Late in the Cardinals’ humiliating 17-3 loss to the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome, television cameras displayed a wide shot of Arizona’s starting offensive line, seated along the sideline.
The mixture of fatigue and bewilderment on those five faces said it all. This one was on the guys in the trenches, and there’s no other way to analyze it.
Using mostly four-man rushes, the Rams sacked Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb nine times — and smacked him around like a rag doll countless other times — to keep Arizona’s offense out of the end zone and nearly off the scoreboard.
On the heels of Miami’s eight-sack effort last Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, the Cards have allowed a whopping 17 sacks in their past two games, becoming the first NFL team in nine years to allow eight or more sacks in consecutive games.
“We have a lot of film study to do, we have a lot of things to fix,” guard Daryn Colledge told Darren Urban of azcardinals.com. “I don’t know if we bought into our own hype or what, but we obviously weren’t ready to play tonight.”
This was the offensive line play many feared we’d see after starting left tackle Levi Brown was lost for the season with a torn triceps and valuable reserve Jeremy Bridges was placed on injured reserve with torn thumb ligaments.
Predictably, the barbs of fans were already taking aim at offensive line coach Russ Grimm, who still hasn’t produced a Pro Bowl selection (Brown was an alternate in 2009) in his five-plus seasons in Arizona.
But what is it Grimm has to work with this season? His starting guards are players other teams deemed expendable — Colledge in Green Bay and Adam Snyder in San Francisco. His starting tackles are a seven-year pro who had four career starts before this season (left tackle D’Anthony Batiste) and a rookie (Bobby Massie).
That’s the hand Grimm was dealt, so it’s his job to coach them up. But Massie would never have been in a position for which he appears too raw had Cardinals general manager Rod Graves and the personnel decision-makers addressed this position through the draft and free agency.
Massie is the only offensive lineman the Cards have taken above the fifth round since they took Brown in the first round in 2007. The front office and coaching staff have long remained cavalier in the face of criticism for those decisions. Now, those decisions are coming back to bite them.
Without Brown and Bridges, the Cardinals have no alternatives to the players they put on the field. Rookie seventh-round pick Nate Potter is the backup at both tackle positions, where the Cards were absolutely shredded on Thursday night. But don’t overlook the poor play of Snyder and Colledge, either. Both made more than their share of mistakes, and the only alternatives at those positions are rookie fifth-round pick Senio Kelemete and journeyman Rich Ohrnberger, whose comedic talents might be a welcome relief to a beleaguered unit this week.
Some fans were bewildered by the lack of help the Cards gave their tackles when it was obvious they were overmatched by Robert Quinn and Co. Some of that was due to the fact that two tight ends — Todd Heap and Jim Dray — are out of the lineup with injuries. Some of that was on the staff for not adjusting.
“It’s always easy to say you had this many sacks up front. But you have to look at some of the factors that contributed,” coach Ken Whisenhunt told the team’s radio network. “If we make a play or two to take some pressure off the offensive line, we could do some different things. And we didn’t get that done.”
Look, the structure of the NFL leads to overanalysis of every game. There are only 16 games, and they only come once a week, so we are left to sift through the detritus for a week — or more, in this case.
In the big picture, the Cardinals are still 4-1, a mark anybody surrounding this club would have taken but few would have predicted at the start of the season. The defense still looks tough as nails, Patrick Peterson may be ready to bust out in the return game and Kolb is maturing before our eyes.
Despite the waves of withering pressure, Kolb stood in the pocket and took a beating or extended plays with his feet to give the Cardinals a chance. Did he misfire on some passes? Sure. Who wouldn’t have in the face of that kind of pressure? But if anybody questioned his toughness coming into Thursday’s game, nobody should now.
“We have to get back to the protection we had the first couple of games,” Whisenhunt said. “I know we can do it. We will work on our technique, we will work on what we are doing scheme-wise and we will get better at it.”
The Cards also need to run the ball better. When you manage just 45 rushing yards and throw the ball 50 times, your quarterback is going to absorb more hits. But that, too, is mostly on the offensive line, which needs to help the offense strike a happy medium to find that happy place.
The Cardinals will have 10 days to rest, regroup and attempt to return to that place before facing the Bills, a team they should beat Oct. 14 at home to move to 5-1.
In that light, it’s easy to spit this one out — chalk it up to a mountain of obstacles the Cards faced this week, from three days in between games to the two-time-zone change to the M*A*S*H unit worth of players that found their way onto the official injury report this week.
But if the Cards don’t find a solution up front — and fast — we won’t get a chance to witness another quarterback controversy when John Skelton returns from an ankle injury. Kolb won’t survive long enough for that to happen.
The Cardinals’ offensive line woes are real. No matter how much Whisenhunt, his staff and the players circle the wagons, they won’t be able to hide what is already in plain view for everyone to see.