out where to play him. Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale believes that’s a plus.

“I think his role is going to expand,” Martindale said, “because he’s that good of a player and he’s just learning the package. What is this, the third week he’s been here? It’s just going to keep expanding. Like I said, he’s a positionless player, which is a compliment to him. We can move him around and play him in different spots. Through attrition, there’s going to be different spots that are open and each week, you put him in the best spot that you need him in to help us in.”

Roster moves

The Cardinals placed defensive end L.J. Collier on reserve/injured Saturday because of a biceps injury suffered against Washington. He will miss at least four weeks. Collier played the second-most snaps of any defensive lineman with 37 (52 percent) Sunday. Jonathan Ledbetter played 41, Carlos Watkins 33, Kevin Strong Jr. 31 and Leki Fotu 17. Defensive lineman Eric Banks, along with cornerback Quavian White, were elevated from the practice squad, while safety Andre Chachere was signed to the 53-man roster from the practice squad after being elevated last week.

Banks is expected to be active and rookie Dante Stills also could be considering the matchup against Barkley and perhaps wanting to have six linemen available.

Chachere’s signing could be related to the hamstring injury, severity unknown, suffered by Baker in practice Friday. While many expect him to play, given what occurred last season when he suffered a high-ankle sprain, hamstrings are a different animal and there is always concern with making the injury worse by pushing it.

The Giants elevated running back Taiwan Jones and linebacker Oshane Ximines from the practice squad.

The quotebook

Baker on the Giants’ loss to the Cowboys:That game got away from them early, so it’s kinda hard to play the game for them because they were down pretty fast 14-0, so couldn’t rely on the run as much as they wanted to. You know when you have a great back like Saquon, you know that’s gonna be the way they start the game trying to get him involved and that’s going to be our job to stop the run.”

Baker on Gardeck referring to the linebackers as dawgs: “I like to always think of all of as dawgs. All us are going to, especially the defensive backs, not let up explosives, a team that’s gonna run to the ball, DBs that are gonna hit. You can’t just get in those condensed formations to have the corners tackle because corners are gonna come downhill and try to hit that outside thigh-board. So just a very physical team that knows exactly what to do each and every play. That’s of course who I want our team to be, but our defense to be especially.”

Assistant head coach and special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers on there being no penalties from his units against the Commanders. (There was one penalty declined, an offside on Baker on the end-of-half field goal for Washington.): “We try to stay penalty-free and Week 1, it’s always faster than what it is in practice. It’s always faster than what it is in the preseason. I’ll take that kind of penalty performance over some other ones I’ve been a part of.”

Rallis on rookie cornerback Kei’Trel Clark’s play against Washington: “I thought when it was time to get on a guy and cover, he did fairly well. He was connected with people and so I was impressed with that. When it was time to be one-on-one, he was there to be able to make plays on the ball. He’ll just keep building from his performance on Sunday.”

New safety K’Von Wallace, claimed on waivers Aug. 30, on how being in Philadelphia with Gannon and Rallis was important: “That’s a fact. It blended perfectly. I knew 60, 70 percent of the playbook already. Knowing the type of personnel JG runs and Nick likes to have and familiarity with the defense helps. A lot of the way we communicated remained the same, and I just wanted to be a piece to the defense. Came here trying to multiply, not divide. That’s all.”

Rallis on Wallace: “We knew with the familiarity with K’Von, he was eventually going to play a big role. He did a great job of getting here and getting caught up to speed fast.”

Baker on Wallace: “K’Von fits great. He’s a great player, very smart. Guy who communicates to a T. Someone that I can appreciate because he’s at safety with me, so just having us have that comfortable ability to talk and converse before the play pre-snap definitely helps me out, helps him out and helps us all play fast.”

Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka on whether there is a bad taste in his mouth from when he was a finalist for the job Gannon got: “I think I addressed this in the offseason, way back in March or whatever, but again, a great experience. I learned a lot about myself, I learned a lot about the NFL and how those things work so again, nothing but a great experience there.”

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com. Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD

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