NFC West: Scouts Inc.
In order for a 3-4 defense to excel, it must be strong at nose tackle and with its pass-rushing outside linebackers. Both spots are questionable for the Cardinals.
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|Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby is a playmaker, but what about the rest of the Cardinals' defense? |
At outside linebacker the Cardinals have veterans Chike Okeafor, Clark Haggans and Bertrand Berry and used their second-round pick on Cody Brown. The three vets have seen better days and combined for 10.5 sacks last year. They have a combined 33 years of NFL experience and also have had plenty of injuries. Brown is a decent prospect, but he doesn't possess any particularly overwhelming traits. And like just about every rookie defender, he will have to adapt to the 3-4 scheme, which Arizona is expected to use with more frequency this season.
Playing nose tackle for Arizona are Gabe Watson, Alan Branch and Bryan Robinson. Branch and Robinson can both play end as well. Robinson is smart and tough. He is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of player at this advanced stage of his career and it wouldn't be surprising if his skills began to diminish in the near future.
Watson is massive and talented, but he has stamina and technique issues. Branch has been an underachiever since joining the league and also is quick to tire. While utilizing a rotation here is helpful, no one in this group is a difference-maker and opponents won't have any reservations about attacking the middle of this defense with the run.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Team needs: Running back, outside linebacker, offensive line, tight end
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|If available, it would be difficult for the Cardinals to pass on Pittsburgh running back LeSean McCoy.|
Dream scenario: The Cardinals need a franchise running back. Finding one with the 31st overall choice would help Arizona at quarterback, along the offensive line and on defense. Ohio State's Chris Wells, Georgia's Knowshon Moreno or Pittsburgh's LeSean McCoy would be logical candidates if they remained available at No. 31. The Cardinals are undergoing a makeover at the position. Edgerrin James appears on his way out. J.J. Arrington is already gone. Tim Hightower showed some ability as a rookie, but he did not distinguish himself as the answer. A renewed commitment to the ground game helped the Cardinals advance through the NFC playoffs last season. A more dynamic threat in the backfield would take that running game to a higher level.
Plan B: The Cardinals are in good position to help their roster even if one of the top running backs isn't available to them in the first round. They could use a young outside linebacker. This draft appears strong in that area. They could use help at tight end, another position considered to have depth. And if one of the top centers is on the board -- California's Alex Mack comes to mind -- Arizona could always go in that direction.
Scouts Inc.'s take: "It all depends on what happens with Anquan Boldin. If they do deal him by draft day, that would yield a first-round pick or more. I think Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm deep down have their Steeler roots and they would love to be more balanced. They are good coaches. They realize their strengths. Their running backs are atrocious, so they go with what they do well. But if they deal Boldin, that might give them the resources to become a balanced offense. At the minimum, they are taking a back and they probably do that regardless. If you have more picks, you take a back and a center or tackle. Grimm is a great coach. Give him someone to mold. [Left tackle] Mike Gandy got destroyed in the Super Bowl and you are not going to have a power running game with Lyle Sendlein at center." -- Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.
Who has final say: Team president Michael Bidwill and general manager Rod Graves make the call in consultation with Whisenhunt. Steve Keim heads the college scouting department.
Now on the clock: The Tennessee Titans, March 17.
No one can argue that Arizona's offense lacks playmakers or scoring punch. But the imagination and explosiveness of the team's ground assault is limited. The Cardinals average more passing yards (282.6) than all but two NFL teams, but their run game ranks 24th in the league (94.2 yards per game). Even worse, Arizona averages just 3.3 yards per attempt and hasn't logged a run longer than 17 yards through five games.
For this offense to move forward, the Cardinals need to be more creative at attacking the line of scrimmage. Running backs Edgerrin James, Tim Hightower and J.J. Arrington direct most of their carries between the tackles, but interior run plays aren't usually an ideal fit for a pass-heavy offense. Arizona's offensive linemen need to maintain extremely tight splits in order to keep the pocket firm for quarterback Kurt Warner, and that doesn't lend itself to creating natural creases at the line of scrimmage in a base power-blocking scheme.
Off-tackle bounce-and-sweep schemes and more end-arounds and reverses to the speedy wide receivers are ways the Cardinals could attack the edge in the run game and force opponents to defend the entire field. Varying the line splits in different situations could also be helpful in spreading out a defense up front, setting up quick hitters that get ball carriers to the second level before defenders can shed their blocks.
