2010 NFL Preview: Arizona Cardinals

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Between now and the September 9th season kick-off, Hank Koebler, IV will be previewing all the NFL teams with new teams being released daily.

2009 Season Breakdown

2009 final record (overall, division): 10-6, 4-2
Division finish: 10-6, 4-2
Offensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 11th, 14th, 12th, 28th
Defensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 14th, 20th, 23rd, 17th

2009 Individual Statistical Leaders

Rushing: Beanie Wells, 793 yards, 7 TD; Tim Hightower, 598 yards, 8 TD
Passing: Kurt Warner, 3,753 yards, 26 TD, 14 INT; Matt Leinart, 435 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT
Receiving: Larry Fitzgerald, 1,092 yards, 13 TD; Anquan Boldin, 1,024 yards, 4 TD; Steve Breaston, 712 yards, 3 TD
Tackles: Karlos Dansby, 89 total tackles, Bryant McFadden, 64 total tackles, Adrian Wilson, 61 total tackles; Antrel Rolle, 61 total tackles
Sacks: Darnell Dockett, 7.0 sacks, Calais Campbell, 7.0 sacks, Clark Haggans, 5.0 sacks
Interceptions: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, 6 INT, 1 TD; Adrian Wilson, 5 INT, 0 TD; Antrel Rolle, 4 INT, 0 TD

2010 Season Outlook

(* denotes division game)

Key Matchups

September 19 at Atlanta: The Falcons are a team who can exploit the Cardinals' weakness at linebacker by running the ball with Michael Turner, or throwing it to Tony Gonzalez. The Cardinals are going to have to get their linebacker unit playing cohesively in this game, and hope that the linebacking corps is able to gel even though this is only the second game of the season.

October 3 at San Diego: This game will feature two teams that won their respective decisions in 2009 but have gotten markedly worse over the course of the past offseason. For the Cardinals to win this game, their suspect linebacking corps will have to be able to contain rookie running back Ryan Matthews.

January 2 vs. San Francisco: At this point, the Cardinals’ transition into a run-first team will be nearly complete, and they will have learned how to best compensate for the loss of several key players. If the division race is close at this point in the season, this final regular-season game could decide the divisional race.

Key Losses

Kurt Warner, QB; Anquan Boldin, WR; Karlos Dansby, ILB; Antrell Rolle, S; Bertand Berry, DE/OLB; Chike Okeafor, OLB; Bryant McFadden, CB

Key Returning Players

Larry Fitzgerald, WR; Beanie Wells, RB; Matt Leinart, QB; Adrian Wilson, S

Key Draft Picks

Darryl Wahington, ILB; Dan Williams, NT

Key Free Agent Signings

Derek Anderson, QB; Alan Faneca, OG

Key Acquisitions via Trade

Kerry Rhodes, S

Offensive Overview

The biggest change on the offensive side of the ball is at quarterback, with the retirement of Kurt Warner changing this offense completely. Warner's quick release allowed him to get the ball to an open receiver as soon as he got open. This quick release was the centerpiece of the Cardinals' entire offense as it allowed them to run from three- and four-receiver sets, because Warner's fast release let him exploit even the tiniest holes in coverage. However, with the drafting of Beanie Wells, the Cardinals made it clear they wanted to develop their running game. In 2009, they were still a pass-first team, but they sprinkled a little bit more running into their play-calling than they did in 2008.

This year, they're going to have to be a run-first team in order to have even the slightest chance of contending for a third straight NFC West title. Matt Leinart is lacking in elite arm strength and isn't very decisive in the pocket. Also, when he drops back to pass, he tends to immediately get rid of the ball instead of letting the play develop. This means that defenses don't have to worry so much about getting beaten deep. Former Cleveland Brown Derek Anderson might make a push for the starting job, but he isn't a legitimate starter either. He has nice zip on his throws, and he reads defenses fairly well, but his accuracy is so inconsistent that his play can be a huge detriment to the team.

It also doesn't help that the Cardinals traded away one of the best receivers in the league, Anquan Boldin. Boldin's physicality and toughness was a huge boost to the offense, and none of the Cardinals' other receivers bring that to the table. Larry Fitzgerald is even better than Boldin, but his skill set is different. While Boldin would catch short passes and fight for extra yards, Fitzgerald is more of a deep threat whose leaping ability allows him to catch even the highest of jump balls. The Cardinals' other receivers are all smaller speed guys who have to be hit in stride to be able to maintain separation and pick up yards after the catch.

As mentioned previously in this section, the Cardinals are going to have to rely heavily on their running game. Beanie Wells is a powerful runner, but he isn't quick enough to easily get to the edge of a defense, which eliminates the outside running game for the Cardinals because their linemen can't pull fast enough to open up holes to the outside. This was painfully apparent in their preseason game against the Titans, when they routinely continued to try to run to the outside, but almost no holes were open for Wells and Tim Hightower to hit. Running up the middle didn't do much good either, as both guards routinely let defensive players past them in both pass- and run-blocking. Free-agent guard Alan Faneca was signed and advertised as a major upgrade to the offensive line, but the fact of the matter is, Faneca has lost a lot of speed and isn't a very good offensive lineman anymore. I know I'm going against the grain by saying this, because Faneca has a reputation as one of the best linemen in the game, but my opinion is supported by at least one writer who has a lot more experience judging players' performance than I do:

"Players often gain a reputation for high-quality play and those perceptions are not real, regardless of any Pro Bowl vote"'s Michel Lombardi wrote in a recent column about the Cardinals. "For example, everyone outside the NFL thought the Jets were crazy for releasing guard Alan Faneca this past spring, but most everyone in the league knew the veteran's play was far from Pro Bowl caliber, despite getting the nod, and his salary was not in sync with his performance. Hence Faneca could no longer help the Jets, and they released him."

