GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Vikings defense heads into another national showcase game without linebacker Anthony Barr, safety Harrison Smith and nose tackle Linval Joseph.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are locked and loaded offensively with an MVP candidate at quarterback, a resurgent Larry Fitzgerald Jr. and a rolling rookie running back.
Carson Palmer and the Cardinals will look to win a shootout in the desert Thursday night. And the shorthanded Vikings, who already have ruled out three of their best defenders because of injuries, might be powerless to stop them.
“This is the NFL. Guys get banged up all the time,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “We’re not the only team that has guys hurt. So we line up and go play.”
Dealing with injuries is nothing new for Zimmer’s defense. That unit has often played the past two months without a standout starter. First it was defensive end Everson Griffen, followed by defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, rookie middle linebacker Eric Kendricks, Smith … and now Barr and Joseph.
Despite missing those key pieces, though typically one at a time, the Vikings have boasted one of the NFL’s best defenses, an aggressive group that helped to mask the deficiencies of a run-heavy offense that got exposed in Sunday’s 38-7 loss to the Seahawks.
And the Vikings offense, unequipped to keep pace in a high-scoring game, could muster only 125 yards and did not reach the red zone, let alone score a single point.
The Vikings, who are getting their league-mandated Thursday night game in the worst possible week, have had little time to regroup while also trying to prepare for the balanced big-play offense schemed up by Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, a unit that leads the NFL in both yards gained and points scored.
Thankfully, Zimmer has familiarity with both Arians and Palmer from his Bengals days. Zimmer matched wits and blitz with Arians twice a year when the latter was the offensive coordinator for the Steelers until 2011. And Palmer was his quarterback in Cincinnati for three years before the Bengals exiled Palmer to Oakland.
“They have a great scheme,” Zimmer said. “[Arians is] unpredictable with his calls and … the big thing right now is Carson is playing unbelievable. MVP level. I’m not just saying that because we’re playing them this week. It’s not media talk. It’s true. He’s firing the ball like you wouldn’t believe.”
Said Arians: “I don’t respect anybody in this business more than I respect Zim. He probably has the most well-coached defensive teams.”
Even if Palmer does not win MVP, he looks like a shoo-in for Comeback Player of the Year after suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2014. Throwing to a quintet of talented receivers, he has amassed a league-leading 3,693 passing yards along with 29 touchdowns. His 106.3 passer rating would be a career high.
Fitzgerald, who hails from Minneapolis, looks as if he spent his offseason training with Ponce de León. At 32, he is having one of his finest seasons with 91 catches for 1,047 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Cardinals also have Michael Floyd, the jump-ball specialist who also happens to be a Minnesota native, and John Brown, the second-year speedster. Rookie J.J. Nelson and second-year wide receiver Jaron Brown also have provided plays.
“They’re great receivers,” cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. “Larry Fitzgerald is one of the best in the league. Michael Floyd will go up and catch the ball. … [Brown is] fast and explosive.”
The Cardinals are down to their third running back, rookie David Johnson, a player the Vikings eyed closely before the draft. But last week, he picked up where the injured Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington left off, rushing for 99 yards in last week’s victory over the Rams. He is also a threat as a pass-catcher, with four touchdown receptions in 2015.
“I remember watching him last year against Iowa because he went to Northern Iowa. He’s a very good pass receiver out of the backfield. He’s a good running back,” outside linebacker Chad Greenway said. “They do what they do very well. It’s kind of a simple running game but they’re very good at it, and they’re repetitive with it.”
Heading into a prime-time game without three of their brightest stars, the Vikings have been breaking out the “next man up” cliché so often that if it was the phrase of the day on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” no one at Winter Park would be left with a voice.
Floyd could get a second consecutive start at nose tackle in place of Joseph, with reserve Tom Johnson starting at Floyd’s three-technique spot. Newcomer Jason Trusnik is expected to replace Barr in the base defense, with Greenway getting Barr’s nickel reps to resume an every-down role. Who is replacing Smith? That is a bit of a mystery.
On Monday, the Vikings didn’t have a single safety healthy enough to practice. So Tuesday, they sent Antone Exum to injured reserve, promoted Anthony Harris from the practice squad and brought back veteran defensive back Shaun Prater.
Andrew Sendejo has been ruled out, too, and Robert Blanton is questionable to play Thursday because of his knee injury. So Harris could start in his NFL debut. And if Blanton also sits out, the Vikings will have to turn to Prater or veteran cornerback Terence Newman at the other safety spot.
Beating the 10-2 Cardinals sans a few starters on a short week looks to be too tall a task heading into the game. But Zimmer believes his 8-4 Vikings will at least put up a fight.
“I do think this team has a lot of character and has a lot of smart guys that don’t like to be embarrassed,” Zimmer said. “I think they like challenges.”