Cardinals Preview: Destined for Another Third-Place Finish

Arizona is better, but not nearly enough to rise to the top of the NFC West

By
Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Cardinals, at 10-6 last season, were the NFL’s best team to not make the playoffs. Naturally, they’d be a trendy pick going into this season. Unfortunately, they play in the NFC West, one of the most loaded divisions we’ve seen since realignment in 2002.

To make the postseason, Bruce Arians’s club must be even better than it was a year ago. How can that happen?

First, let’s examine what the Cardinals were in 2013. They were coached well on both sides of the ball in terms of schematic design and week-to-week game-planning. Offensively, Arians did a great job manufacturing production from a very average collection of players. He used a variety of formations, including a lot of “tight split” and bunch concepts for his receivers, which created advantageous angles by providing more space off the line of scrimmage and giving routes more room to unfold downfield.

Arians also turned superstar wideout Larry Fitzgerald into his Z receiver, making him more of a movable chess piece, much like he did with Hines Ward in Pittsburgh and Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis. A lot of the time, this made Fitzgerald a possession type target or a decoy. Fitzgerald drew many double teams, which is why long-striding X receiver Michael Floyd had a career year, leading the team with 1,041 yards receiving. (Fitzgerald had 954.)

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Tight end Rob Housler was not overly impressive statistically, racking up 454 yards, but he was flexed often and developed a nice niche as a screen catcher. Arians is eager to build on those concepts moving forward, though perhaps with a more talented prospect. The Cards drafted Troy Niklas in the second round. Niklas will compete with veteran pickup John Carlson for playing time in the base two tight end sets.

Arians’s passing attack put a lot on quarterback Carson Palmer’s plate. Palmer was asked to be a sharp, decisive field-reader who could fling balls to the deep-intermediate levels, which are often the toughest throws. Never lacking trust in his arm, Palmer was aggressive and had results both good and bad.

Arians almost always asked Palmer to play from the pocket. Given Arizona’s porous offensive line, it was often a collapsing pocket. Palmer has the toughness to throw under duress, but he lacks the polished footwork to consistently persevere. One thing the 12th-year veteran did not like about Arians’s scheme was its frequent employment of 3 x 2 empty sets. According to Football Outsiders, the Cards went with this formation a league-high 16 percent of the time, often on third down. In an empty set, a quarterback has only the minimum five blockers. That meant one-on-one protection assignments for offensive tackles Bradley Sowell and Eric Winston, neither of whom were equipped for that. There were too many plays where Palmer got crushed or didn’t have a chance to compete.

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If Arians ran 3 x 2 with a bad O-line last year, it’s reasonable to assume he’ll run it again this year. At least it will be behind an improved group. Sowell has been moved from the left side to the right to compete with Bobbie Massie and make room for free-agent left tackle Jared Veldheer. The long-armed ex-Raider is not a stud, but he’ll be a much-needed steadying presence. At left guard, 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper is set to see his first action after missing all of last season with a broken fibula.

Cooper provides a boost in raw talent, which hopefully can compensate for center Lyle Sendlein, who sometimes struggles in a phone booth. Next to Sendlein and inside of Sowell will be 28-year-old Paul Fanaika, who has been trustworthier than last year’s fourth-round pick, Earl Watford.

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Arians won’t always burden his linemen in pass protection; he does understand the value of chip-blocking, which can easily be set up in a system that likes to align its eligible receivers close to the formation. That said, Arians might have more inspiration for 3 x 2 empties this year because Andre Ellington will be playing more snaps at running back. Besides having the explosive lateral agility and all-around quickness and control to be a dominant rusher, the 2013 sixth-round pick can also flourish in the passing game. Ellington is a polished enough receiver to beat not just linebackers and safeties but also some cornerbacks from the slot or even from a wide (“plus split”) position. If Ellington maintains his current rate of development, he’ll be a top five back by the end of this year. He’ll draw a lot of favorable matchups shifting out of the backfield and into a 3 x 2.

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With the rest of the wide receiving group back—save for slot man Andre Roberts, who is now in Washington and will be replaced by third-round rookie John Brown—the Cardinals have enough weapons to post big numbers in Arians’s system. But do they have the quarterback? Even when he’s protected, Palmer comes with highs and lows. His arm strength is not quite what it was, but it’s certainly still enough. The problem is he’ll occasionally believe in it too much and throw into coverage. What the Cardinals really have in Palmer is a veritable middle-tier NFL quarterback. At least that will provide a great telltale on whether Arians’s scheme is truly special.

DEFENSE

Rick Scuteri/AP
Rick Scuteri/AP

Cardinals’ defenders must also be a step better given this group’s offseason losses. Last year, coordinator Todd Bowles thrived using interior blitzes, featuring Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby. But now Washington is suspended for at least this season and possibly more (substance abuse punishment for this year, and discipline for a domestic assault guilty plea possibly on the horizon) and Dansby is cashing bigger, well-earned checks in Cleveland.

