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Cardinals Position by Position Overview (Part 2 of a series)

January 25, 2009 by Still Mill

Cardinals Position by Position Overview (Part 2 of a series)

This is part 2 of a pre-game series.   Part 1 can be read here.  This segment will focus exclusively on breaking down the Cardinals.




Todd Haley serves as the OC and has obviously brightened his resume with the Cards� deep foray to the Sup Bowl.  Haley, like Cheezenhunt, is the opposite of Arians.  Haley likes to be aggressive; he likes to reach into the trick-play bag; and he likes an up-tempo offense rather than the glacially slow one that Arians prefers.  The past 4 games (incl. playoffs) the offense has found the balance that had been lacking most of the season.  The tendency has been for AZ to abandon the run fairly quickly; versus PIT, they must determine if they even want to waste any snaps at all plunging the ball into the teeth of the base defense, or spreading wide and going with their strength.  On routine downs, they typically employ a 3W, 1-TE, 1 RB set.  Haley has shown a preference of the pass over the run, and on Sunday he�ll have to decide if he wants to even run the ball at all. 


QB:  Warner needs little intro.  When given adequate time and space, he can use his hair-trigger release to flick the short and intermediate routes with the precision of a CIA sniper.  With the exception of Peyton Manning, Warner is, by far, the best QB the Stillers will face this season.  He�s experienced, he�s tough, he�s accurate, and he�s a gunslinger.  Warner does have 3 vulnerabilities:   1.)  he�s slower than Joe Paterno and is no threat to run with the ball,  2.) He has the tendency to fumble the ball when slapped about in the pocket, and 3.) his sidearm delivery on short slants can lead to simple batting by alert D-linemen.  Overall, Warner is, along with the big 3 at WR, what will give AZ a puncher�s chance in this game.


RB:  Edge James began the season as the starter.  After their bye week, James had a costly fumble vs. Carolina.  To make maters worse, he missed a team meeting and was benched the following week vs. St Lou.   In came former Richmond Spider Tim Hightower, a rookie who came out of nowhere and rushed for 109 yards against the Rams.  From that point on James and Hightower worked in a platoon-type role, which left James bitter and seething.  In retrospect, it paid huge dividends.  Edge only toted the ball 133 times this season, about 6 games worth of carries in his heyday.  Entering the playoffs, Edge was fresh as a daisy, and it showed, as James had a good burst and broke many a tackle.  Edge is no longer the threat to get the 20-yard gains, but he�s more than capable of turning a 1-yard loss into a 2-3 yard gain.  Hightower gets the larger bulk of the work in the passing game, but each is more than capable of catching the ball and getting RAC yards.  Hightower got the bulk of the work near the goal line, which is why you see his TD numbers as bloated as they are.  Both are capable plungers and I�d put my money on James if it were in the 4th qtr. of a tight game.  JJ Arrington plays a lot on passing downs and grabbed 29 passes during the year. 


FB: The Cards don�t employ a FB all too often.  Terrelle Smith performs the chores on the rare occasion he�s called upon. 


TE:  A mediocre group here, which should be a relief to a Steelers team that had to face Heap and Gates the past 2 playoff games.  Steve �Mister� Spach is their best blocking TE, but he got hurt 2 weeks ago vs. Carolina.  Leonard Pope out of UGA saw a bulk of the load last week.  He�s an adequate receiver -- nothing dangerous -- and a below average blocker.  Ben Patrick also gets work at TE.  If the Cards are desperate enough, they can actually (hold your laughter) insert former-Stiller Jerame Two-Man into the lineup. 


