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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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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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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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Keim: Watford has earned time

Posted by Darren Urban on September 21, 2015 – 8:07 am

Bobby Massie comes back from suspension today, and so the question has to be asked: Does Earl Watford remain the starting right tackle for the Cardinals?

General Manager Steve Keim, during his appearance on the “Doug and Wolf” Show on Arizona Sports 98.7 Monday, said that later today he, coach Bruce Arians and offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin will discuss the lineup. Keim acknowledged he usually defers to the coaches in such situations.

But, Keim said, “I know this: Earl has earned the right to be on the field.”

Watford has held up well in two games (against admittedly weaker defenses in the Saints and Bears), especially in run blocking. And perhaps the most important thing to remember is that Arians said it was Watford’s job to lose when Watford was inserted into the starting lineup. It’s hard to think Watford has done anything to lose the job.

As Keim said, “we’ll have some options” at offensive line. Left guard Mike Iupati is expected back this week from his knee surgery, and while Keim said he likes the job Ted Larsen has done, it’s hard to believe the big free-agent signee of the offseason won’t get back to the lineup once he’s ready. Especially going against his former team in the 49ers.

Other Keim comments:

— He said the Cardinals saw some similarities between David Johnson coming out of Northern Iowa and the Bears’ Matt Forte. You have to say Johnson was the more effective running back Sunday when the Cards and Bears played.

— Keim on the Cardinals’ 2-0 start: “More than anything we have a chance to be a pretty good football team if we eliminate the mistakes.”

— The blown coverage that led to the Bears’ first touchdown, Keim said, was a miscommunication between Patrick Peterson and Jerraud Powers trying to cover out of a bunch formation.

— He said he liked the cuts and patience of running back Chris Johnson, and also his toughness in pass protection.

— Keim’s call on quarterback Carson Palmer: “He’s been a godsend for this organization.”

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Ellington’s PCL injury looks short-term

Posted by Darren Urban on September 14, 2015 – 1:17 pm

Bruce Arians said running back Andre Ellington indeed has a “mild” PCL sprain in his right knee. He suffered it on the 16-yard run the play before he went down for good. Arians is not putting a timeline on Ellington’s return — the Cardinals have avoided putting timelines on injuries of late, which is smart because it lowers the expectations on a return — although he said “it could be one week, it could be three.” The main takeaway is that Ellington isn’t out long-term.

Chris Johnson is the starter, David Johnson the backup. Arians said he doesn’t anticipate adding a running back, and would be OK playing the Johnsons and Stepfan Taylor in Chicago.

Arians also said there were no other injuries suffered that would cause players to miss time.


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“Nine More,” and Saints aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on September 13, 2015 – 7:03 pm

Rashad Johnson had already pulled off his jersey and shoulder pads as he made his way off the field Sunday, the Cardinals’ 31-19 win official. The shirt he wore under his jersey for the game, now drenched in sweat? None other than one that proclaimed “9 More” – or the saying the veteran safety uttered back in 2013, after the last time the Cardinals played the Saints and Johnson lost a fingertip.

He was back with the team a couple days later, telling everyone he was fine because he still had nine more fingers.

It was kind of cool that Johnson got the Cardinals’ lone interception Sunday – he nearly had a second later on. He wasn’t going to get his finger back, but he was able to extract a small revenge.

The offense got gutsy with their playcalls and ended up putting 31 points on the board, but the new James Bettcher defense did a lot of the same things the old Todd Bowles defense did, including stiffening in the red zone to force field goals instead of touchdowns. The defense must be better – as acknowledged by many, way too many yards surrendered on short passes-and-long-runs by running backs – but it was a good enough start.

— The right knee injury to Andre Ellington was scary-looking. But as we got into the postgame, both Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer sounded optimistic that the injury – Arians said the belief is that Elllington hurt his PCL – wouldn’t sideline Ellington permanently.

— That said, we see where the running back depth makes so much sense. Ellington goes down, and you turn to a veteran who still has a little juice left in Chris Johnson. Then you let speed merchant David Johnson loose on the pass – I was down on the sideline when the rookie blew past everyone, and I have to say I didn’t expect that kind of speed – and you figure the Cards can weather an Ellington absence.

— Bruce Arians said he was “anxious” to make the play call that ended in Johnson’s 55-yard touchdown. Which is odd because few do such a thing. ESPN’s Mike Sando tweeted this great stat: From 2010 through last season, NFL teams ran 94.8 percent of the time on second down in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter when leading by six or fewer points.

