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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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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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Hidden yards of Smokey Brown’s PI calls

Posted by Darren Urban on September 22, 2015 – 9:54 am

The gains will be lost over time, because penalty yards have no way of appearing on either the Cardinals’ passing offense or John “Smokey” Brown’s personal statistics. But there is little arguing that the two pass interference calls Brown drew against the Bears Sunday were crucial. One went for 42 yards, one for 38. The first ball was in a perfect spot, until cornerback Kyle Fuller simply karate-chopped Brown’s arms down before the ball got there. The other was a little underthrown, and Brown smartly stopped and came back into cornerback Alan Ball, who was then forced to hit Brown just before the ball arrived.

More importantly, the first set up a six-yard inside screen touchdown to wide receiver Jaron Brown, while the second set up Larry Fitzgerald’s first of three touchdowns.

Technically, Smokey Brown had only five catches for 45 yards in the game, but those penalties were worth 80 yards and put the Cards into the red zone twice from long range. He said wide receivers coach Darryl Drake has pounded that into the receivers heads all through training camp, about working back to the ball if it is underthrown to try and draw a penalty.

“That’s the mindset that coach Drake and coach Bruce Arians, they tell me, draw attention back into them,” Brown said. “I’ve been doing a great job of that.”

He’s not wrong. Brown also drew a 17-yard pass interference in the end zone in the game against the Saints (a call that was a little more suspect), setting up a 1-yard Andre Ellington touchdown run. So in two games, Brown has already accounted for 97 yards down the field on three plays for which he will never have credit.

“Hey, I’m about winning,” Brown said. “I’m not much about stats. As long as we’re winning, I’m fine.”


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Bears aftermath, and Fitz’s legacy

Posted by Darren Urban on September 20, 2015 – 6:14 pm

Larry Fitzgerald was walking on the sideline having just come off the field after scoring his third touchdown Sunday when he looked my way – I was down there, about 30 feet away – and yelled at me. I looked at him, and he yelled at me, “Working on my legacy.”

It was a reference to his comment he made to me a couple of weeks ago, when I talked to him right before the season for (yes, shameless plug – so click here!) a story about him and his legacy. Since then, Fitz has played two games, leads the Cardinals in catches (14) and yards (199) and now touchdowns (3, all coming against the Bears, and one more than he had all of last season.) The trust is there between he and Carson Palmer. It took a while to make it click, and there were some injuries that got in the way, but this is the kind of production he was having last season in that happy place he and Palmer found post-shoulder/pre-ACL problems.

— David Johnson is still a work in progress, but he looked excellent again Sunday, and not just because of the 108-yard kickoff return. His 13-yard touchdown run was nice as well, so patient before hitting the right hole. It’s hard not to see Johnson getting much more work sooner rather than later, although Chris Johnson was fine (20 carries, 72 yards.) David Johnson, with 42 yards on five carries, just looks like a star waiting to happen.

— Smokey Brown didn’t have gaudy numbers – five catches for 45 yards – but he had two other plays that generated 80 yards in pass interference penalties. Both were near catches. Palmer slightly underthrew one, when Brown had Kyle Fuller beat. But Brown has gotten better at coming back through the defender even if the play won’t be there, forcing the defender to interfere because he’s not looking back at the ball.

— The kings of efficiency: The Cardinals have made seven trips to the red zone this season. They have scored touchdowns on all seven.

— The Cardinals did not allow a sack against the Bears Sunday, after not allowing one against the Saints in the season opener. Since sacks were made an official stat in 1982, it marks only the fourth time the Cardinals have gone at least two games without a sack. The last time was the final two games of the 2007 season.

— Bruce Arians took the blame on the Palmer interception right before the half. It was an amazing play by linebacker Jared Allen, who leaped in the air on the quick wide receiver screen to bat the ball up and then pick it off.

“I got a little greedy,” Arians said. “We wanted to put a nail in that one. I jinxed him. I told him the screen is going to be wide open. Do not let them tip it.”

Allen tipped it. Arians said he called the same play for wide receiver Eric Moulds “32 years ago” and the same thing happened. “It was a flashback, ‘Oh (expletive).”

— An exhausted Frostee Rucker talked about the defense finding itself after a couple of leaky moments early. One couldn’t be avoided, the veteran defensive end said – the zone-read runs of quarterback Jay Cutler, before Cutler got hurt.

“If Jay Cutler is going to keep the ball, you can’t account for a guy like that,” Rucker said. “You don’t think the opposing team would risk getting their guy hurt. If those are going to be the plays to beat us, they’re going to get that.”

— The Cardinals again averaged more than four yards a carry. The running game wasn’t great, but it was enough.

— There were no sacks on Palmer, but he was hit more than the Cards would want, including the flag-inducing low hit by Pernell McPhee that always gives everyone pause. But Palmer is going to have to absorb some of that. That’s Arians’ offense, and that’s playing quarterback.

