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Cardinals what to watch: Tush Push, Jalen Hurts, Kyler's health

Howard Balzer Avatar
December 30, 2023
Jonathan Gannon

Judging by the fascination with the return to Philadelphia this week for Jonathan Gannon and Nick Rallis, you’d think the two Arizona Cardinals coaches have had Philly in their blood for a large part of their lifetime.

That’s obviously not the case. Both were on the Eagles’ staff for only the 2021 and 2022 seasons, with Gannon as defensive coordinator and Rallis the linebackers coach. Of course, last year ended with the team’s loss to the Chiefs in the Super Bowl in State Farm Stadium, which was followed by the storyline of Gannon becoming the Cardinals head coach two days after the game and the later revelation that general manager Monti Ossenfort made impermissible contact with Gannon after the Eagles won the NCF Championship Game.

That has made the return a persistent topic this week with many wondering how Gannon will be greeted by the ravenous Eagles fans, many of whom blamed the coach for the second-half touchdowns allowed in the defeat.

When asked about that, Gannon succinctly said, “Not really concerned about it,” wanting to move on to other subjects.

Perhaps the enmity has subsided somewhat based on how the defense has struggled this season, but Philadelphia sports fans don’t forget easily.

For their parts, Gannon and Rallis tried to downplay the “reunion” this week while acknowledging how positive their experience was in the city.

Gannon said it’s merely “the next game on the schedule,” although he said it will be good to see Eagles coach Nick Sirianni and general manager Howie Roseman and added, “but just like any other week, when the whistle blows, it’s compete, compete, compete.”

Rallis was a tad more expansive when he said, “I’ve played there as a visitor, I’ve played there as part of the home team and no matter what, those kinds of environments will get your juices flowing. That part of it is fun and I had a phenomenal couple years in Philly. I learned a lot of football. I think it’s going to be fun going up against really good coaches, a great organization, some phenomenal players — players and coaches that really helped me get to where I am in my career.

“Once kickoff happens, to me, it’s focus on, ‘What do we have to do to win the game? Or how do I have to call it? Or how do I have to make adjustments?’ And so on and so forth. But I think there is ultimately a good appreciation for this opportunity on Sunday.”

Everyone knows the challenge the 3-12 Cardinals face matching up against an 11-4 team that is in first place in the NFC East and trying to become the first team in that division to win two straight titles since the Eagles pulled it off from 2001 through 2004.

Said Gannon, “I know they’re 11-4 battling for the one seed. A really good football team in all three phases. A lot of premium players, a lot of good players over there (who are) well-coached and they play hard. It’s going to be a big-time challenge.”

Like Rallis, he emphasized what it’s like competing in the City of Brotherly Love.

“That’s a great place to play,” Gannon said. “It’s a hostile environment. They were on our side for two years when I was there, but our guys know, we’ve played in some hostile environments, that’s gonna be one of them. So we gotta do a good job of handling the elements and the noise and those things and operate at a high level.”

Jonathan and Nick

When Nick Sirianni was hired by the Eagles in 2021, he brought Gannon with him as defensive coordinator. They had been together with the Colts from 2018-2020, Sirianni as offensive coordinator and Gannon coaching the defensive backs/cornerbacks. Notably, Gannon had another “reunion” last week with Bears coach Matt Eberflus, who was the Colts defensive coordinator when Gannon was in Indianapolis.

Dec 24, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bears head coach Matt Eberflus, left, hugs Arizona Cardinals head coach Jonathan Gannon before their game at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

“Obviously, we’re extremely tight,” Gannon said this week about his relationship with Sirianni. “He’s helped me a good deal moving throughout this year with some different things. He’s always a resource for me.”

Siriani told the Philadelphia media this week, “I have a great deal of respect for Jonathan and the coach that he is and the person that he is. I’m looking forward to going against him this weekend and the players that I’ve talked to feel the same way.

