NFC West: Bills-Cardinals

Hightower gains in Cardinals' backfield

October, 13, 2008
Cardinals Offenseat Jetsvs. Billsvs. Cowboys
3WR or more83.8%68.9%53.1%

Posted by's Mike Sando

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The emergence of running back J.J. Arrington, running back Tim Hightower and receiver Steve Breaston is giving the Cardinals additional options for how they use their personnel on offense.

The chart shows how frequently Arizona has used elements of their personnel over the last three games.

The lopsided nature of the Jets game skewed the percentages in favor of putting four wide receivers on the field at the same time. Even so, the Cardinals used four receivers less frequently against the Cowboys than I might have expected, only 16.7 percent of snaps (not counting kneel-downs and spikes). They used two backs and two receivers quite a bit more, sometimes putting Arrington and Hightower on the field together.

Edgerrin James finished with only nine touches, all carries on first or second down. Hightower had 11 touches (seven rushes, four receptions).

Hightower started getting more of the touches on early downs. This included four first-down carries and two first-down receptions. The rookie also had one catch and one carry on second down. His third-down plays consisted of two successful rushes on third-and-1, plus the 17-yard gain on the third-and-17 screen play. Hightower carried only once on first down against the Bills in Week 5.

CHART NOTE: Personnel differs from formations; a tight end counts as a tight end for my purposes even when he lines up wide, for example. This is an important distinction. Defenses set their personnel based on what they see in the offensive huddle, not what they see at the snap.

I asked coach Ken Whisenhunt about dividing touches among the running backs, and about personnel use in general. His answers run in full below:

(Read full post)

No fines for hits on Hasselbeck, Warner

October, 10, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

The Bills' Trent Edwards wasn't the only NFL quarterback to take a hard hit during Week 5. Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck and Arizona's Kurt Warner also absorbed punishment. While the league fined the Cardinals' Adrian Wilson for knocking out Edwards, the hits on Hasselbeck and Warner did not draw punishment.

Hasselbeck was dropping back to pass when the Giants' Justin Tuck hit him in the knee. Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren raised the possibility of a penalty, which was not called:

"The young man who [hit him], he's really a good player and a good kid. He's a high-effort guy. The problem with the play as far as we were concerned was he got hit from both sides, and we shouldn't have let that happen. I think the league has made every effort to protect the quarterbacks and I think it's the right thing to do, with their rules and so on.

"The question then -- I asked the official because I didn't see the play, I was looking downfield -- the question that has to be the one focused on is: You can't hit the quarterback low like that. That's a foul, unless the player was blocked into the quarterback. If he was blocked into the quarterback, then it's not. And when you look at the play, that's really what you have to decide. It's pretty hard to decide."

The hit on Warner seemed a little more borderline. The Bills' Kawika Mitchell slammed into Warner with a hit to the chin. I just watched the play again. Warner had just throw the ball when Mitchell's helmet struck Warner in the chin. Warner suffered a cut, bled rather profusely and was obviously hurting. There was no flag on the play and no fine.

Also on the non-fine front: While referee Mike Carey and crew penalized Justin Smith for allegedly grabbing Matt Cassel's helmet in Week 5, the league did not fine Smith. Niners coach Mike Nolan seemed perplexed by the call, which turned a 3-yard sack on third-and-6 into a first-and-goal with 14 seconds left before halftime. The Patriots scored a touchdown two plays later, taking a 17-14 lead and the momentum into halftime. Finally, the league did not fine Seattle corner Josh Wilson for his hit on Giants receiver Domenik Hixon.

Expect a fine for Cardinals' Wilson

October, 10, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

We're expecting news on several potential fines around the league Friday. It's looking like the league has fined Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson $25,000 for the hit he put on Bills quarterback Trent Edwards, Darren Urban of notes. This would be yet another case of the league fining a player for a hit that failed to draw a penalty during the game.