Signing off from 30,000 feet.



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Bucannon, Jefferson active against Bears

Posted by Darren Urban on September 20, 2015 – 8:39 am

Both game-day decisions for the Cardinals at safety, Tony Jefferson (hamstring) and Deone Bucannon (groin) are active today for the Cardinals. Kerwynn Williams is also active at running back — although that’s not a surprise, since it would make no sense to promote him to the 53-man roster and then sit him. The inactive list ends up pretty run of the mill:

— QB Matt Barkley

— RB Andre Ellington (knee)

— LB Shaq Riddick

— G Mike Iupati (knee)

— WR Brittan Golden

— T D.J. Humphries

— DT Xavier Williams

For the Bears, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (calf/hamstring) is sitting out. Linebacker Pernell McPhee, one of Chicago’s best pass rushers, is going to give it a go despite a bad wrist.

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Friday before the Bears – not shopping

Posted by Darren Urban on September 18, 2015 – 4:12 pm

Two franchises remain from the original NFL that was created in 1920: The Cardinals and the Bears. The Cardinals, by the way, were named for the color of their original jerseys and not the bird. As long as we were talking history, I thought I’d throw that out. All that, of course, was long before now, long before the Cards moved to Arizona and long before any of the players in Sunday’s game were born. Long before their parents were born.

This is about 2015, of course, and the Cardinals’ first road trip of the season.

“We’re not going to shop on Michigan Avenue,” coach Bruce Arians said. “We’re going to play the Bears.”

— On paper, the Cardinals should win this game. Those odds should get better if the Bears are without wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and linebacker BearsCardsUSEPernell McPhee, who both could miss the game. Yes, the Cardinals are without Andre Ellington, but they are actually fairly well equipped to weather that issue.

— Could they weather the absence of safeties Tony Jefferson and Deone Bucannon? Both those guys are game-day decisions with a bad hamstring and groin, respectively. I think they’ll give it a go, but we’ll see how they feel. The way the Cards’ defense works these days, those top four safeties are crucial.

— Then again, if Bucannon can’t go, maybe that means more work for Sean Weatherspoon, since Bucannon plays so much linebacker. No Jefferson, and that could mean more Justin Bethel or more Chris Clemons.

— That picture to the right is from a Bears-Cardinals game in November of 1959. It’s Soldier Field – you can tell by the columns – but the Cardinals were actually the home team in the photo (which is courtesy of the Chicago History Museum; J. Johnson, Jr., photographer.)

— Cornerback or not for Bethel, he will still play special teams, which he did for 26 snaps in the first game – even if he wasn’t happy enough with his key downed punt late in last week’s game.

“The special teams stuff is something I know I still need to do and make plays on,” Bethel said. “I wish I would’ve made a tackle or two. I hate when I go a game and don’t have a tackle, it makes me feel like I had a bad game.”

— The short pass/screen game didn’t go all that well for the Cards’ defense last week. Now they run into a running back in Matt Forte who is the centerpiece of the Bears’ offense. For defensive coordinator James Bettcher, he was confident in the correctable mistakes the Cards made – one cover was on linebacker Alex Okafor, a miss the linebacker insists won’t happen again –and that should start this week.

“Teams are going to get plays,” Bettcher said. “We understand that. When they do, it’s tackle (them) and go on to the next down.”

Said cornerback Patrick Peterson, “We have to get all 11 hats to whoever has the ball.”

— Bettcher did rave about Okafor’s first game, and not because of his two sacks. “I thought there were a couple snaps where he was so violent setting the edge (against the run),” Bettcher said. “You can see that. That’s the first thing that stood out watching the film.”

— Best quote of the week, at least from the Bears locker room: Cornerback Alan Ball, after watching the Cardinals-Saints game, said in total earnestness that Carson Palmer “is at his best moving.”

Palmer’s playing at a high level. That’s not a debate. But I don’t know if I’d say he’s at his best on the move. Palmer made sure he heard correctly when I brought it up. “Frightening,” he said. Even Carson understands a clean pocket is the way for him to go.

— The Bears have moved to a 3-4 defensive alignment this season. It’s going to be weird to see veteran Jared Allen as an outside linebacker.

— Arians decided to weigh in on the proposed Larry Fitzgerald-Darren Fells one-on-one basketball showdown. “I’ve never seen either one of them play, but I could probably take them both,” Arians said with a smile.

“But I ain’t playing for no checks.”

— The last time the Cards were in Chicago for a regular-season game: It was the 2009 season. Kurt Warner threw for five touchdown passes, including a pair to Fitzgerald (Nine catches for 123 yards that day). The Cards dominated.

We’ll see how it plays out Sunday.


