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Paydirt drought, and Washington aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on December 17, 2017 – 4:36 pm

It was the kind of catch you just expect Larry Fitzgerald to make, because he’s simply done it so many times before – fourth down, a gotta-have-it-grab from the guy you go to when you gotta have it. But the ball dribbled out as Fitz hit the ground. So close, just like the rest of the day for the Cards.

“None bigger than the one I needed to make at the end of the game there,” Fitzgerald said. “Going a whole 60 minutes not scoring a touchdown offensively, that’s obviously below standard.”

It’s been a whole 60 minutes two games in a row. Plus the second half of the game before that. It’s not that the offense is doing nothing. The Cards had 141 yards rushing Sunday, and reached the red-zone six times. It’s that they can only get three points at a time, which makes winning so hard.

Blaine Gabbert will remain the starter at quarterback. Gabbert took the blame but had no specifics on why the offense stalls so much. As well as Gabbert began his games as a Cardinal, the recent work, even behind the beat-up offensive line, will give the Cardinals’ braintrust a lot to consider when looking at Gabbert for the future

— Larry Fitzgerald is 18 yards shy of 1,000 yards receiving this season, and he would have been a lot closer had he been able to make that catch.

— Speaking of missed catches, tight end Troy Niklas was understandably upset with himself for not pulling in that last would-be touchdown. He was a stand-up guy to talk about it. Truth be told, if he doesn’t pull a sure interception away from linebacker Zach Vigil early in the drive, he wouldn’t have even had a chance to get the TD.

— Bruce Arians was right. One touchdown would’ve been enough. I think of two specific times: After the long onsides kick to open the second half – the fans, who booed the Redskins off and on all day even though they led the whole game, were ready to turn if the Cards could’ve put it in the end zone – and then, of course, right before the half. Two straight plays to D.J. Foster were open for TDs. Foster didn’t look soon enough for the first one – off his helmet incomplete, and it’s possible he and Gabbert didn’t see the same hot read – and the second one was batted away with Foster by himself in the end zone. Epic levels of frustration there.

— If Brittan Golden was going to end up with a fractured arm on his last excellent punt return of 15 yards to set up a short field, it would’ve been nice to reward him with a win. Golden is one of those guys you root for, busting his butt to have whatever role he can fill.

— Chandler Jones sack counter: He got one Sunday, giving him 15 on the season, putting him third on the franchise single-season list and putting him 1½ shy of Simeon Rice’s franchise record with two games left. Jones also pressured Washington QB Kirk Cousins a ton of other times.

— You know D.J. Swearinger wanted this one. And he made sure to let the Cardinals sideline – and coach Bruce Arians – know it on one of the last plays of the game, an incompletion to Fitz on third down, the play before Gabbert’s final throw.

— Speaking of that final throw and Swearinger, there was a moment where Swearinger’s emotion almost cost the Redskins dearly. After the ball came loose from Fitz – on fourth down – Swearinger ripped his helmet off in celebration. The problem? You can’t take your helmet off on the field. If it had been third down, the Cards would have had an automatic penalty. But because it was fourth down and it came after the incompletion, it ultimately didn’t hurt Washington.

— Phil Dawson seems to be well past his accuracy problems, right?

— Speaking of special teams, Andy Lee has had a tremendous second half of the season. He’s punting like he did when he was dominating as a 49er all those years (and making life miserable for the Cardinals).

— If you would’ve told me the Cardinals would outrush Washington, 141-31, I would’ve expected a win going away. The defense did enough to win.


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Jones, Baker top positions in NFC Pro Bowl voting

Posted by Darren Urban on December 16, 2017 – 1:46 pm

Fan voting — which accounts for a third of the Pro Bowl vote — ended this week, and the Cardinals had a pair of players that ended up with the most votes at their position in the NFC. Both Chandler Jones at outside linebacker and Budda Baker on special teams got more votes than anyone else in the conference, which usually is a pretty good harbinger of Pro Bowl status.

We will see — the coaches get another third of the vote and the players the final third, so there is a still a chance for it to go drastically different, especially on special teams when only one player per conference is chosen. In all, the Cardinals had five players to finish in the top 10 at their position in the fans’ Pro Bowl vote. The Cards’ complete list:

— OLB Chandler Jones (fourth in voting in the NFL, first in the NFC)
— ST Budda Baker (1,1)
— WR Larry Fitzgerald (5,3)
— CB Patrick Peterson (7,4)
— FS Tyrann Mathieu (7,4)

The Pro Bowl rosters will be announced Tuesday at 6 p.m. Arizona time. The game will be played Jan. 28.


