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Cards really (really) making most of turnovers

Posted by Darren Urban on October 1, 2015 – 12:27 pm

The Cardinals lead the NFL in interceptions after three weeks. They have seven (Mathieu 2, Peterson, Powers, Rashad Johnson, Bethel, Jefferson). They have yet to recover a fumble. On the other side, Carson Palmer has thrown two interceptions, and the Cards have lost two fumbles. Their plus-3 in the turnover ratio is fine, but not overwhelming.

What is overwhelming is how the Cardinals have dealt with both sides of the equation.

Of the four turnovers, the Cardinals have allowed a mere six points — the two field goals at the end of the first half in Chicago, despite the Bears getting the ball in the red zone twice after a Palmer pick and a J.J. Nelson muffed punt. Yet the Cards have turned their seven takeaways into 41 points. It doesn’t hurt that three of the interceptions have been returned for touchdowns, but the Cards have scored every single time they have stolen the ball. The ultimate underscore of this three-game stretch came against the 49ers. Palmer threw an interception — a bad one — near the end of the half. Yet Tyrann Mathieu picked the ball back moments later, setting up a field goal (on what was headed to be a touchdown drive if the Cardinals hadn’t run out of time.)

It’s a ratio that isn’t going to be sustained all season (you wouldn’t think.) But it’s a crucial way to give you leads in games, and yet another thing to point at with a 3-0 record.



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Keeping Palmer in, and not letting up

Posted by Darren Urban on September 30, 2015 – 12:43 pm

The Cardinals had built a 31-7 halftime lead over the 49ers, but Bruce Arians was blunt with his team, and was willing to share his message to the broadcast reporters who checked in with him at halftime.

“If you relax, I’ll be looking for new players,” Arians told his players. “Keep your foot on their throat.”

It’s a message that often has to be repeated in games that have gone extremely well in the first half. That’s not necessarily unique to Arians. But it underscores the Arians mentality — and underscores why, in the last two weeks as the Cardinals have easily put away both the Bears and 49ers, starting quarterback Carson Palmer has played all but three snaps.

There is concern — and it’s fair — from the outside wondering if Palmer, so valuable to this team’s chances, should be coming out when the Cardinals have the game in hand. Part of the issue is that Arians, not unlike many coaches, has a different perspective of when a game is in hand.

“That’s the way I coach, the game is never over until it’s over,” Arians said after the Bears game.

The last time the Cardinals played in Chicago in 2009, they also built a big lead and then-coach Ken Whisenhunt decided to put in backup quarterback Matt Leinart. Leinart threw an interception and Whisenhunt actually put Kurt Warner back in after just one series, with the Bears cutting the lead to 13.

Against the 49ers, Palmer’s last drive was conservative in terms of Palmer’s exposure. On a 13-play touchdown drive — which consumed a big part of the final 15 minutes — the Cards ran it 10 times. The only pass play that wasn’t a quick throw was Palmer’s pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham at the outset of the drive. If the Cardinals do manage to get a big lead against the Rams Sunday (and most of the time, this will be moot because usually games are close week to week), perhaps Palmer comes out. But maybe he doesn’t, with Arians choosing to not let up at all. He doesn’t want his player relaxing, and I’m guessing Arians doesn’t think he should relax either.

Jim Tomsula, Bruce Arians


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For Cardinals, a running game takes root

Posted by Darren Urban on September 29, 2015 – 12:34 pm

The Cardinals ran for 120 yards against the Saints, 115 against the Bears and 139 Sunday against the 49ers. It is the first time the Cardinals have rushed for at least 115 yards in each of the first three games of the season since 1988. The 374 rushing yards are the most for the franchise in the first three games of the season since the Cards had 416 in 2002. (That 2002 start was aided by Thomas Jones’ 173 yards in the first regular-season game ever at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, a Cardinals’ win, the second week of the season. The Cardinals had 249 yards rushing in that game alone.)

The Cardinals have done it with nearly equal contributions from Andre Ellington — who looked great against the Saints before he got hurt — and David Johnson and Chris Johnson. Chris Johnson had 110 yards rushing and two touchdowns against the 49ers, and showed plenty of burst just a couple of days after his 30th birthday. Better yet, after Bruce Arians said that generally Earl Watford was a better run blocker than Bobby Massie at right tackle, the Cards had their best rushing game against San Francisco with Massie in there. And this team hasn’t even gotten to see what guard Mike Iupati — arguably their best run blocker — has to offer yet.

“It’s just a start,” veteran center Lyle Sendlein said. “You can’t just show up and expect you’ll get that kind of yardage every week.

“Obviously it had a level of importance in the offseason that they had been working on, and when I got here (in training camp) it was pretty apparent we were going to commit to getting yardage in the run game.”

