Breaking down Mendenhall’s debut

Posted by Darren Urban on August 18, 2013 – 6:32 pm

The Cardinals got Rashard Mendenhall on the field for the first time Saturday and got a little taste of what their starting running back would look like. It turned out OK. Mendenhall gained 32 yards on seven carries, and for a guy who has a reputation for getting better as his carries move along, that 4.6-yard average was encouraging.

A look at Mendenhall’s seven carries (and a couple of other plays in which Mendenhall was meaningful):

FIRST POSSESSION

1st and 10, AZ 20 – With three tight ends in the game for the first offensive play of the day, left guard Jonathan Cooper pulls right and tight end Jim Dray also pulls from the same side. There is no real running room as Mendenhall gets to the right tackle area, and Mendenhall loses a yard.

SECOND POSSESSION

1st and 10, DAL 22 – Two wide receivers, two tight ends. The Cards come off the ball straight ahead. Tight end Rob Housler manages a decent block to pinch a Dallas defender into the line as Mendenhall goes behind the block and hit apparent daylight – except linebacker Sean Lee, diving, gets enough of Mendenhall’s foot and leg to trip him up so he gains just five yards.

THIRD POSSESSION

1st and 15, AZ 6 – One tight end and three wide receivers. After a holding penalty, With Mendenhall the lone guy deep in the backfield (actually in the end zone), he gets a delayed handoff. He’s nearly tackled at the goal line by charging Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Ware but Mendenhall escapes. Unfortunately, it slows him down enough that the Cowboys collapse, and Cooper is unable to hold off defensive end George Selvie as Selvie tackles Mendenhall after a one-yard gain.

1st and 10, AZ 26 – Two tight ends, although Housler is playing fullback. He and wide receiver Michael Floyd are the key blocks as Mendenhall heads over the Cooper/Levi Brown area on the left side for seven yards.

1st and 10, DAL 26 – Two tight ends lined up on the left. Floyd comes in motion from the left wide to come in tight on the left end of the line. Mendenhall grinds out three yards up the middle with the Cowboys not really giving any room.

2nd and 7 DAL 23 – Three wide receivers. Cards block hat-on-hat. Housler at tight end does OK on his block on the right side. WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Roberts do a nice job on the right side too, and Mendenhall goes over right tackle for six yards.

3rd and 1 DAL 17 – On a short play, rookie running back Stepfan Taylor lines up as a fullback in the offset I with Mendenhall. Taylor gets the handoff as the up back for a two-yard gain.

4th and 2, DAL 7 – The Cardinals call a perfect play-action pass on fourth down. Mendenhall slips into the flat wide-open for what should be an easy first down. Quarterback Carson Palmer is pressured, but the underthrown ball at Mendenhall’s feet is a disappointing end to the play. Incomplete.

FOURTH POSSESSION

1st and 10, AZ 4 – Three wideouts and a tight end. Mendehall is four yards deep in the end zone. Cooper pulls again (see a trend?) and seals linebacker Brandon Magee to create a hole near right tackle. Fitzgerald has a nice second-level block on the defensive back. Mendenhall breaks a tackle and has good power on the finish, driving for a first down.

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The move to move guys around

Posted by Darren Urban on August 14, 2013 – 9:58 am

So much has been made about Larry Fitzgerald’s work at all the receiver positions, but in truth, Bruce Arians likes testing out all his receivers. When he talks about young wideouts making errors half the time in the Green Bay game, part of that has to be attributed to what is on their plate. It’s part of the process.

“Coach Arians wants to see guys do things they may not be comfortable with, he wants to see what everyone is good at,” Fitzgerald said. “He wants to see you uncomfortable to push you, to get the best out of you. Everybody is on edge, on their toes. There are plays off the script that you’ve never been prepared for, but he wants you to be thinking, to be studying.”

It goes past the receivers. Arians thinks of camp — especially the early time — as a time for “experimentation.” That may have been one reason, for instance, that the Patrick Peterson-as-receiver scheme picked up steam as the days went past and the Cards saw on the field that he could flourish in such a role.

“Right now you have to press the element to figure out what guys can do,” Arians said. “You have to take them out of their comfort zone too, because they don’t know what their comfort zone is until they try something else. The more tricks you can learn, the more you can do. Michael Floyd, Andre Roberts, Larry Fitzgerald, they’re all learning all three (receiver) positions. You keep pressing the envelope. That’s how you find special niches — (for instance,) this guy is an outside player, but he’s a hellacious inside pass rusher. You won’t know it until you put him in there.”

