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Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Solving the Cardinals' run-game problems


 
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 Edgerrin James (left) or Tim Hightower? The Cardinals' problems in the running game might go deeper than the starting running back.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Before they became one-dimensional to a fault, the Arizona Cardinals were developing a fast friendship with the power running game.

They ground out tough yardage in beating the San Francisco 49ers on the road in the season opener. They were back at it during a Week 3 road game against the Washington Redskins when former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston, calling the game for Fox, took notice.

"I think the versatility of this Cardinals offense is what makes it dangerous," Johnston said on the Fox broadcast. "You look at the outside and it's Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, and you've got Kurt Warner at quarterback. But the ability to just line up and pound the football also with Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower, I think that is what makes this kind of a special group right now."

Johnston wasn't imagining. The Cardinals really were a good running team early in the season. James rushed for 100 yards on 26 carries in the opener. He had 93 yards and a 5.2-yard average against the Redskins, outrushing Clinton Portis by 25 yards. Hightower added 23 yards on five carries.

The Cardinals lost the Washington game, 24-17, but they had found a friend in the running attack. Eleven weeks later, it's looking as though Arizona took this friendship for granted. The Cardinals found a flashier friend in the spread passing game, and no one could fault them for being smitten while Warner put up MVP numbers.

With the playoffs approaching, the question becomes whether one dimension is enough. Consecutive defeats to the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles suggest otherwise.

The Cardinals have averaged only 42.5 net yards rushing in posting a 2-2 record over their last four games.

"We've got to figure something out," Warner told reporters after tossing three interceptions during the 48-20 defeat to the Eagles on Thanksgiving. "When you play against good teams that have good schemes, it's tough to throw all the time. It's tough to be a one-dimensional team and continue to be successful week in and week out."

Of course, Warner is Reason No. 1 for the Cardinals' reliance on the passing game. He's at his best throwing the football. He struggles finding a rhythm within a conventional offense. Besides, any team with Fitzgerald, Boldin and the emerging Steve Breaston needs to throw the football frequently -- but ideally not at the expense of the ground game, which can become a quarterback's best friend in December and January.

What to do? Our most recent Hot Topic item threw out five possible scenarios as conversation starters:

"It's crazy that 'Edge' isn't getting any carries anymore," bigred48years responded. "He wasn't popping big runs, but he was making positive yardage when the Cardinals used him. It's equally crazy that the team isn't using [fullback] Terrelle Smith more. He's a bruiser and I've seen him pry open a few holes."

Game situations can make run-pass statistics meaningless. Teams that fall behind pass disproportionately. Teams protecting leads tend to run more frequently. Down and distance also influence decision making.

We can adjust for those situations by singling out first-down plays in the first halves of games, before teams abandon game plans. The trend is clear for the Cardinals. They are passing the ball more frequently in these situations over the last six games. They are also placing three or more wide receivers on the field more frequently in these situations, throwing about 70 percent of the time when they do.

"Honestly, the Cardinals will never have a legitimate running game game in and game out until they strengthen their offensive line," pebjphx wrote. "They are very able-bodied pass protectors, yet they still need to learn how to run block.

"In addition, it is extremely obvious when the Cardinals are going to run: when they enter an offset-I formation or regular-I formation, or throw in two tight ends, the opposing defense immediately knows that it will most likely be a run."

2008 Cardinals Personnel Use (Weeks 1, 3-13) PlaysPct.Runs Yards/ RunPass Att. Yards/ Att.TD- INT- Sacks
4-WR23034.9233.12217.3 9-4-5
1-RB, 3-WR, 1-TE19329.3623.81257.716-3-6
2-RB, 2-WR, 1-TE10616.1704.13610.0 3-1-0
1-RB, 2-WR, 2-TE639.6333.2287.5 1-0-2
2-RB, 1-WR, 2-TE324.9262.056.0 2-0-1
2-RB, 3-WR324.9106.221 5.9  1-1-1
3-TE3 0.530.700.0 1-0-0
TOTALS659100.02273.6436 7.533-9-15

I've charted the Cardinals' personnel use for 11 of their 12 games this season, missing only the Week 2 blowout over the Dolphins. This covered more than 650 offensive plays. Within those games, Arizona has run the ball on 69 of 97 plays -- 71 percent -- when showing the I-formation or offset-I formation with two wide receivers and a tight end. The Cardinals also averaged more than 4 yards per carry on these runs, so they were doing something right.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt has pointed to poor blocking as a primary contributor to the Cardinals' struggles on the ground. Injuries at tight end have hurt. Breaston's emergence has made the passing game even more appealing. Warner's ability to get rid of the football quickly has made the passing game work more often than not, but not always against the best teams.

"Putting James back in and working Arrington into the lineup would be a good start," Opfor13 wrote. "I thought it was a little hasty putting Hightower in after one good outing, he really hasn't opened much up yet."

Crixtopher absolved Hightower from blame, pointing to bad blocking. "One of my favorite approaches is to spread the field and run out of the spread formation with and without shotgun to run or pass," Crixtopher wrote.

That approach hasn't worked very well when tried. In the 11 games I charted, the Cardinals ran the ball 23 times with four receivers on the field, averaging 3.1 yards per carry with four first downs. They averaged 6.2 yards per carry on 10 rushes with two backs and three wide receivers, but the Cardinals haven't tried that personnel group very much.

Unsterblich856 offered a four-point plan to jump-starting the ground game.

"[Line coach] Russ Grimm is maximizing the talent he has on hand," ulriccowl2 wrote. "They do need to draft more offensive line depth and perhaps look for additional free agents in the off season. For right now, they need to use formations that utilize their fullback, Terrelle Smith, to help with run play blocking. Hightower is a fine goal-line back, but he is not suited to be running from a one-back running formation. They need to incorporate a lead blocker."

My impression from watching the Cardinals and studying their personnel use: The team might benefit from using more two-receiver personnel groups in the passing game. Fitzgerald and Boldin would be good enough to sustain the passing game. And with two running backs and a tight end on the field, the Cardinals might be in better position to run the ball. Such an approach would mean less playing time for Breaston, but the tradeoff might be more balance.

Arizona's schedule might provide a short-term fix. The Rams visit University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday. The Vikings visit in Week 15, probably without suspended Pro Bowl defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams. If the Cardinals can't run the ball successfully in the next two games, they might be down to one last-ditch option.

"Buy a bread truck," pablogloria1 wrote.