Under Arians, the Cardinals are 14-1 when rushing for at least 100 yards. That can be misleading; Arians always says being committed to balance only counts in the first three quarters and then the game itself dictates how the fourth quarter will be called. Against the 49ers, for instance, the Cardinals went into the fourth quarter with a 40-7 lead and 10 of 13 Arizona offensive plays were runs as they drove for one more touchdown. (The final “drive” was three Drew Stanton kneeldowns, which count as “runs” but also screw up the stats with minus-one yard on each kneel.)

Like everything else, Sendlein emphasized it’s only a start. But it’s a start. The Cardinals, since 1995, have ranked higher than 21st in the NFL just once — 15th in that 2002 season — and haven’t been higher than 23rd since 2004. Seven times they have been ranked 30th or lower. This year, the Cards are currently 11th in the NFL.



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Keim: Scouting success and fine wine

Posted by Darren Urban on September 28, 2015 – 8:09 am

The Cardinals are 3-0, and without any significant injuries coming out of the dominant win over the 49ers (go ahead, you can knock on wood) the appearance of General Manager Steve Keim on the “Doug and Wolf” show on Arizona Sports 98.7 Monday morning was less about news and more about GM analysis. And, it is noted, also a shout-out from Keim to his scouting department, from vice president of player personnel Terry McDonough to director of college scouting Dru Grigson to director of pro scouting Quentin Harris and everyone down the line.

Keim noted the contributions the Cardinals are getting from college players found at Presbyterian (Justin Bethel), Deleware State (Rodney Gunter), Northern Iowa (David Johnson) and Pittsburg State (John Brown), and veteran free agents like Chris Johnson and Jermaine Gresham. “From top to bottom, (the scouting staff) is as good as anyone in the league,” Keim said.

— As if the statistics and score didn’t make the point, Keim liked his offensive line play. He said right tackle Bobby Massie played well, as did right guard Jonathan Cooper, and added that Gresham has made a big difference in the run game setting the edge as a blocker. Gresham, Keim said, has given the Cardinals something they haven’t had at tight end in while. (Side note: The Cardinals are hoping Troy Niklas develops into that kind of edge blocker.)

— The defensive line, with their major rotation, dominated on its end too. Keim specifically mentioned Gunter and defensive end Frostee Rucker.

— Not surprisingly, there was praise for the older guys like Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald and even Chris Johnson, who celebrated his 30th birthday Sunday with 110 yards on 22 carries. “Like fine wine they get better with age,” Keim said. “It’s fun to see.”

— Keim was asked about some of the grumbling around the league when the Cardinals gave Fitzgerald $22 million guaranteed in February for two years, considering Fitz was older and his production was on the decline. It’s not on the decline anymore. Not that it matters, Keim said, because the outside talk can’t matter to him.

“Internally you have to continue to trust in what you believe in,” Keim said.

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Domination, and 49ers aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on September 27, 2015 – 7:27 pm

It had been 47-7, a dismantling of an NFC West rival, and Calais Campbell was happy. But not too happy.

“My message the whole time will be, ‘Keep putting work in, keep respecting the process,’ ” the defensive end said. “We have a long way to go. We haven’t accomplished anything yet.”

Those weren’t just words to Campbell. As he spoke, he used his hands to emphasize his point. There were some laughs last week about Bruce Arians telling his team they weren’t (insert bleep noise here), and more chuckles Sunday when Arians said his team now smells just a little bit better. But the idea that the Cardinals will keep their heads about them even though they have scored a ton – 126 points in three games, seven points better than the high-flying Patriots – and dominated two weeks in a row.

“The kind of guys we have on this team now, no one is going to get carried away,” said long snapper Mike Leach, who is playing in his 16th NFL season and has a good pulse on such things. Leach noted that the best part of the Cardinals is that even in spots where they are young, there are vets who have taken guys under their wing.

Plus they have a coach who, while he might smile a bit when he says it, is willing to say they ain’t (need that bleep again) and mean it.

That isn’t to say the Cardinals didn’t play really, really well Sunday.

— The Cardinals have 17 touchdowns in their first three games, only the fourth team in NFL history to do so. The last was the Cowboys, who had 18 touchdowns in the first three games of 1968. Kind of mind-boggling.

— Carson Palmer is now 16-2 in his last 18 starts with the Cardinals. He made one really bad decision – he said he was trying to throw his interception out of bounds but instead, the floater was not even close to anything but 49ers cornerback Kenneth Acker – but had a bunch of nice throws. Plus he had two dropped, including what would have been a 28-yard TD to Smokey Brown.

— Chris Johnson turned 30 Sunday and he averaged 5.0 yards a rush and gained 110 yards on the ground. And he’s the youngster in the offensive trio that lit up the 49ers, alongside Larry Fitzgerald (9 catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns) and Palmer (311 yards passing and the two TDs.)

