Stingy defenses, and the numbers to back it up

Posted by Darren Urban on October 24, 2012 – 11:08 am

Sometimes, stats don’t tell a lot. Sometimes, one stat can tell everything. That’s how it feels for the upcoming Monday game against the 49ers.

Over the last 16 games, the top two teams in the NFL in terms of fewest offensive touchdowns allowed will face off at University of Phoenix Stadium. The 49ers have given up just 21 offensive touchdowns, the Cardinals just 22. If anyone is expecting offensive fireworks, that would seem to be far-fetched. The 49ers are coming off a game in which they beat the Seahawks, 13-6. The Cards, of course, lost to Minnesota but gave up just 14 points on defense.

None of this is a revelation. But it seems certain that the Cardinals will be under even more pressure to avoid errors. They probably won’t get a ton of chances to score. Last year, they dented the 49ers in their 21-19 win because quarterback John Skelton was able to get a couple of big plays, long touchdown passes to Larry Fitzgerald and Early Doucet. Plays down the field have been limited for the Cards thus far this season. A couple this week would change the dynamic of the game.

— The Cards reportedly worked out kicker Josh Brown, after Jay Feely’s recent struggles. I don’t see anything happening now, but it’s an option if Feely continues to have issues. He did just complete a streak of 19 straight field goals made earlier this season — plus he made that 61-yarder — so he has produced. But on a team with which points are at a premium, misses loom much larger.

— There will be a food drive at Monday night’s game against the 49ers. Volunteers from Sagicor, St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance and Cardinals Cheerleaders will be at collection points outside of all five stadium gates and the Great Lawn. Fans are encouraged to bring non-perishable food items and/or money for donation.

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Stuff your sorries in a sack

Posted by Darren Urban on September 20, 2012 – 12:48 pm

The Cardinals don’t have that one pass rusher, a la Bertrand Berry 2004, that piles up the sacks. For that reason, many have wondered about the Cards’ ability to get pressure on the passer. But as they proved last season — when they finished seventh in the NFL in sacks, despite their leading sack guy, Calais Campbell, having just eight — they are faring just fine in that regard. The Cards, in one fell swoop, took control of the NFL’s longest active streak of games with multiple sacks.

The Cardinals have done it eight games in a row, supplanting the Patriots, who had done it nine games in a row before the Cards made sure they got just one last weekend. Tom Brady, on the other hand, was sacked four times. The Cardinals already have seven sacks this season after posting 42 last season, with two each for Campbell and linebacker Paris Lenon. Next up is Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who can be had (the Cards sacked him twice last season).

It’s not always about the sack. Sometimes pressure is enough, or even better, depending on what you’re trying to do. But clearly the team is finding a way to get to the quarterback. Given that they rarely blitzed last week, it’s also a good sign they can generate sacks with just four rushers.

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Improved defense by the numbers

Posted by Darren Urban on January 26, 2012 – 1:33 pm

Everyone could see how the Cards’ defense improved the second half of the season, especially since it was the defense that was the backbone of the final 7-2 record down the stretch. But I’ve been asked about actually statistical proof, and there was that too.

Breaking down the defense into their NFL rankings from Weeks 1-8 (when the Cards played seven games and were 1-6) and then from Weeks 9-17 (the aforementioned 7-2 finish) shows a stark contrast:

Statistic 1-8 (Rank) 9-17 (Rank)
Games  7 9
TDs Allowed 20 (T26th) 12 (3rd)
Rush TD Allowed 11 (T31st) 4 (T4th)
Pass TD Allowed 9 (7th) 8 (5th)
3rd Down Efficiency 37.8 (17th) 27.2 (1st)
Avg. 1st Downs Allowed 24.2 (31st) 18.1 (T10th)
Avg. Yards Allowed 390.7 (24th) 327.4 (13th)
Sacks 16 (T16th) 26 (T3rd)
Yards Per Pass Att. 7.9 (24th) 6.1 (2nd)
Red Zone TD Pct. 51.7 (14th) 27.6 (1st)

Over the final nine games, 64 percent of the drives by Cards’ opponents (76 of 118) were five plays or less and 59 percent (70) covered 25 yards or less. Of the 12 touchdowns the Cards allowed, four came on drives that began on the Cards’ side of the 50-yard line.

