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Keim on the future of the Cards’ receivers

Posted by Darren Urban on December 26, 2016 – 8:22 am

One of the big things Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim is going to have to deal with this offseason is the receivers room. It could be in major flux. Michael Floyd is already gone, Larry Fitzgerald could retire, and Smoke Brown is still trying to fully handle his sickle-cell issues. Monday, during his appearance on the “Doug and Wolf” show on Arizona Sports 98.7, Keim spoke on many of those players.

When it comes it Fitz, “he still loves the game and still plays at a high level,” Keim said. “There’s no doubt in my mind he should play next year.” Of course, Keim added, that will be up to Fitz. J.J. Nelson was fantastic in Seattle with 132 yards on three catches, including two giant plays that boosted the win. As far as him as a potential No. 2 receiver, “I’m not sure what his ceiling is, I just know he is a big-play guy.” He did say he thinks receivers coach Darryl Drake has helped Nelson become more physical. (But I’d agree, I think Nelson is developing into a nice and needed piece in the offense, but I don’t see him as a potential big-volume guy week-to-week.)

As for Brown, Keim acknowledged it is “always a concern when you can’t put a finger on exactly what is happening” when it comes to Brown’s health. But he said Brown will see specialists as soon as the offseason ends so that he and the Cardinals can find the proper way for both Brown to be healthy and for him to find again what was making him special on the field. “He’s a guy we are counting on,” Keim added.

— Keim has been very impressed — other than his foolish taunting penalty — with tight end Jermaine Gresham. The Cardinals have needed some emotional fire on offense, and Gresham definitely helps with that. “His physicality, mindset and passion for the game is something that has really excited me this year,” Keim said, noting Gresham’s effort in blocking more than anything. It’ll be interesting to see what Gresham does as a free agent, after signing here for little last season when he could’ve gotten a lot more money elsewhere. (And he needs to avoid the terrible penalties because of his emotions too.)

— Not surprisingly, he had praise for the offensive line, given the circumstances. “If you told me in August we’d beat Seattle in Seattle with John Wetzel and Earl Watford at tackle and Evan Boehm at guard, it’d certainly make me wonder,” Keim said. “For the most part those guys did the job.”

Carson Palmer was under pressure more than once but he was sacked only once and physically, the offensive line stayed toe-to-toe with a much-more celebrated opponent.

— There were a couple of throws he thought Palmer would’ve wanted back, but other than that, Palmer was sharp, Keim said. “He’s a competitor and true pro,” Keim said. “He’s been very, very good the last several weeks.”

— Another young player who held up was cornerback-turned-safety Harlan Miller, who played every snap at free safety when Tony Jefferson got hurt on the punt team before he even played a defensive play. Miller, by the way, hadn’t played safety before. “It was interesting,” Keim said. “On Friday, when B.A. came into my office and I let him know we were going to put Tyrann on IR, he told me that if Tony or D.J. Swearinger went down, we’d be in trouble just from a depth standpoint. Sure enough, first play of the game, Tony Jefferson is out.

“Harlan trots on to the field, and to his credit, the guy has never played safety before, coach Nick Rapone and James Bettcher put him in a position where he made a few plays and didn’t hurt the team. He’s another young guy who stepped up.”

— Finally, a good day for special teams. “That’s a group that’s been maligned and rightfully so,” Keim said. “But they stepped up to the plate.”


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Ellington takes his shot at punt returns

Posted by Darren Urban on August 23, 2016 – 10:13 am

Andre Ellington is now listed as the top kickoff and punt returner on the depth chart. The kickoff part isn’t that surprising. The punt return part is, since a) Ellington has never really done it and b) it wasn’t really a consideration when camp started. But Ellington, who finally got a chance to return one in a game in San Diego, is going to have the opportunity.

We’ll see how comfortable Ellington can get back there. This possibility has been building since the day Chris Johnson re-signed. When the three top running backs were healthy last season, David Johnson was returning kickoffs and there was a reason to have all three active on game days. Now that David Johnson is going to be the main back, he won’t be returning kickoffs — so to have all three active, someone has to play special teams. That’s not Chris Johnson. So you try and see what Ellington can do as the dual return man. (You don’t really want Patrick Peterson returning punts anymore either.)

