NFC West: Panthers-Cardinals

Around the NFC West: Cards flattened

November, 2, 2009
11/02/09
8:55
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic says there's something not quite right about the Cardinals' offense. Boivin: "Let's not start addressing (Kurt) Warner's age against just yet. It was only six weeks ago that he completed 24 of 26 passes against Jacksonville. It was only three weeks ago when he put up his second of back-to-back 300-yard games. He still has it. But for his offense to regain its big-play threat, the deep passing game needs to return."

Also from Boivin: Julius Peppers' interception return for a touchdown was the key play Sunday.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals proved how quickly things can change in the NFL. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett: "I don't think we got exposed. I think they just outplayed us, offense and defense. I'm just shocked that we lost, period. I don't care about no rushing yards. They could have had 1,000 rushing yards and we won. That would have been better for me." Carolina was much, much better than advertised.

Also from Somers: Anquan Boldin moved past Larry Centers for the Cardinals' all-time receptions lead. Also, rookie LaRod Stephens-Howling provided one of the few bright spots for Arizona.

More from Somers: The Cardinals' inability to strike downfield is forcing them to settle for longer drives, which are tougher to sustain.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Arizona allowed 270 yards rushing even though the Cardinals had to know what was coming.

Also from Urban: There seemed to be no panic in the Cardinals' locker room. Urban: "While it may be frustrating for (coach Ken) Whisenhunt and his players that they couldn’t avoid a stumble after the previous week, it’s also true this team has dealt with -- many times -- rebounding from a scenario just like this."

More from Urban: The Cardinals' previously tough third-down defense gave up five consecutive third-down conversions on the Panthers' opening drive.
 
  Rick Scuteri-US PRESSWIRE
 Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald isn’t making the plays he was making last season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- This current Arizona Cardinals team might never develop the maturity and emotional stability needed to play at a high level from week to week.

The Cardinals might continue showing up when the stakes are high or when the public doubts them -- as when they upset the New York Giants on the road last week -- only to vanish the way they did Sunday during a 34-21 home loss to the Carolina Panthers.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt will express disappointment and frustration. Quarterback Kurt Warner will talk about how these Cardinals remain a work in progress. Linebacker Karlos Dansby or someone else will credit the other team for a fine effort.

The public will doubt the Cardinals and the cycle will start all over again.

Sound familiar? It should.

The 2008 team upped its record to 4-2 with a milestone victory over the Dallas Cowboys, only to lose at Carolina in Week 8. That setback was temporary. Those Cardinals won their next three to all but close out the NFC West race.

One primary difference this season could threaten the Cardinals' ability to make another playoff run. The current Cardinals, 4-3 and leading the NFC West, simply can't find ways to push the ball downfield to their wide receivers in general and Larry Fitzgerald in particular. It's short-circuiting their offense.

Week 8 Coverage
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Sando: Cards missing Fitz
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Clayton: Denver goes down
Greenberg: Cutler tough in win
Watkins: Cowboys youth shows off
MacMahon: Austin, Crayton shine
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"It seems like every time we try to throw it down the field, we're getting Cover 2," Whisenhunt said. "It's a guessing game. We had a down-the-field throw called the first play of the game and they're playing off-coverage."

At this point last season, Fitzgerald had caught 43 passes with a 15.4-yard average and five touchdowns. Anquan Boldin was leading the NFL with seven touchdown receptions. Warner had 14 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 102.1 passer rating despite enduring a meltdown game against the New York Jets in Week 4.

Fitzgerald is averaging only 10.8 yards per catch on his 47 receptions this season. Boldin, who did not return Sunday and could miss additional time after aggravating an ankle injury, has only one touchdown. Warner's rating has fallen nearly 20 points from this point last season to a middling 81.5.

Fitzgerald owned the playoffs and made the big play look routine last season. He hasn't caught a pass longer than 27 yards all season. In 2008, Fitzgerald had 10 games with at least one reception of 30 yards or longer -- and he was only warming up for the most prolific postseason by a receiver in NFL history.

"Teams are trying to bang him at the line of scrimmage and get a safety up over the top of him as much as they can when he is singled up," Warner said. "Some of it has been protection at times where we haven't been able to hold it to try and take the shots down the field. Other times it's just the defense hasn't dictated to take those shots."

There's simply no acceptable explanation for Fitzgerald to lose nearly 5 yards per reception overnight. It's not like opponents are suddenly discovering Fitzgerald is a threat. Fitzgerald previously flourished with or without Boldin. Opponents have rolled safeties to Fitzgerald's side in past seasons, to no avail.