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Tillman and the NFC East, Friday before Washington

Posted by Darren Urban on December 15, 2017 – 4:01 pm

Washington used to be a division trip. The first two seasons I covered the Cardinals, there were home-and-home with the NFC East, before realignment. The last time the Cards went there as an NFC East team was in fact Pat Tillman’s last game in the NFL. It was played in a freezing rain, and the Cardinals came up short, 20-17 on the scoreboard and therefore in their quest to finish .500 – a rare achievement in those days. That was the 2001 season, the last game of the year and only the last game of the year because, as the Cards’ first game of the year, it was bumped because of the cancellations due to the 9/11 tragedy. Tillman talked to us in the locker room after, clad in only a towel, lips blue and teeth chattering, angry at the result.

I also remember the trip to Washington in 2008, because it was the front-end of a week-long trip away, in which the Cards stayed in Virginia to bridge games against the Redskins then the Jets. That was a memorable week despite back-to-back losses. Anquan Boldin famously broke his jaw against the Jets. And before that, with a 2-1 record after a loss to the Redskins, I went to dinner with three co-workers and we talked about what it would be like if the Cardinals won a Super Bowl. None of us really believed it could happen, and then, a few months later, that’s exactly where the Cardinals were.

I’m not sure this trip to Washington is going to hold the same memories, although, like the one in the 2001 season, getting to .500 (or above, if the Cards win out) is a goal. When the season started this game looked important for both teams when it came to potential playoff positioning. Now, the Cards have to win to keep breathing, and Washington is already done.

— So Adrian Peterson is done for the year, something that has certainly been trending that direction for a bit. Kerwynn Williams has entrenched himself as the starter so the Cards have already handled the idea they won’t have AD. The question now is whether Peterson – who is under contract for next season, for $3.5 million – returns. Bruce Arians said Friday he can see Peterson on the roster. But there are other factors. David Johnson will be back. Not only do you have to find a way for Johnson and Peterson to co-exist, but Peterson would have to be OK with a reserve role. The Cards will also have to be OK paying a chunk of money to a reserve back.

The roster can go so many different directions this offseason. Peterson’s role is just another detail to sort out.

— No one is getting into the muck of the postseason, really, but know this in terms of the Cardinals and being officially eliminated from the playoffs – it can happen one of three ways:

— A Cardinals loss
— A Seattle win
— A win by both Atlanta and Carolina.

Just sayin’.

— Washington coach Jay Gruden praises the toughness of new safety and former Cardinal D.J. Swearinger this season, after Swearinger arrived as a free agent. Swearinger was even named a captain, and he used that to its fullest this week, calling out his team for going through the motions at practice. We’ll see how they respond. One thing is for sure, and that’s Swearinger is geared up to play the Cardinals.

He said the Cards made him an offer last year but pulled it just before free agency started (which more or less makes sense; I’m sure the idea was that they wanted Swearinger but if they didn’t get him at their price, they were going to go in a different direction.)

As for Sunday, “It’s definitely extra juice,” Swearinger told the Roanoke County-Times. “I’m going to be on the edge. I can’t wait to play.”

— Everyone will be watching rookie left tackle Will Holden Sunday. He may just be the key to the game. If he holds up, I think the Cards should be fine. Arians said newcomer Kahlif Barnes will be active, but I’m sure they’d rather not have it come down to him playing on only a couple days of practice.

— As I write this, the forecast for Sunday is 49 degrees and only a 10 percent chance of precipitation. Perfect football weather.

— A victory by the Cardinals would give Arians his 49th win as head coach, including playoffs. That would tie him with Ken Whisenhunt for most wins in franchise history with postseason included. Arians already has the most regular-season wins as a head coach, with 47.

On to D.C.


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Fitzgerald makes MVP case for Antonio Brown

Posted by Darren Urban on December 14, 2017 – 4:24 pm

The MVP race is an interesting one this season in the NFL. The season-ending injury to Eagles QB Carson Wentz — considered by many a front-runner for the award — threw a wrench into the discussion last week, as did subpar games from two other quarterbacks in contention: Tom Brady and Russell Wilson. One name popping up of late is Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, who has been dominant for a Pittsburgh team at the top of the AFC. Brown has 99 catches for 1,509 yards and nine touchdowns already, with six games of at least 144 yards. If Brown were a running back, his MVP potential would be unchallenged.