Watching him in practice, Ellington looks very much like a work in progress. But Bruce Arians is right — if Ellington does get his hands on a punt, he’s the kind of player that fits such a return perfectly, getting the ball in space on what essentially is an extended stretch running play, in which Ellington can use his burst to blow up the field.

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Cardinals 11th in NFL special teams rankings

Posted by Darren Urban on February 5, 2015 – 3:33 pm

The season for the Cardinals’ special teams had its highs and lows. Rookie kicker Chandler Catanzaro proved to be a find and made the first 17 field goals of his career. Return man Ted Ginn, save for one (very important) punt return for a touchdown, was disappointing in his work. Justin Bethel remained a Pro Bowl specialist. Punter Drew Butler had his struggles (especially in the playoffs) but the Cardinals were still one of the best teams in the league when it comes to blocking field goal attempts.

Overall special teams play isn’t easy to analyze — especially in the return game, when there are questions about how much the return man himself struggled or how much was his blocking. But Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News has long tried to tangibly rate what Ron Wolfley loves to call the “transition game.” And in Gosselin’s 2014 rankings, the Cardinals were actually 11th in the NFL in overall special teams.

Gosselin has 22 categories that he looks at, and the formula from there is simple: The best team in a category gets one point, the worst gets 32 points. Lowest score when those 22 categories are totaled is the best. This year, that was the Eagles, and that makes sense — Philly had Darren Sproles returning kicks, they had a record-setting rookie kicker, a good punter, and blocked six kicks (returning three blocked punts for touchdowns).

What’s most impressive for the Cardinals is their ranking of 11th (and there is a significant dropoff from 11 to 12) is that the Cards and Ginn were last in the NFL in kickoff return average at 19 yards per runback. They were also last in average starting point after kickoffs (the 19-yard line — ouch). But they were best in the league in punts downed inside the 20 (35, so Butler did do some things right).

There will be things different on the Cards’ special teams in 2015. The team is expected to move on from Ginn as a return man. And any roster change from year to year impacts special teams the most, because it’s those new rookies and back-half-of-the-roster players who make up the bulk of special teams work.

Dan Bailey, Justin Bethel


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Hoping for a return in the return game

Posted by Darren Urban on April 16, 2014 – 11:12 am

Everybody remembers Patrick Peterson’s wonderful rookie season returning punts — four touchdowns (and a fifth he should have had if not for a shoetop tackle by the punter in the finale against Seattle). Peterson averaged 15.9 yards a punt return, the Cards averaged 24 yards a kickoff return between LaRod Stephens-Howling and A.J. Jefferson and it was generally an effective use in Ron Wolfley’s beloved “transition game.” Obviously, the last couple of years, it hasn’t been quite the same.

In 2012 Peterson’s average fell to 8.4 yards a return with no scores. A dropoff was probably inevitable, but Peterson looked uncomfortable much of the time. The kick return game dropped to 23.3 yards a return, although finding a happy medium for effective kick returns in this day and age of big kickoffs and mostly touchbacks isn’t an easy equation. Last season, Peterson’s punt returns fell to 6.0. Kickoff returns were a mere 20.0, and former kick returner Javier Arenas often looked so frustrated he rarely could return one that he did so when he shouldn’t, leading to poor field position.

It’ll make for an interesting dynamic this season. Ted Ginn was signed to add speed in the receiving corps, but it’s not hard to make the argument his greatest strength as a player is on kickoff returns (where he averaged 23.8 yards a return last season). He’s also pretty good on punt returns (12.2 yards last year), and that will provide an option if Bruce Arians decides Peterson is better served focusing on being a Pro Bowl cornerback and remove the pressures of being the guy who everyone thinks might score a touchdown every time he fields a punt. Peterson doesn’t want to give up the job, but we’ll see how it turns out in the big picture.

The Cardinals’ offense was doing much better at the end of the season and should be improved given the pieces that have been added. It wouldn’t hurt if the kickoff and punt returns could chip in to the improvement equation.