In watching the play, I thought Wilson deserved a fine in the context of current rules because he drove his body through Edwards unnecessarily after the quarterback was down and defenseless. People with old-school mentalities will say football is a rough sport and the league is wrongly legislating toughness out of the game. Most of these people don't have to worry about taking unnecessary shots to the head from Adrian Wilson.

Closer look at Cardinals' offense

October, 9, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

 Chris McGrath/Getty Images
 Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner is making smart decisions and avoiding mistakes.

The Cardinals used three or more wide receivers on nearly 70 percent of offensive plays against the Bills despite leading the game most of the way. They gave significant snaps to running back J.J. Arrington after putting him on the inactive list previously. I expect Arrington to remain part of the offense after breaking down the Cardinals' production when he was in the game.

I liked the Cardinals' approach to offense against Buffalo. They threw 42 passes without completing one longer than 18 yards. They averaged only 7.6 yards per completed pass -- Kurt Warner has averaged more per attempt throughout his career -- but the Cardinals also allowed no sacks. The tradeoff makes sense as long as Warner continues to make the right decisions and the team continues to convert short-yardage rushing situations.

Putting extra receivers on the field forces a quarterback to make more complicated decisions. Defenses react by putting more defensive backs on the field. The more defensive backs on the field, the more options a defense has in coverage. The more options in coverage, the more important a quarterback's decision making becomes.

The 49ers learned this the hard way when J.T. O'Sullivan threw into coverage with four receivers on the field during a critical second-and-2 play against the Patriots. Rodney Harrison picked off the pass for New England, a pivotal play in the game.

Warner has the experience to avoid those types of basic errors. He also has the receivers to make it work against most teams. Even without Anquan Boldin, the Cardinals can produce favorable matchups by putting three and four receivers on the field together.

This Excel file features sheets breaking down the Cardinals' offensive personnel use against the Bills.

  • The first sheet shows total plays, percentage of plays, total runs, yards per carry, first downs running, total pass attempts, yards per attempt, first downs passing, touchdowns, interceptions and sacks allowed across each of the seven basic personnel groupings Arizona used in this game (plus more specific breakdowns for certain combinations within those seven basic groupings).
  • The second sheet contains play-by-play information sortable by quarter, drive number, down, distance, field position, personnel, play type, ball carrier, yards gained or lost and play result. I also have a few notes on selected plays in the margin.

Edgerrin James averaged 1.6 yards per carry on five first-down rushes with two receivers on the field. These are base runs. He had a 15-yard run on first down from a rare split-back formation with three receivers. His remaining six first-down carries averaged 0.6 yards. Five of these were with three receivers and a tight end. A sixth was with four receivers. Arrington and Hightower each had only one first-down carry.

Hightower converted all three third-down rushing attempts. He had gains of 17 and 6 yards on third-and-1, plus a 7-yard gain on third-and-6. He had runs of 3 and 1 yards on second-and-10. He scored on second-and-goal from the 2 and he had a 1-yard run on second-and-7. His lone first-down carry gained 5 yards on first-and-goal from the 7.

Arrington gained zero yards on his lone first-down carry. He had gains of 5 and 8 yards on second-and-10. Arrington rushed for 14 yards on third-and-9. The Bills stopped him for no gain on a third-and-2 run. He gained 13 yards on a screen pass on third-and-13.

James still got 21 carries, but the production wasn't great. Expect Arrington and Hightower to continue getting touches because both are producing.

Warner, Hightower a tough combination

October, 6, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando


Kurt Warner has tossed a touchdown pass in 13 consecutive games for the Cardinals, the fourth-longest streak in franchise history. Johnny Unitas holds the NFL record at 47 games, one of the most impressive records in league history.

Neil Lomax holds the Cardinals record. He tossed a touchdown pass in 19 consecutive games over the 1983 and 1984 seasons. Charley Johnson made it 16 games in 1964 and 1965. The Cardinals have won eight of 13 games during Warner's current streak.

