A season ago, the Saints and Cardinals combined for 20 victories. Through six weeks this season, both teams limp into Thursday night’s game at State Farm Stadium with matching 2-4 records.
And what’s most disappointing is that both teams’ bread-and-butter units have underachieved so far.
The Cardinals’ offense, which ranked in the top 10 in most major categories a year ago, is middle of the pack or worse in those numbers through six games.
On the flip side, the Saints’ defense -- which played like a top-five unit late last season -- has been equally as disappointing, especially in the turnover-creating department.
It also doesn’t help that the two teams’ head coaches, Kliff Kingsbury and Dennis Allen, specialize in coaching those respective units.
We don’t yet know if Jameis Winston will start at QB for New Orleans. But we do know that Arizona officially activated DeAndre Hopkins on Monday from his six-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. He’s been using team facilities since Week 3 ended, gearing up for his return in this game.
For those concerned about a third-straight Thursday night dud, there’s always this fallback: Both teams have played in some wild, back-and-forth games this season. And both teams badly need this game if they want to get back on track after poor starts to their seasons.
Here are four things to watch for when the Saints visit the Cardinals on Thursday night on Prime Video:
- Welcome back, D-Hop. Hopkins' six-game suspension has come to an end, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Cardinals' offense hit the skids in the Week 6 loss to the Seahawks, with Marquise "Hollywood" Brown suffering a significant foot injury late in the game. Arizona traded for ex-Panthers WR Robbie Anderson this week, but the return of Hopkins is a far bigger source of hope. Kyler Murray now has played 20 games since the start of the 2021 season -- 10 with Hopkins and 10 without. With Hopkins in the lineup, Murray has had a far higher completion rate (71.6% to 64.9%), has averaged more pass yards per game (278.2 to 246.8) and has more TD passes (19 to 11). It’s been a tough season for Murray, who is facing pressure like he never has before, and Kliff Kingsbury, whose play calling has been ripe for questioning. Expecting Hopkins to be the offense’s magic elixir is a dangerous failsafe, but it might be its biggest hope right now. Helping matters for Arizona is the fact that Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore is not healthy enough to play in this one.
- Who will the Saints turn to at quarterback? When the schedule was announced last spring, this looked like a battle of two former No. 1 overall draft picks at quarterback. But with Winston’s murky injury status, that possibility is up in the air. Saints head coach Dennis Allen was a bit coy when asked about Winston’s availability for this game, saying he wanted to get Winston close to 100% before he returns. Because of the short week, it could be Andy Dalton for a fourth straight start (with a dash of Taysom Hill); neither quarterback has an injury designation heading into Thursday night. Dalton struggled last week, although missing his top three receivers in the game had something to do with it. He also suffered a back injury in the loss to the Bengals. But the Saints do appear to have a run game they can lean on. They ran for 228 yards against the Bengals, at a 6.7 yards-per-carry average. Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram and jack of all trades Hill make the ground game go, but rookie receiver Rashid Shaheed also chipped in last week with a 44-yard TD run on his first career offensive touch. Arizona is tied for seventh vs. the run but 20th vs. the pass and tied for 24th in sack rate.
- Saints expected to get one major receiver back. It was clear how limited Dalton and the Saints’ passing game was last week, especially late in the game when they got nothing going offensively. Michael Thomas has now missed the past three games, and Jarvis Landry has been out two straight. Neither of them will play Thursday. But rookie Chris Olave, who missed Week 6, has said he’ll be back for this one after suffering a concussion the week before vs. Seattle. Olave has been a bit more busy with Winston at QB (17 catches for 268 yards in three games) than he’s been with Dalton (eight catches for 121 yards), but both of Olave’s TD catches have come from Dalton in a game Thomas also missed. This could be a big stage for the rookie wideout in a game in which the Cardinals figure to make the Saints beat them through the air, no matter who is at QB. New Orleans will also be without tight end Adam Trautman and guard Andrus Peat.
- Pressure rising on Kliff Kingsbury. If the most important relationship on any football team is between the quarterback and its head coach, it’s hard not to feel that the Cardinals’ marriage of Kingsbury and Murray is in need of a little counseling. The hot-and-cold offensive performances (two games with no offensive TDs) and awkward play calling and execution have been glaring this season, and neither man seems to have much in the way of answers. Yet they both (along with GM Steve Keim) signed long-term extensions this offseason. Still, we know who is more vulnerable if major changes are afoot: the coach. If the offensive disconnect wasn’t clear on the handling of the final drive of the Eagles loss, it became patently obvious throughout the loss at Seattle. Kingsbury’s game planning and in-game decision-making are very clearly concerns. And in his first three seasons at the helm, this is the part of the season where his teams start to tank, going 12-19 from Week 7 on. Following a 2-4 start, Kingsbury can’t afford to have similar results this year if he wants to assure his job in Arizona for 2023.