— Forbes came out with its latest valuations of each NFL teams, with the Cardinals ranking 24th in the league at a worth of $961 billion million (Oops. Man, if it was billion, I better ask for a raise) in 2012 and an operating income of $9.7 million. The team with the biggest value? Saturday’s opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, at more than $2 billion. For the full list, go here.

— The Cardinals are off today. They resume practice tomorrow at University of Phoenix Stadium.


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Packers aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on August 9, 2013 – 10:38 pm

The way Carson Palmer threw the ball Friday night was good. So was the way backup Drew Stanton did, for that matter. But what may have been the most promising of all for the Cardinals was the way the pass protection held up.

“There were some great pockets to throw in,” Palmer said.

This all has the usual caveats. It was the preseason. The Packers weren’t coming with a complex package. Yet that didn’t help a ton in the preseason last year when the Cards struggled. I thought the first unit (Brown-Cooper-Sendlein-Fanaika-Winston) did very well. The Cards are smart too. On a 17-yard Palmer-to-Fitz pass from their own 1 early in the game, Michael Floyd was in – and then stayed in the backfield to help with protection. Palmer was clean.

Palmer wasn’t touched in his short stint. Stanton was a couple of times (his lone sack was of the coverage variety) but he also Russell-Wilsoned himself out of trouble a couple of times. Everything tonight comes with the “It’s early in the preseason” sticker attached. But a team with consistent pass protection? That’s something to embrace.

— The running game wasn’t as effective. That will be something that needs improvement. But Bruce Arians was just thankful the Cards got through with just two healthy running backs. Rashard Mendenhall didn’t play, and Andre Ellington sat too. Stepfan Taylor and Alfonso Smith was all the Cards had.

— The offense is going to get the spotlight. That’s natural after the season the unit had last year. But the defense, under scrutiny itself with the

Horton-to-Todd Bowles coordinator change, played well. Two turnovers led to two touchdowns, which is how Bowles wants it to go. And preseason or not, the Packers didn’t score, which is the best you can do.

“It’s a good starting point for us,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “I’m sure we didn’t play nearly as good as we could have, I’m sure there was a lot of mistakes on film. That’s football and the preseason. It does show us how good we can be.”

— You don’t want to go overboard on any player in the preseason. And a rookie has a long way to go. But what’s the No. 1 thing you want to see out of a player – especially a rookie? You want to see them , if they were showing you good things in practice, to show those things in a game. Tyrann Mathieu did that.

His stat line was gaudy: Two tackles, one for loss, a sack, a quarterback hit, a pass breakup, a pass breakup, two special teams and a 26-yard punt return. He also thought he had a chance at an interception and didn’t look thrilled Packers receiver Myles White grabbed him to mess with that possibility. You don’t want to go overboard, but a very, very impressive debut.

— Patrick Peterson tweeted about his protégé: “Proud of my baby boy @Mathieu_Era doing great things in his first @NFL game. Can’t wait till Sept. 8

— Not to be outdone, though, Peterson made sure to get his own interception in his brief stint, leading to the Cards’ first TD.

— Arians said he gave the receiving corps a C grade. He poked fun at Andre Roberts a little for not catching the first bomb from Palmer (to be fair, it also hit off the DB) but Roberts atoned with his TD. Jaron Brown and Charles Hawkins did well, I thought, although Brown had a drop he can’t make and Hawkins fumbled the ball on a long reception (he got it back but the fumble probably cost him a chance at a bigger play.)

— John Abraham didn’t play much at all, but he managed a strip-sack of Graham Harrell in his brief time in the game. You sign a guy to rush the passer and you get that out of the gate.  “Doing that just helps the team out and helps them see that I have a little something left,” Abraham said.

— The only injury reported by Arians was a hip pointer for rookie tight end D.C. Jefferson, who twice couldn’t hang on to passes he should have – including one in the end zone. Arians isn’t going to let him forget about that. He told the media about the hip pointer, and then added “that’s what happens when you drop big touchdowns.”

— Arians was irritated at the offensive issues in terms of substituting and getting lined up, something that really affected the younger players. That will have to be cleaned up. Timeouts were burned too often.

There’s probably more I could say, but it’s late, there’s a long plane ride ahead and I’ll have time to hit on more over the next few days. As Palmer said, “it’s a small step.”


