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cardinals what to watch: baker, williams one step closer; gannon guarantee; beware of metcalf

Howard Balzer Avatar
October 21, 2023

It appears that Cardinals safety Budda Baker will play Sunday after he was activated from reserve/injured Saturday. He will surely be monitored in warmups to be absolutely sure there’s little chance of aggravating the hamstring injury he suffered in practice five weeks ago Friday.

Baker acknowledged Thursday that the injury “was pretty bad, upper (proximal) hamstring. It’s a little longer recovery period. As soon as I got the MRI, they told me the amount of weeks the injury is supposed to take to be OK, which is about six, maybe more weeks. When I hear six weeks or I hear six-to-eight weeks, mentally I’m just like, ‘No, let’s take it day-by-day and see how it’s going to go.’”

Baker is from the Seattle area and played at the University of Washington, so he acknowledged, “It’s something definitely I wanted to get back for and be ready to play. Right now, I’m just taking it day-by-day and seeing how everything holds up and it will be a game-(day) decision.”

Hamstrings are not to be fooled with, especially with being able to go full out and not worry about reinjury. Baker told PHNX he “babied” it the first couple weeks, but felt good while saying he has to extensively warm it up.

Everyone knows what having Baker back on the field will mean to the team, especially considering he hasn’t played since Week 1.

Coach Jonathan Gannon said, “He’s one of the best I’ve been around in a short period of time. I’ve really been in awe of him and how he goes about his day. The way he can bring his teammates along with him and elevate their game. As far as the leadership goes and how you can do that as a player, that’s really a special quality.”

Defensive coordinator Nick Rallis added, “Budda covers a lot of ground on the field and whether things don’t go right because of scheme, because of execution, he’s kind of an eliminator. So, there’s definitely an element of when he’s on the field, he can eliminate a lot of mistakes with just how he plays.”

Finally, general manager Monti Ossenfort told ArizonaSports 98.7 Friday, “Having Budda back on the field, it just feels different. What he brings to the defense, the team as a whole; we were very excited to get him back out there, get him moving around. Budda’s had a good week. Still got a couple days here before the game. He’s gonna have to continue to show that he’s going in the right direction.

“He’s improved from where he was at the start of the week and we’ll have to wait and see over the next 48 hours just how he responds and how his body responds, but the most important thing is just to have him taking steps in the right direction and have him be back out there and a part of it. We’re a better team and a better organization with him out on the field.”

How important is it for Baker to be on the field with the culture that’s being implemented?

“That’s huge,” Ossenfort said. “We’re looking for the right types of players that can do the physical things on the field, but then also the football character off the field. The accountability, the dependability, the smarts, the toughness and really Budda embodies all those things and so the more players we can get out on the field that have those attributes, the better off we’re all gonna be. When that time comes that he’s able to be back on the field, we’re gonna be better for it.”

Baker noted how difficult the process was of not playing, being patient and trying to avoid “dark” moments.

“It’s been crazy for me,” he said. “When I first hurt myself, I was mentally down. After that, I kind of just focused on what I could do to get back as fast as possible, so it’s just been a lot of working with the trainers and working with the strength staff, just working every single day trying to get my hamstring as best as it could be.

“To grind and get back is definitely something that’s very humbling, and it’s something I had to go through. I don’t think I’ve missed this many games my whole career, my whole life. It’s definitely been different, but I’m glad to be back on the field.”

Gannon noted this week how instrumental Buddy Morris, the team’s senior reconditioning coordinator, was in quarterback Kyler Murray’s return to practice from a torn ACL. Baker said first-year staffer Kyle Sammons, the team’s sports science coordinator/assistant strength and conditioning coach, was who he worked closely with.

Sammons was an assistant in strength and conditioning at Washington from 2015-2017 when Baker was there and then became the school’s director of sports science/reconditioning until 2021. He was the vice president of performance at STRIVE in 2022 before coming to the Cardinals this year in a revamped department.

Baker said, “Buddy’s my guy. I’ve been working with Buddy ever since my rookie year, so he’s been helping Kyler a lot with his recovery. The person I was around most was Kyle. Actually, he was my trainer at U-dub, so it was definitely something surreal to have him here and now he’s helping me recover and get back. A familiar face for me, Kyle’s been doing a great job along with the training staff. Those guys have been great for me. It’s been a great routine and just continuing to get my body right and my hamstring stronger each and every day.”

He was very hopeful of playing against the Seahawks and it is trending that way. Asked if there was that chance, he said, “I mean, of course. Me just being a competitor and someone who loves the game, takes pride in continuing to just play great football each and every week, it’s definitely something where I had to not humble myself, but kind of just not get too much anxiety or that type of stuff.