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Bruce Arians, near-Bears coach

Posted by Darren Urban on September 16, 2015 – 9:49 am

It’s fairly well known by now that Bruce Arians, who was the last coach hired in the hiring-coaches round of 2013, nearly became the Bears’ head coach before he even interviewed with the Cardinals. But the Bears decided to go with Marc Trestman. That obviously turned out well for the Cards and not so well for the Bears, who fired Trestman after last season and have moved on to John Fox.

Arians, of course, has won 21 games in two years with the Cardinals (even without his starting quarterback for 10 games last season) and won Coach of the Year in 2014. Since the two teams are playing each other Sunday, it’s not hard to see why this might be brought up in Chicago, and Arians was asked about it this morning by the Chicago media.

“They were the first ones to put paperwork in for me, first ones I gave an interview to, and I felt very comfortable,” Arians said. “(The Bears) were great. It was a day I thought went very well. They made a decision and I went on with it.”

Asked if he was surprised about not getting an offer from the Bears, Arians acknowledged he had been.

“When I left, I thought I don’t think anything could have been any better throughout the whole day,” Arians said. “I didn’t look back thinking I did anything wrong. It was just their decision.”

Arians said he never did hear from the Bears why they went with Trestman. But he also chuckled when it was pointed out that things have worked out pretty well for Arians.

“I’m just happy they said no,” Arians said to the Arizona media later Wednesday.



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Sam Acho heads to Bears

Posted by Darren Urban on April 1, 2015 – 11:20 am

It was becoming pretty clear the Cardinals were going to move on from linebacker Sam Acho once he hit free agency, but that became official Wednesday when Acho signed a one-year contract with the Bears. Acho flashed as a rookie in 2011 with seven sacks, although never quite found that pass-rush level again. His 2013 was cut way short after he broke his leg. Last season he had 46 tackles and one sack — in the finale — in a reserve role.

There is little question about Acho the human being, however. A better person you won’t find. Any interaction with a fan — and he made sure to do that plenty — led to that fan being his fan. It was nearly impossible to do otherwise. I happened to talk with him a bit at a Suns’ game last month and at the time — right after the initial binge of free agency — Acho said he was probably going to lay low for a bit. At that point, it seemed like his time as a Cardinal had passed, unless he might return post-draft had the team not found a replacement. Now, the Cardinals need to work on building their outside linebacking corps, with the only ones under contract right now Lorenzo Alexander, Alex Okafor, Matt Shaughnessy and LaMarr Woodley. Kareem Martin will also get work there this offseason, but taking one with in the first round of the draft remains a strong possibility.

You can read the farewell statement Acho wrote right here.

Acho, meanwhile, will leave a lot of happy memories with fans in Arizona, like this little girl after a Flagstaff training camp practice in 2012.

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Bowles will be busy this week

Posted by Darren Urban on January 5, 2015 – 2:59 pm

Now that the Cardinals’ season is over, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles can begin interviewing with various teams for their head coaching spots. And it sounds like that will make this a busy week.

Multiple reports have Bowles interviewing with the Jets on Wednesday, the Falcons Thursday, the 49ers on Friday and the Bears on Saturday. There are still rumblings that the Bills and Raiders could still ask to interview too. Either way, Bowles would seem to be a good chance to be promoted before too long, but after he signed his extension (which gave him a hefty raise) Bowles can afford to be choosy — which he was always going to be anyway. That’s just who Bowles is.

“I’ve got my fingers crossed both ways,” coach Bruce Arians joked Monday, on one hand hoping his friend and former player gets a head coaching gig and on the other hoping he stays in place.

We still don’t know who would be Arians’ choice to succeed Bowles as defensive coordinator (on staff, could it be Mike Caldwell? James Bettcher? Someone else?) but Arians has said a plan is in place. Now we wait for Bowles to go through the interview process.


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Glancing at the 2015 opponents

Posted by Darren Urban on July 14, 2014 – 2:46 pm

You know that it’s the dead of the offseason — real dead — when it comes to mind to point out who will be on the Cardinals’ schedule for 2015.

But here we are, inside of two weeks before training camp begins and a week away from the quarterbacks and a handful of other players reporting for a couple of days of “quarterback school” prior to the opening of camp. It’s the last hurrah for time off for both coaches and players. It doesn’t leave a lot to discuss right now. That’s all coming. But as I flipped through the new edition of the NFL Record and Fact Book, I came across the 2015 opponents for the Cardinals. So I thought I’d point them out.

As always, there are the home-and-away games against the NFC West opponents. The teams visiting University of Phoenix Stadium include the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings, the Baltimore Ravens, the Cincinnati Bengals and then an NFC South team that ends up inhabiting the same position in their division that the Cardinals do in the NFC West by the time the 2014 season is over.

Road trips in 2015 for the Cardinals include the Chicago Bears, the Detroit Lions, the Cleveland Browns, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the corresponding NFC East team.



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