by: Michael Steffes
So the upstart Cardinals are knocking on the door of an NFC West Title, huh. At least that is something I expect to hear a lot of this year. One thing I will give them, they are the one team in this division that hasn't undergone major coaching changes this year. However, they also haven't undergone any major personnel changes either, which for a team that fell flat with their shot at the champs in December at Qwest, they could have used.
Lets breakdown the 08' campaign for the Arizona Cardinals...
Total Offense: 12th
Total Defense: 17th
Points Scored: 7th
Points Allowed: 26th
ESPN PWR: 17
USA TODAY PWR: 16
PETER KING: 21
Key Additions: LB Clark Haggans (Pittsburgh), DE Travis Laboy (Tennessee), LB Matt Stewart (Cleveland)
Key Losses: OLB Calvin Pace (NYJ), WR Bryant Johnson (San Fran), G Kendrick Vincent (Carolina)
Overall you cannot fault the Cardinals offense for their .500 record and failure to make the playoffs. If anything, Kurt Warner coming in, invigorated this side of the ball and surprised a lot of people. Ranking 7th in points scored last year, the Cardinals hope to bring to the table a potent attack again. Remember Whisenhunt was an offensive coach, but the question is...who is his quarterback?
The quarterback question is something that will dog the Cardinals until at least week one. The reason being, last year, Whisenhunt pulled Leinart early and often, playing rotating quarterbacks trying to give the team a shot to win. Leinart played his best against the Seahawks, but was removed the next week in Baltimore. Warner impressed. One of the reasons was, for the first time since becoming a Card, he actually had decent protection. Despite this, I am not convinced he can repeat last year's heroics, which means the team is going to need Leinart to come up big.
Speaking of big, Zona invested a top 5 pick last year in Levi Brown. A big body to help protect Matt Leinart's blindside. That is the right tackle position for a left hander like Leinart. He did well for a rookie, and he will be there again next year. While the AZ line didn't always seem the most talented on paper, it is clear that they are very well coached. Russ Grimm did a fine job, and he may have to again. Because the team had its proverbial hands tied with Larry Fitzgerald, Kendrick Vincent escaped for bigger money. This leaves the Cards line, like much of the divisions, thin. They didn't draft an o-linemen until the 7th. Health on the line will be a big factor. Also, it will be interesting to see how they run the ball in year two, because the Edge faded fast last year, and we may get a more accurate read on whether that is a James issue or a line issue this year.
James is hitting the wrong side of 30 this year. There was a lot of chatter about the Cards taking a back. Their owner met with Jonathan Stewart even, but thankfully Carolina snatched him up. Instead the team opted to back up Edge with a bigger, short yardage type guy from a small school, Tim Hightower. This 5th round pick is the Cards best chance to improve a run game that let them down in the second half.
On thing the Cards are sure to be doing is passing. They have as dynamic a pair of receivers on the edges as you can find in Boldin and Fitzgerald. The team also added Early Doucet, which seems to be a pretty good addition for a third round pick. The one thing that has happened in past years however is that both Boldin and Fitzgerald have been injury prone. Look for that to cause more of problem this year, as either Doucet, Jerheme Urban, or Steve Breaston would be the replacement. That seems to be a step down from Bryant Johnson.
Tight end is another interesting position to watch on the Cardinals. Leonard Pope was the starter, but he will be returning from a dislocated ankle that happened late in the season. Ben Patrick came in and played reasonably well. Neither option really stretches a defense, but some how they seem to manage to make their presence felt.
The Arizona offense hasn't changed much from last year. They lost B Johnson but added Early Doucet. They have added a new running back, but he doesn't appear to be a major impact guy, at least at this point. The real question for the Cards is quarterback play. Can Leinart step up? Will Warner be good again? Will Whisenhunt play musical quarterbacks again and how does this effect the team psyche? All in all I don't expect the Cardinals to match last season offensively, but with them, the real improvement is expected defensively. Maybe they won't be playing from behind as much.
The Cardinals defense had its fair share of injuries last year, and because of that the unit performed under expectations. Adrian Wilson, Darrnel Dockett (again), Chike Okeafor, and Bertrand Berry (again) all had major injuries. Because of this, the Cards had trouble getting to the passer and defending the pass.
Their D line is going to look much the same as it did last year, at least to begin the season. The Cardinals tend to use both 3 man and 4 man fronts. Both Gabe Watson and Alan Branch will man the nose. Neither has really lived up to the expectations they had coming out of Michigan. Watson fractured his knee cap on a treadmill during the offseason. The good news was he was working out, the bad news is that he isn't anymore. Both Watson and Branch have trouble with their weight and stamina. Darnell Dockett will play inside and at end, and Berry will be back on the outside rushing the passer, until his inevitable injury. It will be interesting to see if Calais Campbell can crack the lineup. He is another player who has underachieved in college but is making his money of his size. Travis LaBoy should help too. The D line is deeper than in years past and that should help. The Cardinals rely pressure from other places too, so lets take a look at linebacker.