“I just had to understand where I am and understand that it’s a process and just continue to be that helping hand with the guys, but also continuing to get my body right and be able to get back onto the field as fast as I can get.”

In less than 24 hours, we’ll learn if that goal was reached for this week.

Challenge for Dobbs

Quarterback Joshua Dobbs knew this was coming, but Sunday will be his first start with Kyler Murray participating in practice. Dobbs has struggled with accuracy issues (which was noted in draft profiles in 2017) throughout the season and has completed 49.3 percent of his attempts in the last two games.

Gannon professed confidence earlier in the week when he was asked if he believes Dobbs would be affected by Murray being on the practice field.

“Not at all,” he said, and then boldly proclaimed, “He’s going to go out and play real well versus Seattle. I know that.”

Asked how he knows that, Gannon said, “The type of person he is and his response to what we all have to do as a team to improve to win some games.”

Told of Gannon’s words, Dobbs said, “I think it’s good to have that respect from the head man, but now I’ve got to go do it. I expect to play well every time I step on the field. That’s the way I prepare, that’s the way I lead; that’s the way I hold myself. When you don’t win a game, you never have the performance you want no matter what the stats are. At the end of the day, especially for quarterbacks, you have to go out there and win games on Sunday. That’s my goal.”

Sunday will be his first game played in Seattle. He said, “It’s my first time going up there. I’m taking in a new stadium, but I’ve heard stories about the 12th Man and I’ve seen their impact that they can have on a game from afar.”

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said (have you ever heard of a coach not bestow accolades on an upcoming opponents?), “He’s got good speed, he’s a little bit of a long-stride because he’s a tall guy and he gets out and guys don’t catch him very quickly. He’s had some good, substantial runs already. He’s a threat in the running game, but he’s also a threat in the passing game to get out and go. The thing I like about him is he’s run really tough when he’s had his chances.

“He’s run into some guys to make extra yards. He scored a touchdown earlier in the year and took a real big hit to go do it and he accomplished the task and got it done. I’m sure those guys are rallying behind him and are excited about the way he’s playing.”

Committee approach continues

With running back James Conner out for at least another three games, the Cardinals are expected to utilize three backs again as they did last Sunday against the Rams: Keaontay Ingram, Damien Williams and Emari Demercado.

Williams is on the practice squad as is Tony Jones Jr., who was released earlier this week and then signed to the practice group after clearing waivers.

Offensive coordinator Drew Petzing said of Ingram, “He’s the same guy every day. Very smooth runner. I think he sees the field really well. Makes really good decisions. Tries to finish his runs violently. I really expect to see that growth continue here as we move through the season and through his career, but really pleased with the way he’s played.”

Williams contributed against the Rams after being with the team for only 10 days and could get more looks against Seattle. He was officially elevated again from the practice squad Saturday.

Ossenfort told ArizonaSports 98.7, “He showed the ability last week to make one cut and get downhill. When he gets downhill, he’s a load. There’s a possibility he’ll have more opportunities this week along with Keaontay and Emari.”

Williams has been in the NFL since signing as an undrafted free agent with Miami in 2014. He’s also able to help the inexperienced runners on the roster.

“That’s the role of a lot of vets in this league,” Petzing said. “They had people who did it for them when they first came in. It’s that passing stuff down, knowledge of the sport, how to be a pro, how to go through your process and certainly he’s been around a long time and done this at a high level.

“So I think he is a great resource for those younger backs to talk to and watch and learn from. It’s been great having him in the room.”

Cornering the market

Rookie cornerback Kei’Trel might be back to having increased reps with Antonio Hamilton Sr. out because of a groin injury suffered against the Rams. Hamilton started the last two games after Clark had started the first four.

Asked about Clark’s playing time, Rallis said, “Every week, you have to talk about what’s the best matchups, what’s the best roles for each guy depending on who we’re playing and then what we want to accomplish in that game. Kei’Trel is gonna be a really good player for us. And he knows he’s got certain things he has to get better at just like everybody else in that position room or the entire defense. He’s going to be a contributor for us going forward.”

Starling Thomas V played his first defensive snaps of the season against the Rams, while rookie Garrett Williams concluded his three weeks of practice Friday and was activated from reserve/non-football injury Saturday. In addition, cornerback Bobby Price was elevated from the practice squad Saturday.

Numbers to know: According to Next Gen Stats, the Cardinals pressure rate on the quarterback of 29.5 percent is the second-lowest in the NFL.

