The Cardinals got 11.5 sacks out of starting linebacker John Abraham and excellent edge-setting run defense from fellow starting linebacker Matt Shaughnessy last season. With both coming back in 2014, it’s hard to believe those won’t be your starters at the position. It’s also hard to believe neither were starters when 2013 opened — instead, it was Sam Acho starting over Shaughnessy, and Lorenzo Alexander instead of Abraham.
That changed early in the season, when both Acho (broken leg) and Alexander (foot) suffered season-ending injuries Week 3 in New Orleans. Oh, and that was the same day rookie outside linebacker Alex Okafor (biceps) also was lost for the season. It opened the door for Abraham — who hadn’t been thrilled with his playing time — and Shaughnessy to play a lot and ultimately play well. But it also leaves in question the roles of Acho and Alexander going forward, as well as the spot for Okafor.
It would be an upset if the Cardinals do not take a pass rusher/outside linebacker in the draft. As well as Abraham played last season, he is 35 and in the last year of his deal and the team needs to find a longer-term solution as a dynamic pass rusher. Acho and Alexander have their strengths, but neither figure to fit that bill. Okafor (who said late last week he has been officially cleared to work post-rehab) still could become that guy, although missing his rookie year set him back in his development. Acho did have seven sacks as a rookie in 2011 but only four in 2012. Alexander, meanwhile, might not end up outside. Coach Bruce Arians has talked about Alexander’s ability to move inside and right now, the Cards could use the depth there after cutting Jasper Brinkley and losing Karlos Dansby to free agency.
Like cornerback, outside linebacker (and more specifically, pass rusher) is a position at which a team will constantly throw numbers. You always need multiples, and you can never have too many. Where Acho, Alexander and Okafor fit in Year 2 of the Arians/Steve Keim era will be something to watch. The landscape is definitely different from the last time they stepped on the field.
Tags: Alex Okafor, Bruce Arians, John Abraham, Lorenzo Alexander, Matt Shaughnessy, Sam Acho
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Next week, the decision-makers for the Cardinals and the rest of the NFL will head to Indianapolis for the annual Scouting combine. Already teams, including the Cards, have been meeting and ranking their rosters and figuring out what direction they will need to go in. Free agency, which begins March 11 officially (although teams came start to talk to guys from other teams a couple of days before that), will impact what happens in the draft and the rest of the offseason.
But before all that, and before the Cardinals re-sign any more of their own players, here are — in my opinion — the positions that need to be addressed the most over the next few months:
1) Offensive line: It doesn’t hurt that this encompasses multiple positions. Ultimately, it is left tackle that the Cardinals likely need to go after the most. I have no doubt Bradley Sowell can be depth at the position, but clearly the Cards would like to upgrade there. Easier said than done, of course, and we’ll see if it comes in free agency or the draft.
2) Defensive line: You’re not going to win in the NFC West unless both lines of scrimmage are fortified. As it stands now, the defensive line seems to be OK, with Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett and Dan Williams. But Alameda Ta’amu was an important co-nose tackle with Williams, and he is coming off ACL surgery. Dockett’s age and contract will likely call into question his future after 2014. And with Frostee Rucker a free agent, the Cardinals need depth there, especially after using rotations during the season.
3) Linebacker: This is in part a continuation of the defensive line issue, because whether you consider a pass rusher a linebacker or a defensive end in nickel situations, the Cards still need pass rushers. John Abraham was a godsend in 2013 but he is not getting younger, even if he has another double-digit sack year in his arsenal. Alex Okafor is an unknown quantity at outside linebacker after his lost rookie season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Matt Shaughnessy get away as a free agent. It’s hard to tell, since both missed most of the season, how well Lorenzo Alexander and Sam Acho fit in the defense as well. That doesn’t even include the inside, where Karlos Dansby could still leave.
4) Tight end: This position probably should be higher on the list, considering all the free agents the Cardinals have. Then again, maybe I’m just used to the Cards just getting along the best they can at tight end to make sure other spots are taken care of first. But Bruce Arians likes to use the tight end in multiple ways and use multiple tight ends. The Cards need bodies, and that’s even if Jim Dray returns. Rob Housler had flashes again last season but this is likely a make-or-break season for him to stay healthy and be consistent.
