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James Conner one of many cardinals items to watch sunday

Howard Balzer Avatar
December 2, 2023

Cardinals running back James Conner, who had a mere 10 touches for 32 yards with 6-for-27 on the ground in last week’s 37-14 loss to the Rams, is downplaying his return to Pittsburgh, where he played in college at Pitt and then played four seasons for the Steelers in the same stadium before signing with the Cardinals as an unrestricted free agent in 2021.

“I’m just going to come to play,” Conner said earlier this week. “It’s been three (seasons) now. If it was the following year, it might be more to it, but I’ve been a Cardinal for a while. So, I’m just going to play my game.” He did admit, “It’s a special place for sure.”

Coach Jonathan Gannon agrees with Conner . . . to a point. He said, “The respect that they have for him and the respect that we have for him; he’ll treat it like any other game, but he’ll be juiced up.”

Of course, Conner is always juiced up. That’s the way he approaches the game. He wants the ball. In the game against the Rams, he had six touches on the opening touchdown possession for 30 yards (4-for-23 rushing) and only four for two yards throughout the rest of the game. That’s what happens where there are five three-and-outs (one was actually four-and-out) and the offense is 4-for-15 on third down after hitting the first two.

Kyler Murray appreciates Conner’s value, especially as the quarterback works to develop rhythm in the offense in his fourth game of the season.

Murray called Conner’s physicality “huge” and added, “There are times where the run might not even be there and he’s creating stuff. That kind of happened on Sunday. He was creating and he was getting off early in that first drive. We have to do more of that. We have to get him the ball.”

Offensive coordinator Drew Petzing knows he has to find a way to feed Conner, especially on a windy and chilly Sunday where light rain is expected.

Although acknowledging the flow of the game, lack of plays and falling behind affected Conner’s usage last week, Petzing said, “I wish I had given James more opportunities to impact the game. He’s one of our best players. He’s playing at a high level, so need to get him and keep him involved.”

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “We can’t allow James Conner to do what James does. Know and love and got a lot of respect for James. He is a legitimate tough guy, a big-time competitor. Expecting nothing but his absolute best coming back into Pittsburgh because I know him.”

Petzing also appreciates Conner’s attitude, especially after a disappointing game.

“He wants to touch the ball more, he wants to have an impact on the game. But it wasn’t like he went super negative,” Petzing said. “He was a great teammate, he continued to work his tail off, and stayed involved in the game. He was great after the game in terms of my conversations with him about here’s what we did, here’s where we need to go going forward. And he’s been great that way the whole time.

“So certainly expect that to continue and been really pleased with that. I think a lot of the guys look to him for those leadership qualities and it’s good to see.”

A third-round pick of the Steelers in 2017, the low-key Conner said, “It’s a lot of love there in the city. I’ve got a lot of respect for people there and just love for them taking a chance and taking the opportunity to come out when I was dealing with all types of injuries and cancer and everything and still they selected me,” Conner said. “So, I’m forever grateful for that. And obviously the University of Pittsburgh; it’s one of the few schools that gave me a scholarship, so I’ve got nothing but love for the people there.”

Conner reflected on how overcoming lymphoma provided a perspective between football and life.

He said, “It enhanced it for sure, just going through stuff like that and the ups and downs of the game of football. You learn a lot about yourself and whatnot. But yeah, ever since I’ve been cancer-free, my mindset is definitely just being grateful, but also working to still earn a right to be in this league. This league is unforgiving. You gotta earn it every year.”

Coming to Arizona has also been a blessing. “It was new,” Conner said. “Coming out to the West Coast, it was a whole new experience, but it was good for my growth; spiritual, mental, everything. Got out of my comfort zone, took on a new challenge and found out a lot about myself.”

After last week’s loss to the Rams, Murray and Conner sat talking at Murray’s locker for a while and the quarterback said that relationship is important to him.

“This is his third year here,” Murray said, “and we’ve gotten closer every year. So he’s one of my good friends, probably one of my best friends for sure. He’s a guy you can count on, on and off the field. He’s experienced a lot in his life, so he’s a very smart, intelligent dude, but just to be able to bounce things off him back and forth, and then to be out there on the field with him.

“(There’s) nothing like having a guy next to you or going to bat with a guy that you know he’s got your back. That’s definitely a great feeling.”

The Hollywood conundrum

In quarterback Kyler Murray’s three games this season, the connection with wide receiver Hollywood Brown has been disappointing, but perhaps not surprising considering Murray didn’t practice for the first time until Oct. 18.

