by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
These days, there’s about as much optimism in Arizona as there is rain. Even the Cardinals themselves don’t sound too amped about their chances in 2012. They seem to understand that it’s never good when your quarterback competition carries on through the entire preseason. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt reluctantly made a final decision after the fourth meaningless contest, naming John Skelton the starter. This comes a year after Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves traded cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick to acquire Kevin Kolb. And that's not even counting the big new contract they had to reward him with.
Skelton didn’t win the job -– he simply did less than Kolb to lose it. It could be tough for him to validate Whisenhunt’s decision given that Arizona’s offensive line is atrocious. And given that the backfield features two high-drafted but injury-plagued ballcarriers. And given that the receiving corps may not get the infusion of talent it so desperately needs if first-round pick Michael Floyd continues to come along as slowly as he has thus far.
Yup ... things are bleak in Arizona. But if you look closely at last year, you could find yourself perplexingly encouraged. Hardly anyone noticed, but the Cardinals won seven of their final nine games last season. They did so because their defense got comfortable with new coordinator Ray Horton’s Pittsburghian scheme. That defense, which features an active front seven (though one still deprived of a premium pass-rusher) and an emerging shutdown cornerback in Patrick Peterson, should only be better in 2012.
The offense, as bad as it is, should be better as well. It’s awful now, but it was awful-plus-one during that 7-2 finish. It's reasonable to expect that Skelton and Kolb will be better having spent more time in Whisenhunt’s system. The injury-riddled backfield is (relatively) healthy now. And while not all the receivers have progressed as hoped, there’s still more raw talent at the position that what was here before. No receiving unit can really be that bad if Larry Fitzgerald is in it.
This isn’t exactly an enthralling rally cry, but hey, in the desert, a light sprinkle of rain can sometimes feel like a downpour.
Besides bank account sizes, what are the biggest differences between John Skelton and Kevin Kolb? Pocket toughness, for one. While Raiders defensive tackle Tommy Kelly may have been a bit extreme in describing Kolb as "scared" under pressure, plenty of evidence suggests the sixth-year quarterback is at least markedly uncomfortable when forced to hang in a trembling pocket. Kolb’s eyes have a tendency to drift away from the field and towards the defensive line. When he’s really struggling, he’ll start to perceive pressure.
Exacerbating the effects of Kolb’s iffy pocket poise is his arm strength, which, by NFL standards, is nothing more than modest. Quarterbacks without a cannon must compensate with anticipation and accuracy. Well, anticipating windows requires almost-undivided attention downfield. There’s no room for pocket jitters.
Ken Whisenhunt may be willing to help his quarterback by installing more shotgun snaps and quick-strikes into the passing designs, but as the Cardinals found out with Kurt Warner, that type of system hums only when the quarterback can ingeniously read the field prior to the snap. Even then, the quarterback must play with no regard for the possibility of taking a hit immediately after releasing the ball. Warner was special in this way.
John Skelton is much firmer in the pocket than Kolb. He stands tall and relies on his sufficiently strong arm. His throwing motion, however, is somewhat side-armed, which nullifies some of his advantageous 6-foot-5 frame. Don’t confuse toughness in the pocket with refinement in the pocket. Skelton showed poor footwork under pressure last season. Too often he threw off-balance when his protection waivered. That further compromised his already inconsistent accuracy.
Skelton must get better at reading the field. He can make the occasional spectacular throw, but most of quarterbacking is about simply pulling the trigger with rhythm and confidence so that the offense functions the way it’s designed to function.
Arizona’s offense is designed to function around Larry Fitzgerald. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the ninth-year superstar has been admirably professional (and honest) in handling the frustrating quarterback woes. (The other one percent of the time, he’s succumbed to human nature.)
Fitzgerald is one of maybe three or four receivers in the world whom you can throw to even when he’s tightly double-teamed. He levitates with athleticism and skill; he wins positioning battles no matter what kind of route he’s running; he’s fundamentally flawless and has strong hands. Something Fitzgerald doesn’t get enough credit for –- and something he worked diligently to develop a few years ago –- is his run-after-catch explosiveness. That’s part of the reason he averaged a staggering 17.6 yards per grab in 2011.
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Every star receiver still needs help around him, though. Fitzgerald hasn’t had that since Anquan Boldin left. The hope was that the developing Early Doucet could blossom into a viable No. 2, but the "developing Early Doucet" hasn’t developed. Doucet struggles to shake man coverage, and he’s prone to mistakes, as was on display during his faceplant on what would have been the game-winning touchdown against the Bengals in Week 16 last season.
Third-year pro Andre Roberts has shown hints of upside. The 24-year-old Citadel product has some quickness and a knack for finding voids in zone coverages. However, he is also mistake-prone, and in the long haul, he’s more suited to be a niche player in the slot. The Cardinals know this. That’s why they spent a first-round pick on Michael Floyd. The 225-pounder from Notre Dame is hand-crafted to be a potent possession target on the outside. However, there are concerns about Floyd’s consistency and maturity. The fact that he may spend this season on the depth chart behind undrafted rookie LaRon Byrd doesn’t quell those concerns.
