Always upstairs, Miller tries downstairs

Posted by Darren Urban on October 25, 2011 – 1:30 pm

Offensive coordinator Mike Miller spent the game against the Steelers on the sideline instead of the coaches box since, well, ever. He’s always been a coach up in the box, and for a coordinator, it’s always about personal preference (like DC Ray Horton, after spending a preseason game on the field, going back upstairs).

But Miller’s preference right now is to find some way to have the Cards and the offense snap out of their funk, so it was decided he would be on the sideline Sunday. He will return there this week in Baltimore, although the plan is to reevaluate on a week-to-week basis. The idea, coach Ken Whisenhunt said, is to better the communication for the unit, especially quarterback Kevin Kolb.

“We were just going down to see if we could improve and I think it was good,” Miller said. “There were some advantages for me too, to be able to look at guys in the eyes and be able to talk to them and they were able to come up to me.”

Miller got a chance to talk to most of the offensive staff face-to-face for the first time. Wide receivers coach John McNulty became the eyes in the sky. “He’s got good vision for the game, especially his savvy in the pass game reading coverages and blitzes,” Miller said. “That was a bonus for us with the move. I thought we saw some advantages.”

The coaches box does have tension, but nothing compares with the cauldron of emotion that is an NFL sideline. Miller said assistant head coach Russ Grimm jokingly reminded Miller that “It’s just a football game” when it started, and linebackers coach Matt Raich — who began coaching together at Robert Morris University once upon a time — reminded Miller to stay far from the line of scrimmage to improve vision of the play. That’s one of the biggest deals, since the main reason Miller (or any coach) likes being upstairs is the ability to see all the players and how plays develop.

“It was good to communicate with Kevin on that level, and it was fun,” Miller said. “It was definitely a different experience. You’ve got to try and stay calm, you’ve got to be able to think, and I think removing myself from right there at the line of scrimmage where everyone is helped.”

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Kolb, his footwork and the future

Posted by Darren Urban on October 24, 2011 – 2:05 pm

Sunday, quarterback Kevin Kolb said he felt like he was making progress. Monday, coach Ken Whisenhunt said the progress is there in some places. In other places, not enough — like Kolb and his footwork.

Footwork means a lot of things to a quarterback, from his depth of drops to his balance while throwing. It’s the latter Whisenhunt wants to see improve.

“In this league, you have to be able to throw the ball from all kinds of different angles,” Whisenhunt said. “You see guys do that all the time. But he’s getting his body in bad position because of his footwork and that’s what we have to change. A lot of those plays where he’s running out of the pocket are because of his footwork and we have to get that corrected. He has to step up in the pocket and make some of those throws.”

Whisenhunt said the missed throw to tight end Rob Housler “was purely a footwork thing.” Kolb’s footwork was good on plays like the dump pass to The Hyphen for the 73-yard touchdown (pictured below) and the deep pass to Larry Fitzgerald for 31 yards. When Whisenhunt sees plays like the latter, he believes Kolb can emerge as the kind of quarterback the Cardinals seek.

Whiz clearly didn’t want to single out Kolb for a lack of progress, even when asked directly about Kolb’s progress thus far. “I don’t think anybody is progressing at the rate we need to go forward,” Whisenhunt said. “I think you’re naive if you say that.”

Kolb’s lone interception came on a protection mistake by the interior line, “which is unacceptable.” On the safety, the Steelers ended up with a different front than expected for the situation. The Steelers had five men at the line of scrimmage — two standup outside linebackers, three down linemen — and at the snap, the right outside man dropped into coverage. The line blocked the way it was supposed to, although it left linebacker LaMarr Woodley coming off the edge free. Certainly it wasn’t ideal, but Kolb needed to recognize the play and get rid of the ball.

The reason offensive coordinator Mike Miller was on the sideline for the first time Sunday was to allow for better communication with the quarterback too. “As much time as Mike and Kevin spend during the week … he gives (plays) to him on the practice field,” Whisenhunt said. “That’s the thinking with that. We’re trying to make him more comfortable.”

(And no, don’t expect a quarterback change. John Skelton was elevated to second-string Sunday, but Whisenhunt said the Cards just wanted him 100 percent healthy from his ankle sprain, which Skelton has been for a while, actually. Post-bye was an easy time to swap them.)

After each loss, it’s been popular for the “If the Cards keep losing and get the No. 1 pick, do they pick Luck?” question. Way too early to ask. That’s a December question or even January, after they have worked with Kolb for a season. Now? Premature is an understatement.

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Beanie status not serious but uncertain

Posted by Darren Urban on October 24, 2011 – 11:31 am

Coach Ken Whisenhunt said at one point Sunday, the Cardinals feared running back Beanie Wells’ right knee injury would be a season-ender. It’s not. While the NFL Network called it a bone bruise and said Wells would miss one to two weeks, Whisenhunt declined to get that specific, only saying the knee was “stable.” Whiz said Wells didn’t need surgery after taking a shot against the Steelers and then having the knee “lock up on him.”