Obviously, the Cardinals need to stay that stout over the course of the season, although their consistency over a more-than-two-month period (the Cards didn’t score more than 23 points in a game in any of those last nine games) was not only remarkable, but crucial for the team’s win-loss mark. Carrying that consistency into 2012 — and, in theory, adding pieces and more layers of the scheme — is what coach Ken Whisenhunt and defensive coordinator Ray Horton are aiming for over the offseason.

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Finishing kick by the defense

Posted by Darren Urban on December 29, 2011 – 10:29 am

Much has been made about the Cardinals’ strong fourth-quarters on offense — particularly by the quarterback — but of late, the defense has arguably been even better.

In the fourth quarter and overtime of the last three games, which included two come-from-behind wins and the no-margin-for-error game in Cincinnati, the Cards’ defensive unit has been 2000 Ravens good. In those three total quarters (plus a Browns’ overtime possession), the Cards haven’t allowed a point. They have allowed just three first downs and the Niners, Browns and Bengals didn’t convert a single third down. Over 41 total plays, opponents gained just 106 yards.

The Cards also forced three fumbles which they recovered, forced 13 punts in 19 possessions, and allowed their offense to win or at least have a chance.

Combine that with how the offense comes alive late, and it’s little wonder the Cards have been able to win so many in dramatic fashion.

Overall, the Cards have the stats to back up how they turned the corner defensively since their second-half meltdown in Baltimore. Starting with the next week (the overtime win against St. Louis at UoP), the Cards are 12th overall in the NFL in yards allowed per game, first in red-zone defense, third in third-down completion percentage, third in touchdowns allowed and seventh in passing yards allowed per game.

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Dialing it up on defense

Posted by Darren Urban on December 15, 2011 – 10:29 am

The Cards, now, are coming from everywhere.

The development of the defense — and the ability for defensive coordinator Ray Horton to call a lot of different plays now — has changed the way they attack the opposing passing game. Two games in a row, they have five sacks from five different players (eight players overall; Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett have gone back-to-back. The others: Nose tackle Nick Eason — pictured below — and linebackers O’Brien Schofield, Paris Lenon, Clark Haggans and Daryl Washington, along with cornerback Patrick Peterson.

“That’s the evidence they are getting it,” Horton said. “I was watching (Cowboys quarterback) Tony Romo and I could see it, we did things he wasn’t expecting,” Horton said. “Now that every single guy can blitz, the package is starting to come together.”

Peterson’s sack — the first of his career — came on a play where both he and fellow cornerback Michael Adams blitzed.

“Coach Horton has definitely been dialing it up lately,” Peterson said. “To have five different guys get five sacks the last two games, that’s unbelievable. Everyone is getting in on the party. I got my first sack, so you know he is sending them from everywhere when a cornerback is getting his first sack. It’s a pleasure to be playing in this type of defense because guys don’t know where we are coming from.”

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Niners aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on December 11, 2011 – 11:05 pm

The Cards hang a 21-19 loss on the 49ers Sunday, as satisfying of a victory as they have had all season – that’s 10 games decided by seven points or less, still tied with the Denver Tebows for most in the league, and the Cards have won six of them – but you could tell that hint of frustration from wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald afterward.

OK, maybe it was more than a hint.

“It kind of pisses you off a little bit because you know the team we were capable of being,” Fitzgerald said, noting the Cards’ rally from that six-game losing streak that put them in a hole it’s going to be hard from which to emerge. “The way we’re playing now and the way we were playing earlier during the six-game skid just really makes you upset.