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Getting mental with the block

Posted by Darren Urban on September 18, 2012 – 10:41 am

Ken Whisenhunt flashed a knowing smile, because he understood. The question was if there was a part of him — even a small part — that can be a little more calm in these days of near-automatic field goal kickers because he has a special teams unit that is arguably the best in the league in coming up with blocks. For instance, Sunday in Foxborough as the Patriots lined up for their potential game-winner.

“It doesn’t make you feel any better,” Whisenhunt said. “Especially (Sunday), with feeling like we had the game in hand and won it and the way it came down, it tears at you to think that they could have won that game with a kick.

“But, in the back of your mind you do know that you have a chance to block it, and that gives you some small comfort. I have no doubt that contributed, I hope, I think, it contributed to the miss, because they at least had to think about that.”

Whiz called the number of blocked kicks the Cards have had the last few years “staggering.” The Cards have 15 total since 2008, with 13 of them blocked field goals. You think about the games in which a block has turned a probable loss into a win — last year against the Rams, for instance, or the opener against the Seahawks (pictured below) — and you realize what an important part of the game it’s become.

The Cardinals, from Whisenhunt on down, believe that even though Stephen Gostkowski had nailed four field goals already Sunday, the potential block loomed in his head on his final wide-left miss. The late important kicks may not get any easier for Whisenhunt, but maybe they aren’t that easy for the opposition either.

“We thought, ‘That last kick, we’ve been here before, we’ve blocked it before. We know it’s possible, let’s do it again,’ ” kick-blocker extraordinaire Calais Campbell said. “Good thing he shanked it. We didn’t have to do anything spectacular.”


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About that field-goal “defense”

Posted by Darren Urban on December 8, 2011 – 10:25 am

In this day and age when kickers make 80 to 85 percent of their field-goal attempts, the chances of kickers missing a lot simply doesn’t happen — especially good kickers on fire, like David Akers and Dan Bailey.

Unless, apparently, they face the Cardinals.

The Cardinals’ ability to block field goals is well documented; their 11 blocks in the last four seasons (2008 through now) leads the NFL and they led the league both 2009 and 2010, as well as leading this year. But Cards’ opponents have missed five other field goals this season that were not blocked. That’s nine misses total — most in the league, although their percentage of 73.5 made against them is fourth in the league (many more attempts against the Cards; league-leading Philadelphia has seen only 12 of 18 field-goal attempts made against them for a 66.7 percent conversion rate).

Why all the misses? There isn’t a person in the Cards’ locker room that doesn’t believe it’s anything besides the knowledge the Cards are so good at blocking kicks. “It’s in the back of their minds,” 6-foot-8 kick blocker Calais Campbell said of opposing kickers. “There’s no question they are aware of it,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “When you know that’s coming, it’s got to affect you.”

The recent games against the 49ers and the Cowboys give the ultimate tangible evidence. Both San Francisco’s David Akers and Dallas’ Dan Bailey were virtually automatic heading into their games against Arizona. Akers had made 23-of-25 attempts on the season; then he got two blocked and missed a third against the Cards. Bailey had made 26 straight before missing two of four against the Cards.

More importantly, there is a sense when a key kick is coming now that it isn’t automatic — even Billy Cundiff’s game-winning boot in Baltimore had a sense of “maybe not” before the snap — which just infuses even more energy in that kick-blocking unit.


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Cards notch a special top 10

Posted by Darren Urban on February 15, 2010 – 1:35 pm

Ranking special-teams units across the league is not an easy task, so when Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News came up with a system to do so, it’s become universally regarded as the best way to sort out such things. And this season, Gosselin’s rankings put the Cards eighth.

“Our specialists had a good year,” Spencer said, noting improvements in punts inside the 20, net and gross punting averages, and field-goal-made percentage. “The return game showed some life.

“It was an excellent effort by our veterans and out young guys.”

Rookie LaRod Stephens-Howling made an impact both in coverage and as a kickoff return man, while Sean Morey was a Pro Bowl alternate this season on special teams. Punter Ben Graham was snubbed for the Pro Bowl himself after tying the NFL record for punts inside the 20. Neil Rackers made an NFL-best 94.7 percent of his field-goal attempts. The Cards also got impactful seasons from guys like Jason Wright and Kenny Iwebema, among others.

“It’s amazing how smart you become when you have good players,” Spencer said.


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