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Time for the defense to recalibrate

Posted by Darren Urban on August 20, 2014 – 9:52 am

Perhaps the day off Tuesday came at the right time for the Cardinals. The defense can digest the season-ending injury to Darnell Dockett, and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles can start to sort out how exactly he will run his defense with the pieces he has left. You can sit and mull what the Cardinals don’t have now compared to 2013, but it’s a moot point.

Along the defensive line, the Cardinals are expected to add a vet to the roster (Brett Keisel went back to Pittsburgh) but veteran Frostee Rucker should end up as the starter alongside Calais Campbell and Dan Williams. There should be plenty of mixing and matching, though, with rookies Ed Stinson and Kareem Martin and now, Alameda Ta’amu, who comes back to practice today. There would have been mixing and matching even if Dockett was healthy. Getting a steady rotation on the defensive line has been one of the main themes GM Steve Keim wanted to accomplish while re-tooling the roster. The key here could be Ta’amu, because if he can return to form relatively quickly, it will impact the middle of that line.

At linebacker, there have long been concerns and whenever Kevin Minter returns to the field, that probably doesn’t go away. I thought Larry Foote played pretty well in Minnesota and it was encouraging to see newcomer Desmond Bishop do what he did in a handful of plays, but the question marks don’t go away and now you don’t have a guy like Dockett in front of them. The plus is that outside linebacker John Abraham is back (his return to practice, pictured below, was seriously overshadowed Monday by the Dockett news) but again, until he plays his way into shape, it’s tough to know what he’ll bring.

In the secondary, the Cardinals not only have all their guys still but now Tyrann Mathieu is back in the mix too. That group remains the strongest, although playing out on an island at times means they need the front seven to come through. That was a bit troubling to hear Bruce Arians talk about how many times the Cardinals did not run their blitzes correctly in Minnesota — Bowles was magical last year the way he schemed players to often get to the quarterback untouched — and that will be a key to this whole thing.

The Cardinals’ offense will be better this season and they will need to be. Regardless, the Cardinals aren’t going to get where they want to go unless the defense plays at a high level. They will have to do it differently than they once planned.

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Debating X, O, Jimmy, Joe

Posted by Darren Urban on April 3, 2014 – 4:01 pm

The cliché has been around awhile, some version of “It’s not about the ‘Xs’ and ‘Os’ but the jimmys and joes.” And no, pizza has nothing to do with the conversation. It’s a simple concept really, one that emphasizes the reality that without players, you can draw up the best plays in the world and you still aren’t going to be successful. It came up in the context of profootballfocus.com releasing their full season stats from the NFL and the best defenses in producing unblocked pressure. The Cardinals were the best in the league midway through the season and held on to the top spot by season’s end with 82 unblocked pressures.

In the stats, the Cardinals were led by two players in particular — linebackers John Abraham and Karlos Dansby. Dansby had 13 total unblocked pressures and Abraham 12, and Dansby produced four sacks in those pressures (Abraham two). So it stands to reason with Dansby leaving for Cleveland, the Cards will be hurt in this regard in turning the role over to Kevin Minter — not as athletic as Karlos — or whomever. You lose a ‘joe,’ maybe the ‘O’ doesn’t hold up, right?

Or maybe not?

First of all, at least in this context of rushing the QB unblocked, scheme would seem to have a ton to do with it. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is doing something to confuse the other team, regardless of the players. Even “lesser” players are supposed to be accounted for every play by the offense. Of those 82 pressures, 23 came through an ‘A’ gap (the spots between the center and either guard). No one is supposed to forget the guy standing near the ball, even if he is a step or two off the line of scrimmage. Sometimes it was an overload on one side situation (35 of 82, according to PFF) and sometimes the offense simply didn’t block a guy even if there was someone there to do so (19 times).

Certainly, a talent like Dansby played into the equation, as did Abraham. You’d have to look at every play individually to really know if the result was a combination of factors, a Dansby “win” or a Bowles’ scheme result. You figure there is a mix. You figure Bowles knows what Minter can and can’t do, and while the Cardinals won’t run the same things exactly for him as Dansby, I’d guess if Minter comes free through the ‘A’ gap he’ll probably find a way to create some havoc. The Cards didn’t have the same ‘jimmys’ in the secondary once Tyrann Mathieu got hurt, but Bowles’ ‘Xs’ were good enough to fluster both the Seahawks and 49ers pretty good the final two weeks of the season.