In addition, rookie Michael Wilson and his 6-foot-2 size was out the last two games because of a shoulder injury and will miss another game Sunday. The one game he played with Murray, against the Falcons, came after being limited in practice all week and he had three receptions on six targets for 34 yards.

Zach Pascal is 6-foot-2, but he normally plays on special teams and isn’t a significant part of the passing game. A baby boy was born Friday in Pascal’s family and he didn’t travel with the team to Pittsburgh. He was expected to to join them Saturday, but the Cardinals announced that didn’t happen and he won’t play.

They signed 6-foot-3 receiver Dan Chisena from the practice squad, but he has only been with the team since Nov. 22, so any role Sunday would likely be on special teams.

When asked the impact of not having Wilson and his size available, Murray said, “I’ve played with a lot of receivers in my lifetime,” Murray said. “From small guys to tall guys and I definitely miss having him out there. His ability, his talent, smarts for the game and just his will to win. He’s one of those guys that you feel comfortable when they’re out there because of what they give and how much you know they care about it. Not having him out there is a huge miss, but we’ve got guys behind him that want to be out there and want to step up. I’m very confident in the receiving group.”

Brown has been targeted 21 times in three games with his college teammate, but has only nine receptions for 124 yards (13.8 average). Over 17 games, that would project to 51 receptions for 703 yards.

After being targeted 12 times last week against the Rams, but catching only six for 88 yards, offensive coordinator Drew Petzing insisted that “it’s a small margin. There’s some times where we’ve had some opportunities and we just missed them. There’s some times where he had the opportunity to make a play and just missed it.

“And then there’s some times where we had some stuff up and and they had the right coverage on it and it wasn’t open. But you’ve seen that growth over the last three games and certainly started to hit that connection a little bit more than we had the first two (games).

“They see the field very similarly. They’ve played together a long time so only expect that connection to continue to grow.”

When Gannon was asked Monday about the inconsistency, he said, “We’ll keep practicing it and being on the details of those things. When they’re there, we’ve got to hit them, but I think just within the certain play-types that we’re trying to do those things if we make sure we practice it the right way and execute it in practice then it’ll happen in the game.”

The problem with that plan is Brown has hardly practiced the last two weeks because of a heel injury. Prior to the Rams game, he was limited on Wednesday and didn’t practice the next two days. This week, he didn’t practice at all and is questionable for Sunday.

The sense is he will play, but it’s difficult to expect significant improvement playing with an injury on his foot and having no time on task with Murray in practice.

This follows a season in which Murray and Brown played only seven games together.

Friday, when asked how not practicing impacts the connection with Murray, Gannon acknowledged, “It does. You only have so many reps in practice to help with that stuff, but we want to make sure that we try to get Hollywood to the game and he can impact the game for us. We know what he does for us. He just wasn’t healthy enough to go this week (in practice).

“But he’s done a really good job this year with his health and maintenance and different things that we’ve done with him because he hasn’t missed any time. I’m very pleased with where he’s been with the availability part. The rest will do him a little bit of good, but he’s trending in the right direction.”

Finally, Gannon described the injury being “like a lingering thing for the Ferrari that he is. The car has to be right. The gas has to be premium, not unleaded.”

Trey trending up

There were some raised eyebrows when the Cardinals selected tight end Trey McBride in the second round of the 2022 draft because Zach Ertz had been signed to a contract extension.

However, Ertz suffered a torn ACL on Nov. 26 against the Rams and then was placed on reserve/injured Oct. 24 after hurting his quad.

After a couple weeks of discussions, the Cardinals granted Ertz’s request to be released and he was waived Thursday. After going unclaimed, he is a free agent and various reports have linked him to the Ravens or a return to the Eagles. The Cardinals visit Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve day, the penultimate game of the season.

McBride has stepped up since the injury to Ertz and the reality is that he was unlikely to be back in 2024 thanks to a $7.955 million salary.

Gannon said of McBride, “When we got here to where he is now, he’s a very ascending player and he impacts the game for us in a positive way.”

“Zach’s been a great role model,” McBride said Friday. “A great guy that I’ve looked up to. A guy that I grew up watching since I was a little kid. To be in this room, to play with him was very special. I’m very grateful for my time with Zach. I have a lot of respect for him. I love the way he plays and I’m super-excited to watch where he continues to play his career.

