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Now, it’s time for training camp

Posted by Darren Urban on July 24, 2014 – 2:09 pm

Optimism reigns every year when a team’s season begins and at no time does that optimism echo more than the day when training camp begins. That day, with all due respect to QB School is Friday. That’s when the Cardinals move into the hotel next to the stadium, when they take their conditioning test and when they get the speech from coach Bruce Arians about the goals for the season. They are the same goals every season — eventually ending with a title, of course — but they must be repeated all the same.

There will be ups and downs. Some players will have a bad stretch. Somebody will get hurt, and you just hope it isn’t a season-ender. Some new players might now work out. It’s how a team deals with these events that determines the course of the final won-loss record.

I think the Cardinals have a chance to be as good or better than last year. I think their defense might need some adjustments with the losses of the inside linebackers, but I think Todd Bowles can make something work. I think, assuming health, the offense will be better. I don’t think Carson Palmer is going to morph into Peyton or even Kurt Warner, but I think he will benefit by an upgraded offensive line. How this all plays out, ultimately, with a won-loss record depends on a lot of moving parts, not all of which are under the Cardinals’ control. But they have a chance to be good, and over the years, that hasn’t always been the case.

Here’s your link for all the training camp info, by the way, and click here for all the stories and videos of our coverage.


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Debating X, O, Jimmy, Joe

Posted by Darren Urban on April 3, 2014 – 4:01 pm

The cliché has been around awhile, some version of “It’s not about the ‘Xs’ and ‘Os’ but the jimmys and joes.” And no, pizza has nothing to do with the conversation. It’s a simple concept really, one that emphasizes the reality that without players, you can draw up the best plays in the world and you still aren’t going to be successful. It came up in the context of profootballfocus.com releasing their full season stats from the NFL and the best defenses in producing unblocked pressure. The Cardinals were the best in the league midway through the season and held on to the top spot by season’s end with 82 unblocked pressures.

In the stats, the Cardinals were led by two players in particular — linebackers John Abraham and Karlos Dansby. Dansby had 13 total unblocked pressures and Abraham 12, and Dansby produced four sacks in those pressures (Abraham two). So it stands to reason with Dansby leaving for Cleveland, the Cards will be hurt in this regard in turning the role over to Kevin Minter — not as athletic as Karlos — or whomever. You lose a ‘joe,’ maybe the ‘O’ doesn’t hold up, right?

Or maybe not?

First of all, at least in this context of rushing the QB unblocked, scheme would seem to have a ton to do with it. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is doing something to confuse the other team, regardless of the players. Even “lesser” players are supposed to be accounted for every play by the offense. Of those 82 pressures, 23 came through an ‘A’ gap (the spots between the center and either guard). No one is supposed to forget the guy standing near the ball, even if he is a step or two off the line of scrimmage. Sometimes it was an overload on one side situation (35 of 82, according to PFF) and sometimes the offense simply didn’t block a guy even if there was someone there to do so (19 times).

Certainly, a talent like Dansby played into the equation, as did Abraham. You’d have to look at every play individually to really know if the result was a combination of factors, a Dansby “win” or a Bowles’ scheme result. You figure there is a mix. You figure Bowles knows what Minter can and can’t do, and while the Cardinals won’t run the same things exactly for him as Dansby, I’d guess if Minter comes free through the ‘A’ gap he’ll probably find a way to create some havoc. The Cards didn’t have the same ‘jimmys’ in the secondary once Tyrann Mathieu got hurt, but Bowles’ ‘Xs’ were good enough to fluster both the Seahawks and 49ers pretty good the final two weeks of the season.

There is a reason Steve Keim is always looking to upgrade the roster where he can. And you take Patrick Peterson and Daryl Washington off the defense, for instance, and the scheme is not going to look as good. But scheme matters too.

TackleUSE

 


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“Throw gas” on a potentially dominant defense

Posted by Darren Urban on March 28, 2014 – 12:09 pm

The Cardinals’ initial foray into free agency was offense-heavy. Not a big shock, since that side of the ball need the most work. As the draft approaches, however, the focus may just shift. Because even though Bruce Arians is an offensive guy, GM Steve Keim has a belief that the good teams in this salary cap work have a dominant side of the ball. And the Cardinals — with the No. 1 rush defense and the sixth-ranked defense overall — aren’t in that realm on the offensive side of the ball.

“Seattle was a dominant defense with a solid offense,” Keim said. “Denver was a dominant offense with an OK defense. In our situation, we are closer to having a dominant defense. So I think you have to continue to throw gas on the fire. Continue to build the strength.”

