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Blogs

Leaving points, and Friday before the 49ers

Posted by Darren Urban on November 27, 2015 – 3:41 pm

It’s hard not to talk about the points.

The Cardinals lead the NFL in points scored, in case you hadn’t heard. They also have a league-high 176 points on the road – with still three road games left – this season, with their 22 road TDs five more than the rest of the field (Cincinnati is second with 17). They just happen to be visiting San Francisco this weekend, to play a 49ers team that they happened to score a season-high 47 points against earlier this season.

So why is it, when talking to the players or coaches, they always seem to be a bit irritated with how the Cardinals play offense? It’s simple, really. They get ticked when they don’t convert a third down, when they have a red-zone hiccup, when they turn the ball over. Perfecting the “nuances,” as Larry Fitzgerald called them.

“Scary to think if we do, how many points we could score,” Fitzgerald said.

Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin was being asked about the running game and it needing to be more consistent. Even though the Cards have run it fine and again, most points in the league.

“It’s something good for me to get pissed off about,” Goodwin said. “Leaving points out there.”

Goodwin, and Bruce Arians, and everyone else, knows what they have (assuming Carson Palmer is healthy): A deep offense capable of scoring with a great many options, and a quarterback who knows how to make it all run.

“As long as the offensive line protects, we can dice anyone up in this league,” Goodwin said. “I stand on solid ground when I say that.”

— The Cardinals had a long injury list when the week began, but realistically, they aren’t going to be as short-handed as thought. Patrick Peterson looks like he’s going to play, receivers Michael Floyd and John Brown (Brown is “probable” for the first time in a while) both should be on the field and while they are down a couple of defensive lineman, the addition of Red Bryant should help.

— The idea of sitting players because it’s “just the 49ers” is never going to fly, by the way. The Cardinals need all these wins. If you are healthy enough to play, you play. If you aren’t, you don’t. Could that change in Week 17 if the Cards are locked into their playoff position? Sure. But not with six games left.

— Fitzgerald needs 74 yards to reach 1,000 yards receiving in a season for the first time since 2011. That’s been a pretty long drought too.

— Markus Golden already had started a couple of games when Alex Okafor was out, but that starting job is his for good now that LaMarr Woodley is out for the season. Golden is turning out to have the greatest impact from the draft class, with all due respect to Rodney Gunter and David Johnson. Profootballfocus.com has him among the top 10 rookies in the league, and he’s on his way to being a key part of this defense the next few years.

“Since the beginning of the season I’m way better,” Golden said. “I’m more focused, and I’m not thinking as much.”

— Defensive coordinator James Bettcher said he loves the outside linebacker rotation, even with the Woodley loss. In a perfect world, he said, those guys would have snap counts in the 20s, although he said he was OK with veteran Dwight Freeney around 30 or 35 snaps.

— S Deone Bucannon was fined $23,152 for his unflagged helmet-to-helmet hit on Bengals receiver A.J. Green last week. It was a surprise the play didn’t draw a penalty. Could that have been the source of the concussion Bucannon suffered?

— One name that could appear now with Woodley out is rookie Shaq Riddick, who has been inactive every game. “We think he’s a guy who is going to be in the mix, could be this weekend, maybe the future,” Bettcher said.

— This will be Mike Iupati’s first game against his former team. If you recall, there was a chance Iupati, coming off training camp knee surgery, would debut against the 49ers, but he wasn’t quite ready that week. He admitted the game will have meaning for him.

“I do care about them,” said Iupati, who spent five seasons in San Francisco. “They are having a tough season. But that’s how it is. It’s football. I don’t know what’s going on over there.”

— The Cards have had a 100-yard receiver in six straight games against the 49ers – either Larry Fitzgerald or Michael Floyd. Floyd in particular has done well in San Francisco. Perhaps he can get there again.

— Both Arians and Goodwin were hoping that the running game will find its way back after a couple of off games versus two good front sevens against the Seahawks and Bengals. The coaches are hoping for more steady plays – four yards every play, rather than getting one looking for a big one. It’s a concept running back Chris Johnson admitted isn’t always easy.

