The Arizona Cardinals won a 26-20 nail-biter Saturday night against the Green Bay Packers to advance to the NFC title game, spoiling easily the best game of Jeff Janis’s career and Aaron Rodgers’s second successful no-time-remaining Hail Mary in the past seven weeks. Although Bruce Arians’s outfit was able to ride Larry Fitzgerald’s highlight-laden spectacle of an overtime period to the win, Arizona’s inability to stop the run shone through.
“I’ll have an adult beverage and go on home. Or two,” Arians told ESPN.com after the game.
Green Bay had a respectable ground game during the regular season, averaging 115.6 yards per contest on 4.2 yards per carry. In Saturday’s loss, the team amassed 135 yards on 6.1 yards per carry; it marked the third consecutive game Arizona’s defense allowed an opponent to eclipse the 100-yard mark on the ground and average better than 3.8 yards per carry.
“I don’t know what to say,” said defensive tackle Frostee Rucker, speaking more to the team’s elation after the game, though he certainly could’ve been commenting on the defense’s performance against the run. “I don’t even know my social security number.”
Eddie Lacy, in the midst of the worst season of his career, piled up 89 yards on 12 carries, including a career-high 61-yard carry in the third quarter. To be sure, it was a ferocious run by Lacy, but it also doubled as an exhibition in lackluster tackling.
Under defensive coordinator James Bettcher, the Cardinals have been an elite unit in a number of defensive metrics, including scoring defense and total defense. However, Arizona’s rushing defense was repeatedly gashed later in the season, as it was Saturday night.
Against Seattle in Week 17, Christine Michael, playing in his third game with the Seahawks, piled up a career-high 102 yards. “I just don’t think we played up to our standard defensively,” Arians said after the game.
Should the Seahawks get through Carolina this weekend in the other NFC semifinal, Bettcher’s outfit will likely be staring down a matchup with Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, one of the most difficult to tackle backs in the league.
Should the Panthers win, Bettcher’s group will square off with Jonathan Stewart, who finished eighth in the league with 989 rushing yards this season, and the Carolina offensive line, which ranked second in power success, or the percentage of team carries on third and fourth down with two yards or less to go that achieved a first down or touchdown.
Both Carolina and Seattle average better than 3.8 adjusted line yards per carry (ranking in the top 12), Football Outsiders’ metric, which adjusts for down, distance, situation, opponent and the difference in rushing average between shotgun compared with standard formations. Arizona, meanwhile, allows 3.05 adjusted line yards per carry.
The team’s splits this season are jarring, too: In wins, Arizona’s allowing an average of 3.8 yards per carry and 81.8 rushing yards per carry; in losses, they’re averaging 4.8 and 150.
Should Arizona bottle up Seattle or Carolina’s running game, the team’s likelihood of moving on to the Super Bowl spikes. However, should the team’s primary defensive deficiency continue, the Cardinals will be left in an uphill battle, and will likely watch as their opponent waltzes to the final round of the postseason.