Reasons for optimism, concern as Cardinals open season

The Cardinals get their second season under Bruce Arians started Monday night against the Chargers.

Jake Roth/Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. — As each day passes, it seems to bring with it another reason for concern for the Cardinals. How many more personnel losses can Arizona absorb before all realistic hope fades for the 2014 season?

At least the Cardinals finished the preseason and all practices leading up to their season-opener Monday night against the San Diego Chargers at University of Phoenix Stadium. If they’re going to lose anyone else, it will come in meaningful battle.

As kickoff approaches, there are still reasons to feel good about this roster. Here are both sides of the coin.

1. A year under their belts: At this time last season, the Cardinals were swimming in a confusing sea of new terminology, new offensive and defensive systems and new personnel. It took half a season to figure things out. That shouldn’t be a problem this season. To a man, the Cardinals offensive and defensive players said they are light years ahead of last season, and that should allow them to play faster and smarter from the time the opening kickoff is launched.


CHARGERS AT CARDINALS

When: 7:20 p.m. Monday
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale
TV: ESPN (Chris Berman, Trent Dilfer, Lindsay Czarniak)

3 THINGS TO WATCH

The Cardinals’ running game: Arizona is playing things tight to the vest on Andre Ellington’s availability, calling him a game-time decision with a foot injury, but that could a ploy. Without Ellington, the Cardinals rushing attack changes dramatically with two backs known more for their hard running and pass protection than their skills in space. It’s also worth wondering how much the Cards were game planning for Ellington’s presence before he re-aggravated his foot injury on Thursday. How quickly can they change direction and get Jonathan Dwyer and Stepfan Taylor ready for action?

The Cardinals’ front seven: Darnell Dockett has been replaced by veteran Frostee Rucker, who knows this system, so that transition should be fluid, but his backups, Ed Stinson and Kareem Martin, are rookies who must contribute. Then there’s the inside linebacker position where Kevin Minter and Larry Foote will get their first chance to make people forget about Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington. And oh, by the way, how will outside linebacker John Abraham’s 36-year-old legs look after missing most of camp?

The return game: Can Ted Ginn provide a spark that’s been missing the past two seasons, or at least give the Cardinals shorter fields with which to work? Given the altered kickoff yard-line, it’s harder to bring back kicks, but Chargers kicker Nick Novak had the fewest touchbacks (18) in the NFL and the lowest percentage (19.6) last season so Ginn could get some chances.

INJURY REPORT

Chargers: CB Chris Davis (ankle) is out; TE Antonio Gates (hamstring), S Jahleel Addae (hamstring), DE Lawrence Guy (shoulder), DT Sean Lissemore (ankle), ILB Manti Te’o (foot). WR Keenan Allen (ribs) and CB Jason Verret (shoulder) are probable.

Cardinals: OLB Alex Okafor (thigh) is out; RB Andre Ellington (foot), P Dave Zastudil (left groin) and FS Tyrann Mathieu (knee) are questionable. LG Jonathan Cooper (toe), WR Larry Fitzgerald (knee), ILB Kevin Minter (pec) and DT Frostee Rucker (back) are probable.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

A fast start in one of two seemingly easier portions of their schedule (Weeks 1 and 2; Weeks 7-11). The Cardinals have seven games against teams that finished the 2013 season with at least 10 wins, including Seattle (13) and San Francisco (12) twice, Denver (13), Kansas City (11) and Philadelphia (10). With the exception of the Chiefs, all of those teams look like playoff locks again.

OUTLOOK

Even without all those key pieces, the suspicion here is that the Cardinals will start fast and take care of business on home turf. But the Chargers posted impressive road wins last season against playoff qualifiers Philadelphia, Kansas City and Denver. They cannot be overlooked.

PREDICTION

Cardinals 24, Chargers 20

2. The coaching staff: Despite his age, Bruce Arians, 61, doesn’t have a lot of head coaching experience, but he won in both prior seasons he held that title — interim or permanent — and his Steelers history carries a lot more winning baggage. Talent ultimately determines wins and losses, but this detail-focused, creative staff may squeeze a couple wins out of a team when logic might dictate otherwise. 

3. Offensive personnel: Speed receivers Ted Ginn and John Brown should give the Cardinals deep threats while opening things up underneath for Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, the tight ends and the backs. Left tackle Jared Veldheer has looked the part of an elite left tackle, which should aid a longtime weakness and increase protection for QB Carson Palmer. John Carlson should give Arizona the tight end threat Rob Housler was supposed to be and may still become now that he has someone truly pushing him. The guess here is that the Cardinals will score plenty of points.

