GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The Arizona Cardinals can’t run the football. The Denver Broncos can’t stop the run.
So maybe the ground game will be the deciding factor when these two struggling teams meet on Thursday night.
“I’ll tell you this – and I’m a firm believer in this – stopping the run and running the football allows a team to control the game depending on who is doing that the best,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said.
Arizona (1-5) ranks dead last in the NFL in total offense and in rushing, averaging 64 yards per game on the ground. Denver (2-4) is last in rushing defense, allowing a whopping 161.3 yards per game.
“We need to do a much better job up front as far as blocking, executing our assignments,” Cardinals coach Steve Wilks, then referring to running back David Johnson: “We need to move him around a little bit more. Try to find ways to get him out into space, different things right here to try to open it up some.”
Denver has allowed 593 yards rushing in its last two games. Two of the opposing running backs, the New York Jets’ Isaiah Crowell and the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley, topped 200 yards rushing, something that’s never happened against the same team in NFL history.
“We’ve had really two bad weeks, and it’s really with our nickel defense,” Joseph said. “We have to fix that and obviously play in more fronts and fix it that way.”
The Cardinals aren’t good against the run, either. They rank 31st in the NFL, just ahead of Denver, giving up 151.2 yards per game. That could clear the way for the Broncos’ rookie running back tandem of Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman, who have a combined four touchdowns and average 5.19 yards per carry.
But Denver has relied more on the passing of Case Keenum than in the running game in recent weeks.
The Cardinals will be without safety Tre Boston, who leads the team with three interceptions. He didn’t practice this week with shoulder and rib injuries.
The Broncos have lost four straight, the latest a close home loss to the undefeated Rams. Arizona has beaten Denver only once in the 10-game history of the series.
Here are some things to consider when the Broncos face the Cardinals:
Both teams are beaten up on the offensive line.
The Broncos lost their best lineman, left guard Ronald Leary, to a torn Achilles tendon against the Rams.
“You guys already know how good he is and what he brings to this team, and everyone in this locker room knows how important he is to our organization,” tackle Garett Bolles said. “Having someone like that go down is a tough situation and puts us in a tight spot.”
Denver right tackle Jared Veldheer — a former Cardinal — will miss the game with a knee injury.
Arizona left guard Mike Iupati is sidelined with a back injury that knocked him out of Sunday’s loss at Minnesota. Right guard Justin Pugh has his injured right hand in a cast-like wrap and plans to try to play Thursday.
Von Miller repeatedly promised that the Broncos would whoop the Cardinals. “I wouldn’t say it’s a must win,” Miller said. “We’re going to kick their (behind), though. Make sure you put that up there. We’re going to kick their (behind).”
Miller and rookie Bradley Chubb had 4½ sacks between them last week, but Miller insisted they hadn’t unlocked some sort of pass rush puzzle.
“No, we just got on the board,” Miller said. “And if we’re playing our best, I don’t think there’s anybody in the league that can block me and Bradley. … Especially not the Cardinals. They’re going to get our best on Thursday. They got to come with their best.”
The Cardinals’ offense, under rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, showed some signs of life with an up-tempo game late against the Vikings. Expect to see more of it against Denver.
“It was very effective for us. It’s something that we’ve got to definitely consider,” Wilks said. “It’s part of his comfort zone, based off college and the things he did back there. We’ve got to do everything we can right now to get this offense going in the right direction.”
Broncos general manager John Elway reprised his “soft” criticism he also used last year when discussing Denver’s run defense this week.
Elway suggested the Broncos must realize that “we’re fighting for our lives” Thursday night.
Asked if he interpreted that as fighting for his job, Joseph said, “Absolutely. And that’s every coach in this league every week. If you don’t feel that way, you’re missing something. If we were 5-1, I would feel that way. That doesn’t motivate me. I’m already motivated to win games and to fix our football team.”
For the second year in a row, Mike McCoy is feeling heat as an offensive coordinator.
McCoy was fired by Joseph after 10 games with the Broncos last season. Now he’s facing severe criticism as offensive coordinator of the Cardinals.
“We’re preparing like any other week,” McCoy said. “Our objective every week is to go out and win the next game that you’re playing. That’s our focus.”
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton contributed to this report.
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