“Being the type of player I am, the type of back I am who is so used to breaking the long runs, getting big gains,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of tough being patient and waiting on it. It’s the sort of thing where you’ve got to understand the gameplan of the week and you’ve got to stick to it.”

— Johnson also said at age 30, the maintenance needed to stay ready at this point (he’s averaging 24 carries the past three games) is crucial.

“You’ve got to put more time in as far as off the field,” Johnson said, referring to massages and the training room. “You put more time in and you’ll be OK when Sunday gets here.”

— Crazy to think the Cards have had more trouble winning in San Francisco than Seattle. But a win this weekend, and the Cardinals are 3-1 in the NFC West. If there is anything Arians has yet to accomplish, it’s a winning record within the division. That’s something they’d like to check off the list.

FloydBeforeNoinersBLOG


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An early look at the free-agents-to-be

Posted by Darren Urban on November 5, 2015 – 11:31 am

With the season halfway over and talk here and there about possible contract extensions, it felt like a good time to note who is scheduled to have their contract run out after the season ends. We’ve talked for a while about the secondary decisions that are coming, but in terms of players that are making an impact, it’s a lengthy list. This is only the players set to be free agents; There have been some of you wondering if, for instance, Tyrann Mathieu could get an extension. He is under contract through 2016, so I don’t expect anything soon. The Cardinals, according to the NFLPA, have about $5.3 million of cap space right now.

UNRESTRICTED-TO-BE

CB Justin Bethel
LB Dwight Freeney
TE Jermaine Gresham
RB Chris Johnson
S Rashad Johnson
G Ted Larsen
LS Mike Leach
T Bobby Massie
CB Jerraud Powers
C Lyle Sendlein
T Bradley Sowell
QB Drew Stanton
LB Sean Weatherspoon
LB LaMarr Woodley

RESTRICTED-TO-BE
WR Jaron Brown
P Drew Butler
LB Kenny Demens
S Tony Jefferson

(Tight ends Darren Fells and Ifeanyi Momah and defensive tackle Josh Mauro are all exclusive rights free agents, meaning they can be tendered and not go anywhere.)

Again, a long list. The restricted free agents, if you want to prevent them from hitting the market unfettered, can be tendered with one of three designations: A first-round tender (a one-year contract of about $3.3M), a second-round tender (about $2.3M) or the original draft spot ($1.5M). That means, if tendered, if another team signs them away, that team owes the Cardinals the tendered pick. Given that all those guys were undrafted, the Cards would get nothing for the low tender. It makes for hard decisions on a Tony Jefferson, and even to Jaron Brown.

As for the unrestricted guys …

It seems likely that the older one-year guys — Chris Johnson, Gresham, Freeney — would want to see what they might get on the open market. The secondary is the most intriguing area. It wouldn’t be a surprise that some team might want to swoop in and Greg Toler-contract a guy like Bethel, especially if they’d want him to start right away at CB. The Cardinals like Powers. They like Rashad Johnson too, but with all the safeties around, what will be the offer? What does the future hold (or rather, where is the future) for Deone Bucannon? Is he a linebacker or safety? That’ll come into play.

Freeagentgresham


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Cardinals to sign Freeney

Posted by Darren Urban on October 12, 2015 – 11:53 am

Nothing official yet — until the ink is on the contract, it rarely is — but it looks like the Cardinals will be signing veteran pass rusher Dwight Freeney to a one-year contract to bolster the pass rush. Given the history both Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator James Bettcher have with Freeney (they coached him in Indianapolis) it fits, and after Alex Okafor hurt his calf Sunday and figures to miss time, they need more help out there to go with LaMarr Woodley, Kareem Martin and rookies Markus Golden and Shaq Riddick.

(UPDATE: It’s official now.)