Now at inside linebacker are Kevin Minter and Larry Foote. Minter, being a second-round pick last year, is the more dynamic talent. But Foote, having 12 years of NFL experience—many of them in Pittsburgh, where he was a great setup man in Dick LeBeau’s similar 3-4 blitz designs—is the more important piece. His firm grasp on the concepts will be counted on to help create opportunities for others. For depth here, Cardinals GM Steve Keim also signed ex-Packer Desmond Bishop, who has experience as a 3-4 blitzing inside linebacker.

Bowles’s interior blitzes will remain significant because, aside from John Abraham, this defense doesn’t have viable outside pass rushers. And Abraham, at 36, may have to be helped more by the scheme, even though he was very good off the weak side edge last season, posting 11.5 sacks over his final 10 games. Abraham was not supposed to be a featured contributor, but then Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander were both lost with season-ending injuries in Week 3. That also helped propel steady but far from outstanding Matt Shaughnessy into a fulltime role. Shaughnessy returns on the strong side, where he’s a solid run defender.

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Many expected the Cardinals to draft an edge-rusher this offseason. Keim, however, presumably feels that a major investment in that expensive position is unnecessary for a defense that manufactures pressure through blitzes. Plus, the saving grace for Arizona’s pass rush is that, unlike most 3-4 fronts, it gets penetration from both of its defensive ends. Eleventh-year pro Darnell Dockett has tremendous strength, tenacity and hand quickness, making it tough to sustain blocks against him. Seventh-year pro Calais Campbell has freakish length mixed with equally notable power and dexterous movement in traffic. Bowles wisely utilizes both players on various stunts and gap-attacking concepts. On early downs, he’ll squeeze both inside, aligning them over the guards, shoulder-to-shoulder with nose tackle Dan Williams, creating a “Bear front” that’s nearly impossible to run against.

Bowles and his staff this season may want to incorporate more zone coverage in their scheme. But the reason they didn’t do that last year is the same reason they probably won’t do it this year. Their types of blitzes and safety rotations are best executed with press-man coverage on the outside. Plus, in Patrick Peterson, they have a corner who is the most gifted man-to-man shadow in the league but very average in zone. Peterson can play man with no help whatsoever (i.e. Cover 0) but no defender can play zone without help.

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Additionally, needing an upgrade over Jerraud Powers opposite Peterson, the Cardinals signed Antonio to a one-year, $3.25 million deal. The lanky ninth-year pro is another gifted man-to-man defender with little aptitude in zone. Zone requires reaction skills based largely on a football IQ; man requires reaction skills based on athletic instincts. Cromartie is equipped to play man.

It would be fun, though, seeing Tyrann Mathieu play zone. Mathieu is expected to be close enough to full strength at some point this season after tearing his ACL and LCL last December. He has extraordinary short-area redirection and quickness, and even more extraordinary football instincts. He was able to learn a host of positions last season, most prominently free safety in the base 3-4 and slot corner in nickel. He’ll assume those duties again this season, likely replacing Rashad Johnson in the base. At strong safety, heady veteran Yeremiah Bell is gone. In his place is first-round rookie Deone Bucannon. The Washington State product is touted for his speed and size, a potentially lethal combination when paired with Mathieu, which Bowles will take advantage of.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Jay Feely is trustworthy under pressure, though he did have six missed field goals on 36 attempts last season, and from a variety of ranges. Dave Zastudil ranked a ho-hum tied for 12th in net punting average, but his 35 punts inside the 20 tied Kansas City’s Dustin Colquitt for the league lead. Patrick Peterson can be explosive in punt returns, though he did not ignite last season, averaging just six yards per with a long of 22. This year, Ted Ginn Jr. will likely assume all return duties, though rookie receiver John Brown could warrant opportunities on kickoffs.

GO DEEP: Check out all of Andy Benoit’s 32 team previews going into the 2014 NFL season

BOTTOM LINE

The Cardinals are better this season, but not drastically enough. They seem destined for another third-place finish in the NFC West.

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9 comments
Raiderforlife
Raiderforlife

I will tell you something with the addition of Veldheer and the other improvements watch out for this team. Palmer can be a deadly QB they have all the pcs. They have a defense that is not chopped liver its the QB play Palmer has to throw the ball away more and live for the next play. The difference between this team and Seattle is not as great as people think.

davidhd
davidhd

I think the 49ers will be worse than expected this season, mainly because their defense will suffer from missing stars in the front seven for several weeks, and from having no one special in the secondary. The defense won't be bad, but it won't be what it was the last couple of years, and that will be a problem with SF's schedule. The Niners offense is still pretty good, and they added good WRs in the off season, but I'm not so sure Kaepernick can be the guy to put the team on his back when the defense and running game aren't as good, which they probably won't be.  