However, the Cardinals defense has had 71 third-down plays and there are only four teams in the league with fewer. On first-down yards per play, the Cardinals are 31st in the league, allowing 1,240 yards on 184 plays (6.74 average). Those yards are 54.9 percent of the total yards allowed. Obvious passing situations have been few and far between.

By contrast, Cleveland and San Francisco are first and second in the league in first-down yards per play. The Browns’ average per play is 3.96 (108 plays for 428 yards; 42.7 percent of their total yards). The 49ers’ average per play is 4.02 (157 plays for 631 yards; 37.8 percent of total yards allowed).

Moore is less

Wide receiver Rondale Moore finally heard from the NFL this week after he had appealed a fine of $10,491 for alleged unnecessary roughness in the first game of the season against Washington.

The league reduced his fine by 20 percent ($2,089), but is keeping 25 percent of the remainder (another $2,098) in abeyance. It will be returned to Moore if he doesn’t have any similar infractions for the remainder of the season.

There was no penalty flagged on the play and league fine officer Jon Runyan insisted the fine was justified but said it was lowered because the contact was “incidental.”

That makes no sense because the fine was for lowering the helmet to make forcible contact. Accepting that it’s “incidental” flies in the face of it being forcible. When that was noted to Moore, he smiled and shrugged, while tossing the letter from the league into the trash.

The 12th Man

The Cardinals head to Seattle Sunday for the first of two games this season, knowing the challenge they will face against a 3-2 team that can be difficult to defeat at home.

Of course, that 12th-Man advantage hasn’t been as prominent in recent seasons.

Not including 2020 when there were no fans during the pandemic, the Seahawks are 13-14 at home since 2019 including 1-1 this season.

Going against the Seattle defense, Gannon explained what has to happen for there to be a chance of success: “We got to get in and out of the huddle. We gotta have good communication pre- and post-snap. Our tempo has to be right because it does get loud there, but good execution and moving the ball down the field you can quiet a crowd, too. But they realize the environment they’re going to play in and the challenge that lays ahead.”

Gannon declined to specify a “war daddy” on the defense, while saying they have “a couple on all three levels.” One of which is surely middle linebacker Bobby Wagner.

“When I watch the defense,” he said, “they play collectively as 11 really well. Really fast, in the right spot, they all tackle, they search the ball. That’s an extension of the head coach and it’s a very well-coached, fast defense.”

One new standout is cornerback Devon Witherspoon, who was the fifth overall selection in this year’s draft.

“He’s exactly what we thought,” Gannon said of how the Cardinals evaluated him heading to the draft. “He’s a rookie, so he’s just getting his feet wet, but he’s made some impact plays. He plays a couple different positions, so he’s why you would take him where they took him.”

Gannon has great respect for Pete Carroll, wo has been the team’s coach since 2010 and has compiled a record of 141-92-1.

“If you look at the history since Pete’s been there, they drafted some young guys, paid some guys that were producing at a high level and then kinda had to not tear it down,” Gannon said. “Some of those guys left their team and they had some young guys (come) back in. Just hats off to those guys’ consistency that they’ve had playing good defense for a long period of time with the bulk of their defense and then kinda supplementing it with some new guys and they play together well.”

Offensively, the Seahawks made the transition from quarterback Russell Wilson to Geno Smith last season and were in the playoffs with a 9-8 record. Gannon and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis have admiration for what they are capable of.

“What makes it go is 9 (running back Kenneth Walker III) with the run game, the keeper game, the boot game,” Gannon said. “Geno does a good job of taking care of it. They don’t turn it over. Got weapons outside so we got our work cut out for us.”

Rallis complimented Shane Waldron, who came to the Seahawks in 2021 after working on Sean McVay’s staff with the Rams, saying he “does a really good job of being multiple. He comes from that McVay offense, but you can see he’s got his own flavor to it. They got great skill throughout, they got a deep tight-end room, a really good running back. Very impressed with him and they’re deep at wideout and he utilizes all those guys.

“He’s multiple, keeps you on your toes a little bit defensively just because he can go out and try to win a game so many different ways. Like you want to talk about adaptability, I really see with this offense is you don’t know what you’re gonna get week-to-week, so they’re talented and they do a really good job schematically.”

The Cardinals have struggled limiting explosive plays on defense and the Seahawks’ group has 15 plays in five games of at least 20 yards in the pass game: Wide receivers DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and Jake Bobo have five, three and two respectively, while tight ends Noah Fant and Colby Parkinson each have two and Walker has one. Walker has added three runs of 21 yards or more.

Rallis said of Walker, “I think Kenneth is really good at being able to see everything. And he’s got a combination of patience and vision and then obviously the physical ability that goes with it. He can accelerate fast. He runs violent and he’s hard to bring down. You have to get 11 hats to the ball because he’s gonna find a cut, he’s gonna boom, boom, boom with his feet and then all of a sudden, it’s going to open up a whole new window and he’s gonna hit it.