“We didn’t finish the job last year, which all of us still have that taste in our mouth …  but there were still special moments, a lot of special moments last year and also in 2021. Jonathan Gannon was a big part of that.”

In a Philadelphia radio interview, he said, “As much as I love Jonathan Gannon, because I do, I hired him to be the defensive coordinator, we had so many special moments the past two years and my sentiment toward Jonathan Gannon is not the same as what I hear the city’s sentiment is. I love him, and I am always rooting for him except for this week.

“(But) I want him to feel so freaking uncomfortable when he walks into – and I’m going to tell him I said this – I want him to feel so uncomfortable and I am already sensing that’s that is going to happen when he walks in that stadium that he never wants to come back to Philly again. Even if he left stuff in his house that he’s got to go back to pick up, I want this guy to feel so uncomfortable.”

As for the Cardinals possibly being spoilers for what the Eagles are trying to accomplish, Gannon said, “That’s something not in my brain of playing spoiler. I want to try to do a good enough job this week to give ourselves a chance to win.”

Meanwhile, Cardinals safety Budda Baker revealed a special message he had for Gannon after being asked if the team is motivated to achieve a victory over Gannon’s former team.

After saying, “Just trying to get a win, period,” he acknowledged having certain thoughts during the team’s Wednesday morning meeting.

Baker said, “I almost interrupted JG because I weas like, thinking in my head, ‘I better not see no shaking hands, kissing or hugging babies before the game. You do that after the game.’ He’ll probably see this and laugh about it, but that was on my mind when he was talking today. But it’s just another opponent and we’ll try to go into their house and win the game.”

What the Eagles players are saying

–Defensive end Josh Sweat to ESPN: “Gannon’s my boy, man. I miss him. A lot of energy and a great coach.”

–Defensive end Brandon Graham to reporters, “Just the way everything happened, the way everybody kind of talked about him when he left, I know he wants some type of get-back. We’ve just got to make sure we go out and do us, man. Play, play hard, but it’s going to be good to see him.”

–Cornerback Darius Slay to reporters: “JG is my guy, man. It is going to be great to see him. I love what he is doing over there. I have been hearing nothing but great things from guys over there. I know one thing they are gonna do is play hard for him, for sure.”

The matchup

For the second consecutive week, the Cardinals are facing a quarterback that can beat teams with their arms or legs.

Last Sunday, Justin Fields rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown and while he passed for only 170 yards, he did have a scoring pass in the Bears’ 27-16 victory.

This week, it’s Jalen Hurts, who has rushed for 576 yards and scored 15 touchdowns. However, his passing numbers are down from last season when he had a passer rating of 101.5 with only six interceptions and averaged 8.05 yards per attempt.

In 2023, his 13 interceptions have contributed to a passer rating of 89.6, which is 18th in the NFL. His average per attempt is 7.29. In the fourth quarter, his 894.5 passer rating is 22nd in the NFL and his 57.9 completion percentage is the second worst.

The Eagles have scored 30 or more points in six games, but they totaled only 49 in a recent three-game losing streak that preceded last week’s 33-25 victory over the Giants.

Defensively, they have seven games of allowing 25 or more points. Last season, that happened only four times and they allowed fewer than 20 points in nine games. This season, that has happened only four times.

Extending plays, as Field did last week, is what the Cardinals can’t allow to happen very often if they expect to have a chance to keep the game close in the fourth quarter.

“He’s one of the best at it in the world,” Gannon said, “so we’ve got to do a better job of that. I thought we did some good things at times (against Chicago), but the execution and some of the things that we had structured just didn’t really come to fruition like we thought.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) runs past Arizona Cardinals defensive end Michael Dogbe (91) and Arizona Cardinals defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter (93) during the second quarter at State Farm Stadium.

“We’ve got to do a better job in that sense because this opponent when he extends plays, he throws it over your head or if there’s no one around him he runs it for an explosive. We’ve got to do a good job. That’s going to be an emphasis this week because that’s part of his game that he does really well.”

