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What to watch: cardinals players, coaches, captains

Howard Balzer Avatar
September 9, 2023

Finally, football.

As the Cardinals begin a season that has many truly wondering how it will actually play out, especially given the still unknown return date for quarterback Kyler Murray, there’s a trip to Washington (or should we day Landover, Md., site of sold-out FedEx Field) for the opener Sunday.

Coach Jonathan Gannon has the task of trying to establish a new culture, but one where this weekend is only the beginning of what is hoped to result in 17 games where no matter how many games are won, there is progress and improvement.

Amid that backdrop, what follows is a far-ranging look at what Sunday might look like while hitting on numerous storylines.

We’ll start with …

Scouting the Commanders

One thing that will never change about football is that games are usually won in the trenches on the offensive and defensive lines.

However, that is often forgotten after a game when most of the discussion becomes about the quarterback, the play-calling, an official’s call or even a decision by a coach to name a few frequent talking points.

One reality for Sunday’s game is the challenge the Cardinals offensive line will face against Washington’s defensive line, especially defensive tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen.

Only two teams in the NFL in 2022 had two players with at least 16 tackles for loss and Payne and Allen were one of those duos with 18 and 16, respectively. Payne also contributed 11.5 sacks, while Allen had 7.5.

Two starters on the offensive line return for the Cardinals at left tackle with D.J. Humphries and right guard Will Hernandez. Rookie Paris Johnson Jr. is the right tackle with Elijah Wilkinson at left guard and Hjalte Froholdt at center.

Prior to last season when he started nine games at left guard for the Falcons before being placed on reserve/injured for the remainder of the season, Wilkinson had started 20 games at tackle with the Broncos and Bears and seven at right guard with the Broncos during his six seasons in the NFL.

Continuity was what Froholdt noted first when asked what makes Payne and Allen so good.

“They’ve all played a lot of ball,” Froholdt said. “They’ve all had the chance to play with each other for a very long time.”

He then said, “They’re multi-faceted, which makes it hard to prep against. It’s an awesome challenge for us, especially with a new interior offensive line to show what we’re about. I think we’re ready to step up to the challenge and get the best out of this team.”

Offensive coordinator Drew Petzing said, “It’s a very talented defense. It’s a well-coached system; very sound. “They play very hard. Certainly, that front makes that defense go and they got a lot of dynamic players up front that can get after the passer and that can stop the run. But I think overall, all 11 guys they can put on the field are really well-coached (24-season NFL coach Jack Del Rio is the coordinator) and do a really nice job of making it hard on an offense.”

As for Washington’s offense, defensive coordinator Nick Rallis is impressed with their receivers group.

He said, “Curtis Samuel, dangerous with the ball in his hand. Terry McLaurin can run. Strong, he’s a physical player. He’s an explosive play waiting to happen. Jahan Dotson is a crisp route-runner, so we gotta be able to cover. This is a really good receiving corps from top to bottom. I think even when (Dyami) Brown or (Byron) Pringle come in the game, they are good receivers as well.”

There had been some doubt about the status of McLaurin, who suffered a toe injury on Aug. 21. Limited in practice Wednesday, he practiced fully on Thursday and Friday and has no status on the injury report.

Rallis then said, “The backs (Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson) are big; they’re physical runners. We better tackle well otherwise there’s gonna be hidden yardage in there.”

As for second-year man Sam Howell, Rallis said, “So far in the preseason, their quarterback has played really well, playing efficient, making smart decisions. On top of that it’s a really good scheme, so I think overall there’s a lot of things that these guys present challenges to.”

That scheme has been implemented by Eric Bieniemy, who Rallis and Gannon faced in the Super Bowl seven months ago with Philadelphia against the Chiefs.

Gannon was succinct when asked the plan against the receivers: “Can’t get the ball thrown over your head.”

He added, “And then you have to play the coverages the right way. Because certain guys are going to have help, certain guys aren’t going to have help. You got to win your leverage side, you gotta have your eyes right, have to play with good technique. We got our work cut out for us. They’re a good group.”

Cardinals players to watch

Joshua Dobbs

This is an obvious one, but clearly the Cardinals’ decision to apparently go all-in on Dobbs as the bridge to Murray instead of Colt McCoy will be on full display beginning Sunday.

It’s expected that everyone speaks encouragingly about him because that’s the “football-speak” that is customary in the NFL.

Froholdt was with the Browns during Dobbs’ time there last season and he said Thursday “it’s going well” with the quarterback’s adjustment to a new team.