There is a reason Steve Keim is always looking to upgrade the roster where he can. And you take Patrick Peterson and Daryl Washington off the defense, for instance, and the scheme is not going to look as good. But scheme matters too.

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“Throw gas” on a potentially dominant defense

Posted by Darren Urban on March 28, 2014 – 12:09 pm

The Cardinals’ initial foray into free agency was offense-heavy. Not a big shock, since that side of the ball need the most work. As the draft approaches, however, the focus may just shift. Because even though Bruce Arians is an offensive guy, GM Steve Keim has a belief that the good teams in this salary cap work have a dominant side of the ball. And the Cardinals — with the No. 1 rush defense and the sixth-ranked defense overall — aren’t in that realm on the offensive side of the ball.

“Seattle was a dominant defense with a solid offense,” Keim said. “Denver was a dominant offense with an OK defense. In our situation, we are closer to having a dominant defense. So I think you have to continue to throw gas on the fire. Continue to build the strength.”

That’s why cornerback Antonio Cromartie shot to the top of the to-do list after he was cut by the Jets. The move surprised the Cards — they did not think New York would let him go — but rallied to understand the situation and aggressively court him. It was only a one-year contract, but the team proved last year with linebacker Karlos Dansby that could be a golden type of situation. There are still spots defensively that need shoring up (like the need for a safety or inside linebacker depth), and there is also Keim’s quest to get longer and more athletic with his 3-4 defensive ends and the pass rushers outside. The draft could very well provide those things. But when you start looking at the top end talent on the roster, it is the defense that claims many of the spots, whether it is Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell or Daryl Washington. (Or even, as Ron Wolfley points out, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who fortunately for the Cards did not get a head coaching job.)

The offense isn’t going to be ignored — “We know we have areas we need to fix and it certainly needs to catch up with the defense,” Keim said — but a defensive juggernaut is the first goal. It’s what has put the Seahawks and 49ers into the stratosphere they are in, and why the Cards returned to relevance last season.

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Peyton’s place in the NFC West

Posted by Darren Urban on February 4, 2014 – 11:57 am

The chances of Peyton Manning repeating his historic 2013 season are slim anyway. No one has ever thrown 55 touchdown passes in a season for a reason. But after watching the Broncos’ offense struggle in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks, you wonder what kind of season Manning can compile when a fourth of his games will be against the intense defenses of the NFC West.

It was a notion I pondered briefly on Twitter yesterday. One game is not nearly enough of a sample size, of course. But — depending on whatever turnover all the teams involved have — the physical nature of all the defenses in the division seems unlike most of the ones the Broncos play. It certainly seemed that way Sunday. Manning got his completions (34 for 49) but only had 280 yards and one touchdown. In fact the 280-1-2 INT line looked a lot like what a QB might put up in an NFC West game. Something Carson Palmer might do. But Palmer had a much better defense at his disposal.

The NFC West defenses were ranked first (Seattle), fifth (SF), sixth (Arizona) and 15th (St. Louis). Of the 13 teams the Broncos faced in the regular season, eight were ranked 20th or lower, and only two — the Giants and the Texans — were officially top 10 defenses, although both teams struggled all season.

(And before anyone gets it twisted, I am a Peyton believer. He didn’t play well Sunday but that doesn’t take away from him being one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time — which is always going to be a subjective title anyway. No one else has done what he has done in a season like 2013, regardless of the defenses faced. And before anyone in the NFC West can get too high and mighty, remember that the Rams were the only team in the division who didn’t try to sign Manning in 2011.)

We’ll see if the gaudy stats make a comeback. Interestingly enough, the Broncos did see the NFC West this season, kind of. The four-game preseason slate was against all four NFC West teams. But that’s preseason, and with all due respect to Denny Green, it was pretty meaningless, even that third game against the Rams.

In Manning’s long career, the Cardinals have only faced him — truly, without him sitting in a meaningless game — once. That was in a Sunday night game in 2009, when Manning tore them up and the Colts bombed the Cards. Manning is still pretty dang good. But the Cards’ defense is much, much better than that 2009 version. The Broncos do get to host the Cardinals next year (the 49ers also go to Denver; the Broncos visit St. Louis and Seattle.) Already, a subplot emerges for the 2014 season.

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Take offense? Or get defensive?

