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With Okafor out, Cardinals sign Freeney

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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. — The Arizona Cardinals were relieved when to hear that outside linebacker Alex Okafor would miss two to four weeks with a calf strain because they expected much worse.

Okafor is the team’s best pass rusher. Even with him, the Cardinals were lacking a consistent outside rush. But the need became acute when Okafor went down, so the team signed 13-year veteran Dwight Freeney this week.

The Cardinals don’t expect to see Freeney dominate as he once did, but if he can play some pressure in a limited role, it’s an excellent signing.

Coach Bruce Arians expects Freeney to play 15 to 20 plays a game, beginning Sunday in Pittsburgh.

“Freeney’s involved now. That’s why we signed him,” Arians said. “He rushes the passer. I don’t think you have to teach him that.”

The Cardinals have only eight sacks this season, but Arians has consistently said he’s been pleased with the amount of pressure generated.

It was hoped that Okafor would be able to build upon last season, when he led the team with eight sacks.

He had two sacks in the season opener, but hasn’t been much of a factor since.

Rookie Markus Golden is expected to replace Okafor in the starting lineup. In passing situations, Freeney is likely to come in for LaMarr Woodley.

Golden, a second-round pick, has shown pass rush ability this year. He’s relentless in trying to beat blocks, and his future looks bright.

Kareem Martin, a converted defensive end, also should get more playing time while Okafor is out.

SERIES HISTORY: 59th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead, 32-23-8. This is just the third time since the merger in 1970 that the Cardinals have played in Pittsburgh. They last visited in 2003. But the teams have strong ties. The Cardinals’ last two head coaches, Ken Whisenhunt and Bruce Arians, are former Steelers’ offensive coordinators. Arians would not have landed in Arizona had the Steelers not renewed his contract after the 2011 season. He was hired by the Colts and became their interim coach. He proved himself as a head coach during that stint, and the Cardinals hired him to replace Whisenhunt in 2013. The teams first met in 1933. In 1944, they merged for one season, going 0-10.

Notes: Free safety Tyrann Mathieu (heel) missed some practice time this week with a heel injury. He is expected to play against the Steelers. . . . Wide receiver John

–WR John Brown missed practice time with a hamstring injury but is expected to play against the Steelers.

GAME PLAN

–Offensively, the Cardinals will continue to try to do what they do: run the ball and throw deep off play action. It’s important to protect Carson Palmer, and the Steelers will bring a variety of blitzes, much like the Cardinals do. Coach Bruce Arians needs to be judicious in his play calling and realize how important the run game. It sets everything else up.

Defensively the Cardinals will devote all resources to stopping the run and try to put the game in the hands of Steelers backup quarterback Michael Vick. The Cardinals have been adept at collecting turnovers (14, including 11 interceptions). The Steelers have committed only three turnovers, however. If the Cardinals can get a lead, their secondary could come up with some interceptions against Vick.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Cardinals ILB Kevin Minter vs. Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell.

In his first year as a starter, Minter has played well overall but he did struggle against the Rams. That’s one reason why rookie Todd Gurley had a big fourth quarter. Minter will be tested Sunday.

–Steelers WR Antonio Brown vs. Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson. Two of the best athletes in the NFL go head to head. Peterson always takes the best receiver, and Brown is clearly that. If the Cardinals can shut down the run, it will be incumbent on Peterson to control Brown and take away the Steelers’ primary big-play threat.


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