— Then again, Arians does not lay up. He goes for the pin.

— There were many upset at the sequence at the end of the first half that ended with two incomplete bombs and a Palmer scramble as time ran out, costing the Cards a field-goal try. But remember, that’s the mentality that led to the Johnson touchdown. No risk it, no biscuit. That’s B.A.

— The offensive line did solid. There were hiccups. There always are. But there were not a lot of them and for the most part, there is little to complain about. Earl Watford hung in there at right tackle against the very talented Cameron Jordan. Jonathan Cooper had a rough start but rallied. Most importantly, Carson Palmer was not sacked.

— Backup center/guard A.Q. Shipley played fullback and was lead blocker on Ellington’s touchdown run. Fantastic, and good use of the 46-man active roster on game day.

— Tyrann Mathieu kept promising his savage season and he was all over the field Sunday. He had a team-high eight tackles and three passes deflected while the Cardinals went heavy with their four safety-packages.

— I thought Patrick Peterson played well. Yes, he got beat once by Brandin Cooks for a 30-yard gain. But mostly, Cooks – the Saints’ best offensive weapon – was a non-factor. And mostly, Cooks was covered by Peterson.

— It’s hard to find a better story or more likeable guy (and the Cardinals’ locker room is filled with likeable guys) than tight end Darren Fells. To see him break out is cool, and reinforces what Arians has been saying about his development. There are times when Arians moves into hyperbole with his players, but Fells is proving his coach right on target.

— Michael Floyd played, and had an 18-yard catch early. Arians said he wasn’t on a “pitch count” to hold down his plays, but Floyd certainly didn’t play as much as he normally would.

Road game in Chicago next weekend. One down, at least 15 to go.


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CJ’s tears, and Friday before the Saints

Posted by Darren Urban on September 11, 2015 – 4:00 pm

Big picture, there are a lot of expectations around the Cardinals this season, as the games that count begin Sunday against the Saints at University of Phoenix Stadium. But sometimes, there is the smaller picture, the one of the journey traveled by individual guys to get to this point, like with Carson Palmer’s intense ACL rehab or Earl Watford’s roller-coaster career to suddenly starting right tackle or rookie Rodney Gunter going from nobody to nose tackle.

There is running back Chris Johnson, who everyone knows as the 2,000-yard rusher (way back in 2009) and the guy who didn’t quite fit in with the Jets. But now he’s the running back who was shot in a drive-by in March, his shoulder still carrying the bullet and leaving him mentally shattered.

“Lot of nights crying myself to sleep,” he said Friday.

Johnson was in mourning at that point, fearing the loss of his career. When he was forced into bedrest for six weeks, “that’s when I wondered about what direction my life would take.”

Flash forward to today, where he’s part of the three-pronged running back attack with Andre Ellington and David Johnson, prepping for the Saints. Chris Johnson may not be running for 1,000 yards this season, but he certainly sounds motivated to make yet another one-year deal for a vet by GM Steve Keim look like a bargain.

— Speaking of Johnson, he switched from jersey number 27 to 23. Why? He just didn’t like 27. Neither did Palmer, it turned out.

“It didn’t look good,” Johnson said. “Playing in it, always knew I didn’t like it but once Carson said something to me I knew it was time for me to get out of it.”

The two were playing cards on the plane during the road trip to Denver, and Johnson said Palmer asked him point-blank, “Twenty-seven? You going to stay in that number?” Johnson made up his mind then. “I was like, ‘Nah, I gotta get out of that number.”

— Arians said Michael Floyd was a game-day decision, but it certainly seems like Floyd is trending toward playing. Whether he’d be the “normal” Floyd in terms of gameplan, I don’t know.

— The tight end situation, and the iffy status of both Jermaine Gresham and Troy Niklas, is the more interesting injury watch. Those two are also game-day decisions. If I had to pick one, I’d say Gresham would play, but we’ll see. If a choice had to be made is a gimpy Gresham or Niklas better than the just-got-here Joseph Fauria?

— There is a lot of talk about how Watford will hold up or the pressure on Palmer or the pass rush, but honestly, one of the top things I’m watching for is Patrick Peterson versus Brandin Cooks. Peterson has set himself up for a big year, a big year that’s needed. Cooks is a tough draw with his speed. Peterson said a key is to stay close, so a simple Cooks wiggle won’t let him get away and race for a big gain. The spotlight has never been brighter on Peterson, whose 2015 confidence is apparent.

— Bruce Arians had to be careful with the game plan this week. Don’t want to make it too hard on the players because of volume.

