The future of the Cardinals’ blitz

Posted by Darren Urban on July 1, 2015 – 11:58 am

Anyone who has watched much of the Cardinals the past two seasons knows the defense liked to blitz. So this recent tweet carries with it little surprise in the context of the NFL:

It was the hallmark of then-defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Bring the heat, let it all sort itself out in the end. It’s why the Cardinals went for Antonio Cromartie last offseason — they wanted those press man-to-man corners to be able to survive on an island. It’s a byproduct too of not having that dynamic edge pass rusher to cause problems with a “normal” four-man rush. Now you can argue in this day and age that even bringing five rushers isn’t exactly a blitz, but there were plenty of times the Cards brought at least six guys too.

What happens now? The feeling is that the defense, even under James Bettcher, won’t change a lot. That would include the blitzing. I mean, the Cardinals still don’t have that 14-sack guy coming from the outside (although maybe Alex Okafor can raise his production from his somewhat surprising eight-sack total last season.) The pressure will still have to be manufactured through scheme, it would seem. How Bettcher calls a game won’t be known for real until the Cards open against the Saints Sept. 13 (and what a passing offense to open against.)

Certainly, I’d think Bowles will take his blitzing to New York. But it’s hard to imagine that aggressiveness — which has served the Cardinals well — is going away under Bettcher.

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Friday before the Niners (and Bucs-Saints)

Posted by Darren Urban on December 27, 2013 – 4:01 pm

A decade ago this weekend (on Dec. 28 to be exact), the Cardinals knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs with a dramatic Hail Mary touchdown pass from Josh McCown to Nate Poole that thrust the Packers into an improbable postseason berth. Ten years later, McCown is a backup Bear, hoping his own team can get into the playoffs. Larry Fitzgerald, the guy the Cards drafted because they went from the No. 1 to No. 3 overall pick that day, is the face of the franchise. And the Cardinals are hoping Mike Glennon can be their Josh McCown.

Like the Packers that day, who still needed to beat the Broncos to have a Vikings loss mean anything, the Cardinals must knock off the 49ers to have a shot at the playoffs. But if they do, they must count on the Buccaneers – playing the role of the 2003 Cardinals – to knock off, in New Orleans, the heavily favored Saints – playing the role of the 2003 Vikings. It’s unlikely, yes. But so too were the Cards, McCown and Poole.

“Anybody can beat anybody in the National Football League,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “It’s a tough place to play but they play them every year in that division.”

Then again, Arians has stressed to his team all week they should only be paying attention to the 49ers and not the scoreboard. It’s simple, really. If the Cards blow the game against San Francisco (and it will be anything but easy), the Saints-Bucs game means nothing anyway.

“If we don’t win, that would really be a crying shame,” Arians said.

— One last note on the missed chance the Falcons had to knock off the 49ers. Arians cracked he was asleep when the final interception happened to cost Atlanta at least a chance to tie. He watched it later on video. “I like the fact Smitty was playing for the win,” Arians said of Falcons coach Mike Smith and the pass play at the end.

— The Cardinals had their last practice of the season Friday. Maybe. “I’ve been in a bunch of these, where the last one counts,” Arians said. “You don’t know what is going to happen Sunday. This team has a chance to make history and that’s all we have talked about all week.”

— The local chapter of the Pro Football Writers Association handed out its two annual awards Friday. Center Lyle Sendlein was given the Steve Schoenfeld “Good Guy” award for being always accessible and insightful with the media regardless of the situation. Linebacker Karlos Dansby received the Lloyd Herberg MVP award. Both awards are named after former Arizona Republic Cardinals writers whose lives were tragically cut short.

— A reminder: Cards are wearing red-on-red Sunday.

— The roof will be open for the game.

— In the weekly video about officiating that the league sends out, VP of officiating Dean Blandino explained the confusing first-and-20 situation in Seattle after an unsportsmanlike penalty on the Cardinals. A flag was thrown on defensive end Frostee Rucker. The penalty was for verbal abuse of an official. A normal unsportsmanlike penalty would be marked off and then the first-and-10 chains set – normally making it first-and-10 at the Arizona 10-yard line. When the penalty is against an official, however, the chains are set and then the penalty is marked off.  So the Cards had a first-and-20 at their 10.

