What to make of hot-and-cold Cardinals

November, 8, 2009
11/08/09
7:31
PM ET
Jerry Lai/US Presswire
Larry Fitzgerald pulled in two touchdowns to spark the Cardinals offense.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

CHICAGO -- Recent history urges extreme caution for anyone remotely close to thinking the Arizona Cardinals have finally grown into a consistent team.
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Doubts naturally linger following their 41-21 dismantling of the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Week 9.

"The thing I like best about our team is that we do respond," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Hopefully, we've learned from out last home game [34-21 defeat to Carolina] that we can't go into the game and have a letdown like that."

Is this team for real? Or will the Cardinals, notoriously unable to handle success without high stakes, again fall flat following another impressive road victory?

The answer, plus nine other observations pertaining to the latest performance from NFL's least consistent 5-3 team:

1. The Cardinals have memorized their lesson.

That doesn't mean they've learned it.

Long-term retention might prove challenging for this team, but there's no question in my mind about the Cardinals' resolve heading into a Week 10 home game against the Seattle Seahawks.

"Seattle!" shouted a Cardinals player I couldn't identify as players filed into the locker room Sunday.

Arizona is 4-0 on the road and 1-3 at home this season.

Like young children, these Cardinals respond to simple psychological stimuli. Tell them they cannot win on the road and they'll prove you wrong. Tell them they cannot win at home -- the record speaks for itself this season -- and they'll prove you wrong again.

I think that's what will happen in Week 10. The Cardinals will play their best home game of the season against the Seahawks.

"Seattle has been struggling and that is the most dangerous team," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "Ain't going to be no overlooking Seattle. They know they've got their hands full on Sunday. We have to establish our home field."

2. Anquan Boldin was not missed.

It's tough to fathom how an offense could become better without one of the toughest and most productive receivers in the game.

The Cardinals are now 5-1 since the start of last season when Boldin does not play. Kurt Warner matched a career high with five touchdown passes Sunday. He threw two touchdown passes to Larry Fitzgerald, one to Steve Breaston and one apiece to tight ends Ben Patrick and Anthony Becht.

Whisenhunt insisted the Cardinals stuck with their intended game plan after deciding 90 minutes before kickoff to rest Boldin and his injured ankle.

That might be true, but Arizona did shake up its personnel use in this game. The team used four wide receivers a season-low 15.6 percent of the time, down from at least 25 percent in blowout victories over Jacksonville and Seattle earlier this season. The team used "11" personnel with one back and one tight end 29.7 percent of the time, a season high. It also showed more willingness to run the ball from passing formations.

Part of me thinks the Cardinals might sometimes be more apt to give their ground game a chance when Boldin is on the sideline.

"We've shown we can do it," guard Reggie Wells said, referring to the ground game in general and not in relation to Boldin's status. "It's just a matter of sticking with it. Sometimes we've gotten away from it."

3. The Cardinals should consider trading Boldin.

This wasn't the first time Boldin seemed unable to enjoy a Cardinals victory. It happened last season and again Sunday when the Cardinals decided to name him inactive.

Boldin, suffering from an ankle injury, warmed up and declared himself ready. Whisenhunt cited loose sod at Soldier Field as one reason he decided to play it safe. Also, Doucet had gotten most of Boldin's reps during practice.

"The only thing I can say is that when I came here, all of my stuff was in my locker," Boldin said. "I went out and warmed up -- felt great -- and when I came back in, everything was gone. Nobody was man enough to come to me and tell me what was the situation.

"I would have probably felt better had somebody been man enough to walk up to me and tell me what the situation was, but I had to walk back in the locker room and find all of my stuff gone."

Two points here.

One, Boldin deserves to be treated with respect. He plays hurt. He appears to be an excellent teammate. I've seen him mentor younger players, including Doucet, during offseason minicamps even when Boldin was upset about his contract.

Two, the head coach has more on his mind than making sure his toughest player's feelings aren't hurt. I highly doubt Whisenhunt meant any disrespect in this case. He was preoccupied with making the right decision and informing NFL officials before the deadline for naming inactive players.