Warner was particularly tough in key situations during a 41-17 victory over the Bills. He completed 9 of 10 passes for 75 yards on third down. Rookie running back Tim Hightower also did his part, running twice for 23 yards and a touchdown on third down. Hightower was now 3-for-3 in converting short-yardage situations on third and fourth downs against the Bills.

Around the NFC West: Cardinals rebound

October, 6, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

Darren Urban of explains how the Cardinals carried on without Anquan Boldin, who wasn't at the game. Also, Darnell Dockett predicts a "bloodbath" when the Cowboys visit the Cardinals in Week 6.

Also from Urban: Adrian Wilson didn't play much against the Bills, but he made a big difference, notably by knocking Buffalo's Trent Edwards from the game early. Gabe Watson, J.J. Arrington and Tim Castille also made significant contributions after missing time with injuries.

More from Urban: The Cardinals are tough to beat at home, where they have outscored opponents by a 72-27 count this season.

Michael Silver of checks in with Brenda Warner, wife of Kurt, who says the quarterback felt like retiring after what happened against the Jets in Week 5.

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic credits Warner for taking ball security seriously after a six-turnover showing against the Jets.

Also from Bickley: Arizona took control after the Bills jumped offside on a field-goal attempt. The penalty produced a first down. Arizona scored a touchdown for a 31-17 lead.

Richard Obert of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals weren't expecting Wilson to play. Cornerback Eric Green was surprised to see Wilson dressing for the game.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic assesses what Watson, Arrington and Early Doucet offered the Cardinals. Doucet, a rookie third-round choice, caught six passes. Three of his receptions turned third downs into first downs. Also, Dockett loved seeing Seattle lose.

Also from Somers: Give the Cardinals' offensive line credit for bouncing back after a rough outing against the Jets.

Mike Tulumello of the East Valley Tribune says the Cardinals are 8-2 at home under coach Ken Whisenhunt.

Scott Bordow of the East Valley Tribune says the Cardinals should do whatever it takes to avoid playing road games, even if they have to "refuse to fly on the grounds they're an eco-friendly franchise."

Also from Tulumello: Wilson, mindful of Boldin's injury last week, immediately called medical personnel to help Edwards after knocking the Bills' quarterback from the game.

Mark Heller of the East Valley Tribune assesses the Cardinals' depth at receiver. Steve Breaston has 16 catches for 199 yards over the last two games.

Rapid Reaction: Cardinals 41, Bills 17

October, 5, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

The Cardinals needed this one. So did their quarterback.

Kurt Warner wasn't happy when his six-turnover showing in Week 4 raised questions from reporters about his job status. Warner silenced critics by delivering the efficient performance Arizona needed to right its season following consecutive road defeats. Warner's job was never in jeopardy and he removed any lingering doubt in this game.

Buffalo was due for a game such as this one, but that doesn't diminish the victory for Arizona. Warner attempted more than 40 passes without taking a sack, significant progress for the Cardinals heading into their home game against Dallas in Week 6.

The Cardinals' defense needed to recapture the physical, borderline violent tendencies it showed at times earlier in the season. Safety Adrian Wilson knocked Bills quarterback Trent Edwards from the game with a concussion after only three pass attempts. The Cardinals' defense tends to play with swagger when Wilson leads the way. His return from a hamstring injury came just in time.

Closer look at NFC West opponents

October, 4, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

The 49ers face a veteran team when the Patriots visit Candlestick Park in Week 5.

New England owns the fifth-oldest 53-man roster in the league. That includes the third-oldest starting defense, not necessarily a bad thing for a team running a 3-4 scheme. 

I'm still playing around with ways to improve the weekly opponent profiles I've been running under the "DNA profile" headings. I've got good information but need to find better ways to pull it together and make it relevant. As always, I'm open to suggestions. In this case, I've almost got too much information to share.

I've also got a flight to catch. Here's a roided-out Patriots roster for those looking to get a better feel for New England. I've also made them available for the other teams facing NFC West opponents this week: the Bills and Giants.