Cynics would say there isn’t very much to watch in a game featuring two teams with a combined record of 7-19 and Colt McCoy and Brett Rypien starting at quarterback.
Heck, the backups are Trace McSorley for the Cardinals and Jarrett Guarantano for the Broncos. He was in training camp with the Cardinals and was elevated to the roster from the Denver practice squad Saturday.
And while this won’t assuage the restless Red Sea as they have watched a team experience almost every pitfall imaginable in 2022, I will say this: During my 40-plus years residing in St. Louis, there were 11 without an NFL team before relocating to the desert in 2020. As painful as it can be, frustrating and at times bad football is better than no football.
So with that, it is time to look at what to watch in the Cardinals’ second trip this season to a high-altitude city.
McCoy will be making his third start of the season and he played most of Monday’s game against New England when Kyler Murray suffered a torn ACL on the third play of the game.
Asked how difficult it can be to execute a game plan with all the changes there have been on offense, McCoy said, “I think one challenge is just not thinking about how many injuries we’ve had throughout the year. You can go down the line with crucial spots and really focusing on this is our unit, this is our 11 guys.
“What can we do and how can we play our best? We may have to adjust some things here and there. We may have to do some things different in the run game, in protection or whatever it may be; third downs, and really harping on those and saying, ‘Hey, I know we did it like this in training camp or early in the season, but we’re adjusting so this how we see it, and this is how we’re going to do it this week.’ Simple things like that that we’ve all got to buy into and really trust that that’s the right way to go, the right approach, and this is how we’re going to do it.”
McCoy added, “I’m a big believer in momentum. We haven’t felt what that feels like in a while. We just need to work hard and do the little things right. If we can go down there, play our best football and see what happens, maybe we can catch a little bit of momentum. That’s the goal.”
The “little things” are what McCoy said did the team in against the Patriots. When asked about not executing consistently, he said, “I think we have at times. I do. But when you’re playing a good team like the Patriots, they play with good leverage. They try to disguise everything. Whatever they showed me pre-snap was not what I got post-snap, so it was a constant thinking game. That’s fine, but when it’s like that we have to be exact on the details and we will be. We’re well coached so we understand that we weren’t on the screws during the game, and it cost us the game.”
As for Rypien, he will start with Russell Wilson out. Wilson cleared concussion protocol this week, but wasn’t happy when the team made the decision to not play him.
Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said, “We want Russell out there. Russell wants to be out there, but I think this is an amazing opportunity for ‘Ryp.’ He played that last game versus the New York Jets. I thought he did a fine job. He put us in position to be able to have a chance to tie the game at the end. We want to see what he can do, and all the experience he can get is fantastic for him.”
Cardinals safety Budda Baker remembers playing against Rypien while they were in high school. Baker played at Bellevue High School in Washington while Rypien was at Shadle Park High in Spokane. Baker was a year ahead of Rypien.
Welcome to the NFL
Tight end Trey McBride played in his 12th NFL game Monday night, but he had that “welcome” moment on a 15-yard pass play in the third quarter when he was drilled by Patriots cornerback Marcus Jones, but held on.
McBride has been playing more since Zach Ertz suffered a torn ACL in Week 10 against the Rams. When asked about bumps in the road for McBride as well as the Ertz injury accelerating his progress, coach Kliff Kingsbury said, “There will still be (bumps), but it’s expedited his progress, there’s no doubt. You can see him playing faster and his skillset is really good when he is not thinking too much, particularly when he’s running routes, knowing what to do, the blocking stuff, the protections, run game and that’s gonna take some time.
“But he’s game to do it and he’s a physical player. I’ve been really impressed with how the game’s slowed down for him so far and hopefully he continues to take strides.”
McBride said the biggest adjustment from college was “the amount of change every week. Nothing’s going to be the same going week to week, so things are constantly changing. So just being able to adjust on the fly to go in each week and know exactly what you gotta do and do it to the best of your ability.
“It’s the game plan, different emphasis, different defenses, different things you’re going to see every week. And being able to adjust on the fly is something that wasn’t as prominent in college.”
Playing more has certainly helped. He said, “I think I’ve become a lot more fundamentally sound, a lot better football player. Once you get to play more, you get a lot more experience, more of a feel of how the game goes. Speed of the game things like that. Obviously, the more you play the better you’re going to perform.”
Playing fast, which Kingsbury mentioned is crucial, because it can’t happen if you’re thinking too much.
“That’s a huge part,” McBride acknowledged. “Defenses do such a good job of disguising what they’re doing, so it’s important being able to see what’s going on and play as fast as you can. This game’s a fast game, so being able to recognize it and play as fast as you can is the challenge.”
A players’ coach
There was a lot of reaction to the post-game remarks in the locker room by Kingsbury after the loss to New England in which he referred to treating players like men.
He had some interesting things to say during the days after the game.
As for the almost daily challenges this season has wrought, Kingsbury said, “You just try to stay focused and focus on what you can control and that’s the work and the players. That’s it. You gotta compartmentalize and show up. You’re professional and continue to try to win games.
“Sometimes it just doesn’t go your way. And the only way I know to get it turned the other way is to work harder and stay focused and stick together. I think our guys understand that and I have said all along that hasn’t been an issue as far as effort, professionalism, things of that nature. We just in critical moments gotta find a way to get it done. And so far for whatever reason, it hasn’t clicked when we needed it to click.”