When asked if it helps that Field was the opponent last week, Gannon said, “I told the defense today we didn’t do a good enough job against Justin, and if we don’t do a good enough job against Jalen, he will (threaten) us. We’ve got to execute a lot better than what we did because Jalen is also a guy that can extend plays.

“He is extremely accurate on the move. They generate explosives when he is on the move and then he can also tuck it and run it and he’s a tough tackle, so we’ve got to do a much better job of that. Keeping him in the well when we need to keep him in the well and executing at a high level on defense to give ourselves a chance to win.”

I spy

Gannon explained the danger of trying to use a spy to try and contain a quarterback like Hurts.

“You take one out of coverage,” he said. “That’s always a con to me. Then a lot of times we see on tape where teams try to spy on certain guys. They try to spy Jalen and the spy’s free, and they can’t run them down, so you also have to be constructed in a way where your spy is athletic enough and fast enough to get the guy down, which is hard to do at times. You’ve got to be creative certain times, then you’ve got to change up the picture on them and you’ve got to devote resources to the quarterback.

“But when you devote resources to the quarterback, they’ve also got a bunch of dudes out there that you want to devote resources to. It’s a back and forth and it’s a mix, but whatever we’re doing we have to execute at a high level to give ourselves a chance to win.”

Gannon also discussed what occurs when there is a lot of focus on a quarterback as a runner. He said, “I always say there’s a strength and a stress to each call. The strength has to be the strength and then the stress. You have to minimize the stress if the ball finds that stress. Our guys have got to know that and play to those strengths and stresses of each call.”

Overall, Gannon said Hurts is “strong as a horse. He breaks a lot of tackles. He’s hard to bring down and he’s extremely quick. There (are) free runners on the tape at times and he just makes them miss, so he’s who he is for a reason. We’ve got a big-time challenge ahead of us.”

As for the defense . . .

A few weeks ago, Sirianni took defense-calling duties away from coordinator Sean Desai and handed the responsibility to senior defensive assistant Matt Patricia.

Said Gannon, “I know they kind of changed coordinators here. The last three games Coach Patricia took over, so he’s implementing some different things, but I know this: when I turn on the tape, they’ve got really good players. They play really hard, they get after the quarterback pretty good, and they’ve got coverage players. They play good against the run. It’s a good defense.”

Noting if could see changes Patricia has made, Gannon said, “You see wrinkles. You can’t overhaul everything, but you definitely see some different wrinkles.”

The brotherly shove

The play has many nicknames, but one thing it is for the Eagles is virtually unstoppable.

On third- or fourth-and-1, several players line up behind Hurts, the offensive line gets low and the result gets a first down. At times, defenses appear to be doing a good job, but the surge continues and the play often gains two or three yards.

There are no official statistics and surprisingly an Eagles spokesperson said they don’t track it. We do know that the Eagles are second in the NFL in third-down conversions with a 48.8 percentage and first in the league with a 75.0 percentage (18-for-24) on fourth downs. On third-and-1, Hurts has converted 14 of 15.

Rallis said, “You’ve got to have a plan where all 11 guys are executing their job at a high level to combat them.”

Asked why the Eagles are so good at it, Gannon said, “The detail that they coach it with. The players that they have doing it. And the execution of it. They’re detailed out on it. They have a couple different wrinkles from it that if you want to try to sell out to stop that, you’re gonna get burned.

“So you gotta be careful too because you don’t want a fourth-and-1 play or a third-and-1 play to go for 30, which they’ve done to teams. So you gotta pick and choose your spots there, but it’s something that they do extremely well.”

There are a lot of other things to prepare for against the Eagles offense during the practice week and not a lot of time, but Gannon said, “You have to prepare for it though because it comes up in multiple spots during the game for them. There’s technique involved. There’s a little bit of will involved, but it’s definitely a tough play to stop.”

