Personnel report: Cardinals face choices

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

How the Cardinals use their personnel offensively makes for lively debate because the team has so many options.

The conflict between playing toward obvious strengths in the passing game and achieving more balance isn't going away anytime soon.

Arming quarterback Kurt Warner with the five best skill-position players on the roster will always be a priority. But if four of those players are wide receivers, the team could have a harder time striking the balance it needs to beat the best teams.

The chart below -- and this personnel report, available for download -- illustrate the conflict. Arizona averaged 9.1 yards per pass attempt with two touchdowns from its four-receiver offense, but the team passed on all 18 plays from that personnel group, including five times on first or second down in the first 24 minutes of the game.

I have charted 1,676 offensive plays for the Cardinals dating to the 2007 season, including every snap -- minus kneeldowns and aborted plays -- since the 2008 opener. A few general feelings and impressions:

  • The team can still have a big-play passing game with fewer than three wide receivers on the field. The numbers say so.

  • There's no reason to throw a hard sideline pass for LaRod Stephens-Howling on third down, as happened Sunday. Arizona keeps trying to use two backs and three wide receivers, an uncommon personnel grouping, on some third-down plays. The idea Sunday was to isolate Stephens-Howling in space. The Cardinals failed on two such plays. They have converted two times in eight third-down plays from this general group, usually with Tim Hightower and Jason Wright as the backs.

  • This two-back, three-receiver group has shown a lot more potential at other times, averaging 9.0 yards per play on first and second down, with seven first downs in 15 snaps. There's a place for this group in the offense, but if the third-down results do not improve, perhaps that isn't the time.

  • The possibilities grow, at least on paper, when the team welcomes back Ben Patrick from suspension for Week 6. Patrick is not an elite tight end, but he has more versatility than Stephen Spach or Anthony Becht. I'm interested in seeing a group featuring Patrick, Beanie Wells, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. I'm also interested in seeing the same group, but with fullback Dan Kreider instead of Breaston or Boldin, just to see how Wells runs with a fullback and a more athletic tight end presenting a receiving threat.

  • Putting Breaston on the field instead of Boldin isn't something the Cardinals can afford to do very often, politically or schematically. But Breaston's speed should have value in two-receiver groupings. Putting Wells in the backfield with two tight ends, Fitzgerald and Breaston could be intriguing.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt said Monday he plans to work Wells into the three-receiver offense as the season progresses. He felt the time Wells missed during training camp made it unrealistic for Wells to function at a high level in game situations, given the assignment demands running backs face.