He added, “I knew Dobbsy from Cleveland, so it’s not completely unfamiliar territory there. He’s come in and taken everything gracefully. Willing to learn and listen and talk to me. I talk to him and ask him what he likes and what I like so he’s been doing a great job. It didn’t really take him a long time to get up to speed. He’s getting comfortable in the locker room, getting to know people and communicating.”

Kei’Trel Clark

One of two sixth-round picks this year has been a revelation and is expected to be a starter at cornerback.

When Gannon was asked what it is about Clark that makes the staff believe he’s ready to start, he said, “Production and how he goes about his business. I’m really looking forward to watching him play.”

Asked when he realized that Clark was trending that way, Gannon said, “I think just his body of work through OTAs and then training camp what he did. We feel good about all those guys in that room, and just because that’s his role right now, it doesn’t mean that stays the same with all of our guys. But I feel really good about what he’s going to do.”

Safety Budda Baker was asked about Clark and said, “This whole rookie class; they’re very mature. Way more mature than I feel like other rookie classes have been. These guys; they want to listen, they want to get better, they want to work hard. They’re very hard workers and Kei’Trel is definitely one of those guys that puts the extra work in, extra meetings in.

“He’ll talk to the safeties, see what we see. He’s a guy who’s very fast, has a quick twitch. Young. I’m very excited to see what he can do on Sunday because he’s been making plays and I’m excited to see him make more plays this season. He’s already a pro. He’s understanding what it is to be a pro and he’s going to continue to get better each and every week.”

For his part, while confident that “something’s definitely going to happen” Sunday like an interception or even a touchdown, Clark said he expects to give more than 50 family and friends that will be at the game something to cheer about. He was born about 130 miles south of FedEx Field in Midlothian, Va., where he went to high school.

“Oh, I will,” Clark said. “I definitely will make some plays. I’m not going into this game intending to get beat at all. That’s why we practice so hard. That’s why we focus on our technique and everything we do so we can be successful on game day.”

Baker is always a player to watch and Gannon sang his praises this week, saying, “He’s one of the best I’ve been around in a short period of time with what you’re looking for in a player on your team. I’ve really been in awe of him in how he goes about his day and his attitude. I talk about sustained positive enthusiasm and he has it.

“Obviously, the production has been there for a long time, and it’ll continue to be there. I think he’s going to have a fantastic year. The way he can bring his teammates along with him to elevate their game, there’s a part to that as far as leadership goes and how you can do that as a player; that’s really a special quality. I’m glad he’s out there playing for us, I know that.”

Asked if Baker has made an impact with him more than expected, Gannon insisted, “No, because it was kind of a clean slate when I got here with everybody. All I’ve based my opinions off of is what they do on a daily basis, and that’s where he stands with me.”

For Baker, it was wondered if he expects to get his hands on the ball more with all of his seven career interceptions coming in the last three seasons, but good for 245 return yards.

“Of course,” Baker said. “I always think that. Me personally, offenses kinda have done a good job of going away from 3, but this style of defense, I feel like they’re going to have to kinda have to see me. That’s what I like to say. So, can’t hide for long and I’m very excited for the season and very excited to showcase what we got.”

Cardinals backup offensive line

After swing tackle Kelvin Beachum was declared out Friday after suffering a hand injury in Wednesday’s practice, the Cardinals’ four backup offensive linemen have all been with the team for one week of practice after being claimed on waivers in the cut to 53.

Teams normally dress three backup linemen, so the Cardinals have a major decision to make. There are three linemen on the practice squad who were all with the team throughout the offseason and training camp: tackle Jackson Barton, guard Marquis Hayes and center Hayden Howerton.

Only two can be elevated from the practice squad for the game, but one could also be signed to the 53-man roster, which would necessitate someone going off the roster. Those moves, if they happen, will be known Saturday afternoon.

SATURDAY UPDATE: The Cardinals elevated Barton along with safety Andre Chachere. That means the two other linemen will be a combination of center/guards Trystan Colon and Keith Ismael, and guard/tackles Carter O’Donnell and Ilm Manning.

Petzing said, “It’s really important for them to understand that hey, right now, we’re asking you to do this and that may change, but you got here a week ago, this is what you need to do in a short amount of time to be able to help us as an offense, help us as a team, so I think all those guys have really come in and embraced that. Certainly seen that from the guys that are already in the room, so I think it’s been a petty smooth transition.”

Gannon claimed Friday when asked about the waiver claims: “If they’re out there, we feel good about them. They’ve done a really good job, all those new guys. (Line coaches) Klayton (Adams) and (assistant Chris) Cook; they’ve done a great job getting those guys caught up to speed. I’m pleased where they’re at.”