That’s why cornerback Antonio Cromartie shot to the top of the to-do list after he was cut by the Jets. The move surprised the Cards — they did not think New York would let him go — but rallied to understand the situation and aggressively court him. It was only a one-year contract, but the team proved last year with linebacker Karlos Dansby that could be a golden type of situation. There are still spots defensively that need shoring up (like the need for a safety or inside linebacker depth), and there is also Keim’s quest to get longer and more athletic with his 3-4 defensive ends and the pass rushers outside. The draft could very well provide those things. But when you start looking at the top end talent on the roster, it is the defense that claims many of the spots, whether it is Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell or Daryl Washington. (Or even, as Ron Wolfley points out, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who fortunately for the Cards did not get a head coaching job.)

The offense isn’t going to be ignored — “We know we have areas we need to fix and it certainly needs to catch up with the defense,” Keim said — but a defensive juggernaut is the first goal. It’s what has put the Seahawks and 49ers into the stratosphere they are in, and why the Cards returned to relevance last season.

DefenseGasBLOG

 


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Pressure wins championships

Posted by Darren Urban on February 3, 2014 – 3:22 pm

The Seahawks’ defense is being lauded today and rightfully so for their throttling of the Broncos’ record-setting offense in the Super Bowl. There are a bunch of breakdowns out there comparing Seattle’s defensive year to those of the best ever, and the Seahawks deserve to be in that conversation with teams like the 2000 Ravens and the 1985 Bears (I’d think some of those Steel Curtain teams should be in the discussion too, but I digress.)

Defense doesn’t necessarily win championships — I saw a stat that said the team with the higher-ranked defense actually has lost six of the last eight Super Bowls — but it certainly doesn’t hurt. But I believe pressure can help win a title, and that’s certainly what the Seahawks did to Peyton Manning and why the Cardinals had defensive success this season.

Profootballfocus.com charted that the Seahawks blitzed Manning on only six of 51 dropbacks in the Super Bowl, yet were in his face all game. That’s the kind of pressure the Giants put on Tom Brady in the last Super Bowl played in Arizona, the one in which New York placed the stunning upset on the previously undefeated Patriots. When you can pressure with four, everything changes.

The Cardinals had a lot of pressure success in part because defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was a genius with mixing up attack plans on the quarterback, and there was a lot of blitzing involved in that. They also benefited when linebacker John Abraham played like the John Abraham who had spent a career getting double-digit sacks every season. That kind of rusher is important. And going forward, it’s one of the reasons General Manager Steve Keim will lean toward not only the offensive but the defensive line in terms of trying to make the most improvement. It’s great to have one of the best cornerbacks in the game in Patrick Peterson, but without pressure, it doesn’t mean much. The same goes for Seattle’s Richard Sherman and the rest of that defensive backfield — they can afford to be aggressive, because they know the pressure will be coming sooner rather than later.

PressureblogUSE


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Keeping the staff together for 2014

Posted by Darren Urban on January 16, 2014 – 9:45 am

There is often change this time of year for any coaching staff and front office. Coming off a 10-6 season, it wouldn’t have been surprising if anyone was poached from 8701 S. Hardy. But it sure looks like — barring something unforeseen — that the band will stay together for another season.

Bruce Arians already said he was hoping his coaching staff would stay intact. There were rumblings Alabama might want quarterbacks coach Freddie Kitchens for their offensive coordinator spot, but it was clear quickly Kitchens didn’t want to leave the NFL and the Tide went with Lane Kiffin. When Ken Whisenhunt was hired to be the Titans’ new head coach, there was a chance he might seek a reunion with Cardinals strength and conditioning coordinator John Lott — but then came the news that the Titans would be retaining their own strength coach, Steve Watterson. (Now, some assistant coaches are sometimes retained in the wake of a head coaching change only to be let go soon after. That happened with the Cards just last season, when the defensive coaches were kept after Whisenhunt was fired, only to have them let go in the wake of the Bruce Arians hire.)

Vice president of player personnel Jason Licht has interviewed for the vacant general manager jobs in both Miami and Tampa Bay, but the Dolphins keep bringing in new candidates and the Bucs apparently are leaning elsewhere.

