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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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“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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Keim: Speed good, protection not as much

Posted by Darren Urban on August 24, 2015 – 8:11 am

The Cardinals enter the dog days of training camp with one final week at University of Phoenix Stadium beginning today. And as GM Steve Keim talked about the Cards’ most recent performance, there was no eye-popping news — which, in a preseason where injuries are usually the biggest news, Keim noted correctly that coming out relatively healthy was the top story.

Otherwise, Keim’s thoughts when talking on the “Doug and Wolf Show” on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM:

— He likes the weapons on offense, with the speed at receiver and the versatility at running back, “if we can protect Carson,” Keim said.

“There’s no question in my mind there are some concerns,” Keim said.

Keim said the offensive line messed up a couple of times on combo moves from the defense. Watching the game back myself, it definitely looked like backs Andre Ellington and David Johnson at least once each (and possibly more) missed on chances either to pick up a blitzer or help chip block, one of the reasons there were multiple hits and six first-half sacks by the Chargers.

“It’s one thing to be beat physically, but to blow assignments mentally is unacceptable,” Keim said.

— Keim said he thinks new defensive coordinator James Bettcher is “doing an excellent job,” noting all the blitzing the Cards have done. It did seem like the Cards blitzed almost every play in the last half of the fourth quarter.

— Another Keim shoutout for undrafted rookie defensive tackle Xavier Williams. I will be shocked if Williams does not make this roster.

— Keim thought, other that one sack allowed, that right tackle Bradley Sowell played “pretty good” as a starter. D.J. Humphries, not as much. “He’s a guy on one play looks exactly like the first round pick we selected” and others, not very good, Keim said. “The bottom line is his consistency.” The Cardinals want more — much more — from Humphries. But Keim noted it’s still very early in Humphries’ process. (In other words, he’s not close to a bust.)

— Natural praise for running back David Johnson after that performance.

— There is no leader for the No. 3 quarterback job, although Keim said “Phillip (Sims) looked really patient and poised in the pocket.” I don’t think we’ll ever hear that one is ahead of the other one, not before a decision is made. Keim said both still aren’t consistent enough. And there is still the chance the Cards carry only two QBs on the 53=man roster.

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Friday before the Chiefs

Posted by Darren Urban on August 14, 2015 – 11:19 am

The training camp of Palmer, Mathieu and hamstrings takes a brief break so the Cardinals can open the preseason Saturday night against the Chiefs. It figures to be what should always be expected in the first preseason game of the season — some good play, but also some stumbling out of the blocks. Vanilla offense and defense. A big game for those playing especially in the second half, because those are the guys fighting to stay on the roster. And as always, fingers crossed no one gets hurt.

Carson Palmer will get to make an appearance and that’s amazing, given that he tore his ACL last November. But as we’ve said multiple times, Palmer has been excellent in camp and now, it’s about the reality of exposing him to another team. He has to get ready for the regular season, even if Bruce Arians acknowledged he’d rather put him in bubble wrap for now.

Some other things to watch Saturday:

— It’s about time for Logan Thomas. He will get a lot of playing time. This is where he has to make a push to convince the Cardinals he will fit. His performance in the preseason opener last year was what first caught everyone’s eye. We’ll see if he can repeat that, and push aside a lot of the questions that surround him these days.

— Arians said there were a ton of players he wants to see, and it’s hard to disagree. Among what I’ll be watching: Jonathan Cooper as starting right guard. Tackle D.J. Humphries. Outside linebackers Markus Golden and LaMarr Woodley. Summer sensation tight end Ifeanyi Momah. Wide receiver J.J. Nelson. Undrafted rookie cornerback Cariel Brooks. All those undrafted inside linebackers, including Gabe Martin (pictured below).

— Defensive coordinator James Bettcher moves from the press box to the sideline. He’s been calling plays in practice, but now we get a chance to see what it’s like in a game.

— It’s a great story from the Chiefs side that safety Eric Berry — who was battling cancer last year — will be back on the field and playing.