Posted by Darren Urban on January 28, 2014 – 12:47 pm

When the Super Bowl is played Sunday, it will feature the best offense in the NFL — Denver scored 606 points this season, an incredible 37.9 per game — against the best defense in the NFL — Seattle not only allowed the fewest yards, but also the fewest points this season. A tangible example of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. It’s hard not to see it as the answer about that “defense wins championships” cliché that floats out there.

It also got me thinking about the Cardinals, and their better recent teams.

The 2008 Cardinals made the Super Bowl after scoring 427 regular-season points (26.7 points a game) and followed up in the playoffs with 30, 33 and 32 points before scoring 23 in the Super Bowl. Of course, that team allowed 426 points, which is why they eeked out a 9-7 record. It was a potent offense. This season, the Cardinals put together 10 wins in large part because of the defense. The Cards were tops in the league in run defense, sixth overall and seventh in scoring defense. It would be interesting to consider that 2008 offense — Kurt Warner, Fitz in his prime, Anquan Boldin, 1,000-yard Steve Breaston and the Edge/Hightower RB tag-team going against the 2013 Cardinals defense.

Which is the better path to take? It’s hard not to think that defense wins titles. It’d be good to see Peyton Manning win another Super Bowl, but I’m not totally sure why the Seahawks aren’t favored in this game, at least a little. Maybe it’s because of last year’s Super Bowl, when a couple of defensive-dominant teams ended up playing in a scorefest. That was in the climate-controlled Superdome, though, and Manning won’t have that advantage Sunday.

As far as the score-first Cardinals versus the defense-first Cards? There’s a reason why Kurt Warner has said this year’s Cardinals team was better than his 2008 version. Part of that was that this year’s team could score a little bit too — with 379 points (23.7 a game) it wasn’t like the Cardinals couldn’t find their way into the end zone. I’d argue that Andre Ellington gave the offense an explosive element that 2008 offense didn’t really have either. Nevertheless, it’s a great debate to have.

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What a difference a year makes, stat version

Posted by Darren Urban on December 31, 2013 – 10:53 am

Bruce Arians called it a beginning, and his players all talked about the optimism they have going forward into 2014 after a 10-6 record in 2013. The tangible proof in the improvement, however, goes beyond the five-victory rise from 2012. Many of the other numbers on both offense and defense also underscore the Cards’ change this season.

Offensively, there was nowhere to go but up after the disaster of 2012. That started with the play of quarterback Carson Palmer, especially after the unit started to grasp Arians’ scheme. Palmer threw too many interceptions — with 22, the Cardinals actually threw one more than the QB group did in 2012 — but all the other numbers were much better, including the overall rank (the Cards were 12th in the NFL, after being dead last in ’12) and points scored (the Cardinals increased their per game average by more than eight points a game.)

Year 1st downs Points Yds Yds rushing Yds Passing Sacks allowed Comp pct TD INT NFL rank
2013 329 379 5542 422-1540 4291 41 63.2 24 22 12
2012 246 250 4209 352-1204 3383 58 55.4 11 21 32



We all know the Cardinals’ defense was pretty good in 2012, finishing 12th in the league. Then Todd Bowles came in as defensive coordinator, there was much hand wringing, and then the Cards ended up a fantastic unit. They ended up sixth in the NFL, best against the run (after finishing 28th last year) and were the main reason the Cardinals became a factor in the NFC West and the NFC overall. Now we see how many interviews Bowles gets to be a head coach and whether the Cardinals can keep their DC for at least another season.

Year Points allowed Rush yds per game Rush D NFL rank Yds per game TDs allowed Sacks INT INT TDs NFL rank
2013 324 84.4 1 317.4 35 47 20 4 6
2012 357 137.0 28 337.8 40 38 22 2 12



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In a rush to be tested

Posted by Darren Urban on November 21, 2013 – 11:00 am

The Cardinals are second in the NFL in rushing defense heading into Week 12, allowing just 81.4 yards a game (The Jets are first, at 73.2.) But as the Cardinals head down the stretch with their final six games, that ranking will be tested and how the Cards hold up may go a long way in determining how real their playoff hopes will be.

Of the Cards’ final six opponents, all but one rank in the top half of the NFL rushing the ball and three are in the top six — including the top two rushing teams in the league, Philadelphia (150.6 yards a game) and Seattle (147.9). The others are San Francisco (sixth, 141.0), Indianapolis (15th, 112.9), Tennessee (16th, 112.3) and St. Louis (22nd, 99.4).

