Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFC West [Print without images]

Thursday, January 22, 2009
Personnel report: Cardinals' old-school side

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The images in Kurt Warner's mind are clear when the Arizona Cardinals' veteran quarterback thinks about the team he'll face in Super Bowl XLIII.

"Blue collar, hard working, tough, grind-out kind of football team," Warner said.

The Cardinals will inspire more glamorous imagery as long as Larry Fitzgerald keeps making acrobatic catches against overmatched defensive secondaries. Fitzgerald's 62-yard touchdown reception on a flea-flicker pass stands as a symbol of the Cardinals' success against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.

Look a little closer, though, and you'll see an offense evolving in more of the traditional Pittsburgh mold. While the Cardinals might not have beaten the Eagles without Fitzgerald's memorable downfield grab, they almost certainly would have lost without their more deliberate 14-play drive to the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.

To analyze how they succeeded on that drive -- with nine of 14 plays featuring only one wide receiver -- is to understand how the Cardinals have become more than pass-happy playoff pretenders from a weak NFC West division.

Arizona is running the ball 59.1 percent of the time on first and second downs in the playoffs, up from 37.8 percent of the time during the regular season. The Cardinals are also running far more frequently on traditional running downs early in games, suggesting the change reflects intent more than fickle game situations.

The transformation seems natural given the coaching staff's strong ties to Pittsburgh, but the timing and execution are challenging well-established coaching mantras. The Cardinals are not "dancing with what brought them here." They appear to have "flipped a switch" for the playoffs, both in style and substance.

"Earlier in the season, we were skewed more toward the pass because we felt we needed to do that in order to win our division," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "We were hot and we were using that, but credit to our offensive line, credit to [line coach] Russ [Grimm] and a lot of our other staff who knew that was going to be important later in the season to run the football."

Three personnel-related issues have also affected the Cardinals' approach:

Anquan Boldin's hamstring: The Pro Bowl receiver has not been healthy late in the season. His top-end speed appears diminished. As a result, the Cardinals have been less likely to use their four-receiver packages. Arizona has averaged 7.7 snaps per game with four receivers in the playoffs, down from 20.8 per game during the regular season. They ran the ball less than 10 percent of the time when using four receivers.

Steven Spach's ACL: The Cardinals feared the tight end's season-ending knee injury, suffered against Carolina in the divisional round, might affect their running game from personnel groups featuring one tight end. The Cardinals used one tight end 38 times in the wild-card round, 29 times in the divisional round and 14 times in the championship round. They made up the difference, and then some, with more use of run-oriented groupings featuring two backs and/or two tight ends.

Edgerrin James' revival: Moving him back into the lineup has dovetailed with the renewed commitment to the ground game. James isn't going to break many long runs -- one reason he didn't fit into the pass-heavy offensive approach favored during the regular season -- but his move-the-chains style can be effective as part of a more balanced offense.

The chart shows how the Cardinals have used their offensive personnel over their last six games. The final two rows compare playoff averages to 16-game regular-season averages. 

Last Six Arizona Cardinals Opponents 1WR
2WR 3WR
4WR
2RB 2TE
W/L
Eagles
16 13
16 14 33 22
W
Panthers
19
27 18
8 36 32 W
Falcons
4
24 28
1 18 17 W
Seahawks 2
13 14
14 12 6 W
Patriots 0
13
27
10
10
6
L
Vikings
0
5 25
24 4
2 L
Per Game, Playoffs
13.0
21.3 20.7
7.7 29.0
23.7
1.000
Per Game, Regular Season 2.6
15.3 19.9
20.8 15.3
8.0
0.563

How to read the chart: Against the Eagles, the Cardinals ran 16 snaps with one wide receiver, 13 snaps with two, 16 snaps with three and 14 snaps with four. They ran 33 snaps with two running backs and 22 snaps with two tight ends.

Available for download: NFC Championship Game personnel report summarizing the Cardinals' offensive production across six core groups.