“He helped me a lot, mostly with the route-tunning stuff. That’s what he specializes in. He definitely helped me with coverages, seeing what I’m seeing, what he sees. The way I run routes is a lot like he runs routes. I try to do a lot of the stuff he did. He’s been very successful in this league, so I try to take things from him.”

He also said not much will change in his approach now that he’s solidified as the starter.

“My responsibility stays the same,” he said. “Now that it’s me, I feel confident. I feel like these coaches believe in me. My teammates believe in me. And now I just gotta continue to prove that I can do what they want me to do.”

The “all teams have injuries” mantra

We hear it all the time when coaches are asked about dealing with ever-changing lineups because of injuries. “It’s the NFL” they say.

I’m waiting for the day when a coach injected with truth serum will respond with something like, “This has been a consistent issue, missing starters and having to deal with it.” After all, there’s reasons why many players are backups.

The coach-speak is understandable. It’s in their DNA to talk about coaching guys up. And they have to support those guys, while not wanting to be labeled excuse-makers when all it would be is reasonable explanations.

And yes, all teams have injuries. But, they are all to varying degrees and numbers, especially when they adversely affect certain specific groups.

It happened last season when the Cardinals’ offensive line was decimated. This season, it’s been mostly on the defensive line and secondary, although there have been four different starters at left guard.

Last week, playing with a shoulder injury, Jonathan Ledbetter was the only defensive lineman active that played in Week 1. The others against the Rams were Dante Stills, Roy Lopez, Ben Stille and Phil Hoskins. From Week 1, in what wasn’t an overwhelming group anyway, Carlos Watkins, L.J. Collier and Leki Fotu are on reserve/injured, while Kevin Strong was inactive against the Rams, but is expected to play Sunday.

At defensive back, safeties Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson have missed games along with cornerback Antonio Hamilton Sr., who is out again this week. When rookie Starling Thomas V left last week’s game with an ankle injury, he wasn’t replaced by benched corner Marco Wilson, but rather by rookie Divaad Wilson, who was elevated from the practice squad and was elevated again for Sunday’s game. It’s possible Wilson and rookie Kei’Trel Clark will start Sunday.

A look at the injury report for the Cardinals and Steelers graphically illustrates how injuries aren’t equal among teams.

The Cardinals have four players out for Sunday and six questionable. They also have six players placed on reserve/injured after the cutdown to 53 players, which is down from seven after the release of tight end Zach Ertz. During the week, the nine players with injuries had 16 DNPs (with five Friday), 13 limited and none full.

Meanwhile, the Steelers had eight players on the report (one with an illness) and they have four on reserve/injured. However, they have only one player questionable on their report. For the week, those eight had a total of six DNPs with none Friday, only two limited and 13 full.

Watt lights up the galaxy

There is ample reason why the word galaxy was used to describe Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt. It’s because the accolades never stop and new words are hard to find.

Noting how teams attempt to counter his play, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, “None of those things slow down that train.”

How much does he mean to the defense?

Tomlin went beyond only the defense, saying, “Not only for the defense, but for our football team. There is a lot to learn from him in terms of how he goes about his business, how he works to maximize his talent level, what he does to maintain a level of production. Let’s be honest. T.J. is the best defensive player on the planet right now. And he proves that week in and week out with the plays that he delivers us.”

You won’t get an argument from Gannon, who emphatically puts Watt on his “war daddy” list.

“Yeah, I would,” Gannon said. “You could make the argument he is the best player on defense in the world and you wouldn’t get a rebuttal from me when you watch the tape. Just what he does in the run game and in the pass game in affecting the quarterback and the ball. He’s very ball aware. He’s a high takeaway guy. They drop him and he makes interceptions. He’s all over the field and plays with a super-high motor. We definitely have to have our eye on that guy all the time.”

When asked if he’s figured out a way how to slow down Watt, offensive coordinator Drew Petzing, who previously coached against Watt every year while with the Browns, said, “No. And when I do, I’ll let you know. I think everyone has tried to find that answer. He’s as good as there is, he really is. We talk about consistency; he’s been the model of that. He’s been doing it his entire career since he stepped into the league. He’s dynamic in both phases, plays the game at such a high level. I have a ton of respect for him as a player.”

Cardinals running back James Conner, who was Watt’s teammate during his four seasons in Pittsburgh, was asked how to get past Watt. Conner gave a knowing smile and answered, “To get past T.J.? Run fast.”

We’ll see if he’s able to do that Sunday.