And of course, the biggest news for the Cardinals is that defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will be sticking around. The Vikings hired Mike Zimmer to be their head coach, meaning Bowles wouldn’t be getting that job, and he had already withdrawn his name from consideration for the Browns’ vacant head coaching job. Having Bowles around for another season to build on a defense that ended up sixth in the NFL (and No. 1) against the run should put the Cardinals in good defensive shape for 2014. Continuity is always a good thing.

BowlesStaysUSE


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Bowles a step closer to staying put

Posted by Darren Urban on January 14, 2014 – 2:20 pm

There are only two head coaching openings left, both of which Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles interviewed for: Cleveland and Minnesota. Bowles has now, according to multiple reports, pulled out from the consideration for the Cleveland job. Mike Zimmer, interviewing a second time in Minnesota, is the favorite for the job there but, as I mentioned earlier today, I didn’t think Bowles was going anywhere anyway. There is a chance Bowles will be a head coach again some day (after his interim stint in Miami) but it’s going to have to be the right fit. I’m not sold Bowles is aching to be a head coach, not when he knows the pitfalls of bad situations. Assuming Bowles stays, that would be great news for a defense that flourished under his watch.

UPDATE: On Wednesday morning, Mike Zimmer was officially hired as Vikings coach. Bowles is going to be in Arizona.

– Numbers guru Brian McIntyre reported today that QB Carson Palmer earned an extra $1 million for his 2014 salary (I’d assume for reaching performance incentives) and now will make $9 million in 2014 with an $11 million cap hit, raising each number by that aforementioned million and shaving another million off the Cardinals’ current cap space.

– Along those same lines, linebacker John Abraham earned an extra $375,000 for 2014, raising his 2014 salary to $2.875M.

– Congrats to Tyrann Mathieu, who was named as a cornerback to the Pro Football Writers of America’s all-rookie team for 2013. And GM Steve Keim was named Executive of the Year by profootballtalk.com.


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Whisenhunt gets second chance

Posted by Darren Urban on January 14, 2014 – 8:02 am

Ken Whisenhunt gets his second chance. The news came down Monday evening that the Titans had hired the Chargers offensive coordinator and former Cardinals head coach to be their new head coach. It was a surprise on a lot of levels, not the least of which that so many reports came out linking Whisenhunt with the Detroit opening and the fact the Lions are the lone team with a (more or less) established quarterback in place. It’s impossible to know if Whiz chose Tennessee over Detroit or if the Lions never really were that interested in Whiz. It doesn’t mean much now.

It will be interesting however to see how Whisenhunt works with QB Jake Locker. Can Whiz develop Locker, who thus far has not shown enough signs of being a long-term answer? Clearly, the inability for Whisenhunt (and to be fair, General Manager Rod Graves) to figure out the post-Kurt Warner QB situation in Arizona killed his tenure here.

What really struck me about the hire when I first heard it was the link between Nashville, the Titans, Whiz and the Cardinals. That too goes back to the QB problems Whiz had in the desert. Back in the preseason of 2010 — that first go-round of football after Warner retired — the Cardinals had Matt Leinart as the starter, Derek Anderson as the backup and back-to-back exhibition games in Tennessee and in Chicago. In between, there was a few days in Nashville, a joint practice versus the Titans and then a final practice at Vanderbilt.

The relationship between Whisenhunt and Leinart was already fraying. In the joint practice, Leinart struggled against the Titans — at the time, Titans defenders started noticing how quickly Leinart went to his checkdown receiver — and the next day at Vandy, Whisenhunt shocked everyone by giving Anderson first-team snaps. Afterward, it became official that Anderson would be starting in Chicago. Leinart was angry. And things devolved from there.

Now Whisenhunt starts it over. Whiz had a very good run in Arizona, getting the franchise to places they had never been. He also made mistakes. It will be interesting to see if Whisenhunt learned from those missteps and apply that with the Titans.

– There is a lot of speculation about Whiz and if he would reach out to try and bring over current Cardinals strength and conditioning coordinator John Lott. It wouldn’t surprise me, but we’ll see how that develops.

– There are still job openings in Detroit, Minnesota and Cleveland, the latter two of which have interviewed Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. But I am guessing Bowles stays put in Arizona.

WhizBlogUSE


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Kitchens report underscores staff could change

Posted by Darren Urban on January 9, 2014 – 9:33 am

The day after the season ended, Bruce Arians was asked if he expected to have his entire coaching staff back in 2014.

“I hope so,” Arians said, before acknowledging the head coaching interviews defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was certain to get and later did.

