Next up on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2022 slate is the Arizona Cardinals, who represent the last non-divisional foe on Tampa Bay's opponent compilation. The two teams will face off in Glendale on Christmas Day in the prime-time slot (8:20 p.m. ET kickoff) broadcast nationally by NBC.
The 6-8 Buccaneers will look to cement their hold on the NFC South by stringing wins together in the final three-game stretch of the regular season, starting with the 4-10 Cardinals. After a 24-15 loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 15, Arizona has been eliminated from playoff contention. The team hoped to win a home Super Bowl at State Farm Stadium in Feb. 2023; however, their fate has been sealed. In what has proven to be a tumultuous season for the embattled Cardinals, both injuries and personnel struggles have stunted the team's growth down the stretch. Starting quarterback Kyler Murray tore his ACL, DeAndre Hopkins missed the season's first six games for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances, Marquise "Hollywood" Brown missed five games due to a foot injury, tight end Zach Ertz was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL/MCL, the offensive line has started nine different combinations and the club saw the departure of line coach Sean Kugler after an alleged Mexico City incident. To add to the list, Cardinals' General Manager Steve Keim has taken a health-related leave of absence. Along the offensive line, D.J. Humphries, Rodney Hudson and Justin Pugh all still remain on injured reserve (Will Hernandez recently returned), which has hindered continuity up front.
Murray tore the ACL in his knee during Arizona's Week 14 loss to the New England Patriots, ending his season prematurely. Even with Murray under center, the Cardinals failed to get into a consistent rhythm. Arizona went 3-8 during that span, as Murray threw for 2,368 yards with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions, resulting in an 87.2 passer rating (418 rushing yards, three touchdowns). Arizona was hit with another harsh reality against the Broncos when backup quarterback Colt McCoy suffered a concussion. McCoy went to the locker room after taking a hard hit from Denver linebacker Alex Singleton. Trace McSorley came in at quarterback following McCoy's exit and will start on Sunday against Tampa Bay.
With a lack of cohesion offensively, the Cardinals have failed to sustain drives despite a talent-filled nucleus starring Hopkins, Brown and James Conner. The unit traditionally finds success when going up-tempo, not allowing defenses to make substitutions. On the opposite side of the ball, the Cardinals' defense has given up the most points in the NFL this season at 26.6 per game. The unit ranks 32nd in the red zone and 25th on third down. Despite the rankings, the unit still features many star-studded names including defensive end J.J. Watt and safety Budda Baker. The Cardinals' defense accumulated seven sacks against Brett Rypien in last week's loss against Denver, including three by Watt. Baker, the team's tackle-leader (102) showcases rare sideline-to-sideline range every time he steps on the field.
The Bucs and Cardinals will go head-to-head in the NFL's first-ever Christmas triple-header on Sunday and the visiting team will seek to strengthen their grip on the NFC South.
On this week's compilation of headliners, many could have made the Cardinals' difference-makers list, however, these four stand out. This group could help swing the game in favor of Arizona on Christmas:
S Budda Baker
As one of the most talented and versatile defenders in the NFL, Budda Baker is a player that opposing teams design plays to go away from. The main objective for offenses around the league is to block No. 3. Baker plays with reckless abandon, possessing a rare ability to cover ground in a flash. Whether blitzing off the edge, rushing from the A-gap or B-gap, or covering a receiver or a tight end, Baker does it all at a high level. The gritty playmaker has the ability to line up as the single-high safety and as a nickel with man-coverage skills. He is a missile coming to the flat or firing downhill. Baker leads the Cardinals in tackles with 102 and is tied for the team lead in interceptions with two. The do-it-all star is a nightmare for offensive coordinators and blocking Baker will be a top priority for the Bucs' offense on Christmas. With exceptional instincts and ability to read routes/the quarterback's eyes, Baker can make for a long day on turf.
WR DeAndre Hopkins
DeAndre Hopkins has established himself as one of the best receivers in the NFL for the last decade with both the Cardinals and the Texans. He can fight off jams and still be successful against physical cornerbacks. Hopkins subtly changes the speed and tempo of his routes to keep cornerbacks off balance. He attacks the ball and is adept at gaining yards after catch. Despite missing time in 2022 while fulfilling a six-game suspension, Hopkins still leads the Cardinals in both receptions (63) and receiving yards (713). With his ability to win in contested catch situations and sell routes with deceptive moves, Hopkins will be a focal point for the Buccaneers' defense on Sunday. He is the engine of Arizona's offense and a player the Bucs will have to strive to neutralize.
DE J.J. Watt
J.J. Watt is the Cardinals' pass rush catalyst. Like Hopkins, Watt spent the duration of his career with the Texans before arriving in Arizona. Regarded as one of the best in the game, Watt's impactful play goes beyond sack numbers. Offenses are forced to slide their protections to account for him and yet he still repeatedly finds success. Whether he jumps underneath, runs through tackles or uses his hands to go around, Watt possesses a vast array of lethal moves to out-leverage on his rushes. The five-time Pro Bowler has the unique ability to stop and start on a dime, causing havoc for offensive game plans. He currently leads the Cardinals with 9.5 sacks and will certainly be a focal point for the Buccaneers on December 25.
RB James Conner
James Conner is an old-school, downhill running back. After arriving in Arizona following a four-year career in Pittsburgh, Conner brought physicality to Kliff Kingsbury's offense. He fights for every single yard and is a challenge to bring down in the open field. Conner's battering-ram style and mental toughness make him a disruptive force. He drops his shoulder to punish tacklers and utilizes a wicked stiff-arm to swat away defenders. Conner is a complete back, willing to do the dirty work in the trenches and has showcased his ability out of the backfield on wheel routes, screens and swing passes. He leads Arizona in rushing yards (624) and rushing touchdowns (6). With the revolving door at quarterback for Arizona due to injuries, Conner will likely play an integral role in the offense to take pressure off McSorley. Gap integrity will be critical for the Buccaneers on Christmas Day.
Here are some ways in which the Cardinals have excelled in 2022:
- J.J. Watt had 3.0 sacks for the Cardinals in Week 15 against the Broncos, marking his first game with three-plus sacks since he had 3.0 with the Texans in Week Three, 2018 versus the Giants. Watt has 9.5 sacks in 2022 (needs 0.5 for his first double-digit sack season since 2018).
- Since his return from suspension, Hopkins has accounted for 44.3% of the Cardinals' team air yards, per Next Gen Stats.
Negative factors hindering the outcome of games for Arizona in 2022, most notably:
- The Cardinals' defense has given up the most points in the NFL (372) and have surrendered an average of 26.6 per game. 198 of the total sum allowed have come in the second half of games in 2022.
- On 397 first down plays in 2022, the Cardinals have averaged the lowest average (4.33) and yardage total (1719) per first down in the league.
New Faces in 2022
Arizona's most significant acquisition of the 2022 offseason was not a free agency signing but a stunning draft-night trade. During the first round of the draft the Cardinals sent the 23rd-overall pick to the Ravens for wide receiver Marquise "Hollywood" Brown and the 100th-overall pick. The move reunited Kyler Murray and Brown, former Oklahoma teammates, and gave the Arizona offense an added dimension. His depth helped fill a void as Hopkins served a six-game suspension from the NFL to start the 2022 season.
After the Brown trade, the Cardinals did not make their first pick in the 2022 draft until number 55 overall, where they took the first tight end off the board in Colorado's Trey McBride. With Zach Ertz (Injured Reserve) getting a new deal, the Cardinals bolstered their corps.