When your "starting quarterback" doesn’t read the field well and your backup quarterback doesn’t throw with great power, it’s important to have reliable tight ends between the numbers. The Cardinals don’t seem to. Jeff King has no explosiveness. He has a veteran’s understanding of the game, and he’ll catch what you toss him underneath, but no defense feels a smidgen of anxiety when King lines up. Todd Heap can spark some anxiety, but a career-long susceptibility to injuries has taken a noticeable toll on his 32-year-old body. In the Cardinals’ perfect world, 2011 third-round pick Rob Housler would emerge as the No. 1 tight end. They believe Housler is versatile enough to split outside or in the slot, which is key for tight ends in today’s NFL.
The problem is that Housler can’t block. He can be a liability if asked to grind down the line of scrimmage. Come to think of it, he’d fit right in on Arizona’s offensive line. If last year is any indication, it’s the worst offensive line in the NFL. Part of the reason toughness under pressure factored so heavily into the quarterback decision is it’s all but inevitable that whoever drops back will be under siege.
What’s surprising is that the front five’s issues have been mental as much as anything. Offensive line coach Russ Grimm has long been regarded as one of the best assistants in the business. But last season, Grimm’s group made the same inexcusable mental blunders again and again. And, tactically, they were often put in unfavorable positions, particularly in slide protection concepts against 3-4 defenses.
Things might get worse in 2012. Left tackle Levi Brown was a liability in 2011. He’s out for the season with a torn triceps. So now at left tackle is D’Anthony Batiste, an undrafted 30-year-old journeyman who could hardly even push Brown for playing time. With incumbent turnstyle Jeremy Bridges headed to IR, fourth-round rookie Bobby Massie could be forced to play the right side out of the gate. Massie isn’t refined enough to entrust with protecting a quarterback’s blind side, and he may not even be ready enough to play on the right. The Cardinals plucked Pat McQuistan off waivers, and also have seventh-rounder Nate Potter in reserve.
Things aren’t much better inside. Center Lyle Sendlein made too many pass protection errors last season. Right guard Adam Snyder has always failed as a starter. It’d be wiser to cast him in his customary utility backup role, though that would likely mean starting fifth-round rookie Senio Kelemete, which would make the right side of the line way too callow. The only bright spot up front is at left guard, where seventh-year pro Daryn Colledge is a cut or two above adequate. Colledge can sometimes be shaky against bull-rushers, but most of the time he’s a steady all-around force who offers good mobility on the ground.
The ground is where Arizona must thrive in 2012. They have a potentially dynamic one-two punch in Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams, but both players’ injury history suggests the Cardinals could find themselves relying on third-down back LaRod Stephens-Howling. Wells is a patient, methodical runner with enough burst to turn the corner. If his surgically repaired knee holds up, he can easily be a 1,000-yard force. Williams, coming off a serious right knee injury, is more of a speed-and-acceleration type runner. However, he also flashes surprising power, which is why the Cardinals overlooked his hamstring problems at Virginia Tech to draft him early in the second round last year.
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Give Ray Horton a world of credit. In his debut as a coordinator last season, the longtime Steelers assistant shoveled his entire scheme –- which is a more diverse and aggressive variation of Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 –- on the Cardinals’ plates. Horton knew that with no offseason, his players would be overwhelmed with the volume of different coverages, front seven looks, and blitz disguises early on. He even told the coaching staff that things would be ugly out of the chutes. This would make everyone ripe for criticism. The bet was that the players would learn everything on the fly and morph into a dynamic defense during the second half of the year, giving the Cardinals a chance at a late-season push. It would also give the coaching staff a more immediate sense of who did and didn’t fit the scheme, thus accelerating the club’s wider-scale rebuilding efforts.
Horton’s plan materialized exactly as expected.
The Cardinals allowed 30-plus points in four of their first seven games. The defense busted coverages regularly and failed to generate any pressure despite bringing the kitchen sink on most of its many blitzes. This, combined with Arizona’s feeble offense, led to a 1-6 start.
Then in early November, the Cardinals defense started to click. Over the last nine games, it allowed point totals of 13, 10, 23 (seven of which were set up by a Skelton interception), 13, 13, 19, 17, 23 and 20.
Besides the players better understanding Horton’s scheme, there was another significant difference in the second half of 2011: cornerback Patrick Peterson. The rookie had a tough time initially adjusting to the speed and sophistication of the NFL, but once he got comfortable, he became a blanketing man-to-man defender who followed opposing No. 1 receivers everywhere. By season’s end, the Cardinals were regularly isolating Peterson in man coverage on the outside with zero safety help. There’s only one other corner in the league who plays like this: Darrelle Revis.