I wouldn't be surprised if Arizona came in second behind Seattle, even with the injuries. It's not probable, but it's certainly possible. 

bartt
bartt

Nothing about offensive improvements....the light went on for Palmer and his receivers week 8 last year, and they were a top-10 offense after that. Not to mention an OL with potentially three new starters this year. Sowell and Winston, whom Benoit correctly states were overmatched, will not be starting; Winston is gone and Sowell is now a reserve. Veldheer, one of the better young LTs, is now a starter and Jon Cooper who has all the potential in the world (yes, he has to prove it; but he should still be an upgrade over pedestrian at best Daryn Colledge) is the LG. Paul Fanaika at RG and Bobby Massie, last year's backup at RT have looked much better in preseason games and training camp practices over last year according to coaches and writers (that you know, actually cover the Cardinals every single day and watch their games).


John Brown and Jaron Brown (not mentioned in this article) have looked explosive at WR, even when working against the opposing first stringers in preseason. Ted Ginn Jr was signed to be a return specialist and Arians' requisite WR burner to stretch a defense. Injury-prone but very good TE John Carlson was signed. Troy Niklas was drafted at TE to block. Ellington is expected to get more touches at RB and more targets as a WR.


So yes, Dockett's injury hurts and so does losing Washington and Dansby, But with an apparently now-healthy Cromartie, Arizona should have two pro-bowl caliber CBs, a great nickel back in J Powers, Safety/Nickel Tyrann Mathieu and criminally underrated S in Tony Jefferson as well as a raw rook with a lot of potential in Deone (pronounced "day-own", for those that care) Bucannon.


In short, AZ's deficiencies last year were bad OL play, taking half a season for the offense and Palmer to learn the system (they went 7-2 the last nine games and were a top 10 offense after starting 3-4 and being ranked lowly) and develop chemistry, and a solid defense all around (perhaps with a moderately lacking pass rush) featuring the league's top-ranked run defense....


Fast forward to this year: OL play is expected to be much better (and will be necessary to run a true Arians drop-back deep passing game), Palmer and the offense appear much more in sync than one year ago (and have said as much), and at least several skill-position weapons (John Brown, Jaron Brown and John Carlson - perhaps even speedy Ted Ginn) appear to be have been added to an already formidable assortment of Larry Fitzgerald (who played most of last year with one or both hamstrings injured), Michael Floyd and Andre Ellington (who'll be utilized even more this year, per Arians, since he has bulked up). Andre Roberts, who was let go, was neither a large part of the offense, nor a particularly good  wide receiver.


The run defense will suffer and was most likely bound to regress anyways, since it was the top-ranked unit in the league in 2013. But Calais Campbell, Dan Williams and Alameda Ta'amu are themselves quite formidable, and Frostee Rucker, who will likely step into Dockett's position, has been excellent in relief, even if not a pro-bowl caliber player like Dockett. Inside backers Larry Foote and Kevin Minter will be the biggest question marks, although Minter was a vaunted run-stopping LB in college, he and the experienced Foote are surely a downgrade from Dansby and Washington.The Outside Linebacker position suffered lots of injuries to young players early last year, namely to Sam Acho and Alex Okafor, who with John Abraham are expected to contribute. The two younger players have talent, but will need to prove it, if they are going to be a part of offsetting the regression of the run defense via improved pass rush. The secondary, as discussed, was very good last year and will most likely be improved this year given the additions of Cromartie, Bucannon and the likely emergence of Tony Jefferson, a third-round prospect from Oklahoma who went undrafted in 2013 and contributed as a reserve last year.


So a 2013 10-6 team playing in a division with the Niners and Seahawks (both bound to regress at least a little), that will take a blow to it's elite defense (in run defense), but will likely be offset by an improved secondary and improved play at most offensive positions which were big problems in spite of a winning record last year (LT, LG, TE, QB at times, RT, RG), plus at some positions that weren't (WR) certainly MIGHT finish third or worse again. But don't be shocked if they make a leap and do it while looking more like an offense-oriented team this year.

NicolasMartin
NicolasMartin

Don’t overestimate the quality of the Niners, who, for various reasons, may have peaked.

Raiderforlife
Raiderforlife

@bartt They signed Kelly waived by the Pats I forgot to mentioned they can do more with the corner tandem they have this year. Docket is a big loss and they will have to overcome that and the corners will help with that. The way i see it they win 11-12 games possible 13 they will score points

davidhd
davidhd

@NicolasMartin Amen to that. I don't see how the Niners could possibly be as good as they were the past couple of seasons. Their success came from incredible defense and an elite running game, but they will be without their best defenders to start the season (Aldon Smith and Bowman), Justin Smith is old, Dorsey is out, and the secondary gets worse every year. Frank Gore is on the wrong side of thirty, Lattimore and the rest of the RBs are question marks, and Kaepernick hasn't shown an ability to win with his arm.

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