— Watch the defensive linemen. With all those guys, someone is going to be out by the end of the preseason, either through trade or being cut. That’ll make for an intense competition.

OK. Football is back.


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The future of the Cardinals’ blitz

Posted by Darren Urban on July 1, 2015 – 11:58 am

Anyone who has watched much of the Cardinals the past two seasons knows the defense liked to blitz. So this recent tweet carries with it little surprise in the context of the NFL:

It was the hallmark of then-defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Bring the heat, let it all sort itself out in the end. It’s why the Cardinals went for Antonio Cromartie last offseason — they wanted those press man-to-man corners to be able to survive on an island. It’s a byproduct too of not having that dynamic edge pass rusher to cause problems with a “normal” four-man rush. Now you can argue in this day and age that even bringing five rushers isn’t exactly a blitz, but there were plenty of times the Cards brought at least six guys too.

What happens now? The feeling is that the defense, even under James Bettcher, won’t change a lot. That would include the blitzing. I mean, the Cardinals still don’t have that 14-sack guy coming from the outside (although maybe Alex Okafor can raise his production from his somewhat surprising eight-sack total last season.) The pressure will still have to be manufactured through scheme, it would seem. How Bettcher calls a game won’t be known for real until the Cards open against the Saints Sept. 13 (and what a passing offense to open against.)

Certainly, I’d think Bowles will take his blitzing to New York. But it’s hard to imagine that aggressiveness — which has served the Cardinals well — is going away under Bettcher.

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Players return, and time to talk football

Posted by Darren Urban on April 20, 2015 – 9:17 am

One of the things that frustrates Bruce Arians is the inability to talk football with players during certain parts of the offseason. It’s reality, though, under the current collective bargaining agreement. Today, those shackles come off.

The players have returned to begin Phase I of the offseason work. (It’s voluntary, don’t forget, although one player here was Patrick Peterson, as you can see below.) The big part of that is the strength and conditioning program, but it also includes meetings. Players can be around for four hours total (90 minutes on the field) so Arians and his coaches can finally start discussing the playbook. The new free agents can start getting the information about their duties. New defensive coordinator James Bettcher can start explaining his system and its tweaks from what Todd Bowles did.

The 2015 is here.

— The full NFL schedule will be released at 5 p.m. Arizona time on Tuesday.

— Meanwhile, the return of the players isn’t the biggest news of the day here at the team facility. There is a 1 p.m. press conference with Adrian Wilson, team president Michael Bidwill and GM Steve Keim. No official word on what it’s about.


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Dan Williams a Raider, and Cro’s likely departure

Posted by Darren Urban on March 11, 2015 – 10:30 am

The Cardinals now have some official free agent additions, with Mike Iupati, Sean Weatherspoon and Corey Peters. (#asexpected). But they will also have some departures from that defense that played so very well in 2014.

Nose tackle Dan Williams played very well last season, and it was becoming clear his future might not be in Arizona because he’d find free agent riches elsewhere. Turns out those riches were in Oakland. Williams will get, according to Kent Somers, about $15 million guaranteed and an average of $6 million a season, which is a lot more than the Cardinals were ever going to give him. Once the Cards turned to Peters, it was pretty clear that was going to be the sign Williams would exit.

Meanwhile, all signs out of New York continue to point to cornerback Antonio Cromartie getting something done with the Jets, where he can be reunited all at once with fellow cornerback Darrelle Revis and new coach and former Cards defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. If he gets Cro, Bowles will go from Patrick Peterson and Cro as his cornerbacks to Revis and Cro. That’s the way to run a defense.

As for the Cardinals, their own defensive overhaul continues. Peters and Weatherspoon are here, the Cardinals are trying to get deals done with Colts defensive end Cory Redding and perhaps Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo and Broncos linebacker Nate Irving. The front seven could look a lot different this season (especially if Daryl Washington is reinstated) and these are all the moving pieces with which new coordinator James Bettcher must work.