“If we had won just two or three of those games, we would possibly be fighting for the division.”

That’s true, but I am guessing the Rams – twice – and Eagles and Cowboys and Niners are all lamenting the same thing when it comes to the Cards. Bottom line: The Cards could have packed it in after falling to 1-6. They didn’t. “How many times during those first weeks did we say that we were going to stay the course?” coach Ken Whisenhunt noted (and I know that frustrated some fans to no end). So here we are.

“That’s one thing I’ll say about these Cardinals: There is no quit,” tackle Jeremy Bridges said.

— I’m sticking to my theme of waiting until Cards get to .500 before talking postseason possibility.

— But considering the Giants/Lions/Falcons all could have lost today and won, ouch. Thank goodness for the Tebows taking out the Bears. Somehow.

— Was it me or did it look like linebackers Sam Acho and Clark Haggans chased 49ers quarterback Alex Smith for five minutes on that final fourth-and-1 play? “Last week coach took me out for a little bit, and it was like, ‘We need you to rush the passer and you’re getting tired,’ ” Acho said. “All that was going through my head was, ‘You can’t be tired – it’s the last play.’ Clark and I were just running in circles trying to make something happen.”

— The defense can’t get enough praise for Sunday. I mean, the 49ers had the ball for more than 22 minutes in the first half – and had just four field goals and a 12-7 lead. “Could’ve gotten ugly, right?” cornerback Patrick Peterson said with a grin. Uh, yes.

— Five more sacks, by five different players. For a second straight week. The list this week: Peterson (his first NFL sack), Daryl Washington, Nick Eason, Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell.

— Campbell was huge again Sunday. He is playing so, so well.

— No, Adrian Wilson didn’t hang on to the two passes that looked like they should have been intercepted. But he played another excellent game Sunday and has found a groove in this defense. To paraphrase SI writer Jim Trotter, reports of Wilson’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

— How important is field position for the 49ers’ offense? San Fran started 10 drives on its side of the 50. They scored three points. Their other four scoring “drives” started on the Arizona 43, 4, 16 and 37.

— Didn’t we just say the Cards couldn’t afford to mess up the turnover battle? Cards had three turnovers. Niners didn’t turn it over. How do you explain it? (Well, it starts with a D.) San Fran scored just three points off those three turnovers.

— The Cards didn’t have three touchdown passes in a game all of 2010. They did it once previous this season, when John Skelton had three in Philly. But in that game, two went to Fitz, one to Early Doucet. Sunday was the first time the Cards had three different receivers catch TD passes since Fitz (2), Steve Breaston, Ben Patrick and Anthony Becht did it in Chicago Nov. 8, 2009.

— John Skelton was not good his last two starts. He ended up playing pretty well Sunday. We’ve said this before, but his resiliency is so impressive. It might be, even beyond his big arm, his best attribute. It won’t always translate into success, but he couldn’t have any success without it.

— Loved watching Bridges block a pair of Niner DBs — Chris Culliver and Dashon Goldson — by himself on Early Doucet’s big screen pass the play before Andre Roberts’ TD catch. Rex Hadnot had a great peelback block on linebacker Aldon Smith on the play too.

— Kevin Kolb took a knee to the back of the head by linebacker Ahmad Brooks as he was being sacked by Justin Smith. We’ll see what that means for Kolb this week.

— Punter Dave Zastudil is playing with a torn biceps in his arm. If things go like normal, that doesn’t have to cost him time, but it’s tough. Yet Zastudil averaged 46.6 yards a kick Sunday.

— Odd that Frank Gore, who had the 37-yard TD run, got only 10 rushes (for 72 yards). Niners coach Jim Harbaugh only said “No, not a reason” when asked if there was a reason Gore played less than normal. Cards won’t argue.

— The 49ers win the NFC West this season. But, given that, the Cards will take what they got Sunday. “I’ll tell you this,” Campbell said. “When the game was over and we came out on top, it felt like a Super Bowl win.”