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One year at a time

Posted by Darren Urban on July 26, 2013 – 9:28 am

Eric Winston, a player who when he was first released was expected to command a healthy contract for multiple years, signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals. It was another impressive step for GM Steve Keim, who has managed to corral quite a few players in one-year deals, providing flexibility going forward and incentive to those players to try and earn an extension.

It also has created quite a lengthy list of players that, as of now, are set to become unrestricted free agents after the season:

— S Jonathan Amaya

— CB Javier Arenas

— S Yeremiah Bell

— CB Antoine Cason

— LB Karlos Dansby

— TE Jim Dray

— K Jay Feely

— TE Jeff King

— RB Rashard Mendenhall

— G Chilo Rachal

— WR Andre Roberts

— DE Frostee Rucker

— DE/LB Matt Shaughnessy

— TE Kory Sperry

— S Curtis Taylor

— LB Reggie Walker

— T Eric Winston

— P Dave Zastudil

Obviously, not every name on that list is someone that the Cards are going to want to keep around long-term. Others will have to earn that right. It also doesn’t include other situations, like the inevitable Patrick Peterson extension that is assumed to be coming at some point after the season. The Cardinals definitely have a plan, however. Flexibility is key for Keim, who is trying to rebuild the roster.


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Cards go camping in Minnesota

Posted by Darren Urban on July 10, 2013 – 1:26 pm

Every year, Larry Fitzgerald holds about a month’s worth of work at home in Minnesota. There is a little bit of throwing and mostly hardcore conditioning and weightlifting, all designed to help in the “downtime” an NFL player has right before training camp. I was fortunate enough to take a trip up to visit last year (here is the story and the resulting video of that trip.) The time there is great for these guys. Hard work through noon or 1, and then everyone is usually invited daily back to Fitz’s house to hang out or go jet-skiing on the lake. I’d take that life this time of year. This year, both Fitz and new quarterback Carson Palmer talked a few times how they were going to hook up during the workouts, and Palmer, a man of his word, is indeed up in Minnesota right now.

Apparently, most of the throwers and catchers are, for that matter. Fitz will take anyone across the league who wants to come — last year, Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts and Seahawks running back Leon Washington were among the guys there when I was there — but it’s never bad when Cardinals come. This year, there are a ton of Cardinals there. Fitz put out the picture below earlier today on social media (thanks for letting me “borrow” it, Fitz). From left to right, starting in the back, it is Michael Rios, Jaron Brown, Dan Buckner (I hope, always tougher with the undrafted rookies), Tyler Shaw, QB Ryan Lindley, LaRon Byrd, Kerry Taylor, QB Carson Palmer, Michael Floyd and QB Drew Stanton. In the front, it’s Andre Roberts, Charles Hawkins, Fitz and Robert Gill. (Here is a story from a local TV station with a little video.)

It’s a huge turnout, and seems to bode well. Then again, if you are a QB and Palmer is going to be there, or you are a receiver and Fitz, Floyd and Roberts are going to be there, it’s tough to say no. Either way, I think of Bruce Arians saying when the Cards come back for camp there can’t be regression — that at worst the Cards have to come in where they left off after offseason work, and maybe even a little ahead.

It’s hard not to think that the QBs and receivers will accomplish that goal after working in Fitz’s backyard.

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Managing Palmer expectations

Posted by Darren Urban on May 20, 2013 – 9:50 am

It’s been clear from the day the Cardinals acquired Carson Palmer that Bruce Arians was high on his abilities — I mean, why wouldn’t he be? — but that was reiterated during an ESPN interview this weekend when Arians was talking about his veteran QB.

“What he did last year with the Raiders, in a crazy situation, I thought was very, very impressive,” Arians said.

Let’s recap what Palmer did: In 15 games, he threw for 4,018 yards, 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, and completed 61 percent of his passes. The Raiders still went 4-12. There is a lot that goes into all that. Those statistics may not have come in a lot of victories, but they still are impressive — especially the TD-to-INT ratio for a player who was forced to throw a lot because the team was behind. His top wide receiver was Denairus Moore (don’t feel bad if you have not heard of him.) The top pass catcher was tight end Brandon Myers, who had 79 catches for 806 yards. The first thought when you look at his receiving corps is that it was impressive to reach 4,000 yards without a top go-to type of threat.