In his seventh season, Watt has 91.0 career sacks and 100 tackles for loss. He was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2021 when he equaled Michael Strahan’s league record of 22.5 sacks. That came after being second in voting for the award in 2020 and third in 2019. His 15.0 sacks led the league in 2020 as did his 23 tackles for loss. In 2021, he had 21 TFLs.

Watt’s value was underscored last season when he suffered a torn pectoral muscle in a Week 1 win over the Bengals. He missed the next seven games, in which the Steelers won only one. After his return, they won seven of their last nine to finish 9-8 and qualify for the postseason.

The Steelers are currently 7-4 and Watt is tied for the league lead in sacks with Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter (13.5) and also has 25 quarterback hits, 12 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles and fumble recoveries.

How does that compare to the Cardinals? The five consistent edge rushers in the rotation – Zaven Collins, Dennis Gardeck, Victor Dimukeje, BJ Ojulari and Cameron Thomas – have combined for 16.5 sacks, 28 quarterback hits, 24 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles and recoveries.

Meanwhile, in 29 career December games, Watt has 21.5 sacks, 48 quarterback hits and nine forced fumbles.

When asked if an opponent has to figure that Watt will “get his,” Gannon said, “No, he better not get his because he’ll train-wreck the game. You have to be very aware and there’s going to be things that we don’t want to do, or we want to do that we can’t because we have to limit his impact in the game.”

Quarterback Kyler Murray said, “We’ve got to be aware of him and we will be, so we’ll try to eliminate him as much as possible.”

Good luck with that.

More than Watt on defense

“It’s a very talented defense. I thought I got out of that division and here we are again,” Petzing said. “I’ve played them seven times the last three years (including a playoff game). It’s a really well-coached group. It’s the front seven and you can name the top three guys (edge rushers Watt and Alex Highsmith, and defensive lineman Cameron Heyward). They’re premier players. They make the defense go. And they have for a long time. Attitude, effort, intensity, mindset and physical execution. Certainly, that’s where the game starts.

“It’s going to start and end up front in terms of how we handle those guys and the things that they do. But they’ve got some good players in the back end as well (led by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick). (They show) multiple coverages, multiple looks, lot of pressures. They like to get after the quarterback and they like to stop the run. They’re stout. So we’re going to have our hands full in terms of the way that we attack them, how we handle them and we have to be up to the challenge.”

Said Gannon,They’ve got a really good, big-time defense. They’ve got premier players, they’re (excellent) on takeaways and they’re (tied for) first in the league in not giving it away. That’s how they win football games. They grind you out and they make some plays. On defense, they do a really good job of stuffing the run to get you in a known-pass and then taking the ball away in known-pass. That’s how they win games on defense.”

The Steelers are tied for first in the NFL with the 49ers with a plus-11 turnover ratio and have 20 takeaways (tied for third) and only nine turnovers. Their 12 interceptions is also tied for third most.

Then there’s the offense

The Steelers fired offensive coordinator Matt Canada prior to last week’s game against the Bengals and have running backs coach Eddie Faulkner as the coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan calling plays.

They entered last Sunday averaging 280.1 yards per game and 4.7 per play. Although they scored only 16 points, the yardage was 421 with 6.2 per play.

Gannon said, “The play-types were a little bit different, and you could see where they put their emphasis on.”

Defensive coordinator Nick Rallis added, “There were some subtle differences. Things were called a little bit differently. But you can tell they did a good job of being well-balanced and continuing to keep their defense on the bench.

As for what gets the offense going, Gannon said, “The run game. The backs. They got explosive players that make plays on the perimeter. That’s where the explosives come. The physicality of the two runners (Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren) and the O-line; that’s a real thing. They possess the ball and move the chains, stay in front of the sticks. That complements how they play on defense, so big-time challenge.”

Safety Budda Baker concurred, saying, “A good ground-and-pound team. They have a couple backs that are real good downhill backs and they keep them fresh, not keeping one back on for many series. They got their wide receivers that are really good players. (George) Pickens and 18’s (Diontae Johnson) really good as well so they like to throw some 9-balls every now and again with those guys, get some explosives. (Quarterback Kenny) Pickett can make plays outside the pocket.”

Harris has rushed for 598 yards on 143 carries (4.2 average) with four touchdowns, while Warren has 93 rushes for 542 yards (5.8 average) and three scores, including one for 74 yards. Pickens leads the team with 40 receptions for 662 yards (16.6 average) and three touchdowns, one of which was for 71 yards.