5) Safety: Even if Yeremiah Bell returns he is older. Tyrann Mathieu is coming off major knee surgery. The depth is thin, and the Cardinals, as you might have heard, had some issues covering tight ends last season. As good as Richard Sherman is, a big reason why the Seahawks secondary is so good is because Earl Thomas is backstopping Sherman and all those corners. Getting a safety like that wouldn’t be too bad.
Bonus) Quarterback: There’s no reason to list QB in the top five because the Cardinals are fine going into next season playing with Carson Palmer. There’s no argument there, really. But reality says the future QB has to be acquired sooner rather than later. This is a draft-only kind of scenario. I don’t see the Cards seeking another trade or anything. But at some point, GM Steve Keim is going to come across a quarterback he likes very much when the Cards are on the clock. And he needs to pull that trigger for down the road.
Tags: Alameda Ta'amu, Bradley Sowell, Calais Campbell, Dan Williams, Darnell Dockett, draft, free agency, Frostee Rucker, John Abraham, Karlos Dansby, Lorenzo Alexander, Matt Shaughnessy, offensive line, Rob Housler, Sam Acho, Tyrann Mathieu, Yeremiah Bell
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Bruce Arians said “it’s not good” in his post-game press conference in regard to injury problems. That’s never a good sign. The coach will talk in a couple of hours for his Monday press conference, but it sounds like the Cardinals will have to prepare for some change.
“I’m pretty sure we’re going to lose a couple guys, probably for the season,” Arians said on his post-game radio interview.
(UPDATE: Both Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander will be placed on season-ending IR. Johnson is day-to-day. More in a story later on azcardinals.com)
I wouldn’t think, amazingly, that would include safety Rashad Johnson. The news came out this morning that Johnson’s finger injury was a nasty one, having lost the tip of his left middle finger at some point in the first half. The tip of his finger was in his glove when they took it off. Johnson had surgery to fix it. We’ll have to see what the timetable might be for Johnson now. The one thing the Cardinals have is some defensive back depth. Javier Arenas played a little safety yesterday, and Tyrann Mathieu would be the starter in Johnson’s place. Meanwhile, I guess we’ll just start calling him Rashad Lott (although contrary to the myth suddenly building on the internet, Johnson came out after the injury. He played just 21 snaps. He did not play the whole game.)
@PaulPabst lost top portion of it. Had exposed bone and skin shaved down yesterday and stitched up. Prob most painful injury I’ve had.
— Rashad Johnson (@49foyamind49) September 23, 2013
The same can’t be said about linebacker, especially since Daryl Washington has one more game left on his suspension. We wait for the news on starting outside linebackers Lorenzo Alexander (foot) and Sam Acho (ankle), but I’ve found that in my experience, coaches usually don’t toss around the idea a player could be gone for the season unless it’s likely. Losing Alexander, who is also a key piece of special teams, would cause problems in a couple of spots. The outside linebackers available now are John Abraham (44 snaps out of 75 Sunday), Matt Shaughnessy (63 of 75) and rookie Alex Okafor (five). Okafor played his first NFL game yesterday.
Tags: Alex Okafor, Bruce Arians, John Abraham, Lorenzo Alexander, Matt Shaughnessy, Rashad Johnson, Sam Acho
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In the end, Sunday felt a little like the last time the Cardinals went to New Orleans, when Tim Hightower ripped off a 70-yard touchdown run on the opening possession and you were thinking, “OK, now, this will be interesting” and it really wasn’t. The Cards were more deliberate on their first drive this time around but the result was the same, and you were thinking, “OK now …” only the offense kept sputtering. There were too many trips without points to not have it end up adversely affecting the team.
A lot of those out there jumped on the defense, but sorry, I can’t see it. Did the unit finish? No. was there still too much poor tackling, leading to bad situations? Yes. But the defense was doing its job much of the game. Jimmy Graham proved too much – I wonder if the injuries (more below) might have impacted that – but the Cards weren’t giving up anything on the ground and had mostly stumped a pretty good offense. Eventually, though, the Cards’ own offense couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
Now it’s on to Florida for the week. “We need to make sure it’s (good to be away),” QB Carson Palmer said. “We need to make sure this is a crisp week. We have a chance to get back to 2-2, a chance to play against Carolina at home, a chance to get a win against a team that is struggling a little bit.
