A late-season matchup between the Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants looked a lot better when the schedule came out than it does just a few days before kickoff. Between injuries and poor play, this will be a matchup between two of the most disappointing teams this season. Merry Christmas, everybody! The Arizona offense is missing most of the top-tier talent it started the season with, and maybe that’s just what the Giants need to help turn their nightmare defensive season around, or at least end it on a slightly brighter note.
By the numbers
Rushing: 128.4 yards per game (31st), 4.3 yards per carry (21st)
Passing: 263.4 yards per game (31st), 7.8 yards per attempt (28th)
Total Yards: 391.8 yards per game (32nd), 33.52 yards per drive (25th)
Points: 25.4 points per game (28th), 2.17 points per drive (29th)
Rushing: 85.4 yards per game (30th), 3.4 yards per carry (30th)
Passing: 234.4 yards per game (15th), 6.8 yards per attempt (t-19th)
Total Yards: 319.9 yards per game (21st), 27.04 yards per drive (23rd)
Points: 17.6 points per game (27th), 1.42 points per drive (27th)
Back to Stanton
Things haven’t gone as planned for the Cardinals at quarterback this season. Carson Palmer started the season a little slow then broke his arm in Week 7 against the Los Angeles Rams. Technically he could be eligible to return this weekend, but with the Cardinals out of contention, there’s no need. In Palmer’s absence, Arizona turned to longtime backup Drew Stanton, which didn’t go all that well. Stanton completed less than half of his passes -- 48.4 percent -- and threw for just 5.9 yards per attempt in his three games total, two started.
Stanton suffered a knee injury and was forced to miss two games. Without Stanton, the Cardinals gave the keys to Blaine Gabbert, a quarterback head coach Bruce Arians had some flattering things to say about during the season. Before Gabbert’s first start of the season Arians said Gabbert’s bad rep comes from the quality of teams he was surrounded by in Jacksonville and San Francisco -- not exactly in those words. After his second start, a 27-24 win over the Jaguars, Arians said Gabbert could be part of the future in Arizona without Palmer.
But after five games of Gabbert, and now 10 straight quarters of no touchdowns, Arians is going back to Stanton against the Giants on Sunday.
Steve Spagnuolo defenses -- at least the successful ones -- are built on getting pressure with the front four. This Giants defense is 28th in DVOA, so maybe you can guess how well that pressure thing is going. Actually, it’s probably worse than you thought -- because it’s worse than I thought too. The Giants are dead last in defensive pressure rate per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders. 32nd of 32. They’re also not converting much on those pressures with the second-worst sack rate in the league at 4.3 percent, better than only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Jason Pierre-Paul gets a lot of criticism for this, but he’s doing what he can. With 31 pressures, Pierre-Paul is 21st in the league for individual defenders, already higher than he was in 2016 when he was charted with 27 pressures, good for 30th among all defenders. The difference was a secondary pass rusher. Last season Olivier Vernon led all defenders with 61 pressures, but due to injuries Vernon has only played 10 games this season and has been nowhere near 100 percent. For Pierre-Paul to get more pressure this season without a consistent secondary rusher and while dealing with injuries is more impressive than many are giving him credit for.
Of course, that hand injury could keep Pierre-Paul out of the game against Arizona on Sunday after he didn’t practice on Wednesday or Thursday.
Arizona has been one of the worst pass-blocking teams in the league this season. They rank 25th in offensive pressure rate allowed, but the damage has been different depending on the quarterback taking the snaps. While Palmer and Gabbert ran some high sack rates -- 7.6 and 11.9 percent, respectively -- Stanton has only gotten sacked on 4.2 percent of his drop backs.
Larry Fitzgerald vs. the corners
At 34 years old, Larry Fitzgerald is still one of the most productive wide receivers in the league. As was the case during a large stretch in his career, that production is coming with less than ideal talent at quarterback. Fitzgerald is fourth in receptions this season (92) and 11th in receiving yards (982). He’s also the sixth-most targeted receiver this season (133).
The question the Giants face with Fitzgerald is who will cover him. Fitzgerald now plays most of his offensive snaps from the slot. That would typically mean he’ll get matched up against former teammate Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie. Last year that would have been a great matchup when Rodgers-Cromartie was one of the best cornerbacks in the league. But this year, his play and paying time have slipped. DRC has only faced 22 targets this season, but on them he’s allowed 8.2 yards per pass and a 46 percent Success Rate, which are both in the lower third among cornerbacks.
With Fitzgerald as Arizona’s only real offensive weapon at this point with so many injuries, the Giants could look to line Ross Cockrell up against him. When Cockrell was acquired by trade in September, he was viewed as versatile depth that could be both outside and in the slot. Through injuries and play, Cockrell has emerged as the Giants’ best cornerback. On 41 targets, Cockrell has allowed just 4.8 yards per pass (second among cornerbacks with at least 40 targets) and a 76 percent Success Rate (first).
Cockrell has played 100 percent of the defensive snaps in each of the past four games and he’s gradually taken over as the No. 1 outside cornerback. Against the Eagles last week, he mostly matched up against Alshon Jeffery and stayed on the outside for his coverage snaps. But against Arizona and Fitzgerald, it might be worth taking advantage of Cockrell’s play and versatility to allow him to cover the best receiver on the field.