(How the Cardinals run the ball themselves will make a difference too — Arizona is 25th in the NFL at 85.6 yards a game — but that’s a topic for another post.)

Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles came into the season saying he wanted the Cardinals to stop the run first and his players have often echoed it. That wasn’t the case last season and it often bit the Cards. This year, only three times have the Cards given up more than 56 yards to the other team’s leading rusher. Of course, in all three instances, the Cardinals will play those teams again, with the Rams (Daryl Richardson, 63 yards), 49ers (Frank Gore, 101 yards) and Seahawks (Marshawn Lynch, 94 yards) still out there. Richardson is no longer the Rams go-to guy but Zac Stacy, although Stacy has looked good. No reason to dwell on what Gore and Lynch bring; they are among the best in the NFL and the Cards have seen that up close and personal too many times.

Next week against NFL leading rusher Shady McCoy and Chip Kelly’s new-look offense will be interesting as well.

There’s a reason it’s a football cliché that teams must first stop the run. The Cardinals need to live it as gospel.

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For what it’s worth in June, defensive edition

Posted by Darren Urban on June 18, 2013 – 11:08 am

It’s that time of the offseason, when players scatter for some time away from the facility and so too does the author of a certain blog. Before that, however, I try and put on my analysis cap and attempt to project – sans injuries – who will be in the starting lineup come Sept. 8 when the Cardinals open the regular season in St. Louis trying to win their first game for a fourth straight season. This one is a little more difficult to sort out. By last year it was easier to get a sense of what Ken Whisenhunt wanted to do and who he wanted to do it with. No real way to know that with Bruce Arians yet.

For starters, he has said time and again judging players in shorts wasn’t enough to make any solid decisions – he said he knew how they could play soccer, for goodness sake – and so I’d expect training camp to be much more important than the past. The Whiz coaching staff, which generally stayed stable, knew very well what they were getting with holdovers. This staff is new and don’t know many of these players. Being unquestioned at your position is rare right now.

That doesn’t even take into account Arians’ desire to play young players. He clearly is much more willing to go with youth. He has also talked often about how the “starters” are more than just 11, especially on defense, thanks to the many packages a team has.

I suppose that’s all a roundabout way of saying this is my best guesstimate, and that’s all. We have defense today, offense tomorrow. There has been lots of speculation out there that the Cards may end up as a 4-3 team, and we’ll see how things are spread around, but they have been working in a 3-4 base the entire offseason.

Remember, this is only an exhibition and not a competition, so please, please, no wagering.

DE – Darnell Dockett. He will get more chances to get on the stat sheet. He will, probably, be used inside in certain packages and not just as a 3-4 end. He definitely is happier than he has been in regards to how he is being used. The Cards are counting on that showing on the field.

NT – Dan Williams. The team poked around potential free agents earlier in the offseason, and Williams came in to workouts needing to shed pounds. But he has, and Arians praised his condition last week. Like the ends, there is talk of Williams getting upfield and attacking more often. It’s so easy to forget he was a No. 1 pick, but the Cards need him to play that way.

DE – Calais Campbell. Had another very good year last season. He too sounds excited about his opportunities in Todd Bowles’ system, although he tends to be a little more muted than Dockett (who isn’t?) Has become one of the best in the league, period. At some point, it’d be nice to see him get a Pro Bowl nod.

ROLB – Lorenzo Alexander. This has been the spot for O’Brien Schofield, who recently told me camp was the place where jobs are won and lost. Could OB still make a starting run? Sure. But Alexander, wooed as a free agent partially on the strength of starting potential, is going to get his shot. I think, given his ability as a leader, he’ll end up there at least at first.

SILB – Jasper Brinkley. Brinkley was an early free-agent sign, but then the Cards drafted Kevin Minter. Minter is the kind of player who needs camp to show what he’s got. Arians thought he was getting too physical in the offseason. But I think Brinkley still holds him off at first, even if Minter pushes for playing time later this season.

WILB – Karlos Dansby. This is kind of cheating, because I don’t even have to factor Daryl Washington into this – Washington is suspended the first four games. When Washington returns, however, it will be very interesting to see how it plays out with him, Dansby, Brinkley and Minter. It’s been suggested Washington could end up outside in some scenario, but at no point in the offseason did Washington do any work there.

LOLB – Sam Acho. A very smart player and great in the locker room. He should start at the outset, but he needs to up his sacks to stay there. Otherwise they are going to start looking to upgrade.