“The veterans need to make sure this is work week. We are there to work.”
– Bruce Arians was not specific about the injuries suffered by the Cardinals during the game, but he sounded grim when he said “it’s not good.” Given that three defensive starters left the game in linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (foot), safety Rashad Johnson (finger) and linebacker Sam Acho (ankle), that wouldn’t bode well. Acho tweeted out a picture of himself in a boot saying “God has a plan.” Those aren’t usually the words spoken – even for someone devoted to his faith like Acho – by a guy who might miss a week. We’ll see.
– Palmer was pressured, too much according to Arians (although the Saints have a better pass rush than I gave them credit for.) He didn’t look sharp regardless. The first interception was just a bad throw to tight end Rob Housler, Palmer admitted.
– Alfonso Smith got off to a great start, gaining 27 yards on three carries on the first drive, including a touchdown. He didn’t get another carry and played sparingly if at all on offense the rest of the way. Andre Ellington got a ton of work again behind Rashard Mendenhall.
– In the grand scheme, it didn’t mean much but the Cards, after scoring the opening TD, allowed the Saints to get one on their own first possession. “You score a touchdown you don’t like it answered with a touchdown,” Arians said.
– Larry Fitzgerald looked OK dealing with his hamstring. Led the team in catches and yards (5-64). The week of little practice seemed to make a difference.
– Who were the two guys most brought up during the week by the Cards as the ones to watch for? Graham and Darren Sproles. Who were the catalysts for the Saints? Graham and Sproles.
– Can’t discount Drew Brees and his ability to move in the pocket. He was sacked four times but he seemed to somehow escape about four others, turning them into gains either by running or passing. Those are always gut-punchers for the defense.
– A lot of this, of course, seems pretty trivial given the horrible news about Dan Williams. Arians said the team is keeping their collective thoughts and prayers with Williams. That’s all it can really do.
That’s it from Florida. We’ll have all the coverage out here for the week as the Cards will try to bounce back against the Bucs.
Tags: Alfonso Smith, Andre Ellington, Carson Palmer, Dan Williams, Jimmy Graham, Larry Fitzgerald, Lorenzo Alexander, Rashad Johnson, Saints, Sam Acho
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The depth chart, as I mentioned yesterday, can only be believed to a certain point. Things often change and are more flexible than what’s listed in one certain package (especially on the defensive side.) That’s one thing to remember when John Abraham pops up as “third string” behind Lorenzo Alexander and Matt Shaughnessy. I remember running into Bruce Arians at one point during the owners meetings in March at the Biltmore, and even then — long before Abraham, for instance — saying that he considered many more than just 22 guys “starters.” If you were in a certain package as first unit, you were a starter. Since Abraham will be on the field for nickel to rush the passer, he too is a “starter” in Arians’ eyes.
Abraham played just 27 plays the entire preseason. The Cards knew what they had in him (especially when, in just five plays in the opener, Abraham came up with a strip-sack in Green Bay.) The Cards are counting on him getting double-digit sacks this season — as he is himself — and that’s been an elusive thing for the Cards’ defense the last few years. The last time that happened was 2004, when Bertrand Berry had 14.5.
Pressure on the quarterback is always where the defense starts. The Cardinals will need Abraham. They will need the defensive linemen, especially Darnell Dockett, to up the havoc level. Calais Campbell has to be seen as a given. And elsewhere, whether it is Sam Acho or Lorenzo Alexander or Matt Shaughnessy, there has to be more. It will start with Abraham, though. That’s why he’s here.
– One more number change in addition to the ones we saw yesterday. Safety Rashad Johnson is switching from 49 to 26.
Tags: Bertrand Berry, Bruce Arians, Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, John Abraham, Lorenzo Alexander, Matt Shaughnessy, Rashad Johnson, Sam Acho
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