Arizona Cardinals offense finds big plays elusive

Arizona Cardinals fans are wondering where all of the big plays have gone.

The dynamic offense that carried the Cardinals to the Super Bowl has morphed into one that has to plunk a short pass here and there to move the ball downfield.

Then again, the bar was set very high.

Remember Larry Fitzgerald had TD catches of 42 yards against Atlanta in the first round, 29 yards against Carolina in the conference semifinals, 62 yards against Philadelphia in the NFC championship game and 64 yards against Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. Anquan Boldin caught a 71-yarder for a touchdown against Atlanta.

Kurt Warner completed 92 of 135 passes for 1,147 yards and 11 touchdowns, with three interceptions, in the four postseason contests.

“It seemed like every time we dialed one up we had an opportunity at it,” Warner said after Wednesday’s practice.

Fitzgerald had the best postseason of any receiver in NFL history with 30 catches for 546 yards and seven touchdowns, all league records.

Fitzgerald has a team-high 47 catches for 509 yards, but he’s averaging 10.8 yards per reception compared with 14.9 in the playoffs. His longest this season is 27 yards.

“I think if you’re coming in to play the Cardinals, defenses look at what happened last year and they say ‘We’re going to make sure we don’t let Larry get down the field,”‘ coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

Fitzgerald said the double teams are “not every play but I see my fair share of coverages.”

“But we’re not using excuses,” he said. “We’ve just got to find solutions.”

Whisenhunt and Warner say the lack of plays downfield is about half due to opponents’ defensive adjustments and half due to the Cardinals‘ failure to execute properly.

“The defense has done a good job in certain instances of just taking it away when we call a deep play or something to take a shot,” Warner said. “We’re just not getting the right look. Then there have been other times where we have had a good look, and we just haven’t made it work.”

The Cardinals, who play at Chicago on Sunday, have had to move the ball a few yards at a time as defenses scheme to take away the deep threat.

“I understand that we haven’t had a lot of those plays this year, but you look at what we have done,” Whisenhunt said. “In four of the seven games that we have played this year we have opened the game with an extended touchdown drive, which is something that is oftentimes overlooked. That’s not easy to do.”

Warner often has had to check down to his running back Tim Hightower, whose 39 catches are the most by a running back in the NFL.

“A lot of people think of us as a huge big-play team because of the playoffs,” Warner said. “Although we want a lot more of those, I don’t think that’s how we have to be successful. I think we are built to be successful in other ways as well.”

The coach acknowledges, though, that big plays “energize your team.”

“We are trying to do that. We are trying to take our shots,” Whisenhunt said. “Also, we are not going to throw the ball up. If they take it away, we are going to try to check down and get positive yardage and keep the chains moving. We have done a good job of that.”

The Cardinals rank eighth in passing, 18th in total offense and last in rushing among 32 NFL teams, but Whisenhunt points to Arizona’s 138 first downs.

“That means we are having sustained drives. We are moving the football,” he said. “Maybe we’re not having 50-yard plays, but I think we are doing some things well.”