“You have so much offense and defense from training camp,” Arians said. “A lot of times you feel you have to use it all. That’s a bad feeling when you can’t practice everything you have. Then you have way too much in there.”

— Arians said the offensive prep remains the same with Palmer. Palmer gets to pick the top 15 pass plays with which he is most comfortable, and Arians puts in running plays for the top 30 calls for the game.

— If it’s the Saints, then you have to always tip your cap to the fingertip-less Rashad Johnson, still plugging away after that fateful day in New Orleans almost two years ago. “I’ve got nine more” remains one of the best quotes ever.

— The Cardinals have only lost once in nine home openers at University of Phoenix Stadium. That was 2009, a 20-16 loss to the 49ers coming off the Super Bowl appearance. Oh, and the Cards have yet to lose a home game to a non-NFC West team since Arians took over.

— There’s been a lot said and written the past week. If you missed Cardinals Underground, or Kyle Odegard’s story about the Saints-Cards trade that netted the Cards John Brown or my story on Fitz and where he is in his career, please check them out.

— Otherwise, it’s time for an actual game that counts. (OK, first I have to write a story about the facility renovations and the cool new Tillman locker tribute, to be posted soon). There’s been plenty of talk about it.

See you Sunday.


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Keim: Cards like Barkley’s mental makeup

Posted by Darren Urban on September 8, 2015 – 8:12 am

We’ve delved into why the Cardinals took Matt Barkley at quarterback already, but General Manager Steve Keim — during his appearance on the “Doug and Wolf” Show on Arizona Sports 98.7 Tuesday morning — got into a little more detail.

“When you are looking at a quarterback … and you’re saying, ‘What are the traits you look for,’ the first thing you don’t say is arm strength, or foot speed or mobility,” Keim said. “To me, when you look at quarterbacks, the first thing you want is mental toughness, the second thing is the ability to process and learn.

“Those are the things that excited us about Matt Barkley. When he came out of college we spent a lot of time with him. We liked him coming out. We know he is a football junkie. The mental part of the game is not too fast for him. Now, we bring him in, not a lot of risk involved, and you see what he’s got physically. To me, that’s how you have to approach that position because they are so hard to find.”

Other Keim’s points:

— The roster is “always in flux.” Keim wouldn’t even say the current 53 would stay static through Sunday’s opener against the Saints. Something to watch, although I’d be surprised if there was a move at this point just given what is out there (and assuming no one gets hurt in practice.)

— The fact the Cardinals have only three cornerbacks on the roster isn’t lost on Keim. Having safety Tyrann Mathieu there is a bit reason the Cards were comfortable with the move, but Keim did point out there is a reason the team has three cornerbacks on the practice squad. Any one of them could be pulled up in a given week.

— Once Bobby Massie is reinstated from his two-game suspension, then Keim and Bruce Arians will figure out who might be released to make room on the roster. No reason to talk names now, Keim said, because no one knows what injuries may happen, if any, over the first two games. Keim was pleased with the way Earl Watford played right tackle in the final preseason game.

— That said, Keim deferred to Arians on any starting lineup announcements, including center. He also said he had nothing concrete to report on injury updates of G Mike Iupati and WR Michael Floyd. Arians already said Iupati wouldn’t be playing this week.

— Keim said it was “good to see” both RB Chris Johnson and LB Sean Weatherspoon play “extremely well” in the final preseason game. Keim reiterated the Cards were excited for both additions when they signed and the team is counting on their contributions.

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Broncos/CJ and Spoon aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on September 3, 2015 – 10:52 pm

Sean Weatherspoon as he noted the exact date when he had last played in an NFL game: Dec. 22, 2013. It took him a little longer to get back out there than he wanted – and the same goes for Chris Johnson – but there they were Thursday night. They didn’t play like superstars but they both played well, and that’s exactly what the Cardinals needed to see after aborted training camps for both.

Everyone can bag on preseason games if they want, but the two vets were exhibits 1 and 1A of why they are always a necessity for someone. Said Johnson, who hadn’t played in a game since last season and only had a handful of practices with the Cardinals with a bad hamstring, “I don’t think I needed to start the season not getting reps because I did it one time before and I just didn’t feel right the first game.”

Better yet, Bruce Arians said he expects both Jermaine Gresham and Troy Niklas to return to practice this week, so the feeling is that the Cardinals should have more tight ends available than just Darren Fells and Ifeanyi Momah. If Gresham does indeed return, it’ll turn out that those three vets signed on one-year deals – including Weatherspoon and Johnson – should be available for the opener against the Saints. And that’s what the Cardinals want to hear.

