- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 1, 2016

ASHBURN — Claim one from Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden: Don’t pay attention to the Arizona Cardinals’ record. Ignore that paltry 4-6-1 mark, the one that has the Cardinals out of the current playoff picture despite being among the preseason favorites to win the Super Bowl. Never mind that they have lost two in a row and three out of four. It’s all poppycock.

“This is a good football team that we’re playing, I don’t care what their record is, they are a very good football team,” Gruden said. “If you go 13-3 not too long ago, you have good players — Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, [David] Johnson — I mean it goes on-and-on the list of players that they have offensively and defensively. We have to get geared up. It’s at their place. It has always been a tough place to play. If we don’t get geared up, it’ll be a long day.”

“Not too long ago” is last season, when the Cardinals were 13-3, finally usurping the Seattle Seahawks in what has been a rough-and-tumble NFC West division since 2010. The Seahawks began their ascension then. The San Francisco 49ers grew during the same period. In three of the last four Super Bowls, the NFC representative has come from the NFC West, and it has either been Seattle or San Francisco, making Arizona’s uprising so notable.

The division has backtracked this season. Three of the four teams are below .500. The 49ers are among the league’s worst teams, bumbling along at 1-10. Even Seattle has not been its dominant self. It’s atop the division at 7-3-1.

Which means there have been unfulfilled opportunities for the Cardinals, most of which have come on the road. They lost at Carolina to a struggling Panthers team. In the last two weeks, they could not knock off Minnesota or Atlanta when away from home. Arizona is a mere 1-4 on the road, which makes them all the more pleased to be hosting the Redskins on Sunday in Glendale, Arizona. There, things have been more difficult for opponents. Arizona’s first home loss was a two-point defeat against the New England Patriots in Week 1. The Cardinals also lost to the Los Angeles Rams in University of Phoenix Stadium. It tied Seattle in a yawn-filled 6-6 game.

Team totals help bolster Gruden’s point. The Cardinals have give up the fewest yards in the league. Yet, they are 11th in points allowed.


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“Well, they have good athletes across the board,” Gruden said. “Obviously the addition of Chandler Jones helped them in the pass-rush department. They have good run-stoppers, and then they have quality corners. I think [Marcus] Cooper and Patrick Peterson are a great tandem back there. You throw in the fact the Honey Badger [Tyrann Mathieu] is an all-around good football player… They run to the ball, they pursue, and they do a nice job all across the board. They have a good blitz package also.”

Flip to the offense where veteran quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald team with versatile back David Johnson. The Cardinals are ninth in total yards gained.

One notable spot for the Redskins to pay attention to is the slot. Teams have moved their marquee receivers into the position in order to avoid Washington cornerback Josh Norman. Norman did not follow the opponent’s best receiver early in the season. He has for several weeks, but does not track them into the slot. That may change Sunday, according to Gruden, when Fitzgerald makes his way into the position.

Johnson also lines up in the position. Typically, a running back who can be used in the slot is of the smaller and speedier variety. Johnson is fast, but there is nothing small about him at 6 foot 1 and 224 pounds (to contrast, the Redskins’ route-running back, Chris Thompson, is 5 foot 8 and 195 pounds). Johnson arrived at Northern Iowa to play receiver. Eventually, he became a running back who understood how to run routes, something he continues to work on in the NFL. He’s rushed for 921 yards and has 55 receptions this season.

“Big-time challenge, big-time challenge because when you think of a guy that can move outside and catch the ball, you think of a little scat-back type guy that doesn’t run between the tackles, but he runs between the tackles as good as he catches the ball,” Gruden said. “I mean, he is probably the best all-around back there is in the National Football League right now as far as being able to move outside, be a great route-runner but also run between the tackles and run outside with his speed. So it’s going to be a matchup problem.”

Which is what Gruden is saying all along about the Cardinals, record be damned.

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