Freeney had 3.5 sacks last season for San Diego before he was released in the spring. He was generally regarded as a player who consistently got pressure on the quarterback in a limited pass rushing role. How quickly he can add to the Cardinals remains to be seen, since he didn’t have an offseason with a team or a training camp. But it is reportedly another of GM Steve Keim’s minimum-salary deals with incentives, so the upside remains greater than the downside, which is how this team has been built.

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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.

FridayChiefs


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For what it’s worth in June, defensive edition

Posted by Darren Urban on June 18, 2015 – 3:11 pm

The end of the offseason comes with it lots of speculation and analysis. That’s par for the NFL course these days, when even the parts that don’t mean a ton get parsed and dissected. The on-field work of OTAs and minicamp is the ultimate in that regard. Once, when the CBA was different and the league was different, minicamp was about pads and training camp got a brief yet important head start (ask Ron Wolfley.) Now minicamp, other than extra time on the field, is no different from OTAs in terms of (non-)contact and what it means. Shorts are shorts, and football isn’t played in shorts.

So when I get to this point in the offseason, when I put out my best guess at the starting 11 for the Cardinals when the regular season opens Sept. 13 before I take some vacation, it comes with the caveat: So much is still to be learned in training camp. At this point last year, Jonathan Cooper was a virtual lock to start at left guard, for instance. We know how that turned out.

That said, here are my thoughts on the defense. Offense will be posted tomorrow. Something to chew on while the temperature sizzles outside and the players get down time until the very-late July report day. One point to note — the Cardinals do open against the Saints, so the actual starting lineup may actually be the nickel sub-package or something like that. For this exercise, we’re going base defense:

(UPDATE: Here is the offense.)

DE — Frostee Rucker. The Cardinals are going to rotate their defensive linemen a lot (except for maybe Calais Campbell) but the veteran Rucker should be in the game to start. He was dropped into that role in training camp last year after Darnell Dockett got hurt and had a solid season.

NT — Corey Peters. Peters isn’t built the same as departed nose tackle Dan Williams, but the Cardinals are counting on him to have a similar impact. One of the reasons Williams was allowed to leave was because he wasn’t going to play the amount of snaps needed to give him the money he could make on the open market. Peters is a little more versatile. It’ll be interesting to see where someone like undrafted rookie Xavier Williams could eventually fit into this equation.

DE — Calais Campbell. He’s the Pro Bowler of the front seven and the guy who Bruce Arians wants to lead this defense. Interesting that a couple pof times Arians has talked about Campbell finding more consistency in his high play. If Campbell gets there, the Cards’ defense will be in good shape.

OLB — LaMarr Woodley. This is a big wild card going into training camp. Lorenzo Alexander has been with the first unit alongside Alex Okafor, but I think Woodley — or someone — finds a way to supplant Alexander by the time training camp ends. Maybe it would be rookie Markus Golden who pairs with Okafor. Maybe, since it’s the Saints in the first game, DE-turned-OLB Kareem Martin gets a shot. But right now, I’ll guess Woodley.

ILB — Sean Weatherspoon. Weatherspoon has to stay healthy, but if he is, he joins Campbell and Patrick Peterson as the three absolute locks to start.

ILB — Kevin Minter. He won’t play if the Saints run three and four receivers out there constantly, but Minter will be that run stopper inside in a season that really becomes ultra-important. He sat as a rookie because of Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby. His play last season was undercut by a training camp pectoral injury he played through. He’s healthy now, and needs to show why he was a second-round pick.

OLB — Alex Okafor. Okafor has gotten plenty of praise from Arians, who thinks Okafor would have gotten double-digit sacks (he had eight) had he just been healthy for all 16 games. Okafor probably isn’t the long-term dynamic pass rusher the Cards still need, but he has shown he can pressure the quarterback, and that makes him very valuable.

CB — Patrick Peterson. For whatever the reasons might have been, Peterson did not play as well in 2014 as the Cardinals needed or how anyone expected. Time to right that wrong. Peterson looked fit and active in the offseason work, which was a good sign.

CB — Jerraud Powers. There is still a chance Justin Bethel has a great camp and passes up Powers for a starting job, but in the end I expect Powers to be the guy. Arians has said good things about him constantly, and the Cards like his smarts on the field.