When asked how to stop the play, defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc laughed and said, “When you find out the answer, you let me know, all right. It’s a great deal. It’s a tough-man sport. You just kinda drop your you-know-whats and it’s man-on-man, right? It’s gonna be a challenge. They haven’t been stopped many times. But our guys are prepped for it the best we can; we’re keeping our guys safe, of course.”

As for what makes it so difficult to stop, he said, “For them, it’s any play. They’ve been together for a while, they’re a really solid unit, they got some talented guys. They got big guys that can get down and play with some good leverage and that’s what they do. That’s part of their DNA and they’re good at it. I looked at short yardage over the week and they’ve been unsuccessful only a handful of times.”

Nose tackle Roy Lopez said simply, “You have to grind. That’s the dirty, nasty part of the game. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

Fellow lineman Kevin Strong was with the Titans last season and said they stopped the play once. It was like a badge of honor.

“We came out of our stance,” he said. “It was a mindset. They get on the ball quick. You gotta get low, gotta get under ‘em, keep driving your feet. Everybody’s on the same page and that’s what we gotta do now.

“It’s a thing you just gotta do. It’s all about bucking up and coming out of your stance and just doing what you gotta do. It’s not something that you can really practice for. You gotta get down there and do it. I’m ready for it. It’s a challenge to take on.”

Strong said center Jason Kelce and the offensive line make it work.

“Kelce gets so low, head to the ground,” Strong said. “When I first went against him, I couldn’t believe how much he could bend and get low. When they push, you gotta push back. It’s all about power. It’s like a mindset, just like on the goal line in any short yardage. You’re trying to stop somebody; they’re trying to get in. They’re really good at what they do.”

Perhaps the way to stop the push play is to somehow get Kelce to make a mistake, something that doesn’t happen very often.

However, in the second quarter of their Dec. 18 game against the Seahawks, the Eagles led 7-0 and faced third-and-1 at the Seattle 3-yard line. Lined up for the big push, Kelce moved the ball back and was flagged for a false start. A third-and-6 run from the 8-yard line gained nothing and they had to settle for a field goal and 10-0 lead. They eventually lost the game 20-17.

As for short yardage, it was suggested to Strong that the way to combat the play is to avoid short-yardage situations.

He smiled and said, “Yep. Keep them out of short yardage and we won’t have to worry about that.”

But there will still be plenty of other things to worry about.

As for Kelce, who turned 36 in November, Rallis said, “One of my favorites I’ve been around. Intelligence through the roof. Most linebackers I’ve been around, they hate going against Kelce because a linebacker hates a fast lineman that can get to the second level and get on you quick. Linebackers want to stay free; they want to go and get the ball, and this guy can run.

“He’s extremely fast to the second level, he’s highly intelligent, he’s really great in pass protection, and he really runs that show up front, so I’ve got a lot of respect for Kelce.”

Murray battles illness

Quarterback Kyler Murray did not practice Wednesday and Thursday because of illness, although he was on the field watching on Thursday. Despite being listed as limited Friday with a questionable status, he is expected to play against the Eagles.

If he wasn’t able to play, there would be no backup for Clayton Tune after Jeff Driskel was signed by the Browns off the Cardinals’ practice squad late Thursday. Because of Murray’s situation, the Cardinals tried to keep Driskel and he did agree to practice Thursday before heading to Cleveland because Murray wasn’t practicing that day.

The opportunity in Cleveland was too good to pass up with the team headed to the playoffs and where he has familiarity with the offense because Cardinals offensive coordinator Drew Petzing was the Browns’ quarterbacks coach last season and brought the offense to Arizona. Depending on results this weekend, it’s possible the Browns won’t have anything to gain in Week 18, so Driskel might play in that game while Joe Flacco sits.