But a wide receiver has never won the award. Voted on through the Associated Press, the award almost always goes to a quarterback or running back. The only two players ever to win it that were not a quarterback or running back were Redskins kicker Mark Moseley in the strike-ridden 1982 season and Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page in 1971.

Fellow wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said Brown is a good choice to change that.

“I definitely believe so,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think there is anybody who is as dominant as he is in the game right now. He’s playing at an extremely high level. He single-handedly has won or put his team in position to win three or four games this year. What he does in terms of creating mismatches for his teammates, you can’t value that enough. When he is getting double-teamed, someone else is getting singled. Guys are taking advantage. Ju-Ju (Smith-Schuster) is having a big year, and I’m not saying he’s not a great player, but when you have an Antonio Brown, you know where the focus is going to be.

“(Brown) has been dominant when he’s had his opportunities. Nobody has been more dominant.”


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Again, Larry Fitzgerald with the tackling

Posted by Darren Urban on December 13, 2017 – 10:14 am

First, the background. Everyone knows Larry Fitzgerald likes to tackle. Not necessarily in games, mind you — no one wants a turnover — but off to the side, when guys aren’t suspecting. I’ve written (and ranked) about it before. After the Cardinals beat the Titans last Sunday, Fitzgerald was in a particularly frisky mood apparently. Maybe it was the victory. Maybe it was the fact Fitz now was third all-time in both receiving yards and catches in NFL history. Maybe it was because he rarely plays against Eric Decker, fellow Minnesota native and University of Minnesota product. Maybe it was his way to celebrate Peters’ recent contract extension.

But there was Fitz, postgame, taking down Decker and Peters. As always, around Fitz, you better have your head on a swivel.


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Keim: No IR-return candidates and Gabbert desire

Posted by Darren Urban on December 11, 2017 – 8:15 am

Long snapper Aaron Brewer should be ready to return to the active roster this week, coming off of injured reserve. But, as the Cardinals have been saying for a while. GM Steve Keim emphasized Monday: That other available IR-to-return spot very well could go unused.

“You have to have someone healthy enough to return,” Keim said during an appearance on the “Doug and Wolf” show on Arizona Sports 98.7. “At this point, I don’t see any guys coming back for sure.”

But what about David Johnson? Is keeping the star running back, coming back from a bad wrist, more about saving him for 2018? Keim said no.

“He gets paid to play football,” Keim said, adding that if Johnson was healthy and was cleared by the doctors, he should return to the field. “But if there are any gray areas, I don’t know why you’d want to risk it.”

Johnson has been working on conditioning, but hasn’t returned to practice — obviously, since the clock would start in that case.

— There were a couple of free-agents-to-be Keim talked about. One was quarterback Blaine Gabbert. “I don’t think there is any question we would like to have Blaine back,” Keim said, although he did not say in what capacity. Keim said it was up to Gabbert how much the QB can improve, although I don’t think there is any question the Cardinals will continue to search for a long-term answer at the position.

Keim also praised 34-year-old CB Tramon Williams, also a potential FA. He was asked if Williams was someone the Cards wanted to bring back. Keim went big-picture with his answer, not talking necessarily about Williams directly but saying that’s part of the daily process right now, talking with players about potential extensions and is something the Cards will be involved in this week. (I think it makes sense to consider bringing back Williams, although the age will be a factor in talks.)

Keim called Williams a “true pro,” noting that while he might have lost a step over the years, his anticipation and instincts are “phenomenal.”

— As for Gabbert, Keim praised the QB’s ability to bounce back after something has gone wrong. He did note Gabbert’s throws tend to get a little high when he has to go through his progressions or if he is throwing outside the numbers.

— Keim also said there was plenty of blame for the eight sacks, naming not only the offensive line but blitz pick-up by the running backs, Gabbert’s failure to get rid of the ball a time or two and even the receivers’ inability to get open sometimes.

— A general note on accuracy: Keim said it is something that can be improved a little bit, but mostly it’s innate — “You have it or you don’t” he said. (P.S. I agree with this. Accuracy can’t be learned, IMO.)

— There was praise for linebacker Josh Bynes “He’s very very consistent, savvy and physical,” Keim said. “To come in late in process like that, I’m extremely proud of the way he’s played.” There was also praise for defensive linemen Olsen Pierre, Frostee Rucker and of course Chandler Jones. “He’s been a dominant force all year,” Keim said

— Finally, there was a word on Larry Fitzgerald becoming third all-time in receiving yards in the NFL. “For me, it’s just been an honor to work with him,” Keim said. “Knowing he will retire as a Cardinal gives me a special feeling.” (P.S. II We don’t know when Fitz is retiring yet.)