“We will monitor him this week and see how he progresses,” Whisenhunt said, adding he didn’t want to put a timetable on Beanie’s return.

“I’m not going to put a timeframe on in because I don’t want to set the young man up for failure,” Whisenhunt said. “If he gets out there Wednesday and it’s a struggle … we’ll see.”

Whisenhunt said the Cards wouldn’t be adding a back. Alfonso Smith is the probable starter, Chester Taylor is more comfortable in the offense, Whisenhunt said, and now LaRod Stephens-Howling is healthy (as compared to the first time Wells was hurt). “It’ll be a little bit of a back by committee,” Whisenhunt added.

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Steelers aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on October 23, 2011 – 7:04 pm

Coach Ken Whisenhunt opened his press conference like this: “I don’t have a lot to say.” I think I need to steal the line.

What else is there after Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh? There were moments where you thought, “OK, maybe here.” Then they disappeared. You hope Kevin Kolb can connect on a couple of those throws – it’s hard to believe that play down the middle to Rob Housler was open again to no avail. You hope the defense can come up with a stop, or at least hold the Steelers to a field goal after LaRod Stephens-Howling electrified the stadium with his 73-yard touchdown reception.

It could have made a difference but the plays aren’t made and that’s what happens with a team that’s reeling. The plays aren’t made. What’s next? A trip to Baltimore, that’s what is next. The Cardinals have to play a lot better than this on a trip like that.

— The health of running back Beanie Wells will be under the spotlight. He left, walking under his own power, with what was called a right knee sprain late in the first half. Whisenhunt said he didn’t know what that meant in terms of time, and my early guesstimate is that we’re not going to know so the Ravens will be guessing all week. Obviously, the Cardinals need a healthy Wells badly.

— The inability to sustain some momentum just keeps coming back to bite the Cards. With the Cards trailing 7-0, the place exploded when Kolb hit Larry Fitzgerald for a 31-yard gain out to the Arizona 41-yard line, and then rookie fullback Anthony Sherman made a beautiful snare over the middle for a 15-yard gain. The Cards even got a pass interference call against Pittsburgh a couple plays later. But the drive then stalled with a loss on a Beanie run, an incompletion and a sack.

— You have to be wary and make the plays, but man, is Mike Wallace fast.

— The defense has to come up with rebound stops – the possessions by the other team after an Arizona score. With less than two minutes left in the first half, the Steelers managed to get a field goal after the Cards got their first touchdown. And of course, there was the TD drive after Stephens-Howling’s TD.

— Cards had some NFL firsts Sunday. Linebacker Sam Acho had his first sack, running back Alfonso Smith his first touchdown, receiver DeMarco Sampson his first catch.

— Stephens-Howling took out a couple of kickoffs that were pretty deep, and the Cards ended up without the greatest field position, because the Steelers had good coverage. Stephens-Howling said he did ask special teams coach Kevin Spencer if he should change things up, but Spencer said to keep doing what he was doing.

— Whisenhunt repeated again the looking at “what we do and who we’re doing it with” line. I know everyone – or many, at least – are wondering about Kolb. I don’t expect a change. If nothing else, you want to find out about him this year, and the season is only six games old. My guess, though, is that the quarterback is going to be a bigger and bigger story — if he isn’t already.

I’m trying to come up with a good walkoff line. No dice. Not after this one today.

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Heap, Taylor inactive; Skelton backup QB

Posted by Darren Urban on October 23, 2011 – 11:35 am

After the bye, the Cardinals have made some changes to inactives — some injury-related, some not. As expected, TE Todd Heap (hamstring) is out, after missing all week of practice. But John Skelton has been elevated on the depth chart as backup QB, with Richard Bartel inactive for the first time this season. RB Chester Taylor is also inactive, with Beanie Wells and LaRod Stephens-Howling all healthy again (with Alfonso Smith). Smith was officially moved ahead of Taylor on the depth chart this week.

The other inactives for the Cards:

  • S Kerry Rhodes (foot)
  • T D’Anthony Batiste
  • TE Jim Dray (pectoral)
  • DE Ronald Talley

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Friday before the Steelers

Posted by Darren Urban on October 21, 2011 – 4:54 pm

Everybody has a story. Mine was standing in the bowels of Raymond James Stadium, suit on and lugging my computer backpack among a host of other Super Bowl media types waiting for the game to end and to have access to players/the field. And watching the game on a TV – seven-second delay – as Fitz caught that crossing route and raced for that 64-yard touchdown, and seeing the crowd go crazy and roar. I remember the emotion smacking me hard enough I bent over for a moment to catch my breath, thinking, “Holy crap, the Cards are going to win this thing.”