4. The secondary: Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie joins Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson to form one of the best tandems in the league, provided they stay healthy. When Tyrann Mathieu returns to the lineup and Deone Bucannon grabs the starter’s role, the Cardinals could have an equally talented safety duo, with depth behind them in Rashad Johnson and Tony Jefferson. Toss in the speed of cornerback Justin Bethel and the heady play of nickel back Jerraud Powers and there’s a lot to like about the Cardinals’ back end.

5. Defensive end Calais Campbell: He is one of the league’s most underrated players. The loss of defensive tackle Darnell Dockett to a season-ending ACL tear is not a good thing for the Cardinals defensive line — the strength of the defense last season — but Dockett’s absence may finally allow Campbell to become a stronger voice of leadership in the locker room and the field. He doesn’t have to play little brother to Dockett’s big personality any more. Maybe this will be the season when he finally blossoms into a Pro Bowl defensive end — a position at which it is most difficult to attain that status.

1. Running back Andre Ellington’s foot: So much of what the Cardinals had planned on offense this season involved the second-year pro out of Clemson. The Cardinals wanted to get him in space. The Cardinals wanted to line him up at receiver. The Cardinals wanted to use him on runs through the line in their zone-blocking scheme. What happens if he misses significant time? Coach Bruce Arians said Saturday he is not worried about that and Ellington will be a game-time decision on Monday, but if he plays, it will likely be through a fairly significant injury, and how much will that impact his dynamic play-making ability? And if he doesn’t play? The staff says "next man up" because that’s what they have to say; it’s the only attitude they can adopt. But Jonathan Dwyer and Stepfan Taylor don’t possess the same skill set. Good teams build depth for these very reasons, but far more often than not, the guy sitting at No. 2 on the depth chart is there for a reason — because he represents a drop-off from the guy at No. 1.

2. The inside linebackers: This one has been discussed ad nauseam, but until Kevin Minter and Larry Foote prove they can compensate for the losses of Karlos Dansby (free agency) and Daryl Washington (suspension), the question will persist. It’s hard to imagine anyone replacing the play-making abilities of Dansby and Washington. This could be a season-long weakness.

3. The defensive line rotation: Frostee Rucker doesn’t represent much of a drop-off from Dockett, so the starting unit should be fine. When reserve nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu’s conditioning is 100 percent, that will bolster the run defense all the more. But the depth elsewhere is a concern with rookies Ed Stinson, Kareem Martin and veteran Tommy Kelly — a cast-off from two teams the last two seasons — being counted on to log important snaps.

4. The pass rush: This will depend largely on the legs of 36-year old outside linebacker John Abraham. He had 11.5 sacks last season despite not moving into the starting lineup until the fourth game. But he missed much of camp following a DUI arrest and subsequent time in rehab, he grew a year older and at some point, Father Time will catch up to him. The Cardinals hope they can squeeze one more productive season out of him, even if it means returning to the spot duty he was slated for when the 2013 season began.

5. The schedule: The Cardinals have seven games against teams that finished the 2013 season with at least 10 wins, including Seattle (13) and San Francisco (12) twice, Denver (13), Kansas City (11) and Philadelphia (10). Half of their games come against teams that made the playoffs last season. The NFL is a topsy-turvy league where last year’s powerhouse can be this year’s doormat, but the early view is daunting.

— Former Arizona QB Kurt Warner will be inducted into the Cardinals Ring of Honor at halftime.

— Monday’s game marks the team’s 86th straight sellout — every game since the Cardinals moved to University of Phoenix Stadium.

— Cardinals CB Antonio Cromartie played in San Diego from 2006-09.; LB Thomas Keiser played for the Chargers in 2013. 

— Chargers special teams coordinator Kevin Spencer coached special teams for the Cardinals from 2007-12, quality control-defense coach Chad Grimm served as a quality control coach with Arizona from 2009-12, and offensive coordinator Frank Reich was the Cardinals’ receivers coach in 2012.

— WR Larry Fitzgerald needs 54 receptions in 2014 to reach 900 for his career. Only 15 players in league history have totaled 900 or more. 

— OLB John Abraham needs 8.5 sacks to pass Hall of Famer Michael Strahan (141.5) for fifth place all-time in NFL history.

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