8:20 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Broncos -2.5, Over/Under: 41.5
Desperation sets in early in the National Football League, as a pair of struggling teams face off in the desert as the flailing Denver Broncos meet the rebuilding Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. For Vance Joseph and the Broncos (2-4, 3rd in AFC West), it appears that the second verse is the same as the first, for 2018 has now begun in an eerily similar fashion to the one that preceded it. In his first year in Denver, Joseph led his charges to what was thought to have been a promising 2-0 start, only to watch helplessly as the proverbial train went off the rails, losing nine out of the following ten contests. Fast-forward a year and you’ll find this team following the same script; the Broncos once again won each of the first two games to open the season, but have since dropped four consecutive ties, thanks to an Offense that just gets worse with each passing weak, and a once vaunted Defense that has suddenly become vulnerable. Just how serious have things gotten in Mile High, you ask? Well, in their two victories, Denver allowed an average of 21.5 Points on 339.5 Total Yards, including just 92.0 Yards versus the Run. However, in their four straight defeats they’ve been gashed for an average of 27.8 Points on a staggering 436 Total Yards, including a porous 203.0 Rushing Yards. In their last two losses alone, 16-34 at the New York Jets (323 Rushing Yards!!!) and most recently 20-23 at home to the Los Angeles Rams (270 Rushing Yards!!!), Joseph’s Defense has relinquished a whopping 590 Rushing Yards, which is more than they had allowed in their previous four games combined. On the season, they rank dead-last in the league in Rushing Yards allowed (161.3) and Yards per Carry allowed (5.6), which is ridiculous when consider this unit’s pedigree and history over the past three years. So is it any wonder as to why Joseph is on the Hot Seat? Last year’s woes were commonly attributed to a train-wreck of an Offense, featuring a turn-style Offensive Line and a Revolving Door at Quarterback, and while that side of the football is only marginally better than it was in 2017, it’s the Defense which is falling apart. And speaking of the Offense, they’re simply not good enough to make up for the sudden inadequacies of their teammates on the opposite side of the ball. After proving to be a revelation with the Minnesota Vikings last year, Case Keenum (63.1%, 281.1 Y/G, 6.38 NY/A, 7 TD, 8 INT, 38.0 QBR) has been far from the solution at Quarterback, having thrown at least One Interception in each game thus far, exhibiting a recklessness that is far closer to his previous days as an erstwhile journeyman than the modicum of efficiency he was in 2017. In order to right this ship before it wanders too far astray in unchartered waters is getting back to the Running Game, which should stabilize the Offense while at the same time affording the Defense the luxury of some much needed rest. Denver used quite a few resources to improve their woeful Offensive Line, while also injecting youth into the Backfield in the form of Rookie Tailbacks Royce Freeman (58 CAR, 272 YDS, 4.7 Y/C, 3 TD) and Phillip Lindsay (61 CAR, 346 YDS, 5.7 Y/C, 1 TD), who have together impressed quite a bit, with the Rushing Attack ranking Tenth Overall in Rushing Yards (124.2 Y/G) and tops in the league in Yards per Carry (5.3 Y/C). The problem is that they’ve only carried the ball 23.3 times per contest (21st Overall), which is simply not enough for this Offense. Basically, what this team needs to be doing is what their opponents have been doing to them, though that may prove to be easier said than done given the relative health of the Offensive Line, which is shorthanded without Guards Sam Jones (Back) and Ronald Leary (Achilles) expected to miss Thursday’s affair with the Cardinals, while Tackle Jared Veldheer (Knee) is Questionable after missing the past two outings with an ailing knee.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals (1-5, 4th in NFC West) have placed themselves squarely in the early stages of the Rebuilding Process, grinding through their schedule as Josh Rosen, their Rookie Quarterback goes through growing pains. Arizona selected Rosen with the Tenth Overall Pick in the NFL Draft, with the intention of finally getting a young, promising Franchise Signal-Caller after the retirement of the veteran Carson Palmer. Extremely intelligent and technically gifted, the UCLA Product was billed as the best Pocket-Passer of this year’s stellar crop of young Quarterbacks, and arguably the most pro-ready of them. However, new Head Coach Steve Wilks chose to hedge his bets by acquiring the oft-traveled and injury-prone Sam Bradford to operate as a bridge to his inevitable successor, as Rosen got up to speed on the playbook. Well, it didn’t take long for that to happen, folks, for through nearly three full games Bradford did little to distinguish himself in an anemic Offense, completing 62.5% of his Attempts for an average of 133.3 Yards per Game on a meek 4.27 Net Yards per Attempt, with Two Touchdowns, Four Interceptions, and a Quarterback Rating of 25.8, before eventually heading to the sidelines with a pectoral strain. With that said, it’s not as if Rosen has outshined his predecessor by a wide margin, rather Wilks opted for the change sooner rather than lighter in an attempt to light a fire under the Offense. Needless to say, this experiment is still very much a work in progress, with the Rookie completing just 55.6% of his Attempts for an average of 156.6 Yards per Game, 5.90 Net Yards per Attempt, with Two Touchdowns and Interceptions apiece, along with a Quarterback Rating of 49.7. While those figures reflect a marginally better showing than Bradford, the fact of the matter is that the Offense has still languished in mediocrity, ranking at the bottom or near the bottom of the league in a slew of categories; the Cardinals have averaged 13.7 Points (31st Overall) on 235.0 Total Yards (32nd Overall), including 171 Passing Yards (31st Overall) on 5.1 Net Yards per Attempt (31st Overall), and another 64.0 Rushing Yards (32nd Overall) on 3.2 Yards per Carry (32nd Overall), while converting just 21.9% of their Third Downs (32nd Overall). However, all cannot be laid at the feet of a learning Rookie Passer, folks, for Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy has been far from the most imaginative Playcallers in the league, failing to make much use out of either veteran Wide Receiver Larry Fitzgerald (22 REC, 215 YDS, 9.8 Y/R, 0 TD), or former All-Pro Tailback David Johnson (92 CAR, 297 YDS, 3.2 Y/C, 5 TD, 17 REC, 135 YDS, 1 TD). Fitzgerald, now at 35-Years of Age, finds himself catching passes from the twentieth different Quarterback since he was drafted back in 2004, and in his fifteenth campaign, the 11-Time Pro Bowler has been relegated to the second-lowest Yards per Reception (9.8) of his venerable career. Johnson on the other hand, missed all of last season after dislocating his wrist in the Season Opener, and has served as the featured Tailback for the league’s most lifeless Rushing Attack, with the versatile standout averaging just 4.0 Yards per Touch. Don’t expect these guys to break out and revert to their former stellar selves anytime soon, folks, for as is the case with their opposition Thursday Night, their Offensive Line is very much laid low by injuries. Starting Guards Mike Iupati (Back) and Justin Pugh (Hand) along with Tackle Jeremy Vujnovich (Hamstring) all listed as Questionable with various ailments, while Center A.Q. Shipley was placed on Injured Reserve a Torn ACL.