Does Palmer have better receivers in Arizona? Certainly. Larry Fitzgerald alone changes the equation, Andre Roberts was pretty good last year and as I have noted before, it looks like Michael Floyd has made a big leap — at least at this point in the offseason — from Year One to Year Two. The Cards have to show they have a decent tight end threat (this is a crucial year for Rob Housler; if he can’t break out now with this QB and this offensive scheme, he may never) but Palmer will help.

What does that mean for Palmer himself? Well, he’s playing in a much more difficult division than last season. He’ll have to up his game to match his numbers. But if he stays healthy — and assuming the offensive line makes strides forward, as everyone is expecting right now — that can happen. Regardless, look at the numbers last year from the Cards’ QBs, which were ugly to say the least: 3,383 yards, 11 TDs, 21 INT, 55 percent completions. It figures to be much, much better. That alone I’d think would give fans a certain modicum of relief.

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Swope, YPC and taking shots deep

Posted by Darren Urban on May 6, 2013 – 11:40 am

It was Bruce Arians’ introductory press conference when he first talked about his offense and how he wants to take shots down the field. That’s how he rolled in Pittsburgh, how the Colts played last year and how the Cards will do it now, because as Arians sees it, yards in big chunks helps a lot. Certainly, it’s something the Cards could use more of after 2012. It’s a big reason the club picked Texas A&M wide receiver Ryan Swope, because he showed off some big-time speed at the Scouting combine, running a sub-4.4 40.

(Although the scouting reports wonder if Swope’s 40 times can translate on the field or if he is better suited for a quick slot game. Swope, speaking after he was picked, about being a deep threat: “I see that instantly.” He also said his speed is real: “A lot of people had me as just a possession receiver coming in.”)

If Swope can help stretch the field, that would be a big deal. But the Cardinals have gotten deep prior to last season with their other wideouts. Don’t forget Larry Fitzgerald had a sparkling and career-best 17.6 yards per catch in 2011, when John Skelton/Kevin Kolb weren’t as errant getting him the ball as last season. Fitz’s YPC got crushed in part last year because it seemed the team worked so hard to get him the ball on short stuff just so it’d be complete that he didn’t gain many yards. The longest pass play of the season was a 53-yarder to Michael Floyd in the finale, and that featured a lackluster tackling effort made (as you can see on the video below.) The Cards only had nine pass plays of at least 30 yards last season.

Floyd led the team with 12.5 yards a catch, and that was boosted from 10.7 only after his eight-catches-for-166-yards in the last game of the season. Fitz, in what was his most frustrating season as a pro, was at 11.2 (71 catches for 798 yards, ugh) and Andre Roberts was 11.9 (64 for 759).

There should be more accurate throws downfield from Carson Palmer this season. There should be better protection up front to actually allow the quarterback time to chuck it downfield this season. And there is no question there will be plays called to do it too, whether it’s to Swope, Fitz, Roberts or Floyd. Or someone else. The Cardinals need those kind of big plays.


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Bethel, headed to cornerback, bulks up

Posted by Darren Urban on April 5, 2013 – 11:33 am

It’s inevitable, really, the physical strides a player makes in the time after his rookie season to his second NFL season. It’s not always in-your-face, but guys usually understand what it takes to prep their body for the NFL rigors after being in it a season. For a guy from a smaller school, it does become apparent. I remember that’s what happened with Greg Toler, and now that he’s been back a few days, the same can be said for second-year defensive back Justin Bethel.

Bethel came into the week looking pretty powerful. He said at week’s outset he wanted to be bigger if he was going to have to play safety. Then Bethel found out in the initial meetings with the coaches they want to work him at cornerback. Bethel weighed in at 201 pounds Thursday and said he’s in a much better place taking care of his body.

“I had to learn,” Bethel said. “I didn’t eat well at all. I’d eat here, go home, watch TV, come back the next day. If I wasn’t getting it (at the facility) I wasn’t eating. That messed me up weight-wise.”

Bethel wanted to be beefed up a bit to be physical at safety, but he said he doesn’t feel it has affected his speed, which already has made him a special teams demon. He plans to see how he feels on the field first before trying to figure out the right playing weight — “If I lose, I lose,” he said — but wants to keep his speed. Bethel (below, between Andre Roberts and Patrick Peterson) wouldn’t even credit himself for his bigger upper body, saying it was hereditary, and acknowledged it is work to keep weight on.

“It’s easy for me to drop weight,” Bethel said. “I go to sleep and drop like three pounds.”