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was asked earlier this week on his conference call about how long ago that Cards-Steelers Super Bowl seemed. His answer was succinct: “Eons.”

I can’t disagree. So much has happened in the two-and-a-half seasons since the last time the Cardinals and Steelers played a game that counted, which will happen again Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Steelers have been back to another Super Bowl, losing this time. The Cards have undergone a huge metamorphosis, losing one way or another many of key figures that played on that team in 2008.

Not only does the Super Bowl seem like eons ago, so too does that playoff game against Green Bay a year later, when the Cards lit up the scoreboard like a pinball machine.

Now they have – at this moment in time – a chance to beat the Steelers, which in no way would make up for the Super Bowl loss but would be certainly welcome nonetheless, given their dire straits.

“It doesn’t erase the fact we got there and it was a good run for us,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “I think that’s what makes us so confident we are doing the right thing, as far as how we prepare and how we work.

“I’m more worried about where we are as a team right now and getting our team some wins.”

— Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett called the recent players meeting that included coaches – a rare occurrence – “one of the most emotional meetings I have ever been in.” The hope is whatever messages were delivered carry over. As Fitz said (and I am paraphrasing here), meetings are good but it comes down to playing on Sundays.

— The Steelers can be run on. They have the best pass defense in the NFL. This may be a weekend where running back Beanie Wells, now healthy from his hamstring issue, gets 30 carries (his career-high is 27, set against the Giants earlier this month).

— You figure the Steelers are going to test these young cornerbacks. Wide receiver Mike Wallace has established himself as one of the – if not the – scariest deep threat in the league. He already has five catches this season of at least 40 yards. He averages 21 yards a reception, and it will be one of the keys to the game how he is dealt with by cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and A.J. Jefferson.

— Speaking of Peterson, he may be a rookie, but he isn’t fazed by the Cards’ current rough patch. “My confidence will always stay high,” Peterson said. “I let bygones be bygones. I have amnesia. This team will continue fighting.”

— In terms of yardage gained on third-down receptions, this game will have the top two receivers in the NFL: Wallace (228 yards) and Arizona’s Early Doucet (214).

— Nice job by Kent Somers to ferret out the conditions of the conditional draft pick the Cards got in the trade that sent running back Tim Hightower to Washington and a pick plus defensive end Vonnie Holliday to Arizona. The Cards get a sixth-rounder unless Hightower plays in 60.41 percent of the offensive snaps for the Redskins. Currently, Hightower has played 54 percent of the snaps and shares time with Ryan Torain and Roy Helu. That doesn’t seem to be a good combination for the higher pick, barring an injury.

— With defensive coordinator Ray Horton seeing his former team Sunday, I wanted to remind everyone of the feel-good story from the offseason, when Horton gave his car to a Steelers cafeteria worker before leaving the team to come to Arizona.

— If you get to Big Ben, tackle him. It changes everything when you don’t.

I thought it was interesting today as Horton spoke and a visiting Pittsburgh writer asked about the matchup between Fitzgerald and cornerback Ike Taylor and what he thought of the matchup.

“Back in Tampa, there was a call late in the game where our guy caught a pass and went up the field,” Horton said. “I hope there is a lot of that this week.”

Of course, back in Tampa, Horton was working for the Steelers at the time and probably wanted to throw up when Fitzgerald split the defense for his touchdown. Today, though, the memory comes up and it’s “our guy.”

Eons indeed.

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Horton close to going 100 percent with defense

Posted by Darren Urban on October 21, 2011 – 12:50 pm

Defensive coordinator Ray Horton said he’s using 30 percent of his scheme in right now, obviously a low number and something he plans to ramp up quickly. The Cardinals did have a good chunk of the defense available earlier this season but Horton scaled it back after early-season issues.

“This week was the first week I really felt like we could put some new stuff in and next week I am putting everything back in,” Horton said.

With the bye week, he could have put more back in now, but Horton said that was in deference to explosive Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace. “He’s a special guy and you have to respect what he does,” Horton said. “I don’t want a bad matchup with (No.) 17, who is averaging 20 yards a catch, running deep on us.”

Players have been asking for Horton to put more back in but “I didn’t think they were ready. That’s kind of my job.”

— Tight end Todd Heap (hamstring) sat out practice again Friday, although he is listed as questionable for the game. Steelers starters NT Casey Hampton (shoulder), LB James Harrison (eye), G Doug Legursky (toe) and DE Aaron Smith (foot) are all out, while DT Chris Hoke (neck) is doubtful.