"You're right, it's not like it's never been that way before, but I think when we get into games like this where we are down, teams putting safeties back, they are running man coverage underneath and trying to get pressure on us with four guys and it's a tough coverage to throw against," Warner said.

Teams are inviting the Cardinals to run the ball and Arizona has shown signs of improvement in that area. But this team cannot maximize its potential without Fitzgerald reemerging as a dominant force.

"Once (they) get a lead, they do a nice job of running the football and grinding out the clock and then they are able to get in the right defense to prevent the big plays," Fitzgerald said. "The closer the game is, the more the field is open."

Six turnovers changed the dynamics Sunday, but the Cardinals couldn't get anything going down the field from the beginning.

Instead of going deep on the first play, as Whisenhunt had intended, Warner checked down to running back Tim Hightower. It's becoming an all-too-familiar scenario for Arizona. The Cardinals handed off to a running back or threw to one on their first six plays and 10 times in their first 11 plays. Their running backs account for 17.4 percent of receptions this season, up from 12.8 percent during the 2008 regular season.

With Boldin either out or limited, the Cardinals might need to reinvent themselves a little.

As thoroughly as the Panthers dominated Sunday, the Cardinals trailed by only 10 points, 31-21, with nearly 10 minutes remaining. Arizona's defense limited the Panthers to a three-and-out possession. A team with Warner, Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston should have been able to rally, particularly at home.

Arizona had first-and-10 at its own 39 when Warner dropped back to pass with 7:13 remaining. Warner had sufficient time to find an open receiver, but there were apparently none. Warner held the ball as he kept searching for someone to get open. Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers finally tracked down Warner from behind, sacking him and forcing a fumble. Carolina recovered and the Cardinals were finished.

"They are dropping a lot of people off in coverage, so it's like, run the ball," Breaston said. "You have to run the ball. I think we run the ball good, but we were playing from behind the majority of the game. As a team, we can't have turnovers like that."

Overall, the Cardinals let down against a desperate team and paid the price. Their defense tackled poorly and played without discipline. The bounces that had gone against the Panthers all season suddenly went their way. It was puzzling at times, but teams make their breaks a lot of the time and Carolina did that Sunday.

"The biggest thing with us, it's a continuous pattern," Breaston said. "You've got to want this. You've got to want to be the elite of the NFL. You've got to want to break that trend of, 'Oh, we win a couple games and fall back.' You've got to want to put the streak together, keep looking forward and don't be happy with where you are because stuff will happen like today. When we have a nice little run, we have to keep grinding like the way we got there."

Especially when the one thing Arizona always could count on -- Warner to Fitzgerald down the field -- isn't what it used to be.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando


GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The rugged Carolina team that failed to show up against Arizona during the playoffs last season made an unexpected appearance at University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 8.

The Cardinals, perhaps a bit high on themselves after beating the Giants, seemed completely unprepared.

Instead of catching interceptions from Jake Delhomme as previous scripts suggested the case would be, the Cardinals threw them to Carolina. Kurt Warner, picked off five times, tends to have a game like this every so often. But the Cardinals' defense, ranked No. 1 in yards allowed per game entering Week 8, failed to compensate. This defeat was a team effort.

Arizona's performance demonstrated again that the Cardinals cannot be trusted to perform well consistently. The Cardinals can still be plenty dangerous when threatened or when the stakes are high. But they are rarely a sure bet when the evidence says they should be one. And they should have been a safe bet Sunday.

Warner often could not find open receivers when he did have time to throw. This has been a recurring theme for Arizona this season, and an unexpected one. The Cardinals cannot be at their best while feeding dump passes to running back Tim Hightower after failing to find open receivers. It's one of the angles I plan to explore upon heading to the locker rooms momentarily.

On the injury front, Anquan Boldin did not return after aggravating his ankle injury. Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, Jerheme Urban and Sean Morey were the receivers when Arizona went to its four-receiver offense.

Cardinals breaking down in every way

November, 1, 2009
11/01/09
5:27
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Asked about the Cardinals on ESPN Radio, I said the team could validate its recent success with an impressive victory over the Panthers.

Any kind of Arizona victory would be impressive at this point.

Carolina has dominated in nearly every aspect while building a shocking 28-7 lead in the first half.

