The Cardinals have been an easy target for most of the last 60 years. They’ve won precisely one playoff game in that time period, a wild-card victory in 1998 in their only trip to the postseason since moving to the desert 20 seasons ago.
However, under head coach Ken Whisenhunt, that streak of futility may begin to change. The former Steelers offensive coordinator, 10-10 four games into his second season, is the first Cardinals coach to hold a .500 or better record this far into his career since Don Coryell left St. Louis in 1977.
OFFENSE (#5 total yardage, #t25 rushing, #4 passing, #10 scoring):
Whisenhunt tried to re-install former top-10 pick Matt Leinart as the Cards’ starting quarterback during the offseason, but Kurt Warner wouldn’t give up the job. The two-time NFL MVP, now 37, can still make all the throws, and if the Bills give him time to stand in the pocket, he’ll pick them apart.
Of course, when he doesn’t get time to throw, he becomes a turnover machine. Warner cracked when the Jets applied heavy pressure last week, throwing four picks and losing two fumbles to help bury his team in a 34-0 halftime hole. Think Buffalo defensive coordinator Perry Fewell took a few notes while watching that tape?
Warner is likely to be without one of his top targets on Sunday afternoon, as Anquan Boldin recuperates from a vicious hit at the end of the Jets game. He hasn’t been officially ruled out as of this writing, but the Cards would be silly to take any risks with one of their best players. That leaves former No. 3 receiver Steve Breaston to start opposite two-time Pro Bowl wideout Larry Fitzgerald – a tough matchup against a Bills secondary missing Terrence McGee – with Jerheme Urban and Sean Morey seeing time in multiple-receiver sets and third-round pick Early Doucet (LSU) possibly activated for the first time this season.
6’ 8” tight end Leonard Pope, a huge red-zone target who scored five touchdowns on just 23 catches last season, is also out for this game with a lower leg injury. With Jerame Tuman still sidelined, Ben Patrick is the only healthy TE on the roster.
Edgerrin James no longer has the game-breaking ability that made him a star in Indianapolis, but the No. 13 rusher in league history will still fight for the extra yard. He leads the team with 71 carries for 277 yards, but rookie Tim Hightower (Richmond) looks like he could be the Cards’ featured back sometime soon. (Maybe not just yet, but there’s a better-than-average chance that Edge doesn’t see the final year of his contract, which runs out after the 2009 season.) Fullback Terrelle Smith is solely a blocker; he carried the ball exactly once last year.
Observers expected the line to improve under the tutelage of Russ Grimm, who came to Arizona with Whisenhunt, but according to FootballOutsiders.com stats, Arizona quarterbacks were hit more often than any other team in the league last season. Warner’s tendency to hold the ball, looking for a big play, doesn’t help. Right tackle Levi Brown had a rough afternoon against Shaun Ellis last week; the potential is there, but the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft still has some learning to do. The same is true for “Deuce” Lutui, who came into the league with fellow Trojan Leinart in 2006. Lyle Sendlein inherited the job at center when last year’s starter, Al Johnson, went on injured reserve with a knee injury. The left side of the line should be familiar to Bills fans, as tackle Mike Gandy lines up next to Reggie Wells, who Marv Levy attempted to sign as a restricted free agent.
DEFENSE (#9 total yardage, #t14 rushing, #16 passing, #25 scoring):
Of course, that points-allowed number is skewed by the Jets game; before then, the team was giving up fewer than 16 per game. Langston Walker and Brad Butler could have their hands full with Darnell Dockett, who can line up at tackle or left end (when the team switches to a 3-4 set). The Cardinals have been starting most games in a 4-3, with veteran Bryan Robinson on the nose and Travis LaBoy and Antonio Smith at end. With Bertrand Barry and his team-leading three sacks likely still out, Arizona could use more of a pass rush from the outside. They do get some help at tackle, though; after missing the first four games, it looks like Gabe Watson will make his 2008 debut this weekend.
The linebacking corps is solid; after signing with the team as a free agent, Clark Haggans couldn’t crack the starting lineup. Gerald Hayes isn’t as well known as Karlos Dansby and Chike Okeafor, but the outside ‘backers wouldn’t have room to roam if Hayes wasn’t taking care of the middle of the field.
Corners Rod Hood and Eric Green are average at best, although Hood did score two interception-return touchdowns last season. Green should be supplanted in the starting lineup by first-round pick Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie sometime this season. The defense suffered when Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson sat out the Jets game with a tender hamstring; if he’s out for this game – and that’s a good possibility, since he hasn’t practiced yet this week – Trent Edwards’ job gets a lot easier. Replacement Aaron Francisco has some talent, but he’s certainly not at Wilson’s level. (To be honest, few safeties are.) Former No. 6 overall pick Antrel Rolle washed out as a starting corner, but has the necessary ball skills to be a decent free safety.
Is Neil Rackers starting to slow down? He’s already missed two field goals from inside 40 yards, matching his total for the last three seasons. He did still hit three 50-yarders last year, though.
Mike Barr and Mitch Berger were both horrible last season, so former Eagle Dirk Johnson was brought in to be the new punter. He’s not great, averaging 42.1 (gross) and 37.1 (net) yards per kick, but it’s still an improvement.
Breaston has been handling both punt and kick returns with mediocre results, but now that he’ll be taking a larger role in the offense, backup running back J.J. Arrington might get another chance at the job. Leodis McKelvin might have problems finding room to run against the coverage teams, both among the best in the league.
Interesting factoid: in 18 years at Sun Devil Stadium, exactly 12 home games sold out in time to lift the local television blackout. In contrast, this game will be the 24th consecutive sellout at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Last week’s meltdown in the Meadowlands aside, this isn’t the same Cardinals team we’ve grown used to dismissing. They have a decent chance to win their first division title since 1975, and if the Bills continue their recent habit of slow starts, Warner is capable of putting up enough points to make another fourth-quarter comeback difficult.
Make no mistake, Buffalo is still the (slightly) better team, and I’m picking them to go into the bye at 5-0 ... but don’t be overly surprised if Arizona finds a way to win.
See you in Glendale.
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