As for Murray’s readiness to play after missing two practices, Gannon said Friday there could be “a little bit” of an effect, but added, “He’s played a lot of ball. He was out there yesterday and got all the mental reps. He’s probably met more this week than any other week just getting up to speed on things. I’m less concerned than if he was a rookie. That’s real. He understands what he’s gotta do to give us a chance to win.”

Won’t be watching Hollywood

The Cardinals finally shut down wide receiver Hollywood Brown, who has been dealing with a heel injury suffered against the Texans on Nov. 19.

Brown added two additional no-practice days on Wednesday and Thursday this week, and the decision was made to place him on reserve/injured Friday.

“He hasn’t been able to overcome what he’s got going on, so it’s the best thing for him, the best thing for us,” Gannon said Friday.

Asked about discussions with Brown before the choice was made, Gannon said, “Every day; every day with him. The guys in that locker room know that we have their best interests at heart. If they show us that they’re team-first, which he has all year, we will always do what’s best for the player first and then the team.

“So, he’s been awesome with that. He’s communicated extremely well. He tried man. I love him for it. For the better part of a month, he’s been grinding through an injury. He’s a Ferrari out there and you’re putting unleaded in him. He needs premium. He’s tried. It’s not for lack of that. He’s in there to the wee hours, up here earlier than a lot of people get in here, getting treatment. He wants to play. He just can’t go.”

Soon, there will be ample discussion about Brown’s future, considering his rookie contract expires in March making him an unrestricted free agent.

Gannon sounded like he hopes Brown is back, but there are many contractual components to that.

Gannon said it’s unlikely Brown will need surgery and added, “He just needs a couple weeks off. I think he’ll be back and healthier than ever and be a better player moving into next year.”

General manager Monti Ossenfort echoed Gannon’s thoughts on ArizonaSports 98.7, saying, “I got all the respect in the world for Hollywood. The worst part of football is injuries. When you’re a guy who runs a lot, taking that pounding on that heel, it’s a problem. We tried to string this out as long as we could and gave Hollywood every opportunity to get that heel in a spot where he could go out and help us and contribute.

“Unfortunately, we just couldn’t get to that point. This allows Hollywood to focus on getting himself healthy. When Hollywood was out there, he had good tape. He made plays for us and there were times we couldn’t get him the ball, but he was there. He’s got ability; he’s proven it in this league.”

As for Brown’s future, Ossenfort said, “What that means moving forward, we’ll address that when the time is right the next couple months, but really a lot of respect for Hollywood and how he handled this injury and the way he tried to push through a difficult situation for him and the team.”

The Cardinals elevated wide receiver Dan Chisena from the practice squad on Saturday. He was signed to the team’s practice squad on Nov. 22 and has played in two games including last Sunday against the Bears.

Defending McBride

With the emergence of tight end Trey McBride this season, Gannon was asked if he’s seen teams trying to limit what McBride can do in the offense.

He said, “People are aware of him without completely restructuring everything to take away a tight end. That’s why those are good players to have that can make plays in the passing game. You gotta devote assets to him, but without completely restructuring your defense is kinda hard so you see people doing some different things to him. I call it butch-in or jamming him at the line of scrimmage or putting a safety on him instead of a linebacker. Middle-field safeties are a little more aware of him. Good defenses are going to account for that.”

Now, it’s up to McBride to adjust to the adjustments.

“With Trey, the lesson is people are going to adjust how they play you and you gotta be able to adjust your game, overcome that and still produce at a high level,” Gannon said.

He also explained how that can help others on offense, saying, “How people are accounting for him, he’s affecting the game in a positive way even though he might not show on the stat sheet like certain games he has. Other guys might have a one-on-one where they’re not getting a one-on-one or the coverage structures might say, ‘Hey this is an open area because they’re trying to do something a little different to account for him.’

“Good players affect the game no matter if they have stats or not. That’s on defense, too. They all work together and people take some stress and then there’s some strength that goes to other places. So it’s the ultimate team game.”