The atmosphere and culture

Gannon described the game as “a big-time challenge in a big-time environment. The terrible towels will be out. Renegade will be playing. It’s a really cool environment. Having played there a couple times, it’s one of my favorite venues to play in, truthfully. It’s pretty special.”

Murray said, “I’m expecting a hostile environment, fans that love football and their team. I honestly enjoy playing on the road. We were taught that in college. Just being road warriors and going into another place and winning. That was something we prided ourselves on, so I’ve tried to take that into the league. It’ really a mindset.

“It’s going to be fun though. You don’t get many chances to be in environments like this one and I’ve never been there. Well, I have for a college game, but not since I’ve been in the league. I’m sure it’s going to be a sight to see. We’ve got to go in there and execute.”

As for coach Mike Tomlin, this is his 17th season with the Steelers and his record is 178-106-2 including playoff games. Since he was hired in 2007, the Cardinals are on their fifth head coach.

Gannon said, “There’s consistency with what they’ve been doing for a long time. You can see the type of players that they have that they value through their draft process and player acquisition. Coach Tomlin is not confused about who he brings in that building. I know that, and you see it show up.”

As for how his teams play, Gannon said, “His team always plays with a level of physicality and belief that they’re going to figure out a way to win the game. Every game that they’re in. It’s very impressive to watch them, all three units, on tape year to year or week to week; whatever it is. Just prepping for them before on different teams, and then this week, all our energy and focus is into this team, but you see that always shows up.”

Notable numbers

–Kyler Murray now has 18 career games with a touchdown pass and rushing score. Daunte Culpepper also has 18 in his first five NFL seasons and the only players with more are Josh Allen with 25 and Cam Newton with 31.

–T.J. Watt (yes, him again!) had two sacks last Sunday against the Bengals and it was the 20th time he has had at least two, tying Jared Allen for the fourth-most two-sack games in a player’s first 100 games. Hall of Famer Reggie White had 29, while Hall of Famer Richard Dent and brother J.J. had 23.

–With 91 career sacks in 98 games, Watt joined White (82 games) as the only players since the sack became an official statistic in 1982 to reach 90 sacks in fewer than 100 games.

–Currently with 13.5 sacks this season, if he reaches 15 sacks for the third season in his career, he would become the fourth player since 1982 to do that in their first seven seasons. White did it four times, while J.J. and Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware did it three times.

–Finally, Watt now has at least one sack in 57 career games and is tied with Aaron Donald for the fifth-most in a player’s first seven seasons. Those with more games with least one sack are Ware (68), White (63), Von Miller (61) and Myles Garrett (69).

–On this date 60 years ago (or close to it). On Dec. 1, 1963, the St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland Browns and New York Giants were tied for first place in the NFL’s Eastern Division. The Cardinals and Browns were playing in St. Louis two weeks after the Cardinals had defeated the Browns with a heavy dose of Hall-of-Fame safety Larry Wilson blitzing.

However, the Browns won that second game 24-10 behind 29 carries, 179 yards and two touchdown by Jim Brown. The Browns utilized quick counts to neutralize the blitz and on a third-and-long play from their own 3-yard called a draw to Brown that gained 61 yards.

On that run, he broke his own NFL record for yards in a season of 1,527 set in 1958 when there were 14-game seasons. Brown ended 1963 with 1,863 (133.1 per game), which is still 13th on the NFL all-time list.

The quotebook

Petzing on the side effect of three-and-outs, especially when against the Rams there were four in a row in the first half: “We talk about complementary football. And when we’re not able to stay on the field, we’re not being able to put up points, you put stress on the other two phases. You’re going to be punting the ball more than you need to be, you’re going to be on defense more than you need to be. That’s going to continue to be an emphasis for us.

“If we’re going to be successful as a team, we need to stay on the field, we need to convert third downs, we need to extend drives and we need to put up points. And certainly when we weren’t able to do that, feel like we’re letting the team down. I certainly feel that way myself. I know the players do, so we got to carry our load.”

Gannon on changes in practice this week: “It went really well. Practice was extremely competitive. Not that it’s not, but we did a little more fast-paced ball this week.”

Baker on fixing the explosive plays in the run defense after three of the Rams’ 33 rushing plays accounted for 103 of their 228 yards: “Hone in on the details as a group. Know exactly where each person is fitting. Not back-dooring gaps. Just doing our job. Everyone getting to the football. Doing the little details that we can do better is something that we’ve definitely worked on. Those things will be corrected.”

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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