— In their last nine meetings against the 49ers, the Cardinals have a whopping 28 turnovers and have never won the turnover battle. That’s why they have lost eight of them (and the one win, the Cards had three turnovers, the Niners zero.) The Cards must take better care of the ball.

— The Cardinals did not play great that day in San Francisco back in October, but were left with the feeling of a missed opportunity. That’s been an underlying theme this week.

— Here’s hoping the Cards have found out how to quell tight end Vernon Davis, who beat them up pretty well the first time around (8-180-2). ”

— I am interested to see what it is like in University of Phoenix Stadium Sunday. This game has been sold out for a while. The Cards have a chance to win 11 for the first time in Arizona, playoffs or no playoffs. This is a rivalry. “If we could only win two games the whole season, I would pick both to be the 49ers,” Fitz said this week, and this is a chance to get one.

Until Sunday …

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So now it’s about the Bucs

Posted by Darren Urban on December 24, 2013 – 8:01 am

Go … Lavonte David?

In case you missed it last night — and I’m sure most of you didn’t — the 49ers beat the Falcons to clinch a playoff berth and eliminate the one opportunity left for the Cardinals to control their own postseason destiny. The Falcons almost posted a miracle finish, scoring a touchdown to pull within three and then recovering the onside kick and driving deep into San Francisco territory. Then this happened. And the Cards’ hopes were kicked right in the wrong place.

(And as a quick aside, I had no problem with the Falcons passing. Ryan was shredding the Niners in the fourth quarter with the pass and there, you are playing to win, not to settle for a field goal and overtime.)

So that leaves one playoff scenario for Arizona. Beat San Francisco at home, first of all. Second, the Cards must hope the Tampa Bay Buccaneers go into New Orleans and knock off (or at least tie) the Saints. Sure, the Saints are favored by a whopping 12 points. Sure, they are 7-0 at home with an average margin of victory of more than 17 points. Hey, the Bucs only lost by two to the Saints earlier in the season (in Tampa, and the Saints are a totally different team on the road.)

The NFL, into drama as it is, moved the kickoff of the Saints-Bucs game from an early to a late game, meaning the Cardinals’ chances will be riding along in parallel games with the 2:25 p.m. kickoff. Otherwise, the Cards might have known they were eliminated before they even took the field. I can’t see how Bruce Arians and his guys won’t be scoreboard watching in this case.

It’s about winning 11 games now for the Cardinals, and as Arians said, letting the chips fall. But the Cards have come within less than two minutes of two monumentally needed outcomes this weekend before being punched in the face twice — the Panthers were on the verge of a loss before Cam Newton threw a game-winning TD pass with 23 seconds left, and NaVarro Bowman’s game-changing interception last night was with 1:28 on the clock — and those chips are landing exactly where the Cards do not want them. One chip left to play.

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Pressure and feeling pressure

Posted by Darren Urban on September 24, 2013 – 9:15 am

Pressure their quarterback, protect your quarterback from pressure. In a lot of ways, that’s what today’s NFL turns on each game.

The numbers from the Saints game were encouraging and discouraging at the same time in those areas. analyzed the game and noted that Carson Palmer was pressured on 13 of 39 dropbacks. You want it to be better, but in retrospect, it seemed like Palmer was pressured more than that (and it underscores some of the issues Palmer had himself throwing the ball.) On those 13 drops, Palmer was just 1-for-9 and was sacked four times. And all four sacks came without blitzing, on a four-man rush. (And as a side note, Palmer did not complete any of the four passes thrown more than 20 yards downfield.)

Arians said the offensive line will “just continue to work.”

“Crowd noise affects those guys and it couldn’t have been any louder,” Arians added. “They just have to continue to work on it. It will be a challenge (this week.)

On the other side of the ball, PFF noted the four sacks and charted three hits on Drew Brees and 16 hurries — all good numbers. Arians’ problem? It should have been better.

“Biggest thing defensively, we missed some wide-open sacks,” Arians said. “We had just running free that were unblocked. Didn’t get the sack. Drew got away, got the ball out. His yards rushing was huge. It’s hard to come up with blitzes where guys from free but we did it about four times in the game and got no sacks.”

Making more problems for the defense was missed tackles. PFF counted 14 missed tackles, the Cards’ worst total the year. That definitely has to change, quickly. The Cards got a little sloppy against the Rams and adjusted for the Lions’ win. Time to adjust again.



