Fixing offense biggest key to Cardinals' playoff hopes

Long layoff has offered Cardinals chance to look closer at offense, which must improve for playoff run.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- When the Cardinals return to the field Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium to take on the Texans, they will have played just one game in a 24-day span. 

The combination of a Thursday game (Oct. 17) against the Seahawks and then their bye week created unusually long periods of rest, allowing banged-up bodies to heal and stressed-out minds to relax.

But the break also afforded the Cardinals a chance for introspection, particularly on offense, where there is plenty to ponder after a disappointing first half.

"I've always used bye weeks as a really good chance to self-scout; try to look for things that (opponents) might be looking for and try to do the opposite," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "I had a chance to go back and really look at third down and red zone and stuff like that you know other teams are watching -- look for any tells, any tendencies, and try and improve on that in the second half."
If the Cardinals are seriously going to challenge for a wild-card spot in the NFC, the offense must be better than it was over the first eight games, when it ranked 29th in the NFL in yards per game (314.5), 18th in passing yards (221.4) and 24th in rushing yards (93.1) while Palmer threw 14 interceptions, the second-highest total in the league.

It's not as simple as saying it and then doing it, but here are five areas where the offense must improve.

1. Third-down conversions: The Cardinals' 31.6 percent conversion rate ranks 31st in the 32-team NFL. Coaches always harp on third-down efficiency and red-zone efficiency as key indicators of an offense's success. There are several factors in the Cardinals' lack of success, as coach Bruce Arians recently noted: "A conglomeration of mistakes, overthrows, bad balls, dropped passes, guys running wrong routes, not knowing each other quite well enough under some coverages, sacks, pressure." The Cards have had fewer than four yards to go on just 23 third-down attempts this year, managing a first down on 15 of them (65.2 percent). They have faced between third-and-4 and third-and-6 yards 26 times, converting 12 times (46.2 percent). On third-and-7 to third-and-10, they are 7 for 33 (21.2 percent). They have yet to convert anything longer in 19 chances. 

2. Cut back on mental errors: Playing off what Arians said above, the Cardinals have been together long enough now that they shouldn't be making the same mistakes indicative of a personnel group unfamiliar with one another. Some of Palmer's interceptions have been due to receivers running the wrong routes, not get the right depth or not reading situations correctly. That can't happen. Some of the blocking schemes have failed because the offensive line hasn't had cohesiveness. That has to be limited. Some of Palmer's interceptions have been thrown because a receiver got bumped off a route or Palmer simply forced the ball where it shouldn't have gone. His reads have to be better (which goes hand in hand with better protection) and his decision-making has to be better. He's been in this league too long to make some of the mistakes he's made. It should be noted that this offense is complex -- maybe too complex -- but others have managed to run it, so that feels like a hollow excuse.

3. Red-zone execution: In red-zone scoring efficiency (touchdowns and field goals), the Cardinals rank fourth in the NFL, scoring on 90.9 percent of trips inside the 20 (20 of 22). That sounds good, but the Cardinals are only tied for 15th in red-zone touchdown efficiency, scoring TDs on 54.5 percent of their trips inside the 20 (12 of 22), and 
Palmer's red-zone passer rating is 65.7, the fourth-worst of any team in the NFL. The good news? The offense has doubled its efficiency in the red zone over the past four games. After scoring four TDs on its first 11 red zone possessions (36.4 percent), Arizona has scored eight TDs on its last 11 possessions inside the 20-yard line (72.7 percent). That trend must continue.

4. Run the ball a little better: Duh. Everyone wants to do this. We're not saying the Cardinals need to produce like they did against the Falcons, when they had 201 yards on the ground. Nor is running for big yards the indicator it once was of NFL success. But you saw what the real threat of a run did for the passing game against Atlanta. Arizona's 4.0 yards per carry ranks 18th in the NFL, and its 93.1 yards per game ranks 24th. A slight increase in both numbers would pay positive dividends. Of course, it would help if the Cardinals ran more offensive plays, period, to give them a chance at improvement. They are averaging 61 plays and have run just 492 plays overall, the fourth fewest in the NFL. Which brings us back to those third-down conversions ...

5. Break with tendencies: Here's an example of what Palmer was talking about when he mentioned mixing it up. When the Cardinals have third-and-1 in the red zone, they have run the ball 60 percent of the time. When they have third-and-2, they run 66.7 percent of the time. But when they face third-and-3, third-and-4 or third-and-5, they haven't run the ball at all. Not once. That's OK if you're converting, and we understand the Cards don't have a big, powerful running back, but if a team knows what's coming, it's a lot easier to stop it. Shake it up a little bit. 

"Watching the tape, we're just a hair off on this, a hair off on that," receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "Once we get over that hump, we're really going to be rolling and I'm hoping we can do that this week."