There are a lot of similarities between the Washington Redskins and Arizona Cardinals. Both are coming off a mediocre season with each team finishing at or near .500. The Redskins didn’t quite make it there after going 7-9. The Cardinals, on the other hand, won four of their last six games to finish 8-8 on the year.
There are also the new faces at quarterback. After six seasons in Washington, Kirk Cousins decided to take his talents to Minnesota. To replace him, the team traded for former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith.
Similarly, the Cardinals needed a new signal-caller following the retirement of Carson Palmer. The team’s answer was signing another former No. 1 overall pick, Sam Bradford, in free agency. It was a suitable way to address the immediate need, but Arizona also traded up for UCLA quarterback Drew Rosen, who they selected 10th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft.
On paper, there isn’t much of a difference between these two teams.
Washington at Arizona
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 9 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Cardinals -1
Three Things to Watch
1. How will things go with Alex Smith under center?
As effective as Kirk Cousins was as a passer, the team didn’t find a ton of success with him at quarterback. In the last three years, Washington only went 24-23-1 with one playoff appearance (a loss to the Green Bay Packers in 2015).
Will things be different with Smith under center? The Utah product had the most efficient season of his career in 2017, finishing with career highs in passing yards (4,042) and touchdown passes (26). His performance was good enough to help the Chiefs win the AFC West, but a one-point loss to the Titans in a Wild Card matchup ended any chance at a Super Bowl run.
Now, it’s time to see if the marriage between Smith and the Redskins is enough to get them over the hump.
2. Adrian Peterson’s familiarity with the Cardinals
Peterson originally signed with the New Orleans Saints prior to the 2017 season. But after a season-ending wrist injury to Cardinals starting running back David Johnson, Peterson was shipped off to Arizona.
The long-time Viking got off to an excellent start with his new team, rushing for 314 yards and two touchdowns during his first three weeks. From there, he only produced 134 yards on the ground (2.43 yards per carry) over his next three games before a neck injury landed him on injured reserve. That’s why many speculated that at 32 years old, his days of being an effective running back were behind him.
That notion isn’t dead, but there’s a renewed hope for the 6-foot-1, 220-pound bruiser. He was signed by the Redskins following a slew of injuries that included 2018 second-round pick Derrius Guice. In his only preseason game action, Peterson rushed for 56 yards on 11 carries. It wasn’t a large sample size, but he was displaying some of the same vision and power that made him such a force as recently as 2015.
3. David Johnson’s success against Washington’s revamped front seven
There are a lot of people out there who have forgotten how dynamic Johnson can be. Yes, a wrist injury during the first game ended his 2017 season prematurely, but he still possesses that versatile skill set that could allow him to emerge as the NFL’s top running back.
In only his second year in the league, Johnson accumulated an eye-popping 2,118 total yards (1,239 rushing, 879 receiving) and 20 touchdowns. He’s only started 22 games in his career, however, so there’s still plenty of tread left on the tires for the 26-year-old.
With that said, Washington isn’t going to make things easy for him on Sunday. After finishing with one of the worst run defenses in the NFL last season, they added two more critical pieces to the front seven. First-round pick Da’Ron Payne, a former Alabama standout, was one of the top run-stopping defensive tackles available in the draft. He’s also an underrated pass rusher. The Redskins also made sure to add depth on Day 3 with the addition of former Virginia Tech nose tackle Tim Settle (6-3, 328).
Combine those moves with the return of 2017 first-round pick Jonathan Allen, and you’ll have a better understanding of why it could be a tough day for Johnson and the Cardinals’ run game (especially with a shaky offensive line).
This is going to be a difficult game for the Redskins. They have the starters needed to be a playoff contender, but having to travel across the country is never easy. As fragile as Sam Bradford has been during his career, he’s more than capable of getting the job done when health permits.
This will be Steve Wilks’ first game as the head coach in Arizona after serving as the Carolina Panthers’ defensive coordinator in 2017. That gives Washington an advantage given Jay Gruden’s experience, but it won’t quite be enough in the end. These are two very similar teams, so home-field advantage will end up being the difference.
Don’t be surprised with a slow first half. There’s a lot of turnover from last season for both teams.
Prediction: Cardinals 20, Redskins 17
— Written by Clint Lamb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ClintRLamb.