But pleased enough to have to play them if a starter is injured? That’s difficult to imagine.

All four players were third string with their previous teams: O’Donnell, Colts; Manning and Ismael, 49ers; and Colon, Jets.

Colon and Ismael told PHNX the other linemen have been “selfless” and that it’s a “great room.”

Colon played 20 games with four starts while with the Ravens in 2020-2022 and Ismael played 18 games, starting five with Washington in 2020 and 2021.

The snap counts in this summer’s preseason games were (snaps/percentage):

Colon: 21/42 (Hall of Fame Game), 28/39, 35/59, 23/39

Ismael: 51/85, 47/64, 28/52

Manning: 33/55, 47/64, 12/22

O’Donnell: 15/22, 64/96, 48/66

No matter who is active Sunday, more than ever the coaches will be hoping there is no reason to remove a starter from the field.

Nolan Cooney

Special-teams coach Jeff Rodgers, who was retained by Gannon and has been with the Cardinals since 2018, had his threesome of kicker Matt Prater, punter Andy Lee and long snapper Aaron Brewer broken up when Lee wasn’t re-signed.

That paved the way for a camp competition between Nolan Cooney and Matt Haack with Cooney winning the job. That also entails being the holder on field-goal and extra-point attempts.

Prater said Cooney is doing well as the holder, while Rodgers admitted it takes “time and reps” for it to be a seamless production between snapper, holder and kicker.

Rodgers said,The more they do it, the better they get at it. It takes a while. It an ever-evolving thing and you hope guys are together for years but that’s not reality.”

As for Cooney being the punter, Rodgers said, “We think Nolan’s got the chance to be pretty good. He went head-to-head with Matt and Nolan won the job. It wasn’t that Matt did a bad job; Nolan just punted really well.

“Now, it’s Week 1. The lights are on for the first time so there’s always guys that are inexperienced or unproven and that’s their time to shine. We certainly think he’s capable of that and that’s our expectation on Sunday.”

Rodgers also talked about the new rule this season that allows kickoff returners to fair-catch a kick if it’s short of the end zone and get the ball at the 25-yard line. It didn’t happen in the preseason and Rodgers said, “I don’t think that early on in the season, it’s gonna play a major factor. There are some situational things that are going to come up in which you are going to see the fair catch. “If the ball is being kicked off from the 50 and it’s a sky ball where you’re likely to get tackled inside the 20, you’re fair-catching that all day long. Are people going to squib in those situations? You start to over-think some things. But early on in the season I think most teams are going to let their guys compete and if you show to be a little bit deficient in some areas that may be an option.

“I think it will be after the first quarter (of the season) where teams start to reveal themselves to whatever their philosophy is gonna be. Early in the season, teams that kick touchbacks with strong-legged kickers; they’re going to do that. You get into some of the games in December, January on the east coast, even the strongest of kickers, kicking into a wind when it’s 12 degrees outside, it’s not getting to the end zone.”

Proving to the world

Don’t tell Baker that this season is about proving something to the naysayers that believe this team is destined for a brutal record.

Baker simply said, “Personally, I don’t really go into what the outside world thinks because I know at the end of the day all that really matters is the guys that are in the building, the guys that are putting the work in each and every day because we know; we can tell what could happen because we’re in that group.

“I know there’s a lot of things out in the media or from different sources, but at the end of the day, we don’t pay attention to that because a lot of times it’s just people’s opinions and I can go out there and say an opinion and it won’t mean anything. It only matters what the guys who are in the building, the guys who are putting the work in, the players that we have and ultimately doing what we think we can do. And that’s win games.”

When Froholdt was asked whether the “prove-it” theory is real or if it’s just something we in the media think, he said, “I think it’s a little bit of both. I don’t really listen much to it, I don’t see much of it, but I know there’s some talk, whatever. But I think in the end everybody’s mentality is just do everything in-house.

“Make sure that we do the best we can every day, compete every day. I think that’s the main objective. Just continue to get better throughout the season. Everybody thinks about camp, about improving in camp, but it’s an 18-week season and there’s a lot of still good football to be played and become better at and I think that the mood here is to get better every week.”

Oh, captain, my captain

Gannon named six captains for the season: Murray, left tackle D.J. Humphries, running back James Conner, Baker, linebacker Kyzir White and Dennis Gardeck on special teams.

Humphries, the player with the longest organizational tenure after arriving in 2015, relishes the honor.

“It’s one of my favorite accolades as a football player is being named a captain,” he said. “It’s cool when you’re in high school and college, but in the NFL to be a captain, to me, it’s crazy because it’s a group of men, you know what I mean? Some of them are older than me, some of them are younger than me. In college, your captains are usually your seniors.