One area in which the line is assisted is that their tight ends are good run-blockers. However, the rest of their offensive line is so abysmal in both run-blocking that even two tight ends can't help the line open holes. In pass-blocking, the line was absolutely terrible on the left side, and they were mediocre at best on the right. The offense is going to have a very tough time moving the chains, and coach Ken Wisenhunt's decision to apparently bench Matt Leinart in favor of Derek Anderson won't make the offense any more efficient.

Defensive Overview

The Cardinals' 3-4 defense has two extremely powerful defensive ends, Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, but they're lacking a nose tackle who will allow the ends to really shine. Current starter Bryan Robinson gets pushed off the ball too easily, so the Cardinals drafted Dan Williams from the University of Tennessee in the first round, but Williams hasn't been able to earn the starting job, so it looks as if Robinson will be the starter for yet another year.

At inside linebacker, the Cardinals are going to sorely miss the loss of Karlos Dansby, who was a vital player that plugged a ton of holes for the defense. The team's other ILB, Gerald Hayes, had back surgery this summer and will probably be out until at least the middle of September. The Cardinals drafted inside linebacker Darryl Washington in the second round, but their run defense will likely suffer a drop-off, and their depth at inside linebacker is suspect, with the slower Paris Lenon expected to replace Dansby. The offseason addition of Joey Porter was a good move that adds depth and pass-rushing ability to the outside linebacking corps. With the retirement of Bertrand Berry and the departure of Chike Okeafor, the play of second-year linebackers Will Davis and Cody Brown will be key to the depth of this linebacking corps. 33-year-old Clark Haggans is penciled in to start opposite Porter, so with both starters on the wrong side of 30, it's likely that Davis and Brown will need to be prepared for at least a little bit of playing time.

The defensive backfield is held together by safety Adrian Wilson, who plays the run as well as an extra linebacker, and is good but not great in pass coverage. Beside him, Antrel Rolle was a great safety who could play man coverage on receivers, but he is now a New York Giant and has been replaced on the Cardinals' roster by former Jet Kerry Rhodes. Rhodes is a very good safety who is maybe only a notch below Rolle in his athleticism and cover skills. The Cardinals traded away cornerback Bryant McFadden to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he will be replaced by second-year player Greg Toler. While Toler may develop into a good starter eventually, at first there will definitely be some growing pains. Opposite of Toler, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has all the necessary skills to stick with the opponent's best receiver, which makes life easier for the rest of the defense.

Special Teams Overview

Despite having the third-shortest average kickoff distance last year, the Cardinals maintained the sixth-best average kickoff return distance allowed. This is especially impressive because the longer the ball travels in the air, the more time there is for the coverage team to get downfield. Therefore, the fact that the Cardinals bottled up kickoff returns so well means their coverage team was excellent. In punt coverage, this team was the exact opposite. They had the 3rd-best average punt distance, but the sixth-worst average yards allowed per return.

In the punt return game, Steve Breaston was the main punt returner, but he only averaged 6.7 yards per return. However, the only other player to return punts for the Cardinals last year was Antrell Rolle, who is now a New York Giant. Therefore, it seems as if Breaston will be the Cardinals' punt return man again this year. In kickoff return, LaRod Stephens-Howling averaged a pretty impressive 24.2 yards per return.

Placekicker Neil Rackers had a good year in 2009, making 16 of 17 field goal attempts. He departed in free agency, and the Cardinals signed former Jet Jay Feely. Last season, Feely made 30 of 36 of his attempts.

Head Coach: Ken Whisenhunt

Whisenhunt is a good coach who knows how to adapt his schemes to his personnel. Although he came to the Cardinals after being the offensive coordinator for the run-first Steelers, Whisenhunt knew he had to adapt his offense for their lack of a running game and their abundance of receivers. When he knew Kurt Warner as close to retiring, though, he started building his team into a little bit more of a running offense instead of just hoping his next quarterback would be able to play at Warner’s stellar level. He’s never had a losing record as a head coach, and while he may not be able to overcome the personnel losses he suffered this offseason, he sill has his team headed in the right direction.

Top 2011 Free Agents

Stephen Spach, TE

Season Prediction

3rd NFC West

The St. Louis Rams are the only reason that this team won’t finish fourth in the division. The Cardinals have gotten worse at quarterback, receiver, middle linebacker, outside linebacker, cornerback, and safety. Their weakest unit, offensive line, will see little to no improvement, and the nose tackle they drafted in the first round can’t wrest the starting job from the incumbent whose poor play made grabbing a first-round nose tackle such a priority. There are some great players on this team, but they aren’t able to compensate for every other weakness on the team. The Cardinals have gotten severely worse this offseason, while both the Seahawks and the 49ers have improved, so it’s hard to see the Cardinals return to the postseason this year. - Hank Koebler, IV

Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.


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