— He’d never ever say it, but I can’t help but think Fitz is sitting back having “I told you so” thoughts to the NFL world.

— Tyrann Mathieu. “Savage season” indeed.

— Justin Bethel not only had his first interception of his career for a touchdown, but it came on his first defensive snap of the season. Plus he forced a fumble on a kick return (the 49ers kept it) and downed a punt. What a day.

— Drew Butler did not hit a great punt that ended up being returned inside the Cardinals’ 20-yard line and set up San Francisco’s only touchdown. But he did strike a good punt on the play where Bethel caught it cleanly at the S.F. 1, held for a beat, and then tossed it back so he wouldn’t take it in the end zone.

The officials first threw the beanbag around the 4 where the Cards ending up grabbing the ball, but Leach was there to help.

“They were just discussing it and I was just letting them know, reminding them what the rule was just in case,” Leach said.

The Cards had the same play last year with Bethel against the Lions. Leach wasn’t going to forget. And on the next play, the Cardinals swarmed Carlos Hyde for a safety.

— That punt-and-return by the Niners for their only score was the only time the 49ers crossed the 50 the whole game.

“The passion the defense plays with is … unbelievable,” Leach said.

— Colin Kaepernick was bad. The Cardinals made him look so with the four INTs. But Torrey Smith had no catches against cornerback Patrick Peterson. And Anquan Boldin was held to two catches for 16 yards.

— There were a ton of good performances, but linebacker Kevin Minter stood out again too. It felt like a make-or-break year for Minter. Three games in, it feels like he’s making it.

So … the last time the Cardinals put a defensive back in their Ring of Honor, it was at halftime of the game against the 49ers, which the Cardinals won. And then they later reached the Super Bowl. Just sayin’ …



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No Iupati against 49ers

Posted by Darren Urban on September 27, 2015 – 11:30 am

An inability to get on the practice field fully wasn’t a good sign for Mike Iupati this week. The guard is not going to play today against his former team, his knee not quite ready to go yet after surgery. Ted Larsen remains the left guard for the Cards — although there is a change on the offensive line with Bobby Massie playing right tackle.

Because of injuries, the inactive list against the 49ers was predictable today:

— QB Matt Barkley

— WR J.J. Nelson (shoulder)

— RB Andre Ellington (knee)

— LB Shaq Riddick

— T D.J. Humphries

— G Mike Iupati (knee)

— DT Xavier Williams

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Arians picks Massie for right tackle

Posted by Darren Urban on September 27, 2015 – 12:17 am

Given Bruce Arians’ comments that Bobby Massie is a better pass protector – and given that Carson Palmer’s health is paramount to the success of the Cardinals this season – there was not much surprise Saturday night when Arians said Massie would be moving into the starting lineup at right tackle against the 49ers, replacing Earl Watford, who had started the first two games of the season.

“We’re going to go with Bobby Massie and see how it goes,” Arians said during his weekly TV show, “Flight Plan with Bruce Arians.”

“Earl did a heck of a job. We had a few too many hits on the quarterback. I’ll say this: Bobby is on a short leash.”

Massie missed the first two games of the season because of suspension.

“It’ll be good to get back on the field with those guys and help them win,” Massie said this week.

Arians also said he’d like running backs Chris Johnson and David Johnson to each get 10-to-15 touches this week. David Johnson only has nine touches in two games so far, including two kickoff returns.


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Friday before the 49ers, humble edition

Posted by Darren Urban on September 25, 2015 – 4:30 pm

Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin was blunt talking about rookie running back David Johnson.

“He could be special,” Goodwin said. “Very special.”

That’s an easy conclusion to reach after three touchdowns on just nine NFL touches, including a 55-yard touchdown reception and a 108-yard kickoff return. One thing coaches and teammates love about him isn’t his talent – although, yes, they love his talent – but his ability to be humble. Of course, he does have to absorb some grief.

“I don’t believe no one in this locker room is really reading their press clippings,” safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “Well, maybe David. David is probably reading his.” Mathieu chuckled. “I’d be reading them too.”

Johnson chuckled himself when he heard Mathieu’s comments. “It was a little harder this week,” Johnson said, “but the coaches made sure I stayed grounded, and the players around me reminded me it’s a long season.”

It is going to be a long season. That’s why almost everyone around the Cardinals followed Bruce Arians’ lead this week in brushing off the 2-0 start. Playing the 49ers Sunday is both a step up in opponent and a foray into the NFC West, and the Cards understand both cannot be underestimated.