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Saints aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on September 22, 2013 – 5:59 pm

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.

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Dan Williams questionable with family matter

Posted by Darren Urban on September 21, 2013 – 5:15 pm

Nose tackle Dan Williams did not make the trip to New Orleans because of a family matter and so is officially listed as questionable for tomorrow’s game against the Saints. If Williams can’t go, it makes sense that the Cardinals would make newcomer Alameda Ta’amu active for the first time since picking him up on waivers.


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Friday before the Saints

Posted by Darren Urban on September 20, 2013 – 3:44 pm

With the possibility Rashard Mendenhall might not play this week (I think he will) because of his toe injury, I’ve heard plenty of questions about Ryan Williams and his status. Bottom line, if Mendenhall is healthy enough to be active Sunday, I don’t see why the running back situation would change – and that would mean Williams would be inactive again.

I asked Bruce Arians about Williams today. “Working his tail off and getting better,” Arians said. “Making up for that lost time. I have no doubt when he gets his opportunity, which he will, he’ll do extremely well with it.”

Many have asked if Williams could be traded (never say never, but as of now, I’d doubt it.) I get that. Many have also wondered why the Cards just don’t release Williams. That I don’t get. If you feel like he can play a little, and he’s a former second-round pick, why just let him go? At this point, they don’t feel he deserves to be active over the top four guys – and again, I see that as a special teams thing as much as anything – but if someone gets hurt, he’s a nice backup plan to have.

OK, with that out of the way, here are some end-of-the-week notes heading into New Orleans weekend:

— The Cardinals have a lot of players heading back to familiar stomping grounds in Louisiana thanks to the LSU pipeline, but Arians has worked hard to limit the distraction. “This,” former LSU star Patrick Peterson said, “is a business trip.” A business trip in which the Cards don’t even get to their hotel until close to 7 p.m. and have a noon game the next day, so there will be very little time for anything but football.

— Given how important this trip is to Tyrann Mathieu, going home and everything, it’s hard not to think he’ll make some sort of big play Sunday. Then again, predicting Mathieu is going to make an impact play isn’t exactly going out on a limb.

— The Saints are just a different team now that Sean Payton is back as head coach after his year-suspension for the bountygate scandal.

“As a head coach, you oversee everything, so I think we missed that the most,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “There are just certain messages that I think only he can convey in his way.”

— Of course, it also helps that Rob Ryan has rehabbed a wretched defense. It wasn’t as if the Saints were bad last year offensively. But defensively, yikes. The one good thing for the Cards? They don’t really have a major pass rusher (although Valley native Cameron Jordan is off to a good start). The Saints also might have some injury issues. Their injury report is loooong, and one of the guys who might miss is guard Jahri Evans, which would be a big deal.

— Rookie running back Andre Ellington had his 36-yard touchdown catch last week and he should have had one in the first game. Someone asked Carson Palmer if Ellington was developing into one of his favorite receivers. There was a little bit of a “Come on, man” answer from Palmer.

“I like the kid, but I have some other guys,” Palmer said. “Number 12 (Roberts), number 11 (Fitz) and number 15 (Floyd), those are my favorite guys to throw to. I would love it if Andre worked his way into that group, but it’s going to take some time and some trust you have to develop. He’s very talented. He’s a tailback and those guys are receivers and there are a lot of differences between the two. I definitely like throwing the ball to those receivers.”

— I just realized, typing that quote, that none of the Cards’ main three receivers have a classic number-in-the-80s jersey. I’d have to look, but I bet no other team has their top three guys in the teens, jersey-number-wise. (As @jrleko points out on Twitter, all five receivers have numbers in the teens, with Jaron Brown at 13 and Kerry Taylor 18. That’s got to be an NFL-first.)

— Justin Bethel’s field-goal block was the Cardinals’ 15th since 2008, most in the NFL in that time span.

— Lions defensive tackle Israel Idonije was fined $15,750 for his hit on Palmer in last weekend’s game.

— Peterson was talking about how much the Saints are loved and he recalled being at LSU when the Saints won the Super Bowl. “I was there when the Saints won their first championship,” Peterson said. “It was like Christmas, every day.”

It wasn’t so much like Christmas the last time the Cards were in New Orleans. That didn’t end so well (and then Kurt Warner retired.) We’ll see if the result is different this time.

