I ran a bit longer than usual with the Thursday game in this week's Spotlight article, so I figured I'd post it early in the blog section to keep things moving.
Arizona vs. Denver
Open: 39.5 O/U, ARZ -1.5
Live: 42.5 O/U, DEN -1.5
If the game features any flickers of extended competence, it should primarily be in the running game, for either and maybe even both teams. That's not necessarily because either team will run well on their own account, but rather because these teams rank first (Arizona) and second (Denver) for most running back fantasy production allowed. Hooray!
The primary question for this game, in that case, is whether Denver's incompetence as a run defense can outgun the combined buffoonery of Mike McCoy and Steve Wilks running the Arizona offense. We know what David Johnson is capable of, and we know the Cardinals shot callers are capable of negating much or most of Johnson's elite traits. I'm not going to include any of the charts mapping Arizona's run play calls – I refuse to include obscenity in my posts. The point is this: unless McCoy/Wilks drastically change their approach prior to this game, the Broncos will basically know the play call whenever Johnson gets the ball. Because he will be running directly at the center or guard. Now, that intel alone might not be enough to save the Broncos run defense. They've allowed 903 yards and seven touchdowns to running backs on 154 carries. That's 5.9 yards per carry. This is truly a collision between a stoppable force and a movable object. Keep in mind, it would constitute success if Johnson could even average four yards per carry. I'm somewhat optimistic, but it's bad news for an already dubious Arizona line that guard Mike Iupati (back) is out, and so is his backup, Jeremy Vujnovich (hamstring). Even guard Justin Pugh will play through a hand injury that knocked him out last week. The Cardinals already went into the year with a backup starting at center.
Things look promising for the Denver running game, too, but that one is more difficult to capitalize on given the workload split between Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. The Cardinals have actually surrendered more fantasy points to running backs than the Broncos despite giving up 84 fewer yards on 27 more attempts. As you can see, the Cardinals have a way of conceding big volumes to opposing backfields, in large part because the Arizona offense has an improbably bad 24:12 average time of possession. The second-lowest mark is the Colts at 27:26. The Cardinals run defense appears more competent than Denver's, but that's probably offset by Denver's generally strong rush offense to this point (ranked fifth in Pro Football Reference's points-added metric). Lindsay carries a higher projection than Freeman, but I think this game looks like one of the most favorable for Freeman this year. The Cardinals should not score so much so as to force Denver to go to its catch-up offense, which helps Freeman's chances of staying involved, and there's otherwise this curious detail: the Cardinals defense hasn't really given up big plays. The longest touchdown they've allowed this year is 21 yards, with the average of the 16 total registering at 6.56 yards. Lindsay still has the lead runner role even in red-zone running situations, though, so don't read that stat as a negative for him. Eight of Freeman's 58 carries occurred in the red zone, four inside the ten, and only one inside the five. Lindsay has 11 red-zone carries on 61 attempts, five inside the 10, and three inside the five. Two red-zone targets for Lindsay, too. For what it's worth, the Denver offensive line will be substantially compromised by injury, as right tackle Jared Veldheer and left guard Ronald Leary are out.
The passing games don't project as well as the run games. Josh Rosen is a rookie with a dissolving offensive line, while Case Keenum has tons of help on the other side but has mostly failed this year anyway. Moreover, the Arizona pass defense has been somewhat competent. As mentioned previously, they haven't surrendered big plays, showing lots of bend but not much break. On the whole they've allowed quarterbacks to complete 146-of-211 passes (69.2 percent) – a very high percentage for sure – but it's only resulted in 1,583 yards (7.5 YPA), six touchdowns, and five interceptions. To be transparent, I don't know what this means for Keenum. I'm trending toward the pessimistic side, myself – Arizona blitzes a lot, and while Keenum is a wily player who's had his back against the wall much of his self-made career, I don't like that the vultures are circling as he goes on the road without two starting linemen.
Although I'm not high on Keenum, I think you have to be high on Emmanuel Sanders, and probably on an indefinite basis at this point. Keenum is dependent on his slot target, and Demaryius Thomas figures to see a lot of Patrick Peterson outside. If Peterson lines up against Courtland Sutton at any point, then that would be when Keenum should look Thomas' way. Then again, if Peterson shadows Thomas, it's Sutton with the green light. Don't overlook tight end Jeff Heuerman, who has seen 17 targets and at least 50 snaps per game over the last three weeks. The Cardinals have so far allowed 22 receptions for 263 yards and two touchdowns to tight ends on 30 targets.
I mentioned that Rosen is a rookie with a battered line, but at least he goes against a Denver defense that – in contrast to the Cardinals – has made a habit out of allowing big plays. Whereas just two of Arizona's 16 touchdowns allowed went for 20 or more yards, the Broncos gave up seven such plays over their 17 touchdowns allowed. That includes four of 35 or more, and three of 50 or more. I think Rosen is going to be a very good quarterback if Arizona doesn't wreck him first, so I trust him to give all of Christian Kirk, Larry Fitzgerald, and Ricky Seals-Jones a shot to make plays in the receiving game. It might be greedy to expect all three to make their fantasy owners happy here, but that would probably be due more to Arizona's zero-tempo offense strangling the volume than any substantial letdown on their part. Honestly, I just talked myself into preferring Rosen over Keenum in Showdown contests. It's unclear whether Chris Harris will show a greater interest in Kirk than Fitzgerald, but I would guess he primarily lines up against Fitzgerald. Fitz is a big wideout who can fight for the ball in the air, so I think he can beat Harris a bit even if he's not open, but it's hard to be optimistic about Fitz in season-long fantasy for the time being. Kirk is the truth, and if he runs his routes outside he should avoid Harris and could capitalize on the absence of Adam Jones (thigh). Seals-Jones has been maddeningly inefficient so far this year, catching just 15 of 30 targets at 6.4 YPT, but last week's breakout game against the Vikings (five catches for 69 yards on six targets) was more in line with pre-season expectations. The Broncos have struggled to defend tight ends to this point, allowing 27 catches for 422 yards and two touchdowns on 40 targets. Chad Williams hasn't been effective at all, turning 21 targets into just five receptions for 58 yards and a touchdown, and he should start losing more snaps to Kirk and J.J. Nelson, who supposedly is over a back issue that's limited him to this point. Williams is worth a shot in Showdown contests, but I think you should expect him to play closer to 25-30 snaps than the 50 or so he was playing per game in the first month. I can't really advise using Nelson but I do like his skill set a lot and think the Cardinals would be smart to get him involved.