At 6-4, the Arizona Cardinals are tied for second place in the NFC West and in the thick of the chase for a wild-card spot. There isn't any room for error, though. Every week is like the playoffs in the desert.
This week, the Redbirds welcome in a 7-3 Indianapolis Colts team that sits in first place in the AFC South. If the Cardinals are going to get a win and keep the pressure on the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers, they're going to need more than just a strong effort from their stout defense.
The Cardinals are going to need to involve their young playmakers early and often on offense.
Those young playmakers had very different games in last week's win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
For rookie running back Andre Ellington, things went about as badly as they possibly could. It wasn't just that Ellington gained only three yards on nine carries against the NFL's worst defense. Oh no, it got much, much worse.
Yes, that's Ellington's hair, after defensive end Jason Babin yanked it out of Ellington's head.
Ellington laughed off the incident, telling Eric Adelson of Yahoo! Sports that "I got it fixed."
Now the Cardinals need to fix Ellington, because he's easily Arizona's best chance of doing damage on the ground.
It's not as if nominal starter Rashard Mendenhall did any better against the Jaguars, gaining 14 yards on 12 carries. That's been Mendenhall's story all season long. The sixth-year pro has averaged a paltry 2.9 yards per carry this year.
|Andre Ellington vs. Rashard Mendenhall 2013|
Ellington adds a dimension both as a runner and receiver that Mendenhall just doesn't have. It was in evidence in the second quarter of Arizona's Week 8 win, during a play that opened the floodgates for a rout.
Facing a 1st-and-10 from their own 20-yard line, the Cardinals called a simple interior run, with Ellington lining up alone behind Carson Palmer.
As has been the case most of the year, there wasn't much room inside, so Ellington bounced things toward the sideline.
Mendenhall has been doing this all season long, whether there's a hole or not, and the result is usually a minimal gain.
Ellington, on the other hand, has the speed to get to the corner.
Eighty yards later, it's 14-6 Cardinals.
The Arizona Cardinals aren't a grind-it-out team, ranking 25th in the NFL in rushing. They've also struggled sustaining drives, ranking 24th in the league in time of possession.
Arizona's offense needs the occasional big-play spark in order to be successful. Ellington can provide that spark.
So can second-year wideout Michael Floyd.
If Ellington had a terrible game against the Jaguars, then Floyd's was equally as beautiful. The former first-round pick absolutely exploded against the Jags, reeling in six passes for a career-high 193 yards.
That career day included a 91-yard touchdown, the longest scoring pass in the NFL this year.
It was a fairly simple play. In the third quarter, with the Cardinals facing 3rd-and-10 deep in their own end, Floyd lined up alone at the top of the formation.
The former Notre Dame star then ran a pretty standard skinny post route, where Floyd did an excellent job of getting inside position on the defensive back.
But, it was what Floyd did after the catch, with three defenders converging on him, that really set this play apart.
Yes, some of what happened next was due to horrible tackling, but you also have to credit Floyd for both having the strength to run through arm tackles and the speed to outrun the defense on his way to the end zone.
The outburst, which was Floyd's first 100-yard game of the season, caught the attention of quarterback Carson Palmer, according to Dan Bickley of The Arizona Republic:
He's really developing. And it's really good to see because I know he wants it. He works hard at it. He studies hard. He's very mature for his age. To see him come out with a breakthrough game like that is huge.
What would be huge for the Cardinals is building on that breakout game.
There are a couple of reasons. First, while you can blame injuries, age, bad quarterback play, extra defensive attention or the Illuminati, there's no denying the fact that Larry Fitzgerald has not been his usual dominant self in 2013.
Fitzgerald's 554 receiving yards puts him on pace for the third-lowest total of his 10-year career. His 12.3 yards per catch is also the third-lowest of his career.
The Cardinals have had their share of trouble taking the top off defenses in 2013, with Palmer's 7.2 yards per attempt ranking 26th in the NFL. That in turn just makes running the ball or throwing underneath that much more difficult, as safeties creep closer and closer to the line of scrimmage.
When dealing with a pair of talented safeties such as the Colts' Antoine Bethea and LaRon Landry, it's important that the Cardinals keep them honest.
Luckily, the Colts can be had at cornerback, especially when throwing away from top coverage man Vontae Davis. The Colts are a so-so 16th in the league in pass defense, and only Davis ranks among the top 50 at his position this year, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Greg Toler's reported return to action this week could actually be a good thing. Prior to getting hurt, Toler was being abused in coverage with regularity. He ranks 62nd in that regard this year, per PFF.
|Greg Toler 2013|
|Per Pro Football Focus|
Guess who would likely draw Michael Floyd in coverage? If you said Greg Toler, you get a Cardinals cookie.
For all the talk of the Colts as a Super Bowl contender, the Cardinals actually match up pretty well. Indy has had its own problems maintaining offensive consistency since Reggie Wayne got hurt, and Arizona has the better defense.
However, beating the Colts is going to take one of the better offensive performances of the year. That means 15-20 touches for Ellington and 10 targets for Floyd.
Not only are they the players most able to gain yardage in chunks for the Cardinals, but a running game and some success vertically will also keep the Colts pass rush from pinning its ears back and coming after Carson Palmer.
Do that, and a lot more people will be talking up the Arizona Cardinals a week from now.
Screen shots courtesy of NFL Rewind.