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Bowles: Bettcher the “right choice”

Posted by Darren Urban on February 18, 2015 – 1:34 pm

For the first time at the Scouting combine, Todd Bowles spoke as a head coach when he got on the podium Wednesday. The Jets’ new boss hasn’t forgotten about his old place of business yet. After his spin in front of the cameras, there was a chance to ask him about his replacement as Cardinals defensive coordinator, James Bettcher. Bettcher was the outside linebackers coach under Bowles.

“It could have been any one of those guys (on staff),” Bowles said. “But I have all the trust in the world in Bruce (Arians) as he had in me. So I’m confident he made the right choice.”

Bowles chuckled at the idea Bettcher had a big job ahead of him, saying he was worried about his own big job in New York.

“Bettch is a good football coach, and you’ve got to remember he’s got about four guys he had on the staff last year that are good coaches,” Bowles said. “They’ll work together and they understand what has to be done. I have confidence they’ll get it done.”

Todd Bowles


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Bettcher plays the two-minute game

Posted by Darren Urban on February 11, 2015 – 3:23 pm

The last three years, James Bettcher — now the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator — has watched every two-minute situation across the NFL. On Thursdays, Bettcher then took some time to sit down with Bruce Arians to go over those times. The idea was for Arians to talk to the team he was coaching about it, what teams did in those spots and how to respond. It was all about Arians’ quest for his teams to be well-versed in specific situations, something that has always been important to him.

But it gave Bettcher, whose dream has always been to move up the ranks as an NFL coach, to play a little what-if himself.

“I’ve had a chance to look at a lot of two-minute situations and call what I would be calling in those scenarios,” Bettcher said. “To look at how those games are managed, why people are successful in two-minute and why they are not. Just putting yourself in those situations as it’s gone along.”

The playcalling will be the one thing everyone watches with Bettcher. It’s not something anyone can get a handle on for a while. Bettcher echoed Arians’ belief in respecting the process, and the process says there is an entire offseason to get through before any playcalls are made in a game environment.

“The biggest thing everyone is talking about is experience, being able to call a game, making adjustments,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “Week to week, practice to practice, the way the schedule is set up, he’ll be great at that. We have to wait and see, through preseason and first couple of games in the regular season, just how good he will be.”


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Foote, as player, or as coach

Posted by Darren Urban on February 9, 2015 – 10:13 am

When the news first trickled out last week that the Cardinals could be interested in Larry Foote as Bruce Arians’ “ex-player-to-add-to-the-coaching-staff” candidate, I immediately thought of something Foote said back in October. It struck me a bit odd at the time, but in the current context, maybe Foote’s coaching possibility has been long in the queue.

Foote was talking about what the Cardinals wanted him as initially, because that was before Daryl Washington was going to be lost for the season by suspension — but the Cards were assuming Washington would be sitting a few games as a suspension because of his assault guilty plea.

“Daryl was supposed to be suspended four to six games and I was, ‘OK, I can come play and coach’ and he ended up gone for the year,” Foote said.

Again, Foote brought it up in the context that he was drastically underpaid given what role he ended up having. But the line about coaching seems relevant now. Foote said after the season he hadn’t decided if he still wanted to play in 2015. I’d be stunned if the Cardinals wouldn’t want him back as a player if that’s what he decided to do, as a leader and mentor. You wouldn’t want him playing as much as he did in 2014 — Foote wore down as the season went on, understandably — but he could still be a valuable piece and certainly a guy you want influencing players like Kevin Minter and Washington.

(A quick side note: I found it interesting O’Brien Schofield admitted he was following the wrong guys in the locker room when he was with the Cards. The team doesn’t have to worry about that if Foote is around.)

If Foote decides playing isn’t what he wants, he can still be that leader as a coach. The players know he’s done it before. Foote can help with that bridge between the departed Todd Bowles and new defensive coordinator James Bettcher. Either way, Foote “gets it” and is someone you want around. As he intimated a few months ago, coaching might have always been part of the plan.



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