“So that patience, that cut-ability, that vision makes him a really good runner coupled with once he gets in the open field he’s hitting it; he’s hard to bring down. When he’s rolling, they should continue to get that guy the ball because he’s an extremely good player and they have a good scheme that finds ways to get him in space, get him where he can make a cut and he’s on the second level. They do a great job of putting him in situations to have success.”

Numbers to know: If Walker has a rushing touchdown Sunday, he would join Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin as the only players in NFL history with a streak of five or more consecutive games with a rushing score in each of their first two seasons.

As for the pass game, Rallis said, “They got good receivers across the board. Lockett’s been playing at a high level for a long time and DK is a very good player. What stands out is his size and speed combination and they got (Jaxon) Smith-(Njigba) in there, the rookie, and they got a good tight-end group. Fant’s a really good receiver so they present challenges. Any time you have weapons across the board and with different coverages, there’s going to be different stress points.

“There’s going to be things that you’re trying to take away, so you have to be able to have multiple answers within the game, within in a series, within a quarter, half, whatever, to take away this guy, take away this concept, take away whatever that is. Take away Kenneth Walker. Still, there’s a lot to stop in this offense and so you have to be able to do a handful of different things defensively and be able to adjust if it’s not synced up as you want as the game’s going on.”

Flagging DK

Perhaps Metcalf should be nicknamed “red flag.”

The Seahawks receiver has been fined five times in four of the team’s five games totaling $65,563 with the latest for unnecessary roughness in last Sunday’s game against Cincinnati. The other fines were for a facemask, blindside block, unnecessary roughness and taunting. Two fines in the season opener against the Rams came on successive plays, one of which wasn’t penalized. The facemask penalty in Week 2 wasn’t assessed because of an offsetting penalty.

In five games, he has been flagged five times, which leads all NFL wide receivers, with four costing the team 55 yards. He also led his position group with seven penalties called in 2021 with three for 15 yards and eight last season, also with three for 15 yards.

The Seahawks have been penalized 39 times for 355 yards this season. Nine teams have more penalties, including the Cardinals with 41, while only four have lost more yards. The Cardinals are also at 355.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said this week, “We put all penalties on the board in Monday’s meetings, and the guys that have the most are on the top. He was up there with another guy. We all have to acknowledge it and recognize what our issues are, whatever they are, and it happens to be in this case, he’s getting called. He knows.

“He’s got to clean it up and we have to make sure that we’re aware of how they’re calling stuff. He’s a very aggressive player and very physical and it stands out and he draws attention because of that. We’ve got to be cleaner. He knows it and he’s got to get it done.”

But, does he know it, much less get it done?

When told of Carroll’s comments, Metcalf told Seattle media, “It’s just a board to me. I’m not going to change the way I play. I mean, if you look at the penalties, there’s a taunting, an unnecessary roughness, facemask, holding, and I think it was one more in there. So I’m doing pretty good if I look at it and judge myself.” That’s pretty good?

When he was asked if the 15-yard penalties were because he gets caught up in the moment too often, he responded, “Have you had a bad day at work sometimes?”

When that answer was, “of course,” Metcalf said, “OK, so that’s just all I’ll nail it down to. Nobody’s perfect. I’m my own person. I’m a competitive person. I’m not going to shy away because he put a penalty board on the screen. I’m just going to continue to be me.”

Finally, when asked whether he believes he should make progress on the penchant for penalties and fines, he said, “I’m just going to leave that up to everybody else. I don’t feel like I was a problem or I need to make progress in a certain area. Football is a violent sport and it’s my one opportunity to be violent on game days; I’m just going to continue to do that.”

Cardinals beware.

What they’re saying about Kyler

Gannon on Wednesday before practice when asked if the team needs an emotional lift with the return of Murray and Baker to practice: “No. They’re all about business. We had good meetings on Monday and good meetings today. They’re excited to get out there and practice. We’ve got to put all our energy, effort and focus on doing the little things to beat Seattle in Seattle.”

Gannon on Friday after they had practiced for two days: “Fun to see those guys out there. How they practice and they’re obviously high performers, high production guys. The intensity of practice probably ratcheted up just a touch there with the quarterback and Budda out there, so good to have those guys back and I think they definitely add an element of juice to practice.”

Wide receiver Hollywood Brown: “Definitely fresh arm; he’s got a fresh arm. He was locked (and) ready. He’s going to fit good. I feel like he’s going to bring a different dynamic, but this offense can help him out in a lot of ways. He brought a smile to people’s faces out there. We had a moment throwing the ball. It was pretty cool.”