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The defense makes a point

Posted by Darren Urban on September 13, 2009 – 1:40 pm

One of the issues the Cards’ defense had a season ago was the problem of allowing a touchdown on short fields. Consistently, players and coaches said, it shouldn’t matter if the offense turned the ball over. The defense had to hold a team out of the end zone.

So the defense just had their first chance at that. Kurt Warner threw an interception into double coverage and the 49ers took over at the Arizona 36. The Niners got a first down, but had to eventually kick the field goal.

Now the offense just needs to find someone to be effective.

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Starting D plays two series

Posted by Darren Urban on September 3, 2009 – 6:37 pm

The starting defensive unit played two series, giving up a field goal, before coach Ken Whisenhunt went to the backups here in the first quarter against the Broncos. Will the starting offense, which hasn’t exactly played like it wanted to, get the same treatment?

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Packers aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on August 29, 2009 – 11:51 am

Never has an “aftermath” blog entry seemed so apropos, with the way that game went last night. Considering it was just a preseason game, it left quite an imprint in a lot of areas, and because of that first half, much of it wasn’t a good feeling. This much is true – there are plenty of those who, because of the recent history of Super Bowl losers, believe the Cards are primed to take a fall. A performance from the starters, like the one against the Packers, well, that just makes it that much easier to doubt. Coach Ken Whisenhunt was hoping it was a wake-up call. We’ll see. Since the final preseason game means less than all the others, and since the starters will not play much if at all, we won’t know what this means until the Sept. 13 season opener.

On to the more specific aftermath.

— Defensively, it was just scary. The group looked solid in the first two games, and then transformed for a night into something that looked like the worst in the NFL. But in some ways, that may be a positive. Had the Cards given up, say, three touchdowns in the first half, I actually might have been a little more concerned. Things got so off the rails it felt a lot more like a one-time meltdown rather than an overall weak unit. More disturbing were a couple of the comments after, like when Darnell Dockett noted how some players were playing hard, and some just weren’t. He didn’t name names, of course, but preseason or not, that simply can’t happen.

— Interesting comment from Whisenhunt when it came to the receivers: “We found out a bunch of guys tonight and unfortunately, some of that wasn’t good.” The Cards went almost the whole game with Jerheme Urban, Lance Long and Early Doucet. Urban (who had 103 yards) for a moment felt like he was undoing a lot of the good he did in camp when he fumbled after a catch and then dropped one he should have had. But he also made a nice 27-yard catch the play after the drop, and I would guess he is OK.

Long and Doucet could have shown more. Long had just one catch and needs to hold on to the final catch he could have had in the end zone (the play was ruled incomplete not because he didn’t get his feet down but because he lost the ball when he hit the ground). Doucet had five catches for nearly 100 yards, but he absolutely has to make the two-point conversion catch at the end of the game. “It’s just disappointing that when we had opportunities to step up tonight we didn’t,” Whisenhunt said.

— If that’s Beanie at not-100-percent, wow. A very impressive initial showing from Wells, and don’t forget Tim Hightower averaged more than six yards a carry too. In a night filled with things that made you shake your head, the running game actually have reason to smile.

— Same with Matt Leinart, for that matter. Yes, he was going against backups, but his rally was important. There’s no way he isn’t No. 2, and if something should happen to Kurt Warner, I don’t see how Whisenhunt wouldn’t be comfortable with Leinart taking over.

— Is it me, or have there been a heck of a lot of blows to the head on Cardinals’ offensive players already this preseason? It’s happened to Long three or four times (one was called last night), it seemed like the play that gave LaRod Stephens-Howling a concussion was close and Sean Morey may have absorbed one late.

— The Cards are off for a couple of days. The cuts of five come by Tuesday, but Whisenhunt will likely deliver the news Monday before practice. LB Cody Brown needs to go to injured reserve, so the team only has to let four guys go.


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