Replacing Led

With defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter on reserve/injured because of a knee injury, line coach Derrick LeBlanc said Phil Hoskins “will have to step up at tackle,” while noting that he played his college career at Kentucky in the same defense, so there “won’t be a dropoff.” Hoskins was signed to the active roster from the practice squad this week.

Roy Lopez and Naquan Jones will rotate at nose tackle, while Kevin Strong and Dante Stills will be the other lineman playing significant snaps.

Gannon said Leki Fotu, who was designated for return from reserve/injured this week, was not activated for Sunday’s game but might play in the season finale against the Seahawks.

Bye bye Marco

A fourth-round pick in 2021, cornerback Marco Wilson played every defensive snap in five of the first eight games and missed a total of eight in the other three with six in one game.

In the next three games, he played 82, 76 and 75 percent and then never appeared on defense in the next four games, while playing 52 snaps on special teams.

The end of the line came Tuesday when he was placed on waivers and then assigned to the Patriots the following day. Tennessee and Denver, where Van Joseph is the defensive coordinator, also put in claims.

Gannon would only say, “Feel good about the guys in the room. Respect Marco. He handled himself like a pro, but feel good about moving forward.”

When asked about the timing with two games remaining in the season, he said, “There’s so many spots. So to get some guys up and playing, and the roster construction of all of that, just felt like it was best for the team for this week moving forward.”

The cornerbacks on the current roster are Antonio Hamilton Sr., Bobby Price and rookies Garrett Williams, Star Thomas V and Kei’Trel Clark. Williams plays mostly in the slot with Hamilton and Thomas as the starters on the outside. Price was activated from reserve/injured, designated for return Saturday and becomes the 35th player on the active roster with two years or fewer of NFL experience.

Linebacker Trevor Nowaske, claimed on waivers from the Lions Friday, was the 34th and he raises the number of rookies on the roster to 14.

Williams wasn’t able to play until being activated from reserve/non-football injury on Oct. 21 after rehabbing a torn ACL in his left knee suffered during the 2022 season at Syracuse. He missed last week’s game against the Bears after injuring the same knee against the 49ers.

He was back at practice this week, although limited all three days and listed as questionable.

When asked if the injury is related to the surgery, Gannon said, “No. We’ll see how he is this week. He should be ready to go. It’s just a little bit of the same body part, but a little bit different. When you’re coming off of an injury like he did, there’s some residual effects of playing how much he’s played in the last month here that we just needed to take care of.”

As for how important it’s been for Williams to play as much as he has, Gannon said, “Huge. Just like all our guys, those reps are gold. He’s done a good job for us in there.”

Prater still climbing

Kicker Matt Prater currently has 397 career field goals and this season has nine of 50 yards or more.

With three field goals in the final two games, he would become the 12th player in history to reach 400 in their career.

The nine 50-plus yarders is a club record and only player in history has had 10 or more in a season: Daniel Carlson of the Raiders, who had 11 last season.

Each time he makes one from at least 50 yards, he extends his own career record, which is now at 80. That is 22 more than second-place Sebastian Janikowski, who had 58 in his career with the Raiders and Seahawks.

The quotebook

–Gannon on the job coordinators Drew Petzing and Nick Rallis have done in their first season in those roles: “I think Nick and Drew have done a really good job of adapting throughout the year, putting together good plans, being positive, coaching our guys, making sure they’re improving.

“I knew that going in, but you never know how someone’s going to react in the seat that they’re in the first time, myself included, but they’re both emotionally stable, smart guys, high character, high capacity and they relate to the players. They tell them why. They’re detailed out and they coach up their guys, so I’m extremely pleased with them.”

–Linebacker Zaven Collins on his switch to outside linebacker this season: “You understand why it’s so hard to rush in this league. I feel like I have made production plays. I will play whatever they ask me to play.” Collins said he has moved around to different spots in the defense and has 3.5 sacks, five tackles for loss, six passes defenses and an interception.

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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