The Cardinals need to strongly consider trading Boldin after this season. They're loaded at receiver without him, they have a young running back who needs to get more carries, they cannot justify giving a long-term deal to a 29-year-old player with injury concerns and it's clear Boldin cannot be happy in Arizona without a new deal.

4. Warner handled pressure much better.

Warner made the Bears pay for rushing five defenders.

He averaged 7.8 yards per attempt with three touchdowns and a 104.8 rating when the Bears rushed five. That was up from 5.9 yards per attempt with three interceptions and a 61.3 rating when the Cardinals' previous 2009 opponents rushed five, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Running back Tim Hightower helped hold the Bears without a sack when they came after Warner. His block in blitz pickup freed Warner to find Fitzgerald for an 11-yard touchdown reception early in the game. The Cardinals brought a linebacker as the fifth rusher on that play.

Chicago was most effective against Warner when overloading one side. The Bears did not try it much, however.

5. The defense remains vulnerable to the big play.

Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, burned for a 50-yard touchdown against the Panthers' Steve Smith in Week 8, gave up another big pass play, this one to the Bears' Devin Hester.

Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson had a rough game in coverage against Bears tight end Greg Olsen.

Arizona's offense took off the pressure Sunday, but the Cardinals must resolve their problems in coverage. Limiting the big pass play has been Whisenhunt's top defensive priority this season. The Cardinals have shown improvement at times, but they have not been consistent enough in that area.

6. This is a loose, unapologetic team.

Reporters were reaching for their recorders and moving toward the locker room when Whisenhunt informed them he had one more thing to say.

"I'd also like to compliment the Bears because they played hard and they came back," Whisenhunt said. "And the last thing I'll say is, 'We didn't let them off the hook.' "

Whisenhunt's playful reference to predecessor Dennis Green's postgame harangue -- that one following an infamous defeat to the Bears in 2006 -- arguably showed little regard for an already embarrassed opponent.

At least Whisenhunt didn't slug anyone.

7. Tommie Harris' punch had little impact.

The Cardinals players I polled regarding Harris' sucker punch on Arizona guard Deuce Lutui effectively shrugged when asked about the play's impact.

They did not seem to take offense. Even Lutui expressed no malice toward Harris.

"It didn't hurt," Lutui said. "It happened so fast. It was nothing serious. I just know the refs caught it. Things like that happen."

The only effect, if any, was that the Cardinals no longer had to worry about Harris. They were already running the ball effectively when Harris was in the game.

Dockett expressed disappointment in Harris, a player he says he admires, but there were no hard feelings. The key, Dockett said, is to deliver punches during pileups, where officials have a harder time spotting them.

8. Doucet's role no reflection on Urban.

Fitzgerald, Breaston and Doucet generally served as the Cardinals' receivers in three-receiver sets, even though Jerheme Urban outranks Doucet in the receiving hierarchy.

Doucet had taken some of Boldin's reps during practice. Leaving Urban as the fourth receiver meant fewer receivers had to deviate from their usual roles.

Doucet had a 6-yard reception on third-and-5. Urban played less than usual because the Cardinals ran so few four-receiver groupings.

9. Beanie Wells, Hightower deserve more carries.

Both players averaged more than 5 yards per carry on a combined 28 rushes. Wells' first four carries went for 6, 13, 5 and 26 yards.

Hightower remains the superior pass protector, but Wells' big-play ability is apparent.

"I'm sure he's getting more comfortable and adapting to what we are doing as an offense," Reggie Wells said, "but it takes time when you are called upon to do more in our passing game. He has been coming arond great."

10. The rest of the NFC West cannot like this result.

While the 49ers and Seahawks fought tough battles against losing teams Sunday, the Cardinals were breezing to victory over a team with a winning record.

Arizona will be tough to overtake in the division if -- make that when -- the Cardinals take care of business against Seattle in Week 10.

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