If Arizona doesn't address these problems soon, opponents will be able stop the run game with fewer defenders up front and use nickel packages more frequently to avoid mismatches in the passing game. Rather than using seven in the box to stop the run, opposing defensive coordinators will use one fewer defender near the line and put their linemen in inside shade alignments to force the Cardinals' run game to spill to the edge. Until Arizona's runners prove dangerous enough to occasionally rip off big chunks of yardage, defenses will overplay the pass using nickel and dime packages, which ultimately could stifle Warner and his explosive pass-catching weapons.
When a team is struggling in a particular area, the coaching staff should be charged with bringing something new (and possibly innovative) to the table in an effort to break that trend -- a la the Miami Dolphins' staff and its "Wildcat" formation. Coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the onus is on you.
Poor defensive play was one of the downfalls of the Scott Linehan era in St. Louis, which makes the hiring of defensive coordinator Jim Haslett as interim head coach seem a little strange -- or at least ironic.
The move makes some sense, though. Haslett's experience as an NFL head coach and player, and his familiarity with the Rams, are built-in advantages. He's tough and aggressive, and he isn't afraid to hurt anyone's feelings to make a team better. This club probably could use some fire and brimstone after two-plus years of the warm-and-fuzzy Linehan. Haslett likes to attack on defense, and that attitude may spill over to the other side of the ball, where Linehan didn't take enough chances until it was too late.
Additionally, Haslett has a trusted aide in assistant head coach and linebackers coach Rick Venturi, who likely will take on a more prominent role in game planning and maybe even play calling. The smartest thing Haslett can do now is to let Venturi run the defense and free himself up to focus on managing the game -- something Linehan learned the hard way. Moreover, Venturi's experience as a two-time NFL interim head coach (Colts, Saints) should be invaluable in this situation.
Still, Haslett hands are tied. He can't change the team's personnel, and he'd be a fool to drastically alter its schemes. The Rams will do a lot of self-scouting during the bye week, taking stock of the roster to figure out how to best utilize their current personnel. Expect a return to the lineup by Marc Bulger, whose benching was a panic move by Linehan. And we may see other changes in the lineup, particularly on the offensive line and defense. No one's job is safe.
But Haslett doesn't have any go-to moves to salvage the season, and the franchise higher-ups know this. He was hired as a short-term stop-gap, and getting players to buy what you're selling as an interim coach is next to impossible. At 0-4, the Rams may be only two games out of first in the NFC West and technically still in the playoff hunt, but this is a bad team. As things head south -- and with Washington, Dallas and New England up next, they will -- Haslett may also have to deal with the additional distraction of lame-duck assistants jockeying for their next job opportunity.
Wherever they go from here, the Rams need to establish a viable power structure. It's difficult to tell who -- if anyone -- is running the show in St. Louis right now, and there's an accountability problem that trickles down throughout the organization. My suggestion: Promote Billy Devaney, the executive VP of player personnel, to general manager. He's an excellent football man who is capable of building a legitimate operations department. If not Devaney, the Rams need to go get a qualified GM and build according to his vision. Any direction is better than none.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
|Mike Martz's system puts a great deal of emphasis on timing.|
The system new offensive coordinator Mike Martz has brought to San Francisco is a creative, up-tempo system that utilizes a lot of unique personnel groupings and packages to spread a defense out and force it to cover from sideline to sideline. The quarterback is asked to process information quickly at the line and get the offense out of bad plays and into good ones. He must get a feel for the timing and rhythm of the offense in order to throw to spots where his receivers should be.
Martz utilizes various option routes and route adjustments, and if the quarterback has a big enough arm the secondary will have to defend those routes on all three levels as well as across the entire width of the field. That creates a lot of space on the back end and gives receivers the chance to make big plays if the quarterback can process what he's seeing quickly, hit his landmarks in the pocket and deliver the ball precisely and on time.
That would seem to tip the scales in favor of J.T. O'Sullivan, who played in Martz's system last season in Detroit and has proven that he can be functional in the right offensive system. He doesn't have the overall skills to be a quality starter who can make an offense better all by himself, but he has enough arm strength to be efficient, though. The numbers Jon Kitna put up in Detroit the last two years under Martz -- 39 total touchdowns and 8,276 total yards -- prove that the system works if the quarterback does what he is supposed to.
The key for O'Sullivan is to stay within himself, take what the defense gives him and avoid turnovers. He lacks Alex Smith's mobility, but if O'Sullivan can slide in the pocket and hit passing windows he has a chance to do some things. And his yards-per-attempt average in the preseason -- 9.4 to just 5.0 for Smith -- backs that up and indicates that he is hitting his spots a little better than Smith. Still, even the plays he made in the preseason game against Green Bay were not that impressive as they were often the result of coverage breakdowns.