Titans aim to ground down banged-up Cardinals
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Tennessee Titans have one of the best one-two punches in the NFL at the running back position in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. The Arizona Cardinals, meanwhile, have been virtually knocked out in the backfield.
When the Cardinals host against the Titans Sunday, they could be down to their fifth- and sixth-string running backs.
Arizona (5-7) lost star running back David Johnson to a fractured left wrist back in Week 1. Backup Andre Ellington was released.
The Cardinals traded for veteran Adrian Peterson back in October, but Peterson missed last week’s game with a neck injury and it isn’t trending well for him to make it back by Sunday.
Kerwynn Williams, meanwhile, is still dealing with two cracked ribs despite being able to rush for 97 yards against the Rams on 19 carries. If he can’t go, the Cardinals will have to call upon on a pair of little known second-year pros in D.J. Foster and Elijhaa Penny.
“Kerwynn’s fine,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “Kerwynn’s like the Energizer Bunny; he never slows down.”
The Titans (8-4) have found success this season behind the continued strong development of quarterback Marcus Mariota and a reliable punishing and swift rushing attack anchored by Murray and Henry, who have combined for 1,147 yards and nine touchdowns.
“I think it’s been very good, complementary football,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. “Both guys pull for each other. Both understand their roles. DeMarco’s still, we feel, the workhorse. Derrick has his role. He’s played it extremely well. He’s learned a lot from DeMarco. We’re fortunate to have both of them that we can design a game plan after, both running and throwing the football.
“They both understand how we’re going about the business, no selfishness, come to work every day and try to get better and pull for each other.”
Unlike the Cardinals, who planned to give Johnson between 30-35 snaps a game, the Titans prefer the one-two punch they’ve developed with Murray and Henry.
“We’ve got pretty fresh backs,” Mularkey said. “It’s not like you’re going to get a guy who has 30, 35 carries. We’ve got guys that when they’re in there, they’re pretty fresh. After four quarters, that can start to wear you down if you’ve got fresh running backs.”
The Cardinals, who with a loss will be assured of their second straight non-winning season under Arians, are dealing with injuries across the board.
Not only did Arizona lose Johnson, but it is playing without quarterback Carson Palmer (broken arm), their leading sack specialist from a year ago in outside linebacker Markus Golden (torn ACL), starting left guard Mike Iupati (elbow), starting left tackle D.J. Humphries (dislocated knee) and starting strong safety Tyvon Branch (torn ACL).
Earlier this week, they learned they also likely will be without left tackle Jared Veldheer because of an elbow injury. If he can’t go, Will Holden, a fifth-round pick, will start in his place. The Cardinals are also beat up at wide receiver with John Brown (toe), Jaron Brown (knee) and J.J. Nelson (knee) all nursing injuries.
“I don’t think you can ever use injuries as an excuse,” General Manager Steve Keim told the team’s flagship radio station. “In fact, there’s a lot of times where in my mind, as I’m looking at our depth chart on my board in my office, I’ll envision certain players that go down, and that’s the way you have to build your 53-man roster. You have to build it in a way where you can miss four, five, six players and you can still function and have an opportunity to win games.
“Again, that’s on me. I have to do a better job moving forward and they’re all learning lessons in this business and it’s humbling. It’s extremely humbling, not only the evaluation process, because it is such an inexact science but the longer you do this, it teaches you different lessons about building a team and building depth. That’s something we’ll continue to grow and improve upon moving forward.”
As for the Titans, who are looking for their third straight win, it likely will take a major collapse for them not to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. They presently have a lock on the AFC’s No. 3 seed.
“It feels really good, but it’s not satisfying,” said Mariota, who has thrown for 10 touchdowns and rushed for five others. “Looking around the locker room, everyone kind of feels the same way. In order to get where we’re trying to go, we need to continue to put these (wins) together because 8-4 is not going to cut it.”
The Cardinals would love to be in such a position. As it is, after failing to produce back-to-back wins at any point this season, they are now on the third-string quarterback in Blaine Gabbert, who spent his first three NFL seasons facing the Titans twice a year as the quarterback of the Jaguars.
Gabbert has inconsistent in going 2-1 in three starts. He has thrown six touchdowns and five interceptions and knows another stiff test is coming against a defense which is ranked third against the run (allowing 86.2 yards per game) but has allowed the fourth most passing touchdowns (22).
“I know they’re a good, quality team,” Gabbert said. “I think their front seven gets that defense going. Jurrell Casey upfront, he’s a big-time player, and he’s been really talented for a long time. They’ve got some good edge rushers in Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo — just a quality, well-coached team.
One way Gabbert can help give the Cardinals a chance is by targeting veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who ranks second in the league with 82 receptions and, at age 34, is on pace for another 100-catch, 1,000-yard season.