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Fitz, Mendenhall questionable but should play

Posted by Darren Urban on September 20, 2013 – 1:41 pm

Both wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (hamstring) and running back Rashard Mendenhall (toe) were upgraded to limited practice today and will officially be listed as questionable for Sunday’s game in New Orleans. Questionable is a 50-50 designation, but if I had to guess, I’d guess both will be active for the Saints. Both looked OK during the open portion of practice (which isn’t necessarily full speed and isn’t in pads, so take it for what it is worth.) Also, both fall into that category of Bruce Arians from earlier in the week, when he said he’d let a player with a good résumé play even with no practice. Obviously both practiced and in both cases, both have proven themselves to Arians enough that I’d think he’d trust their judgment when it comes to this.

Mendenhall’s injury isn’t a turf toe, Arians said (Mendenhall suffered it during the game and played with it, Arians said). Arians said he didn’t remember the name of what exactly Mendenhall had, and even though it isn’t turf toe, “it’s damn close,” Arians said with a chuckle.

Of course, being active and playing doesn’t mean playing the whole game. We saw that with Fitzgerald last week. How much of an impact either can make is TBD. And this week, since the Cardinals have to get on a plane, we also don’t know if the flight could somehow aggravate either injury, which makes “questionable” a lot of sense.

Linebacker Kevin Minter (hamstring) is out for the game. The Cardinals did have tight end Rob Housler (ankle) practice fully for the first time Friday, so he is ready to play. He will be a welcome addition to the offense.

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How to deal with Graham

Posted by Darren Urban on September 18, 2013 – 10:40 am

Jimmy Graham is 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds. It’s the size of a scary looking pass rusher, only he’s playing tight end for the New Orleans Saints, and the Cardinals must find a way with which to cover him Sunday.

With 10 catches for 179 yards and a touchdown last week, Graham beat up the Buccaneers. The Cardinals, meanwhile, had their own issues covering the tight end in week one, when the Rams’ Jared Cook got loose for seven catches for 141 yards. The Cards did a much better job against the Lions’ Brandon Pettigrew last week (three catches for 32 yards) but Pettigrew and Graham aren’t in the same zip code in terms of importance or talent. Cook’s big game, and the looming Graham issue, underscores the importance of having Daryl Washington in the lineup. But Washington is out for two more games, and it means the Cards will probably have to attack Graham in different ways.

Some have asked if the Cards could use Patrick Peterson. I don’t see that. For one, Peterson has wide receivers to deal with, like Marques Colston. At 6-4 and 225 pounds, Colston himself has size with which to take on Peterson. I don’t see Peterson battling Graham. The Cardinals used safety Yeremiah Bell at linebacker some last week, and that makes sense to continue. That’s the lineup that got rookie safety Tony Jefferson on the field, and I could see a version of it again. Washington replacement Karlos Dansby will likely get some work in that regard. And any team is going to drop into a zone from time to time.

There’s another part of the equation that would help, and that would go for Graham or Colston or any of the receivers — getting some heat on quarterback Drew Brees. That goes without saying, but it will be crucial.


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A Cards’ week East between Saints and Bucs

Posted by Darren Urban on September 16, 2013 – 8:15 am

The Cardinals’ next two games are on the road, and the Cards will take that to the extreme. After the team plays in New Orleans this coming weekend, the team will head straight to Florida and spend the week before their game at Tampa Bay in Sarasota and practice in Bradenton.

It’s obviously not the first time the Cards have done this. In 2008, the Cards spent their week between road games at Washington and at the New York Jets in beautiful Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. It didn’t help on the scoreboard – the Cards lost both ends – but then-coach Ken Whisenhunt said at the time it could be a dress rehearsal for the team if they went to the Super Bowl and had to spend a week of prep in the Super Bowl city. Lo and behold, the Cardinals found themselves spending a week in Tampa the following January prepping for the Super Bowl.

No one is saying there will be a parallel here. But the powers-that-be determined that avoiding multiple plane trips is the best course in maneuvering this early-season schedule. It will mean the Cardinals should be well-adjusted to the 10 a.m. Arizona kickoff time by the time they get to the Tampa game. (The Cards will be facing a 10 a.m. Arizona kickoff time for the Saints game too and there will be an adjustment there.) Weather in the Sarasota area is supposed to be in the upper 80s that week.

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