At this point, it looks like the Cardinals got a steal in drafting Peterson fifth overall. He has the potential to be better than Revis. He’s already a better playmaker, as evidenced by his four punt return touchdowns. He’s an inch taller and 20 pounds heavier than Revis. He’s faster. He’s so fast, in fact, that he almost exclusively plays trail technique, letting receivers get by him over the top so that he can defend them without having to backpedal as much. That style of coverage comes with near-impossible demands on a corner’s catch-up speed and body control.
Peterson’s brilliance allows the Cardinals to eliminate nearly half the field, as well as diversify and disguise their coverages more readily. This makes it easier for the secondary to sustain coverage, which is why the Cardinals managed to record 42 sacks last season despite not having a threatening pass-rusher on the edge. This is fortunate because the Cardinals secondary needs all the help it can get. Safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes don’t run well anymore. Wilson can still be a big-hitting playmaker, but he’s often used as a de facto extra linebacker. If he doesn’t blitz in obvious passing situations, the Cardinals prefer to play him in deep centerfield, where he serves as a necessary last line of defense while staying as far away from the aerial action as possible.
Wilson’s weaknesses in coverage may seem constricting, but the Cardinals are happy to work around it. The alternative is playing fourth-year pro Rashad Johnson, who is just as iffy in coverage and nowhere near as instinctive or ferocious in the box. The Cardinals did sign former Patriot/Falcon James Sanders, ostensibly to boost their dime, and maybe even nickel, packages.
Last season, problems at the No. 2 corner spot cost Arizona dearly. Former Steeler William Gay was brought in to rectify this. Ironically, many Steeler fans believe it was Gay’s struggles at corner in 2010 that prevented their team from hoisting a seventh Lombardi Trophy. That’s probably a bit harsh, and at this point, pretty much irrelevant, as the 27-year-old turned around and had a solid season in 2011.
Also new to this mix is Greg Toler. Toler has been with the team since being drafted in the fourth round in 2009, but he missed all of Horton’s debut season with a knee injury. If Toler can’t regain his form, versatile-but-unimposing veteran Michael Adams will be the No. 3 corner. The Cardinals also used a third-round pick on Oklahoma’s finesse-based zone corner Jamell Fleming, though he could be a bit of a developmental project.
Providing the bulk of the pass-rush pressure up front will be a pair of recent fourth-round picks: O’Brien Schofield (2010) and Sam Acho (2011). Both are athletic but unproven. Acho is the more intriguing prospect, as he started 10 games last season and recorded seven sacks. It wasn’t just his occasional explosiveness; Acho also showed an understanding of how to take on blocks and create pass-rushing lanes for others.
That sort of teamwork is a big component of Horton’s scheme. It’s why the Cardinals felt they could address their pass-rush by simply adding backups like Quentin Groves and Jamaal Westerman as opposed to drafting a high-round rookie. Even if they can, they’ll have to keep relying on their defensive line to generate pressure.
Most 3-4 teams don’t see their linemen as penetrators. But most 3-4 teams don’t have Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell. Dockett has some of the fastest hands in football. He’s quick, agile and relentlessly ferocious. At 290 pounds, he doesn’t have the size to be a classic two-gap anchor, yet, teams can’t run on him. As for Campbell, he’s just a hair less explosive, but his length and power make him almost as viable. After he led the Cardinals with eight sacks last season and regularly disrupted against the run, GM Rod Graves rewarded the 26-year-old with a five-year, $55 million contract.
It’s the spot between Dockett and Campbell that raises questions. The Cards are still waiting on 2010 first-round pick Dan Williams to blossom. Or even just sprout. Injuries have slowed Williams somewhat, but not as much as conditioning issues have. He reported to camp in shape for the first time this year. Perhaps he was a little extra motivated knowing that backup David Carter showed steady improvements as a sixth-round rookie last season.
Rounding out the defensive front seven is the unheralded inside linebacking duo of Paris Lenon and Daryl Washington. Lenon has always been a finesse linebacker, but coaches absolutely love his football IQ. Probably not as much as they love Washington’s all-around skill set, though. The 2010 second-round pick is quietly one of the best downhill attackers in the game. He plays at an inherently faster clip than everyone else, which should only standout more as he continues to hone his recognition and awareness. The key for Washington is learning to consistently harness his gifts in order to become a more opportunistic playmaker.
Kicker Jay Feely is a steady, well-traveled veteran. Punter Dave Zastudil is serviceable, though he could stand to improve his hangtime, as opponents averaged a chunky 11.2 yards per return and had just 19 fair catches against him last season. In the return game, Patrick Peterson is someone you simply don’t punt to. He’s talked about scaling back his special teams role at some point, but that will require his coaches’ blessings, and it will take a long time for his coaches to forget those four touchdowns from 2011. LaRod Stephens-Howling will handle kick returns.
The Cardinals could have a top-five defense by season’s end. Sadly, there are two sides in football.