WR:  This is where the sun shines on the AZ roster.  Former Pitt star Larry Fitz is playing the best at his position since Jerry Rice was in his prime.  Fitz is playing with enormous confidence, plus he is simply tooling and outworking D-backs on a regular basis.  Opposite Fitz is Anquan Boldin, another perennial 1,000 per season guy.  Boldin looks to knock people over in his RAC and is tough as nails.  He hurt his hammy a few weeks ago and didn�t run deep versus Philly in the NFCC, but 2 weeks of rest should at least give him some burst in the early going.  Pittsburgh native Steve Breaston had 1,000 yards this year and is a very, very capable #3 WR -- easily one of the best #3 WRs in the league right now.  Jerheme Urban is a tough, clutch receiver that runs a lot of underneath stuff.  The Cards have recently start to use Fitz in the slot and in motion, and had him cross amidst the confusion on defense.   You should expect a lot more of this on Sunday.  I suspect that, if the Stillers want to assign 1 guy to Fitz, it will be Bryant McFadden, not Ike Taylor.  The reasoning is that Taylor has atrocious ball skills, while McFadden�s ball skills are the best on the team.  Ike can certainly cover Fitz, but he�ll clumsily be out-dueled time and time again on jump balls and so on.  McFadden is no longer a greenhorn and has faced the likes of Reggie Wayne in the playoffs over the years, and also played in Sup Bowl 40, so he�s more than up to the task.   Of course, he�ll need some umbrella help as well, and all you can do with Fitz is hope to limit him to pedestrian numbers. 


OL:  Mike Gandy mans the LT spot, and is probably the best of this group.  Former Penn Stater Levi Brown works the other tackle.  Originally drafted to protect Lefty Leinart�s blind side, Brown has been beaten here and there and will have his hands full with Woodley.  Deuce Latui out of �SC is the RG; he�s a good run blocker but a mediocre pass blocker.  LG Reggie Wells is a solid all-around guard; not stellar, but solid.  Lyle Sendlein mans the center spot, and he�s the weakest link of this O-line.  In fact, with Sendlein�s weakness feeding directly into the strength of the Stiller base defense, I see no reason whatsoever why Haley and Cheezenhunt would want to run the ball at any time during this game except on a short-yardage sneak or unless they pull the Stillers out of their base and run a SG handoff.    


The Cards have 4 staples in their ground attack:


            - delayed SG handoff

            - stretch play, which James runs as well as anyone in the league

            - the off-tackle counter

            - When Urban or Breaston starts from out wide and then motion toward the tackle, this is typically a running play geared off a WR crackback.


The Cards have these staple passing plays:


            - First and foremost, the deep 15-yard in.  The Giants defended this better than anyone when they beat AZ in Nov.  They read and then sat on this route all day long.  

            - They�ll toss the deep ball to any of the big 3.  Warner doesn�t have the biggest deep arm, and oftentimes underthrows the deep ball.  Of course, with Fitz, it hardly matters if the ball is underthrown, as there is a 94% probability that he�ll still come down with the ball.  Boldin and Breaston are also athletic enough to come down with many deep balls as well as draw PI flags. 

            - They�ve somewhat recently started using a lot of screens, especially against the big rush, such as what Philly threw at them last week.  (again, unlike Arians, Haley actually has a brain.)   Note that these aren�t the whaleshit screen that take 8 or 9 seconds to develop; rather, they are quickie slip screens that happen with lightning speed.

            - Warner loves the quick slant, especially as a blitz-beater.  He can throw this pass in his sleep and his reading is good enough to spot the open man. 


Defense:  Clancy Pendergast is the DC of a rather ordinary defense that has really gelled in the playoffs.  This isn�t a top-10 defense by any means, but their main goal on Sunday will be to simply keep the game close and give Warner a chance to win it in the 4th quarter. The Cards run a hybrid form of the 3-4, rotating 9 guys into the front-7 mix and presenting different looks. 


DL:  If there is any good news for the Stillers, it is that they can be assured of not having to face Haloti Ngata, who ate them alive in all 3 tilts versus the Ravens this year.  And, for good measure, the Cards don�t have a lineman with the brawn and brute force of Ngata. 


     Darnell Dockett is clearly the best of the DL.  He�s slightly undersized, but very disruptive and penetrates extremely well, which has been a problem all season long for the Stillers in stopping backfield penetration on ground plays.  Gabe Watson is their best run-stuffer and is very stout at the POA (point of attack).  The enormous Alan Branch (6-5�, 330) had been projected to be a top 10 pick, but slipped to the 2nd round 2 years ago.  Branch has yet to reach his potential, but just his size alone will earn him a lot of PT against the inevitable Bruce Arians plunge-fest.  Veteran greybeard Bryan Robinson will work as a NT/DT and is an okay run stopper, although he�s getting long in the tooth and could be ground down as the game wears on.  Rookie DE Calais Campbell will see a lot of work on passing downs, due to his height (6-8�) and Ben�s propensity for having passes batted. 