SS — Deone Bucannon. For a good chunk of offseason work, it was Bucannon and Rashad Johnson on the field with the first team base defense, with Tyrann Mathieu coming off the bench. But I think Mathieu will be a guy the Cards want to have on the field at all times, and right now, I think they’d like to find a way for Bucannon to have a role at safety. Now, the Cards will want to use Johnson — the on-field coach of the secondary, if not the defense — but I think it’ll be more like the role Johnson had in 2013 once Mathieu took his starting spot.

FS — Tyrann Mathieu. Again, the Cards have depth at safety. There will be times when Bucannon plays some linebacker in sub-packages and the Cards use Mathieu, Johnson and Tony Jefferson on the field at the same time. Arians has stressed the Cards want the best 11 on the field for each particular play. But a healthy, playmaking Mathieu is going to get a lot of snaps.

DefensiveHuddleBloguse

 


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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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LB Woodley an add, and Cro’s decision

Posted by Darren Urban on March 10, 2015 – 12:33 pm

As the official start to free agency approaches, some quick lunchtime stuff:

— The Cardinals bring in outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley on a one-year contract. Woodley was recently cut by the Raiders. Woodley had no sacks in six games last season in Oakland, tearing his biceps against, of all teams, the Cards. Before that, Woodley had a solid career in Pittsburgh. He has just nine sacks since 2011, though, and will be depth. This year’s Larry Foote signing, a vet for cheap.

— That’s why it isn’t surprising to hear that the Cardinals still are pursuing Redskins soon-to-be-free agent Brian Orakpo.

— Cornerback Antonio Cromartie went on Stephen A. Smith’s radio show and said his decision where to sign is coming down to the Cardinals, Cowboys and Jets. Cro has said the decision comes down to family; we’ll see what that means. But money always talks.


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Off the edge

Posted by Darren Urban on January 31, 2011 – 3:25 pm

By the time I arrived to cover the Cardinals full-time, Simeon Rice’s best Cardinals’ season was behind him, with 16½ sacks in 1999. I was in place just in time for a contract dispute and “Don’t-tell-Mike-Jurecki-come-talk-to-me!” from then-GM Bob Ferguson. Rice had only 7½ sacks in 2000 and then left as a free agent.

Since then, finding a difference-making pass rusher hasn’t been easy for the Cardinals.

They signed one as a free agent in 2004, when they got Bertrand Berry and he collected 14½ that season (including four on Giants quarterback Kurt Warner, if you recall) but then injuries and eventually age shredded Berry’s chances to reach double digits again. That year was the only one where a Cardinal had at least 10 sacks since Rice’s big 1999 season; amazingly, Berry’s five sacks led the Cards in their Super Bowl season. Defensive end Calais Campbell led the Cards this season with six.

The Cards did get pressure-by-committee more in 2009. Campbell and Darnell Dockett tied for the team lead with seven, although the Cards had 43 as a team (sixth in the NFL), the most they had ever posted since moving to Arizona in 1988. That number dropped to 33 this season, and the current problems on offense – last season, the Cards had the lead much more often, providing more chances to rush the passer – certainly had something to do with it. In any case, that one guy the other team has to fear all by himself, he remains absent.

So that brings us to where the Cards stand now. Let’s, for a moment, assume the labor issues are resolved relatively quickly. Can they get that guy now? Could they, perhaps, pry someone like LaMarr Woodley away as a free agent (although reports are that Woodley expects to remain in Pittsburgh)? Then there is the idea of someone like Von Miller of Texas A&M would be a good draft pick, because of the pressure he could provide. (There is also the idea of someone like O’Brien Schofield developing into that dynamic guy, which he was in college). For a moment, forget about specifics. To get such a player, whomever he might be, improves your secondary/pass defense, because the more pressure you can deliver without blitzing means the more defenders you have in pass coverage.

And besides, it’d be one more guy who – as coaches and players alike like to say – “makes plays.” Those are the guys who tilt the game in your favor.


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