— No word on the offensive line as of yet. The fact Mike Iupati still has not been able to practice fully any one day has to raise a red flag, but we’ll see if he’s able to go against his former team Sunday. As for right tackle, Arians said Bobby Massie is better at pass protection and Earl Watford is better in run blocking. He’s also noted Watford has given up too many quarterback hits. The Cards like to the throw the ball. We’ll see if that impacts the decision.

— The 49ers are a grind-it-out team. That makes sense because a) they have a talented running back in Carlos Hyde and b) quarterback Colin Kaepernick, while he has made strides as a passer, still isn’t someone you’ll lean on the majority of the time.

Then there is Kaepernick’s ability to run himself, which will force the Cardinals to be on top of things while he scrambles around back there.

“From an awareness standpoint, I think our guys have to know that any down, any distance, he could tuck the ball and run with it,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said.

— Goodwin, talking about the Bears game Thursday: “Last week there were a lot of things I didn’t agree with in terms of hitting the quarterback, a couple of shots he took. (Carson Palmer) is going to get hit. We just have to minimize it.”

Friday, Bears linebacker Pernell McPhee was fined $17,363 for his low hit on Palmer on the flea-flicker touchdown to Larry Fitzgerald. McPhee was flagged for a personal foul on the play.

Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson was also fined $17,363 for his hit to the helmet of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. Johnson did not draw a flag on the play.

— Don’t forget Adrian Wilson will be inducted into the Cardinals’ Ring of Honor at halftime of Sunday’s game. What was behind Wilson growing into one of the best players in franchise history? Take a look back at my “Making of A-Dub” piece from 2010.

— Bettcher said the defensive line has a “great rotation” right now, and that includes some snaps for Calais Campbell at nose tackle. In reality, the Cards don’t really use a true nose tackle – Xavier Williams has been inactive, and starter Rodney Gunter (whom Bettcher said is doing well) is more like a Campbell. Again, the Cards were going for versatile on the line this season.

— Campbell makes it on Sports Science.

— Will Larry Fitzgerald go off again this week? Who knows? Arians is always coming up with different things. Even Fitz knows things can change.

“Coach Arians is like a mad scientist,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s always finding ways to get guys involved, to create mismatches for his playmakers.”

— Anquan Boldin gets another chance at his former team. He’s said in the past playing the Cardinals is just another game, but frankly, I don’t believe him. Q is too intense along those lines to have it be otherwise.

“He’s a physical receiver,” Mathieu said. “He’s 100 percent for 4 quarters. I’ll be matched up with him so I have to bring my big boy pads.”


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No right tackle news yet

Posted by Darren Urban on September 25, 2015 – 1:35 pm

Bruce Arians admitted he has an “pretty good idea” who will start at right tackle for the Cardinals Sunday. But he isn’t saying who. Arians declined to name his starting offensive line Friday. “We’ll wait and see what is best,” he said when it came to whether Mike Iupati is going to be able to go at left guard and whether right tackle is manned by Bobby Massie or Earl Watford.

Whoever starts at right tackle is the right tackle. There will not be any switching “unless it’s a problem,” Arians said. Iupati is officially listed as questionable, and he has yet to practice fully since returning to the field. The Cards may end up erring on the side of caution with him Sunday.

One minor upset: Running back Andre Ellington (knee) was limited in practice and Arians is calling him a game-day decision. There’s no need to rush him back, Arians acknowledged, but if he is ready to play he’ll play, because he provides a skillset David Johnson and Chris Johnson do not have. Ellington is listed officially as doubtful.


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Cardinals make run, at least 10 yards at a time

Posted by Darren Urban on September 24, 2015 – 11:46 am

Last season, there was no explosion to the Cardinals’ running game. Andre Ellington was hobbling before the regular season even began, and there was really no one else on the roster to break one loose consistently. That showed by the end of the season, when the Cardinals had only 32 total runs of 10 yards or more.

This season, the Cardinals already have nine such runs in just two games.

It helps that Ellington was healthy to start the season — he had four runs of at least 10 yards all by himself in the opener, and he didn’t even play all of it before hurting his knee. You’d like to think that Ellington can take his time returning, making sure that explosion is there. Last year, the Cardinals had to have him. This year, they have Chris Johnson — whose entire career has been built on explosive runs — and rookie David Johnson, who in a very small sample size is beginning to look like explosive runs is what he is all about.

The breakdown of the 10-yard-plus runs thus far:

Andre Ellington 18, 16, 14, 10
Chris Johnson 12
Carson Palmer 12

David Johnson 13T, 14, 13

It’s questionable Ellington can return this week against the 49ers . (Arians made it sound like he’d miss at least one more game.) The Niners also have a better run defense than what the Cardinals have seen. But when the Cards can take a seam and make it worth something, it’s a big reason why the offense is clicking and why Palmer has some room to operate throwing the ball.



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