Asked if he brings the game home with him, Kingsbury said, “I don’t. It is hard at times, but I try to just … when I’m at home, just try to detach, focus on me and when I’m here make sure that everybody’s in a good space.”
Finally, when it was noted that he seemed more emotional than usual after Monday’s game, he didn’t disagree.
Kingsbury said, “I think it’s just a matter of watching week in week out kinda the same things happening in crucial moments like when we had two illegal shifts on huge gains. That’s basic football 101.
“It can’t happen, especially against a team like the Patriots, which was the message this week that, ‘Hey they are going to take advantage of every mistake.’ I’m sure Bill (Belichick) showed them a whole cutup before the game of illegal shifts that we had them dialed into it and we fell right into the trap. So it was more just we had talked about these things. We gotta get it cleaned up this last month and play better.”
Right tackle Kelvin Beachum was asked about Kingsbury’s approach and he reiterated the overriding theme of this season.
“We’re talking about execution,” Beachum said. “Kliff treats us like men. He’s said that since I’ve been here. He does that, he believes in that. At the end of the day, we’re pros. This is not college. This not high school. You’re a pro. You’re granted a playbook. You’re granted a lot of money to play a kid’s game.
“You gotta go out and execute. There have been times where we’ve gone out and executed at a high level this year and there’s been times where we haven’t. In the National Football League, it’s about consistency. And we just haven’t been consistent enough.”
As expected, right guard Will Hernandez was activated from reserve/injured Saturday after missing four games with a pectoral injury. Since Hernandez has been out, Lecitus Smith and Max Garcia have each started two games.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Hernandez start on Sunday. Kingsbury said this week, “He hasn’t really gone full throttle against anybody yet, but he feels great, his strength is there, he’s moving around really well. Condition has been great, so I know he’s excited to play this week.”
As speculated, cornerback Nate Hairston was elevated from the practice squad Saturday. Trayvon Mullen Jr. was waived earlier in the week, while Byron Murphy Jr. will miss his fifth game because of a back injury. Then, Antonio Hamilton was added to the injury report with a back injury Thursday, did not practice for two days and was listed as questionable.
Kingsbury said Friday that “tomorrow (Saturday) is a big day to see if he’ll be ready to go.”
Signed to the roster this week was Jace Whittaker, who was elevated from the practice squad for the first three games of the season, started against the Rams in Week 3 and then was released on Nov. 9 after being on the practice squad for another seven weeks.
It’s possible that rookie Christian Matthew will start if Hamilton can’t play. When asked about that possibility, Kingsbury said, “Yeah, he’ll definitely get a lot more work and then (we’ll) just kinda figure it out from there. But he’s progressed a lot since training camp and I’m excited to see if he gets that opportunity to get a few more snaps how he handles it.”
There were reports Saturday that wide receiver Marquise Brown will play against the Broncos. He was added to the injury report Thursday, did not practice because of an illness and was limited Friday during a chilly morning practice.
After practice, Kingsbury said, “He’s better. He came out today and kinda toughed it out. But I’m hoping in the next 48 hours, he’ll feel better and can go full-go on Sunday.”
For the Broncos, edge rusher Randy Gregory and offensive lineman Billy Turner were activated from reserve/injured Saturday. Gregory has been on IR since suffering a knee injury in Week 4. Defensive end Dre’Mont Jones was placed on IR.
One of the saving graces for the Cardinals secondary is that two of Denver’s three leading wide receivers are out: Courtland Sutton (52-688-13.2-1) and Kendall Hinton (24-311-13.0-0). Jerry Jeudy is healthy and has 42 receptions for 587 yards (14.0 average) and six touchdowns, three of which were against Kansas City last week in a 34-28 loss.
Numbers to know
The number of Cardinals that have started every game has been reduced to four with defensive end Zach Allen out against Denver. Allen suffered a hand injury against the Patriots and had surgery Wednesday. Starting all 13 games have been Beachum, Baker, linebacker Zaven Collins and safety Jalen Thompson. By comparison, the 12-1 Eagles have had 14 players start all 13 games and only three players have missed a total of seven starts because of injuries.
The Cardinals have had 15 starters miss 78 starts, an average of six per games, because of injuries or suspension. That doesn’t include kicker Matt Prater, who has missed four games. Of those 15, eight won’t start Sunday, a number that will grow to nine if Hamilton is inactive. That is based on the belief that Hamilton would have opened the season as a starter. There have also been six starters that left games with injuries after playing 13 or fewer snaps.
The Broncos have lost five consecutive games and nine of their last 10. Four of the losses have been by one score and Denver has scored 16 points or fewer in 10 games, two of which it has won. The Broncos are 2-4 at home and have lost four straight, although they have been by a total of 22 points including three- and six-point losses in overtime.
The Cardinals have lost three straight games, but are 3-2 on the road this season. In the three losses, they have five turnovers and only one takeaway. For the season, the Cardinals 3-2 in games with a positive turnover ratio, 1-1 when it’s even and 0-6 when it’s minus.
Kingsbury on the number of seasons he’s been a head coach: “Ten years … feels like a hundred.”