“In high school, your captains are usually your seniors. But being in the NFL and being a captain and being a leader of a group of men, I mean that’s one of the highest honors that I could ask for as a player. It’s a level of respect from top down to be named that. It’s a big deal to me.”

There’s always a level of questions whenever a new coaching staff arrives and Humphries was also rehabbing a back injury during the offseason. He doesn’t take lightly that it was Gannon who made the choices.

He said, “There is a group of guys that come in trying to change things and they see you and accept and figure out who you are. They figure out you are a big deal as far as leadership and they don’t know me at all aside from being a player, that’s huge for me. It’s a certain level of respect.”

Gardeck will also have a role on coordinator Nick Rallis’ defense as he tries to figure out a pass-rush rotation on a weekly basis between Gardeck, Zaven Collins, Cameron Thomas, Victor Dimukeje, Jesse Luketa, rookie BJ Ojulari and Myjai Sanders, who is currently on short-term reserve/injured.

Noting he was somewhat familiar with Gardeck when he came to the Cardinals, Rallis said, “When I was actually in Philly, he was brought to my attention, because he was such a good player. So, I was able to look at him and I knew what his game was coming in. I was really excited about it, because he’s such a Swiss Army knife. He can do a lot of different things at a high level. That’s the key.

“He’s played extremely well in every phase. I think he can rush. He’s got elite bend. Anything I ask him to do in coverage he can get it done and he’s so low he can really set good edges in the run game.

“I love the guy and I love to see where his career’s going. I think he’s going to continue to get better. I’m so happy he’s a captain. He is a leader of this team and he’s a phenomenal resource for me. He’ll bring stuff to my attention and I’m like, ‘You’re a smart player. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. That weas a pretty bad call.’”

As for Baker and White, who will have the green dot on his helmet and relay his calls, Rallis said, “They are high, high character guys that you love being around. Every day they are smiling, bring energy and they both play similar in the sense, you know what I’m going to say; high motor and violent. They live that and they carry the flag for what I want to be defensively and I think JG would say they carry the flag for what he wants this team to look like. What a privilege for me to be able to work with those guys.”

Is the hay in the barn?

When a question began Friday referencing the hay being uin the barn, Gannon quickly said, “No. The hay is not in the barn. We got a big-time day today. Saturday’s a big day for us with what we’re doing, how we’re operating.”

The Cardinals traveled to the area Friday and when asked why Saturday is a big day, he said, A lot of football to be taught, learned and understanding. We have a process that we go through the day before the game that’s very important and critical to the last parts of the game plan and a couple more reps at some different things. Meetings. We do a mock game. It’s intense.”

Asked if the mock game helps prepare him for his role regarding timeouts, fourth down and other items, Gannon said. “A little bit. We’re doing that right now. The finishing touches on all that stuff and just to get everyone’s opinion one more time really to make sure that all three play-callers are on the same page with myself and we’re all on the same page together how we’re going to win the game so those are all good meetings.”

The hoodie

Petzing and Rallis will be on the field and getting assistant from other coaches in the booth. The question is whether Rallis will wear a hoodie, which he says helps him focus.

Baker says it’s about more than that.

“When you see that hoodie, it’s like he’s cool, calm and collected. He’s never going to be a guy that shouts and screams. He’s very cool, he’s very calm and I definitely think that helps on a football field of just getting the call in from K. White and then just playing football after that.”

Rallis acknowledged, “On game day, I am very calm. Little bit of like no emotion for me on game day. To me, emotion is the absence of rational thought. Ultimately for me to be at my best and serve the players best is to be completely separated from any kind of emotion and just be very tactical with my thoughts and so I’ve separated that even being on the field. Confidence brings a sense of calmness.”

The quotebook

Gannon on if there are any nerves heading to the opener: “Always a little bit of anxiousness, which is good. But that’s why you don’t look too much into the future because you get anxious. You look too much into the past, you get depressed. But if there’s a certain amount of energy and anxiousness, that’s good.”

Noting that the past perhaps can lead to being depressed, he was asked if he thinks people in Philadelphia will ever forget about the Super-Bowl loss, he said, “That’s why I don’t think about the past.”

Humphries on his pregame, game-day routine including 30 minutes of dry heaves: “Nothing’s coming up. I’m just sweating profusely. Feel like I’m about to pass out. And then something hits me and I’m like, ‘Alright, I’m good. Let’s go eat some breakfast and let’s get after it.’”

Gannon what he will tell the rookies before the game: “Take a deep breath and go let it rip.”

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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