Wide receiver Rondale Moore: “I’m happy for him. Excited to see him grow, get better, learn and go out there and have some fun and sling it around like he’s used to.”

Baker: “It was very exciting to see K1 back out there in that black jersey looking fresh. It’s very exciting to have him back on the football field and seeing him throw the football and running around a little bit. It’s been great and I’m excited to see when he comes back.”

Left tackle D.J. Humphries: “I’m not a medical professional at all, although some people call me doctor. But I will say he looks very good. I don’t really see any hitches or anything like that, so that’s always promising for somebody coming off something so traumatic and serious as he did.”

Right tackle Paris Johnson Jr.: “It’s exciting. That’s the guy I came to play for. To see him get back there and acquainted in the huddle, it’s awesome. (His arm) is awesome to watch. It’s minimal effort and the ball is zooming. There’s only a couple quarterbacks that I’ve been around that when they throw the ball you hear it.”

Ossenfort to 98.7: “It’s really the next step in the process. Kyler’s been working hard. He’s been grinding, he’s been doing everything that he could do within the rules to get himself back to this point. This week was the first step in the direction that we’re trying to head here. It was great to see him back out on the field, being able to throw to live receivers, to throw to our receivers, to get himself going back into game shape just to actually do more real football things. So it was awesome to see him out there. The guys loved to have him out there and we’re just excited to see him progress here as we move forward.”

Ossenfort on when he thinks he will be able to play in a game: “I think there’s a couple components to that. We gotta remember that it’s been close to 10 and a half, 11 months since Kyler’s actually played live football. A lot’s happened since then. We’ve had a new staff and a new offense and things have been changed. Terminology has changed, there’s been new teammates that Kyler hasn’t thrown to before. Kyler’s going to continue to improve physically as he gets out there and then mentally it’s gonna be how soon he can get comfortable with the mental aspects of the new offense and working with the new receivers. I can’t give you an exact time when that’s gonna be. I know he made progress this week in the few days of practice, so we’re going to continue to do that and look forward to having him out there at practice next week.”

Ossenfort on how Murray will be evaluated: “It’s the ability to run the offense. There’s things that Kyler brings to the table that we’ll be able to take advantage of, but I think the offense always operates through the quarterback and that’s the reality of life in the NFL. We’re gonna put him in the best position to maximize what he does and maximize the talents of the other players on the field. Those are things that he’s going to continue to get more comfortable with time on the job and the more we can put him in those situations in practice the better off the team’s gonna be.”

Quarterbacks coach Israel Woolfork on Murray practicing against the first-team defense (while he has had some snaps with the No. 1 offense): “It’s awesome because it’s an opportunity for him to feel speed and have guys rushing at you. Our pass rush is pretty good. It’s an awesome tool for him to get back in the swing of things.”

The quotebook

Petzing on if he’s seen before the offensive offside called on left guard Eljah Wilkinson on the team’s fourth-and-1 push-play attempt against the Rams: “The first time I saw it was probably two weeks ago. I think the Eagles got called for it, so it’s something we watched, we addressed, we certainly coach and sometimes they call it, sometimes they don’t. It’s something we need to be aware of as an offensive line in terms of how they’re calling it. I think they’ve (officials) made that petty clear, so we gotta make sure we’re playing within the rules.”

Rallis on what has to happen for the defense to be better in the second halves of games: “I think it’s a lot of things. You gotta be able to sustain execution. You gotta be able to possibly adapt how you’re calling it, what you’re calling. A lot of different factors can play into that. I think it can be a mistake maybe to try to pinpoint one thing. I think we gotta continue to try to get better at every factor that can play into that and go finish games better.”

Rallis on comments by Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, who said the Cardinals defense is “a little bit of a unique style of defense. I’m not sure there’s many NFL teams that are running what they’re running”: “I think we probably do some things that are a little bit abnormal or creative, not necessarily just completely out there, but situationally, whether that’s normal downs or third downs, there is some stuff. Some credit I would say (goes) to our players because we get a lot of ideas from our players and the staff of kinda putting together a defense that’s multiple, that comes from a lot of different areas of expertise whether that is from college or from the NFL, past coaches that we’ve been around, stuff that we kinda came up together as a collective unit and not just saying, ‘Hey, let’s just do this because this has been done before.’

“So I would say maybe there are some elements of the defense that are creative that kinda started here in Arizona and I’m sure that’s probably where Stafford’s getting that, whether that’s on third down, normal down, red zone whatever that may be not completely where, ‘What is going on on this tape,’ but definitely maybe some more creative looks.”

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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