The Cardinals' run defense has imploded. Rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie bit on a pump fake, allowing Steve Smith to get behind him for a 50-yard touchdown reception. The Arizona offensive line has been overpowered a few times, including when immediate pressure up the middle pressured Kurt Warner into throwing quickly to Beanie Wells in the left flat, only to have Julius Peppers pick it off and return the ball 13 yards for a touchdown.

The 49ers' inability to hold on against the Colts is going to cost them. Winning that game could have put some pressure on the Cardinals.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

A few thoughts as NFC West games approach in Week 8:
  • The 49ers need more from their offensive line. I'm not sure why the team hasn't given Tony Wragge a chance at one of the guard spots, but perhaps it is time.
  • Recently benched 49ers quarterback Shaun Hill seemed reluctant to push the ball down the field, perhaps a reflection of the coaching staff's emphasis on avoiding mistakes. Alex Smith seemed more comfortable taking those chances. Smith has nothing to gain by mimicking Hill. He needs to cut loose a little bit. I expect him to play aggressively.
  • Nate Clements is not finished as a starting cornerback for the 49ers. He hasn't looked right at times this season, particularly recently, and he was never a shutdown cornerback, but Clements can still be a good player, in my view.
  • Kurt Warner should pay special attention to getting rid of the ball quickly early in the game against the Panthers. He basically needs to convince Carolina that its pass rush isn't going to get there no matter how well Julius Peppers and the Panthers apply pressure. Warner did this effectively in the playoff game against the Panthers last season, as I recall. Once that happens, a quarterback can take more time later in the game.
  • Jake Delhomme's interceptions appear almost entirely responsible for the Panthers' struggles this season. Carolina seems to have a good offensive line. Massive turnover on the coaching staff could be hurting the Panthers, but this team shouldn't be nearly this bad. Delhomme's problems have transcended situations, but his numbers against added pressure are second-worst in the league among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts. The numbers, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information: 22-of-47 passing for 315 yards with one touchdown, six interceptions and a 36.5 rating. Ouch. Delhomme has three touchdowns and seven interceptions against standard pressure.
  • The Seahawks expected their running game to hit stride at about this part of the season, but that assumed at least some continuity on the offensive line. The constant shuffling up front will likely delay the ground game's emergence, putting additional pressure on Matt Hasselbeck to carry the offense -- a tough task for a team that seems to change left tackles every week or two.
  • Nate Burleson has been the Seahawks' best wide receiver. He ranks ninth among NFL wide receivers with 157 yards after the catch, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The top eight: Wes Welker (266), Hines Ward (235), Miles Austin (225), Andre Johnson (224), DeSean Jackson (208), Santonio Holmes (206), Hakeem Nicks (173) and Roddy White (171).
  • Something has to give when the Rams' weak pass offense meets the Lions' weak pass defense. Detroit has allowed 17 passing touchdowns this season. The Rams have scored only five. Opposing quarterbacks have a 117.8 rating against the Lions this season. If the Rams cannot have success against this pass defense, then what?
  • The Lions' Calvin Johnson and the Rams' Steven Jackson have combined for one touchdown this season (Johnson scored it). I like both players' chances of finding the end zone in Week 8, assuming Johnson's injured knee allows him to contribute. (Update: Calvin Johnson is inactive for today's game)

I'm heading to University of Phoenix Stadium shortly to watch the early games on TV and the Panthers-Cardinals game in person. Have a great first day of November.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

You know NFL teams are close to selling out when the league agrees to offer 24-hour blackout extensions.

The extensions put pressure on fans to purchase the few remaining tickets. The league generally responds by allowing the games in question to air on local television.

That's what happened Friday, with the Cardinals announcing their Week 8 game against the Panthers will be shown locally on Fox. A blackout would have led the local affiliate to show the Vikings-Packers game locally instead. I've heard from a few people on that subject.

If you're an NFL fan living in the Phoenix area and not planning to attend Panthers-Cardinals, which game would you rather watch?

Cardinals get blackout extension

October, 29, 2009
10/29/09
5:10
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The NFL granted a 24-hour blackout extension to the Cardinals, giving the team extra time to sell enough tickets for its Week 8 game against Carolina to appear on local television.

The team has experienced the NFL's largest percentage increase in local television viewership from 2008 to this season, but ticket sales for some games have lagged. A rough economy explains part of the problem. The Panthers are not a marquee opponent.

It's tough to blame the Cardinals at this point. They are 4-2 and coming off a road victory over the Giants. They appeared in the Super Bowl last season. Their stadium is terrific.

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