— Both Johnson and Weatherspoon said they need to work on their conditioning. “I’m just thankful to be part of the team and get a chance to go out there,” Weatherspoon said. “It’s good to make some hits, takes some hits.”

— Chandler Catanzaro missed two extra points but Arians didn’t even let the question come up. “No, I’m not concerned about Cat Man and the missed extra points,” Arians said in his opening remarks, saying the question didn’t even need to be asked. I’m sure Catanzaro knows it can’t happen again, but as Arians said, at least it was in a preseason game.

— There were two penalties called on rookie tackle D.J. Humphries on back to back drives, but both were iffy. The false start might not have even been that much of a move. And the holding given to him was apparently on No. 64, Cameron Bradfield, and the officials just messed up the number.

— I thought Earl Watford held up at right tackle, and I fully expect him to be the right tackle starter going into the regular season.

— Rookie wide receiver Jaxon Shipley had 11 targets and nine catches (for 58 yards) and continued to push the best he can. Still, I don’t see him as more than the practice squad right now. He’s not cracking the top five. Same goes for inside linebacker Gabe Martin, who was working hard on defense all night.

— On the flip side, the way Alani Fua was used, I’m guessing he’ll make the 53 at inside linebacker.

— Markus Golden played well at outside linebacker and if Golden isn’t starting early in the season, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him get to the starting lineup at some point this year.

— He only had three carries, but Stepfan Taylor’s powerful run for 12 yards up the middle made an impression. Maybe he can be the Cards’ short-yardage guy over Robert Hughes, which could open a roster spot if the Cards only want to keep four running backs.

— I thought Phillip Sims came around. I thought Logan Thomas played better. I still think we are talking about the likelihood of carrying two quarterbacks, meaning Sims or Thomas would have to be practice squad. But we’ll see if, after the Cards watch the tape, they are convinced to do otherwise.

— Arians was asked if he was happy the preseason was over.

“Extremely,” he said, as a grin crept over his face.

You can’t see it, but I have a similar grin. Let’s get to the regular season.

Stepfan Taylor, Josh Bush

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Wednesday before the Broncos

Posted by Darren Urban on September 2, 2015 – 1:49 pm

It’s the fourth preseason game, and there is a short list of the things of which I’ll really focus upon when the Cardinals play the Broncos. Some are about the roster, some are about the lineup.

One of those things is the right tackle start for Earl Watford. It means so much both on the field and with the construction of the 53-man roster, because of the uncertainty with Bobby Massie and the rough camp of rookie D.J. Humphries.

To be fair to Humphries, and Bruce Arians acknowledged it this week, the idea was that Humphries was for the future, not necessarily 2015.

“We were hoping we had a full year to develop him,” Arians said, which speaks directly to the maturity issues Arians has talked about with Humphries, in addition to him being a natural left tackle trying to play the right side.

“But,” Arians added, “there is going to come a time when he’ll have to go out there and he better be ready.”

When you look how the roster is breaking down, and the very real possibility Humphries could be the backup swing tackle on Sundays, you understand Arians speaks the blunt truth. At least Arians added he thinks Humphries, over the last week or so, seems to have come to an understanding of the work ethic needed here. It’s going to take some time on Humphries, but Arians and OC/OL coach Harold Goodwin will work on him. And like Jonathan Cooper, it may take a little while, but there is confidence Humphries will get there.

The other places where I’ll be watching closely as the 53-man roster moves closer to reality (and I will have a post with my guess on that later today.):

— The first game action for running back Chris Johnson and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon after hamstring injuries.

— The last push by three undrafted guys: Inside linebackers Alani Fua and Gabe Martin and cornerback Cariel Brooks.

— And of course, the play of quarterbacks Phillip Sims and Logan Thomas.

— While there are some roster spots that are in the balance, it is the Johnson/Weatherspoon/Watford spotlight that truly affects this team when it comes to playing the Saints in a little over a week. I think the Cardinals have managed to get into a place where if they do not have Johnson or Weatherspoon, they are prepared. I wasn’t sure they’d be able to get to that place with Weatherspoon, but Kevin Minter has had a good enough preseason that they are in a much better place there.

— In case you didn’t see it, recently released linebacker Lorenzo Alexander signed with the Raiders. Happy to see him find a job, and it’s back home — Alexander went to Cal Berkeley.

It’s about time to get the preseason over with, isn’t it?


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