Will Bowles stay? He talked with the Vikings and Browns, although the latest report is that Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is the leading candidate in Minnesota and the Cleveland search is continuing with, among others, former Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt — who had two interviews in Cleveland last year for the job before Rob Chudzinski was hired. Now comes a report that the University of Alabama, which lost offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to Michigan, could hire Cardinals quarterbacks coach Freddie Kitchens — a one-time Alabama quarterback — as the new OC. Alabama is interviewing former Raiders coach/USC coach Lane Kiffin for the post today.

It’s an interesting time as the coaching carousel spins. You never know — especially with a staff has big as the Cardinals have now — what other opportunities may change the landscape. For instance, if Whisenhunt gets a head coaching job, how many of his former staff would he try to bring in (and, in regard to the current Cardinals, might he try and get strength and conditioning coordinator John Lott?)  Other things could pop up from nowhere, like the Alabama opening and Kitchens’ potential chance there.

I do think Kitchens, who had an impressive comeback season after his near-death experience of the summer, would like to be an offensive coordinator. Whether Alabama will chase him or whether he would be willing to go back to the college game, I’m not sure. But it’s an intriguing situation.

UPDATE: Multiple reports say Kitchens won’t be going anywhere because he wants to stay in the NFL. But again, will Arians’ staff stay completely intact? We’ll see.

FreddieBlogUSE


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Odds, ends and Bowles

Posted by Darren Urban on January 7, 2014 – 10:27 am

So it’s gonna be about 70 degrees today. Sunny. Just sayin’. Seems like everyone else is making comments about the weather, so I thought I’d chime in.

Anyway …

– Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles reportedly met with the Browns for their head coaching job on Friday and was supposed to meet with the Vikings about their opening Monday. Neither team seems close to making a decision on their coach, although Bowles reportedly made an impression with the Vikings. Both Minnesota and Cleveland continue to look at more and more candidates, and that doesn’t include coaches still in the playoffs. Bowles won’t be interviewing in Detroit, where he was a candidate back in 2009. That makes sense, because many reports say the Lions would likely hire Chargers offensive coordinator and ex-Cards boss Ken Whisenhunt for that job once the Chargers are knocked out of the playoffs.

On the all-pro team from profootballfocus.com, Tyrann Mathieu makes first team as a slot cornerback, Justin Bethel first team for special teams. Patrick Peterson is second team at cornerback.

– Cardinals director of football administration (and salary cap guru) Mike Disner was named on Forbes list of top 30 rising stars under age 30 in sports. (The man next on the Forbes slideshow after Disner? Kevin Durant. LeBron and Gronk are among the athletes on the list too.)

– I am not a fan of messing with the playoff format. It caught up with the Cardinals this season yes, it benefited them in the 2008 season. I do not think extra teams should be added to the postseason. That said, it is still often discussed. That doesn’t mean anything is imminent, but things could change at some point.

– In case you missed it — and in case you’d like a smile or two — check out here the year in quotes and quips from coach Bruce Arians.


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Bowles scheduled to interview for two jobs

Posted by Darren Urban on January 2, 2014 – 7:53 pm

So far, Todd Bowles is scheduled to interview for a pair of head coaching jobs: With the Browns Friday and then with the Minnesota Vikings sometime next week. Does that mean Bowles is leaving as Cardinals’ defensive coordinator? Of course not. Last year at this time, DC Ray Horton was set up for three head coaching interviews — Cleveland, Buffalo and Arizona — and as we all know, Horton was still the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator when Bruce Arians decided to let him leave so he could be the DC in Cleveland and Arians could hire Bowles.

We’ll see how this turns out. Bowles fulfills the minority requirement of the Rooney Rule. Not that he isn’t a legitimate candidate, but that’s a possibility too. The Houston job (Bill O’Brien) and Tampa job (Lovie Smith) are now filled, so the only openings left are Detroit, Cleveland, Minnesota and Washington. It’s also hard to get a sense about what candidates are in play since many of the playoff teams will have assistants up for jobs when their seasons end.

(On a side note, so Horton doesn’t get the Cleveland job last year but goes to the Browns to be DC. Now that job is open again and I can’t think Horton would be thrilled if he was kept under contract when Bowles — the man who replaced him — then got the head Browns gig.)

I don’t know exactly what Bruce Arians, who has made clear his hope that Bowles someday becomes a head coach, would do if Bowles left. I’m not sure there is an automatic candidate on the staff already. But that’s a long way off. It still seems likely to me Bowles will be around for another year as defensive coordinator. Certainly, the Cards would like that to happen.


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