CB – Patrick Peterson. Easiest position to peg.

CB – Jerraud Powers. The Cardinals did a good job building up depth at cornerback. Antoine Cason is slightly more established given Powers’ injury history, but Powers has an Arians connection from Indy and I think that will make a difference. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Cason start, though. Another thing to chew on: With so many corners, is one traded before the season starts? You still have Javier Arenas, Justin Bethel, Jamell Fleming, Bryan McCann.

FS – Rashad Johnson. Tyrann Mathieu is going to play in some way, shape or form, including nickel corner sometimes. You just don’t see it any other way. But I don’t see Mathieu starting. Johnson is helped because he played strong safety last season. I can see Johnson moving to strong safety if Mathieu bullies his way into the lineup.

SS – Yeremiah Bell. Bell brings experience and he knows Bowles well from their days in Miami. He is a short-term solution, though.

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Enthusiasm for the defense

Posted by Darren Urban on June 6, 2013 – 10:02 am

Levi Brown was talking about getting back on the field and what he might be able to learn about himself in shorts in the heat of summer. No pads helps, he said, because he can ease his injured arm back into work. But there are other challenges.

“Our defense is giving us tons of blitzes right now,” Brown said, shaking his head. “Things I don’t think I’ve seen.”

There has been so much talk about the Ray-Horton-To-Todd-Bowles transition and what that could mean for the defense. While the arrival of Bruce Arians — and new quarterback Carson Palmer — has shifted focus to what the offense will be able to do, the defense remains a unit burgeoning with potential and proven players. In a division where the 49ers, Seahawks and Rams all have created believers on that side of the ball, the Cardinals have done the same, like with ESPN analyst/former scout Matt Williamson:

(Williams is bullish on a lot of things the Cards have done, actually. This is an ESPN Insider link, but in a nutshell, Williamson gave them an A. “I love what Arizona has done this offseason.”)

Even with the Daryl Washington suspension and whatever else might be hanging over the linebackers head, you have enthusiasm over what could be from the defensive ends, a linebacker corps that (with Washington) will be stronger overall with the additions of Karlos Dansby, Jasper Brinkley and Kevin Minter, and a cornerbacks group that is better than last season and that’s even before any anticipated improvement of Patrick Peterson. Finding out what defensive end-turned-linebacker Matt Shaughnessy and Lorenzo Alexander can produce will be crucial, but they should help incumbents Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield at outside linebacker. Are there some unknowns at safety? Sure, but if Tyrann Mathieu can make some plays back there behind vets Rashad Johnson and Yeremiah Bell, I think the Cards can survive — especially in an NFL world where safety play has become more about coverage than big hitting.

The Cardinals need to make strides on offense. That’s obvious. But their base in 2013 will need to come from the defensive production.

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Stingy defenses, and the numbers to back it up

Posted by Darren Urban on October 24, 2012 – 11:08 am

Sometimes, stats don’t tell a lot. Sometimes, one stat can tell everything. That’s how it feels for the upcoming Monday game against the 49ers.

Over the last 16 games, the top two teams in the NFL in terms of fewest offensive touchdowns allowed will face off at University of Phoenix Stadium. The 49ers have given up just 21 offensive touchdowns, the Cardinals just 22. If anyone is expecting offensive fireworks, that would seem to be far-fetched. The 49ers are coming off a game in which they beat the Seahawks, 13-6. The Cards, of course, lost to Minnesota but gave up just 14 points on defense.

None of this is a revelation. But it seems certain that the Cardinals will be under even more pressure to avoid errors. They probably won’t get a ton of chances to score. Last year, they dented the 49ers in their 21-19 win because quarterback John Skelton was able to get a couple of big plays, long touchdown passes to Larry Fitzgerald and Early Doucet. Plays down the field have been limited for the Cards thus far this season. A couple this week would change the dynamic of the game.

– The Cards reportedly worked out kicker Josh Brown, after Jay Feely’s recent struggles. I don’t see anything happening now, but it’s an option if Feely continues to have issues. He did just complete a streak of 19 straight field goals made earlier this season — plus he made that 61-yarder — so he has produced. But on a team with which points are at a premium, misses loom much larger.

– There will be a food drive at Monday night’s game against the 49ers. Volunteers from Sagicor, St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance and Cardinals Cheerleaders will be at collection points outside of all five stadium gates and the Great Lawn. Fans are encouraged to bring non-perishable food items and/or money for donation.


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