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Arians talks QBs, Cribbs and other stuff over breakfast

Posted by Darren Urban on March 20, 2013 – 9:05 am

The NFC coaches breakfast was this morning — bright and early at 7:15 a.m. — here at the NFL coaches meetings at the Arizona Biltmore. That meant an hour hanging out with Cardinals coach Bruce Arians. There will be plenty more in-depth of what was said, but for now a few of the main highlights — the biggest being that the reality of Drew Stanton being the 2013 starting quarterback feels very close right now.

— Asked if this was a tough year to be going into the draft needing a quarterback, Arians didn’t blink. “I don’t feel we need one.”

— Along those lines (and again, I will have an article up later today on the subject) Arians said he wasn’t worried about the quarterback situation. He doesn’t know enough about Brian Hoyer, Ryan Lindley or John Skelton yet, because he hasn’t had a chance to go over video and ask “why” on various plays. He obviously has done that with Stanton. But he said he thinks he can win with Stanton, and he said he won’t have a problem if things stay status quo starting Stanton this season.

— Yes, such QB talk is possiblely a smokescreen. Or just hard driving optimism so players (and fans) don’t want to write off 2013. But Arians sure sounded genuine.

— He wants to name a starting QB before training camp. That’s best for the team, he said, making sure the locker room knows who “The Man” will be.

— It hurt Kevin Kolb that Arians couldn’t sit down with him and talk about his play last season and again, figuring out the whys and why nots of decision-making. Without that information, moving on (given the contract) was the best decision, Arians said.

— He talked a little bit about the possibility of adding free agent Josh Cribbs, assuming at some point Cribbs is healthy and the Cards still have interest by that point. He wouldn’t mind having both Cribbs and Patrick Peterson back for a kick or two. “It’d be a nice addition if it works out.” One thing Cribbs won’t do is be QB in a wildcat formation. “I’m not a wildcat dude,” Arians said.

— Not only will Lorenzo Alexander play outside linebacker, new defensive end Matt Shaughnessy can also stand up and play OLB. That could make for an interesting pass rush situation.

— Asked about the tight ends, he was blunt: “I’m not a fullback guy, never have been.” Not great news for Anthony Sherman, at least on the surface. Arians wants two tight ends when one can maneuver into the backfield, making it much harder for the defense to know what’s coming. Having a fullback restricts that flexibility, he said.

— He said the speed at receiver with Fitz, Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd is “plenty fast enough.” He added with a chuckle, wide receiver “is not the position I’ve worried about.”

— Rehab has gone well for center Lyle Sendlein, tackle Levi Brown and running back Ryan Williams, but Arians isn’t sure how much they will do in the early on-field work.

— It’ll be wait-and-see where second-year offensive linemen Nate Potter and Bobby Massie play, either guard or tackle. But Arians is confident they each can do both.

— Levi Brown could play right tackle. But Arians right now sure sounds like a guy expecting to have Brown at left tackle.

— The coaching staff are still trying to figure out what position Justin Bethel will play, cornerback or safety. They will pick one and let him learn it well.

— The Cardinals color Kangol was on display again Wednesday morning. Could we see something similar on Sundays? Arians is talking with with New Era and the NFL on that subject. “I’m not getting fined,” Arians joked. “There’s got to be more than baseball caps, know what I mean?”

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Catches from the backfield

Posted by Darren Urban on February 19, 2013 – 3:12 pm

Just in case anyone wasn’t sure about new coach Bruce Arians wanting to get the ball downfield if possible in the running game, Arians makes it pretty clear what he wants to see in his running backs.

He wants someone who can run, of course. And block. Beyond that? Let’s just say that fantasy football players in points-per-reception leagues aren’t going to look at the Cardinals first.

“They are back there because they are runners and pass protectors,” Arians said. “Will we throw to the backs? Yeah. But the receivers are the ones paid to catch it. (Running backs) are helping but it’s doubtful our running back leads the team in receiving.”

Last season, injuries crushed the Cards’ running backs, so reception totals don’t correspond perfectly in what the prior staff wanted to do in the passing game, but even Ken Whisenhunt’s pass game didn’t use the backs a ton as receivers (especially after Tim Hightower left.) William Powell had the most catches for a running back last year (19), and that was sixth on the team behind Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts, Michael Floyd, Rob Housler and Early Doucet. LaRod Stephens-Howling was tied for seventh with tight end Jeff King with his 17 catches. Ryan Williams had seven receptions, Anthony Sherman five and Beanie Wells only had one.

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