TEMPE, Ariz. — Maybe you see the Cardinals’ offensive-line shuffle as a modified version of the shell game — a frantic attempt to hide the weakness and inexperience at the tackle position in the wake of Levi Brown’s season-ending triceps injury.
Veteran Jeremy Bridges sees a more competitive game.
“It’s like playing musical chairs,” Bridges said. “We’ll see where we land when the music stops. We’ll see what opening week brings.”
In Week 4 of their preseason, the Cards gave 2011 practice squad member D.J. Young a crack at replacing Brown at left tackle. He was promptly burned on the game’s first two plays by Tennessee defensive end Kamerion Wimbley for a sack and a quarterback hurry.
Young was eventually replaced by undrafted, seven-year veteran D’Anthony Batiste, who was supposed to start the season as the right tackle. The line seemed to stabilize for a stretch with Batiste on the left side and rookie Bobby Massie at right tackle.
“I felt like I did improve on some things as far as picking up twists and stuff like that,” Batiste said. “I felt like me and (left guard) Adam (Snyder) getting on a better page and playing (alongside) each other a little more really helped out.”
But Batiste struggled the week before against the Raiders, and his body of work is lacking. He will start the club’s preseason finale Thursday against the Broncos so the Cardinals coaching staff can affirm the progress it believes it has seen and anoint Batiste the Week 1 starter.
“I would say that’s fair,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “We felt very strongly about D’Anthony coming into this season because of his work in the offseason and what he did for us last year in spot play.
“I just want to see him do it again this week, and I expect him to do that.”
If you are expecting Whisenhunt to throw his players under the bus, you will be disappointed, but rest assured, the Cardinals coaching staff is more than a little concerned about starting the season with Batiste and rookie Bobby Massie at the two tackle positions. Massie has made great progress and the fifth preseason game is an experience bonus, but he is still a rookie who only played three years of college ball.
The Cardinals will watch the final NFL roster cuts very closely next week, and “if there’s a way to get better, we’ll certainly look at” signing another lineman, Whisenhunt said.
But if this is as good as it gets, it raises an interesting question about the team’s faith in Bridges. When asked if Bridges is still a possibility at starting left tackle, Whisenhunt said: “We know what Jeremy can do. This process has been about finding what these other guys can do.”
But if he’s using Thursday’s game as affirmation that Batiste and Massie should be the starters, it begs the question of what Whisenhunt and line coach Russ Grimm don’t see in Bridges as a possible starter. Bridges is a 10-year veteran who came into the league as a tackle and played well on the left side in 2009 when starter Mike Gandy went down. His best moment came when he utterly negated Vikings pass rush specialist Jared Allen.
“Left tackle is what got me into the NFL,” Bridges said. “It’s like riding a bike. You might have to jump on that bike and take it around the corner a couple times, but it’s never left me.”
Bridges admits he has no idea how the lineup will shake out, but he believes he’s up for the starting task.
“I feel great. I don’t have any major bumps or bruises,” he said. “All I can do is continue to work hard, continue to show them that I am worthy, I am still trustworthy and I can still do it.”
Whisenhunt insists he is “not uncomfortable with Bridges at tackle,” but that’s a long way from saying he feels comfortable. It’s a curious statement given the line’s lack of experience. Doesn’t it make sense on some level to go into the season with a stabilizing veteran presence at the line’s most difficult position? Don’t you want a guy who’s seen everything before?
The Cardinals may well come to that opinion if Batiste struggles, but for now, it appears that, as defensive coordinator Ray Horton likes to say, “it’s a young man’s game.”
We’ll see if youthful energy prevails over wisdom.