The Cardinals franchised tagged Karlos Dansby, which was a good move. Clancy Pendergast the defensive coordinator has some exotic blitzes. Dansby and Adrian Wilson are the two players who benefit the most. In recent years Dansby has been all over the place, and playing for a contract again, expect another big year. The Cards added veteran Clark Haggans who the coaching staff is familiar with from Pittsburgh. He a good player, but there have been many a linebacker who left Pittsburgh and didn't find success in a new system. My guess is that this team has trouble replacing Calvin Pace who finally stepped up last year with money on the line. Former Seahawk Chike Okeafor will be back in that spot and healthy. Okeafor is a solid player, but whether or not he can be as effective a pass rusher as Pace remains to be seen. After losing Pace, losing out on Brandon Chillar, and releasing Darrel Blackstock, the Cards are going to have some new backups like Matt Stewart. Depth could be an issue in this unit.
One place the Cardinals hope to have improved is the secondary. Antrelle Rolle is moving to safety. It is a smart move, but there is no guarantee he will fit right into this spot. That will be a wait and see, but he should be an upgrade. Adrian Wilson is an all world safety but he is coming off an achilles injury. Julian Peterson went through this, and one of the reasons he was available for Seattle to snag was that he was no more than average in his first year back. At the corners, it appears the team will probably start with Rod Hood and Eric Green again. First round pick Dominick Rodgers-Cromartie will be waiting for a chance and playing the nickel. Hood and Green are average, and DRC is a heck of an athlete, but he hasn't exactly faced NFL caliber receivers while playing at Tennessee St. Look for him to be a project who may struggle this year.
If the Cards get more pressure up front, their secondary will be better. If they don't, or have more injuries to their pass rushers, which has become an annual rite of passage, expect the secondary to be exposed again. Part of this is that Clancy Pendergast just takes too many chances for the talent he has on the field. Sometimes it works, and sometimes you get burned. That is how Hasselbeck describes the Cards defensive scheme and who am I to argue.
The Cardinals have solid special teams. Neil Rackers has seen some of the shine come off his star a bit. He will look to get back to form this year. The punter is Matt Barr. A solid but not spectacular punter. The real value in Arizona's special teams is in Steve Breaston. Breaston was a dynamic returner at Michigan and seemed to show glimpses of being able to do it at this level last year. His continued development will mean good field position all year long for the Cards. That can not be discounted.
As much as both the Niners and Rams had the schedule makers stick it to them, the Cardinals got a gift. It would appear that someone is trying to make this division interesting this year. The Cards first half is very manageable. They open at San Fran, a team they should be very focused on after being swept last year, then Miami at home, @ the Skins, and @ the Jets. This two game road trip will be tough, but I think the Cards should make it out of the first quarter 3-1. Before their bye, they then get the Bills and Boys at home. If they aren't in the race November it will be a disappointing year for Cards fans.
As easy as they start however, eventually they have to pay the piper. After their bye they spend two weeks on the road at Car and at St. Louis. Then they get the Niners at home before heading to Qwest for the first matchup w/ the Hawks in week 11. The stretch after that includes the Giants, Eagles, Vikings and Pats before finishing up with the Hawks at home. The only other divisional games they play after week 11 are the Rams and Hawks at home. Both winnable games, but if they are making a playoff push, they might be wishing they were playing NFC West teams in 2nd half.
VS THE HAWKS:
The Hawks catch a bit of a break in their matchups with the Cards. First, the most critical matchup will be week 11. Arizona will be coming off a short week playing the Niners on a Mon Night snoooze fest and then heading into Qwest. That should be enough to win and grab hold of the division. Things get tough for the Cards between the two matchups, and hopefully, week 17 shouldn't hold much meaning to the Hawks. If it does, that will be one heck of a game. I think that either way, the Hawks will want to win that game. They have been beat in AZ 3 out of 4 times in recent years and also, it will be Holmgren's final regular season game. Hopefully all that is enough, if the game even means anything in the NFC West.
I am not going to go all Mel Kiper and pick the Cards to have the first pick in the draft. I think they will be a very similar team, talent wise, as last year. I am giving them bonus points for coaching continuity and I think they are a 9 win team. Unfortunately for them, I could most of those wins coming early. However, that may provide enough confidence to win some they maybe shouldn't. 9-7 is fair and will be a big step for the Cards. That gives them second place in this division by a big margin. Whether it is enough for a wild card we will have to wait and see.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
by: Michael Steffes