Deep trouble for the Cardinals

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

NFL defenses still fear the Arizona Cardinals' downfield passing attack.

That is the problem, actually.

Quarterback Kurt Warner and receiver Larry Fitzgerald became so dangerous striking downfield last season that opponents backed off in their coverages, particularly when they suspected Arizona might be ready to take a deep shot.

That explains the telling quote from coach Ken Whisenhunt following the Cardinals' 34-21 loss to Carolina in Week 8: "It seems like every time we try to throw it down the field, we’re getting Cover 2."

The chart, provided by ESPN Stats & Analysis, illustrates some of the Cardinals' difficulties.

The longer Warner's passes travel in the air, the less efficient he becomes. How much less efficient is the problem. On passes of 20 yards or more, Warner's rating of 35.5 is tied for 30th in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 25 attempts.

Well, yes, but ... what to do?

The Cardinals might have to run their way out of their current passing rut. And they'll have to be bold enough at least some of the time to throw downfield anyway, something Whisenhunt indicated the team would consider heading into its Week 9 game at Chicago.

"The challenge becomes going in and trying to march the ball down the field," ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said. "There are still big plays to be made against Cover 2 and that is what coaches have to be willing to do."

Dilfer and I connected Wednesday to discuss the Cardinals' offensive issues in greater detail.

Mike Sando: You said there are bigger plays to be made. What does that entail specifically?

Trent Dilfer: They have to say, "This is who we are, this is how teams are going to defend us, so when they do get into this defense we can be aggressive about, we can either check to a play, hand signal a play or draw up some shots vs. soft zone." There are ways. They are higher risk, but there are ways to dial up bigger plays against soft defenses. It takes some reps and some understanding of the seams you want to exploit and it takes some guts.

Mike Sando: They'll certainly see Cover 2 zones against Lovie Smith and the Bears.

Trent Dilfer: Chicago is coming off their big confidence game. Chicago is going to play enough single-high safety because they are not just a Cover 2 team anymore. With Lovie calling the signals, they are more aggressive. Charles Tillman has some issues in coverage. There will be more opportunities. And a big play can just be a fade stop where you break a tackle. The ball does not have to be in the air 40 yards.

Mike Sando: Is there anything wrong with the Cardinals' scheme?

Trent Dilfer: The Cardinals are very similar to the Patriots in how they act in the passing game. The concepts are not the same and the personnel is not always the same, but it's the same philosophy. They put a horizontal stretch on the field, they have guys running deep as clearouts and also intermediate and short options. It's great. It's a well-designed passing game.

But what happens is when these teams want to take a shot, they get into these run formations and they call their shots off that. Defenses say, "Keep everything in front of us. As long as we think they are going to take a shot, we need to have a deep safety with soft corners and buzz underneath corners." You need to run the ball from run sets to force teams to play the run so you can take play-action shots.

Mike Sando: It's only Week 8. The Cardinals put up better numbers to this point last season, but they didn't become a good team until the playoffs.

Trent Dilfer: Quarterbacks are not always hot 16 weeks a year. Even in 2007, Tom Brady had a lot of misses. He didn’t throw 90 percent. He was still only in the high 60s, but we never showed the misses because he hit enough of the big ones that that was all we show. The perceptions are based on the highlights they saw. It's the same thing with Kurt. He has made a lot of nice throws this year, but he has thrown bad ones and that is what we are seeing.

Mike Sando: As poorly as the Cardinals played Sunday, I thought Carolina played extremely well. And then every bounce that could have gone against the Cardinals did go against them in a big way. Tipped balls went for picks. Julius Peppers made an incredible play on a screen.

Trent Dilfer: Take that pass to Urban that was intercepted. It's a 7-8 combination with the 8 route (post) on the outside with a 7 (post-corner) on the inside. When you freeze that play right when Kurt threw the ball, the outside corner has carried the 8 route. Urban comes out of the 7 and to Jerheme's eye and Kurt's eye, the corner has run out of the play.

When the ball is 2 or 3 yards downfield, the corner recognizes it late and makes an incredible play. Arizona does everything you ask them to do. Perfect combination, perfect route, perfectly thrown ball and the corner makes the play and the ball comes up and you know what? There was another guy there to catch it. You tell Jerheme to catch the ball, to brace for the hit. You tell Kurt to maybe put less air on it so the corner doesn't get there. But when you throw the ball that much, those things are going to happen -- tipped balls, deflected balls, defensive ends jumping out of cut blocks.

Mike Sando: I think the Cardinals are also working through some personnel issues. The faster they can work Beanie Wells into the mainstream of the offense, the better equipped they'll be to take those downfield shots on better terms. They fell behind too quickly against the Panthers to stick with the run. They'll get another chance Sunday at Chicago and I'll be interested in seeing if this is the week things start to change.