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Throwing deep UPDATE

Posted by Darren Urban on October 21, 2011 – 8:10 am

One of the more popular topics with the Cards has been getting the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, a subject that comes up time and again. But an offshoot of that is the Cardinals taking shots downfield period. While the progress of quarterback Kevin Kolb has also been constantly analyzed, the gentlemen at complied a “throwing deep” list this season, checking out accuracy and other stats for QBs throwing deep (by their definition, a pass 20 yards in the air or more).

Kolb has the fewest deep attempts in the NFL right now for starters. Kolb has tried only 11 deep passes this season, completing five. (And let’s be clear; throwing deep doesn’t exactly equate with win-loss record; the second-fewest attempts, 12, have come from the 49ers’ 5-1 starter Alex Smith, and he’s played in one more game than Kolb). Kolb has five completions for 205 yards, a touchdown (the bomb to Fitz in Washington) and three interceptions.

The list is fun to peruse. Carolina rookie Cam Newton has already tried 43 such passes this season.

As for the reasons Kolb hasn’t thrown deep more often, they are likely multiple, and all the ones we have gone over before. Protection not holding up, being uncomfortable in the pocket (it takes times for such routes to develop), and probably fewer playcalls to do so. There is all kinds of risk usually when you take shots downfield, whether it is a chance at a sack or getting picked off on a jump ball (like the Antrel Rolle interception in the Giants’ game). It’s a part of Kolb’s game — and the offense — that will be interesting to watch as the season moves forward.

UPDATE: The guys were kind enough to send along, for comparison, what Kurt Warner did deep his final two seasons in Arizona. That’s also very interesting. In 2008, Warner had the highest accuracy percentage throwing deep (58.7) but his 46 attempts (23 completions, 4 drops, 5 TD, 3 INT) were still tied for the fewest among the the full-time quarterbacks that season (JaMarcus Russell and Ben Roethlisberger were the only other two with fewer than 50 that season).

In 2009, Warner’s deep accuracy percentage dropped off the table to 32.4 percent (11-of-37, 1 drop, 3 TD, 5 INT) and again, his attempts were fewest in the league.

In both years, Warner threw deep only 7.7 percent and 7.2 percent of the time respectively (Kolb is at 6.4 percent of the time). By contrast, Derek Anderson threw deep 14.4 percent of the time last season when he was playing.

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Steelers game is a sellout

Posted by Darren Urban on October 20, 2011 – 1:00 pm

No surprise, but the game Sunday between the Cards and Steelers at University of Phoenix Stadium is a sellout, making the franchise 58-for-58 — including preseason and postseason games — in sellouts since moving into the building in 2006. Pittsburgh, for now, is the sellout bookends, since the first Cards’ game at UoP was a preseason game against the Steelers.

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Old friends, new teams and trash talk

Posted by Darren Urban on October 20, 2011 – 7:58 am

It happens all the time — two teams meet, and ex-teammates on each side end up with some good-natured smack talk before the game. It just doesn’t usually happen in the middle of the locker room. But there was Cardinals’ reserve defensive lineman Nick Eason Wednesday, about to do an interview, when his phone rang. The caller ID said it was Chris Hoke — a defensive lineman from the Steelers. Instead of letting it go to voice mail, Eason picked up.

“Don’t call me now, I’m about to do an interview about we’re gonna beat y’all,” Eason said, smile growing on his face. Then he punched speaker to let everyone in on the brief conversation.

“Is Casey playing?” Eason asked, knowing that Steelers starting nose tackle Casey Hampton has been banged up with a bad shoulder. “Don’t worry about that,” Hoke said.

(A quick side note: Eason, along with fellow long-time D-line vet Vonnie Holliday, have fit perfectly into their roles. Would each like to play more? Yes. But both have embraced their jobs as wise sages in the locker room, there to mainly support guys like Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Dan Williams and David Carter.)

“Is Casey playing? Why can’t you tell me? We aren’t friends?” Eason repeated through his grin, only to get the same, “Don’t worry about that” answer from Hoke. “So we’re enemies now,” Eason said. “I thought we were boys. That’s how you’re gonna act.”

It was Hoke’s turn to dig, noting that “Ramon” — Steelers offensive lineman Ramon Foster — told Hoke he was going to “pancake” Eason. That drew another grin from Eason. “You tell Ramon he ain’t gonna be able to move me,” the 6-foot-3, 305-pound Eason said. “He never has, and he’s not going to start now.”

There are only three ex-Steelers playing for the Cards right now: Eason and linebackers Joey Porter and Clark Haggans (cornerback Crezdon Butler is on IR). For all the ties to Pittsburgh — and there are still plenty on the coaching staff — the Cards have looked to downplay that aspect of the game this week. Eason is no exception, save for his jabs to Hoke.

“I’m not jacked up,” Eason said. “Obviously, it’s a dominant opponent. Pittsburgh is a dominate team. You’ve got to give it to them. But right now we are 1-4. I just want a win here. I don’t care if it was whomever, it’s the next game. And we need a win.”

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