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Friday before the Titans

Posted by Darren Urban on December 8, 2017 – 3:49 pm

Patrick Peterson is the Cardinals’ Man of the Year for a second time, but his time as a punt returner, well, “that stage of my career is over,” he said. Not necessarily because he thinks he can’t do it anymore, but it’s not like the Cardinals are going to put him back there that much. He’s too valuable as a cornerback.

Now, if you asked to go play offense? “That chapter is not over,” Peterson said with a grin. “I’m going to leave that open, and I have a couple of blank pages for coach.”

Peterson said he wishes he could play offense. “I’m an offensive guy at heart,” he said. He wouldn’t even mind quarterback, although that’s not going to happen.

Catching a pass or two would be interesting. The Cardinals will be down John Brown Sunday against the Titans, and J.J. Nelson is nursing a sore knee. Chad Williams should get a little more work.

“(Patrick) used to be in the book, when we didn’t have any speed,” coach Bruce Arians said. “He may be back in there soon.”

*Editor’s Note: Peterson isn’t playing offense this weekend. Or this year, I’m guessing.*

— The other Peterson isn’t playing Sunday, but that isn’t a surprise any longer. Adrian Peterson still hasn’t practiced since suffering the neck injury and his road to return is vague, to say the least. Arians has no answers and Peterson has not yet spoken to the media since getting hurt. More chances for Kerwynn Williams.

— On the good side, having left tackle Jared Veldheer is crucial, especially when weighed against the fact the Titans are without pass rusher Derrick Morgan.

— Quietly, money linebacker Deone Bucannon returned to full practice this week from his ankle injury. Arians already said Josh Bynes – who is playing very well – will get snaps. It’ll be interesting to see how playing time is parceled out to Bucannon, Bynes and Karlos Dansby.

— Don’t forget that the Aeneas Williams episode of “A Football Life” is tonight.

— Also, there is a toy drive Sunday at the stadium, if you would like to contribute. Monetary donations or new, unwrapped toys will be accepted at the gates.

— Marcus Mariota is not Russell Wilson, not even close. Maybe someday, but not today. Still, there are some similarities in terms of mobility in the pocket. The one thing Mariota has (surprisingly) not done well this season (that Wilson absolutely does) is throw on the run. The Cardinals don’t want Mariota escaping for long runs, but if they can get him to move and still try to throw, maybe that is something they can exploit.

— Former Cardinals head coach Dave McGinnis is spending this season as the color analyst for the Titans’ radio network. Mac was a great personality to cover back in the day, and that final locker room speech he made after the famous McCown-to-Poole touchdown – knowing he’d be fired as coach – is as emotional as they get.

— The Titans visit University of Phoenix Stadium Sunday and that will complete the league – Tennessee is the only team not yet to have played in the Cardinals’ “new” stadium, which is in its 12th season. The Cardinals would prefer to be lousy houseguests – Arians is 6-1 against the AFC South since coming to Arizona.

— Larry Fitzgerald needs 26 yards to pass Randy Moss. I’m gonna guess he has that in the first quarter. No, I’m not putting any money on it.

See you Sunday.

 


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Five Cards hold steady in Pro Bowl voting

Posted by Darren Urban on December 7, 2017 – 9:40 am

With a week left in the Pro Bowl voting, the Cardinals still have five players among the top 10 at their positions, and are still led by rookie Budda Baker’s second-place overall among special teams players (and Baker is also second among NFC vote-getters, with Philly’s Kamu Grugier-Hill atop the standings.) What is a little surprising is that Patrick Peterson is eighth among cornerbacks and only fifth among NFC cornerbacks. Peterson certainly is deserving of Pro Bowl recognition this season.

Besides Peterson and Baker, the other Cardinals in the hunt are:

— WR Larry Fitzgerald (fifth overall, third in NFC)
— FS Tyrann Mathieu (eighth overall, fourth in NFC)
— OLB Chandler Jones (fourth overall, first in NFC)

The fan vote is only part of the equation for Pro Bowl selections, of course. The vote of both the players and the coaches is heavily weighted, but it sure seems like the Cards will be in line for a handful of selections. Voting goes through Dec. 14 and you can vote by clicking here.

