Cardinals look to defense, ground game for success
For years, the Arizona Cardinals struggled playing defense and running the ball. Going into this season, those are their strengths, and they'll need them if they expect to improve on an 8-8 season of a year ago.
With problems at quarterback and along the offensive line, the passing game is a big question mark, even though Arizona features one of the most prolific wide receivers in the NFL in Larry Fitzgerald.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt waited until the end of the preseason to choose a starting quarterback as neither Kevin Kolb nor John Skelton distinguished themselves in practice or in games.
Whisenhunt says he hopes the offense will surprise people from the opening kickoff. If not, he's comfortable leaning on the defense for a while.
''You know? That's fine,'' he said. ''A lot of teams have done that in the past. I'd like to think that we won't have to, but if you do and the defense understands that, then that's what teams do. I've seen that happen before. I think the 2000 Baltimore Ravens that won the Super Bowl did that. I remember in Pittsburgh one year when Ben (Roethlisberger) started as a rookie, in that transition period the defense stepped up and did a great job and then the offense caught up.''
Whisenhunt was offensive coordinator for the Steelers before coming to the desert as head coach in 2007. A year later, he staged a similar quarterback competition between Matt Leinart and Kurt Warner, finally giving the job to Warner the week before the season opener. That Arizona team went on to the Super Bowl, the only Cardinals team to do so.
The problem this year is that Warner is not one of the alternatives.
Which leaves the defense and the running game.
Arizona returns nearly every player from last year's defense, a unit that once it got the drift of new coordinator Ray Horton's scheme, was a main reason the Cardinals, after a dismal start, won seven of their last nine.
''We think that we can be good, real good,'' safety Kerry Rhodes said. ''We're just trying to carry out that, play off that. Every dominant defense wants to be the team that takes the field first, and that's what we take our pride in.''
In the final nine games, Arizona ranked third in the league in touchdowns allowed, first in third-down defense, tied for third in sacks, second in yards per pass attempt and first in red zone defense. The team allowed a combined nine touchdowns rushing and passing in that span. Only Pittsburgh and Houston allowed fewer (eight).
Carrying over that momentum is tricky business, though.
''Just because you did it doesn't mean you're going to do it again,'' Whisenhunt said.
Much pressure will be on Patrick Peterson, the marvelously talented player who, as a rookie, became the first in NFL history to return four punts for touchdowns of 88 yards or longer, including a winning 99-yard return in overtime. But as a shutdown cornerback, he remains a work in progress.
He knows how important he is in both roles.
''If we can go out there and take the ball away, create turnovers, put our offense in good field position, even punt returns, with me back there, I have an opportunity to take it to the house at any given time,'' Peterson said. ''But to put the offense in good field position is something we're going to have to do throughout the season. That's our job, to try to keep those guys off the scoreboard.''
The Cardinals are expecting a strong 1-2 running punch with Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams. The powerful Wells earned the respect of his coach last season when, despite being bothered by a sore knee most of the year, rushed for 1,047 yards and 10 touchdowns. He had knee surgery at the end of the season and still was working to get back to top form as the regular season approached. Arizona is especially eager to get Williams on the field. The dynamic running back with uncanny cutting ability missed all of his rookie season in 2011 with a torn tendon in his right knee.
''We're definitely going to need to be able to run the ball to be effective,'' Fitzgerald said. ''We've got to be balanced. You never want to go out there and just throw the ball all the time. I think we have some really talented backs, some guys that can go back there and do some things for us. So we want to use those, and ride those guys.''
The offensive line was shaky enough before losing starting left tackle Levi Brown to a season-ending triceps injury. The patchwork group struggled mightily in pass protection in the preseason but was better in run blocking.
''Some of the pass protection stuff is not just the offensive line,'' Whisenhunt said. ''Some of it's the quarterbacks. Some of it's the tight ends. Some of it's the backs. It all fits together. But we've got to do a better job of that. There's no question about it.''
If they don't, they will be failing to utilize a receiver whose career statistics match or exceed the best in the game. Since 2005, he ranks first in the NFL in yards receiving (8,835), first in touchdown catches (65) and third in receptions (650). And he still hasn't turned 30.
''You want to get the ball into your best players' hands and make them get you the best opportunity to be successful on a week to week basis,'' he said. ''There's Patrick on punt returns, LaRod Stephens-Howling on kickoffs, Ryan Williams and Beanie in the running game. You want to get those guys the football and hope for the best.''
Fitzgerald, supplemented by a strong group of receivers that includes speedy Andre Roberts and first-round draft pick Michael Floyd, is foremost among ''those guys.''
''When Larry gets the ball and gets rolling,'' Whisenhunt said, ''it just seems to elevate the whole team.''
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