Here are five keys to the game heading into the match between the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Chargers.
1. Zero in on Johnson – David Johnson established himself as one of the game's top playmakers from the moment he entered the league, yet he hasn't put up the type of numbers everyone is accustomed to thus far this season. At least he hadn't before the last two games. The talk coming out of Arizona is that Head Coach Steve Wilks and new offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich have figured out the best ways to maximize the running back, and the proof is in the pudding. Johnson has totaled 327 yards from scrimmage the past two weeks, highlighted by a 25-carry, 137-yard effort on the ground in his last game. Thus, you can understand why a major point of emphasis at Hoag Performance Center this week has been slowing down the Pro Bowl playmaker. Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley best summed up the Bolts' attitude as they anticipate seeing a heavy dose of the running back:
"The run game (has gotten going) the last couple games (so) now the rushing yards and their rushing averages have jumped up. That commitment to the run game (is evident). They're going to try to get him the ball as much as possible whether it's in the pass game, run game or screens because he is such a dynamic player. … I think just as the game goes on, he can really wear on you. He's an elite back. He can run in between the tackles, and also get out on the perimeter and in space on the screens he catches or check downs. It creates an issue. I think we have to have great awareness. Some people talk about tight ends and with them you have to have great awareness. Well, this week it's the back. You have to have great awareness of where he is."
2. Rock Rosen – Football fans in L.A. are awfully familiar with the rookie quarterback starting under center for the Cardinals. After all, Josh Rosen starred at UCLA the past few years, which came on the heels of a standout high school career for the Manhattan Beach native. Now, Rosen comes home for what will be the eighth start of his career. As is to be expected for any rookie, it's been a bit of a roller coaster ride for the 10th overall pick. On the year, Rosen has completed 125 of 228 attempts (54.8 percent) for 1,416 yards, nine TDs and 10 interceptions for a 68.5 passer rating. He's also been sacked 22 times, which has made things difficult for the rookie. Still, his arm talent is undeniable. Simply put, if given time in the pocket, the QB will make opposing defenses pay. Thus, the Chargers know they need to pester Rosen as Head Coach Anthony Lynn explained it may end up being a long day for the home team if they aren't able to get to him:
"(He's) very talented. Makes all the throws. Liked him coming out of school, so he's going through some growing pains, but he's going to be a really good quarterback in this league. … His arm talent (sticks out). His ability to throw on the move. His arm strength. Like I said, he can make all the throws and he's accurate."
3. Commit to the Run – Melvin Gordon is listed as questionable with Lynn saying it's a true game time decision whether or not he'll play. Regardless, the Chargers need to stay committed to the ground game. Arizona has a stingy defense, ranking fourth against the pass and 17th overall. However, they rank 29th in the NFL against the run, giving up 131.5 yards per game. Obviously the Bolts hope they can pound it with Gordon, who ranks among the top running backs in the league in several categories. Still, no matter who is on the field, whether it's Gordon, Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson or Detrez Newsome, the Chargers must stay balanced. After all, if they become too one-dimensional it'll allow the Cardinals to tee off on the quarterback with a pass rush led by one of the best in the game in Chandler Jones. Philip Rivers knows what type of test awaits on Sunday, describing what makes Arizona such a stingy defense:
"Patrick Peterson (is) not only one of the best corners physically, he's always a heck of a (challenge). You can tell his preparation and his smarts (by) how he plays things. Again, Chandler Jones; shoot, the last two years he's had more sacks than anybody in the league. So those are just a couple of guys (who stand out). There are a lot of other savvy players over there. They've played a lot of football. (Cardinals Head Coach) Steve Wilks, when he was here, we know what type of defense that he's been around and used (in) his time in Carolina. He and the D-coordinator. So, it will be a challenge for us, and we have to get back and have a great week of preparation to find a way to win on Sunday."
4. Stay Disciplined– There's no other way to say it – the amount of penalties the Bolts committed a week ago was simply unacceptable. Overall, L.A. was flagged a whopping 14 times for 120 yards. The penalties understandably irritated Lynn as disciplined football has been a trademark of the team ever since he arrived. Now, while penalties are a part of the game, they simply can't happen at the rate they occurred vs. the Denver Broncos, nor in critical situations. That's why Lynn has harped on it all week long:
"Well, it was just a classic example of kind of what we've been emphasizing (in terms of playing clean football), and we didn't do it. When you don't do it, that's what happens (and you lose). You know, we could have won that game a lot of different ways, but the 14 penalties ended up being what did it."
The key now is to use the lessons learned a week ago and apply it moving forward. To that end, Lynn has no worries about the team's mindset heading into Sunday's game:
"I like the energy that we had in practice, for sure. The tempo was good. I (told the team) that the best way to get that bad taste of your mouth is to go out, play well and play the best that you can. Usually, we win when we do. We know what we have to do. (Some players) are still pissed off about (the outcome of) last week, but I think that's a good thing."
5. Finish! – The Bolts need to improve their finishing touch in several ways. The most obvious is closing out games as the team was unable to do so on multiple occasions against the Denver Broncos. In addition, the offense needs to return to form and finish off drives after stalling several times a week ago. The aforementioned penalties cost them several points vs. the Broncos, putting them behind the sticks and forcing L.A. to settle for field goals. Again, last week was an anomaly compared to the rest of the season. However, it's important to not let this become a trend and to get back on track. Here's what Philip Rivers had to say about the Bolts providing the finishing touch when needed:
"It's a week-to-week league, and you can be playing really good. You can play really good for three-quarters of a game and have three or four bad plays and it come back to get you. We know that. I know that. Shoot, that's why you've got to re-group and go because nobody's going to feel sorry for you or wait on you. You've got to make sure you rebound in a hurry. You see all across the league that it happens to teams, and that's what they do. They rebound and go. I don't see us being any different. We're still sitting in a good spot and have a chance to still accomplish everything we want to."