LB:  This gets convoluted, as the Cards, as noted, will use some LBs as DEs and DEs as LBs in a hybrid defense.  OLB Karlos Dansby is obviously the best �backer of the bunch.  He�ll be a free agent in March, and, coming off a career year and a trip to the Sup Bowl, there will be at least 27 teams with a lot of interest in acquiring his services.  You�ll hear a lot of fawning about James Farrior�s team-high 87 solos; Dansby trumped that with 95 solos, to go along with 2 INTs (the great Farrior had none).  Travis LaBoy is a DE/LB who is a very capable, solid player.  He walked off the NFCC with a bicep tendon injury and his status could questionable.  LaBoy has provided good impact down the stretch for AZ and would be a huge loss if he�s unable to play.  Greybeard veteran Bertrand Berry is another DE/LB who chips in solidly.  Berry has been giving LTs problems lately and could give Starks some problems if Starks is slow off the snap.  Chike Okeafor is a rangy OLB that can attack and harass the passer with aplomb.  Former Pitt-star Gerald Hayes mans the middle.  He�s not overly fast, but he�s a solid run stuffer, and because the Stillers so seldom pass to the backs, he�s not a large liability. 


DB:  The Stillers have their Cro Magnon in Bruce Arians; the Cards have their Cro Mar in Dom Rodgers-Cromartie.  Their 1st round draft pick 9 months ago, Cromartie began starting in the 4th game and has never looked back.  (Yes, there are some teams in the NFL that do allow ultra-talented rookies to do more than rot the bench for their entire rookie campaigns.)  As noted during the NFCC, Cromar is faster than Philly�s DeSean Jackson and has the instincts, hip swivel, and footwork that you want in a shutdown corner.  I fully suspect that if Cheezenhunt decides to put Cromar on one man all game long, it�ll naturally be Tonio Holmes.  Rod Hood starts at the other corner.  He�s a bit short, but is a decent coverage man.  He�s given up some TDs, but is a good positioning guy. 


    SS Adrian Wilson is perhaps the best safety in the NFC.  He�s a hard hitter who will often be brought into the box on obvious running plays.  He�s an effective blitzer, as you saw vs. Philly, and he�ll probably get some blitz opportunities on Sunday when Pendergast decides to take a chance.  FS Antrel Rolle is dynamite on INT returns, although he�s not very strong at tackling. 


    I suspect part of the Stiller game plan will be to soften up this DB crew with some aggressive run-blocking by the WRs and TEs, as Rolle and Cromartie are susceptible to bullying. 


Defensively, the Cards are not a strong tackling team.  They have also had problems with dinks and dumps, although the Stillers usually eschew any passing to the RBs.  This defense has been playing with a lead most of the playoffs and have been able to take some chances.  They are prone to getting worn down by a physical offense, however.  Their front 4 doesn�t generate much pressure and it will be contingent upon a 5th rusher to harass BenRoth. 


Spec Teams:


Neil Rackers gives the Cards an experienced, reliable kicker.  His longest FG made was from 54, and his KOs go to near the goal line.  Australian punter and left-footer Ben Graham took over halfway into the season and is an adequate punter. 


    Breaston is their primary punt returner.  Although he had the big return vs. PIT in last year�s tilt, he�s had very little other success in the return chores.  Breaston runs too much east-west and, with his lanky frame and long legs, isn�t shifty or slippery enough for the PR chores.  Of course, given the Stillers habitual playoff problems with kick coverage, Breaston could just as well take one to the house on Sunday.  Arrington scored on a KOR vs. Dallas earlier this season. 


    The spec teams coverage has been shoddy for AZ, with lots of big returns both on punts and KOs.  The best spec team coverage guy is, oddly enough, Sean Morey, who filled that role with mixed results for the Stillers a few years ago. 



More analysis and keys will be added as we lead up to game day.  Special thanks to Cardinal superfan Bryon R. Haynie for his astute assistance in fleshing out the final details of this analysis. 


(Still Mill and -- when it comes to the analysis of the Pittsburgh Stillers, no one else comes close�.)



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