 


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Rams aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on December 3, 2017 – 7:54 pm

The past few years, when the Cardinals had been good and the Rams not so much, the Cardinals would go on the road and beat the Rams. Period. And now, the script has been flipped. The Cardinals are not as good as they once were, and the Rams most certainly are good, and that’s how you end up with results like Sunday. The Cardinals were better than London. It wasn’t 33-0, even though it started like it might have been. But 16 points – which is what the Cards finished with – isn’t enough to win most games and it definitely isn’t enough to beat a Rams team that even on a day where they weren’t completely clicking offensively, they still put up 32.

Blaine Gabbert will remain the starting quarterback, Bruce Arians said, and that, as last week, makes sense. It was a terrible start to the game for Gabbert Sunday, with two early picks. Gabbert said he needs to look at the film on the first throw, and on the second, he said the Rams went against what they had always shown on film in that formation – usually LB Alec Ogletree rushed and didn’t drop – and so Gabbert didn’t expect him there.

Gabbert settled down, and you can see the difference a running game makes. True for any QB, I suppose. There is a lot to take it. Gabbert now has thrown five interceptions in three games. The Cardinals will have to continue to evaluate where he might be as a QB candidate for 2018.

That’s what a lot of this must be. Arians talked about the young players Sunday, making plays and, understandably, making some mistakes. Evaluations are ongoing for everyone with four games left.

— There is no way to say how impressive it was to see Kerwynn Williams play the way he did, knowing his has broken ribs. I loved his response when he was asked if he was experiencing pain during the game: “I feel like everybody is in pain,” Williams said, and it just felt like the opening lyric of a very personal song rather than a postgame quote. It would’ve been nice to get him to 100 yards, given that he had 86 at halftime. All that guy does is produce whenever he is thrust into the lineup.

— With a decent day next week, Larry Fitzgerald is going to surpass Randy Moss for third-place all-time in NFL receiving yards. He needs 26 yards to do so.

— Back and forth with the Cardinals linebackers on picks. Karlos Dansby dropped one he should’ve had, and it cost the Cards at least three points, since the Rams went on to kick a field goal. “We didn’t make the plays that we needed to make, me included,” Dansby said. “I’ve got to make that play. That changed the whole dynamic of the game.”

Then there was the athletic pick by linebacker Kareem Martin, which short-circuited a Rams drive (although Gabbert threw a pick-six a couple of plays later.) “We work on screen drills a lot,” Martin said. “I pretty much just pressed off him to attempt to go pursue. By the time I was about to turn around, I see the ball.”

— There was some wondering how the Rams could go through the long snapper Justin Drescher for the blocked field goal. The rules don’t say you cannot hit the long snapper. You cannot line up over him when the snap happens. As long as you do not, and then go against him after the ball is snapped, contact with the long snapper is legal.

— For the most part, I thought the Cards did a good job on Todd Gurley when Gurley ran the football. The problem was, and this is what defenses must deal with against David Johnson, is that Gurley was so dangerous catching the ball. He had 84 yards receiving (compared to 74 rushing).

— Arians noted the young players. Ricky Seals-Jones dropped one, but he had a couple of nice catches and would’ve had a TD on a good throw from Gabbert on one play. Budda Baker continues to be all over the field, getting eight more tackles defensively (and maybe should’ve had a fumble recovery on the opening kickoff, if there had been Sunday Night Football-type cameras.)


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Budda now second in Pro Bowl voting

Posted by Darren Urban on November 30, 2017 – 9:25 am

Budda is now second.

A week after the rookie surprisingly led all NFL players in votes for the Pro Bowl special teams spot, Budda Baker dropped to second behind Philadelphia’s Kamu Grugier-Hill. You have to wonder if Grugier-Hill’s emergency turn as kicker — quite a sight on national TV for a 6-foot-2, 220-pound linebacker who looks even bigger — made an impact. Still Baker is in good shape, even if he shrugs off the current standings.

“It feels good but I don’t really pay attention to any of it,” Baker said. “I didn’t really even know about that. Chandler (Jones) told me about it. It’s cool, but it’s still early.”

A quick rundown on the rest of the Cardinals currently among the top 10 vote-getters at their position in the NFL:

— WR Larry Fitzgerald (fifth overall, third in NFC)
— OLB Chandler Jones (fifth overall, first in NFC)
— CB Patrick Peterson (eighth overall, fifth in NFC)
— FS Tyrann Mathieu (ninth overall, fifth in NFC)

Again, the voting goes through Dec. 14. Click here for a ballot.


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