NFL Nation: Eric Winston

When the calendar hits June 1, it usually means the Baltimore Ravens are preparing to making one additional move.

This is a significant date because any free-agent signing past it doesn't count against a team's compensatory picks. The Ravens love their extra picks, and they're officially in line for three in the 2015 draft after losing four unrestricted free agents and signing one.

Baltimore has had some moderate success with its June signings. The Ravens landed inside linebacker Daryl Smith, who became one of their best defensive players last season, on June 5 of last year. They signed guard Bobbie Williams, who started six games during their Super Bowl season, in 2012, and added kicker Shayne Graham in 2010.

Will this June trend continue for the Ravens?

"We’re aware of the guys that are still out there, free agents that would be more favorable to sign after June 1 and all that," coach John Harbaugh said. "We’re going to be watching the waiver wire real close. We’re going to try and get better. We had a conversation, Ozzie [Newsome] and I, and I like to think on principle that we really believe this: We want to build as strong of a 53-man roster as we possibly can, and as we do that, try to get stronger every chance we can get. We’ll be looking.”

The two biggest positions of need for the Ravens are offensive tackle and cornerback.

There has been a lot of speculation about the Ravens signing offensive tackle Eric Winston. It makes sense because Winston played six seasons under Gary Kubiak, who is now the Ravens' offensive coordinator, and fits in the zone-blocking scheme. But, based on what the Ravens are saying, the team wants to see what Rick Wagner can do at right tackle before adding a veteran like Winston. There is also no guarantee that Winston, at the age of 30, is that much of an upgrade over what the Ravens already have.

The same argument could be made at cornerback, where the Ravens have two unproven defenders (Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson) battling for the No. 3 spot. The Ravens didn't sign or draft a cornerback after losing Corey Graham in free agency.

"Ozzie knows he has two great, young guys that are coming up," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "You’ve got Asa Jackson who can play the nickel and outside, but mostly better inside. And Chykie Brown has been playing good. He’s had his chance to get out on the field, but now he gets thrown in, and it’s his. He’s going to get to show you all what he’s capable of."
The top cornerbacks available are: Terrell Thomas, Drayton Florence, Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson. Thomas is 29 and has dealt with multiple knee surgeries while with the New York Giants. Samuel, 33, was relegated to being a backup at the end of last season for the Atlanta Falcons, and Robinson, 32, lost his nickelback job to a rookie last season with the Kansas City Chiefs. The best of this group seems to be Florence, a journeyman 33-year-old defender who started five games last season for the Carolina Panthers.

Considering these options, the Ravens may wait to add a veteran cornerback at the end of the preseason, when the final major cutdown is made and a more viable defender hits the market. With only four corners with NFL experience, the Ravens will have to either sign a veteran corner or keep an undrafted rookie.
Eric WinstonAP Photo/Damian StrohmeyerEric Winston becomes the president of the NFL Players Association during labor peace, but with plenty to resolve.

Four years ago, this would be a different conversation.

It would be about millionaires versus billionaires, about how one document will shape the course of professional football for the next decade and how Eric Winston would be the face of the future of the sport.

Fortunately for Winston, the former Arizona Cardinals right tackle who was recently elected president of the NFL Players Association, he doesn't have to worry about that. He doesn't have to worry about his constituents being locked out by the owners or sitting down at the negotiating table to hammer out a collective bargaining agreement. His two-year tenure begins amid labor peace, allowing Winston to spend most his time this offseason on specific issues that face the players and the game.

Timing is everything.

"Yes and no," Winston said. "I think in those negotiations, that's where you're going to accomplish a lot. I think that's where you're getting, whether it's benefits, whether it's salary, whether it's health and safety, all those are up for grabs at that point.

"With a lot of that stuff being settled I can focus in on some topics, and focus on and find out what's hurting our players today and what are the few things we can do right now that can improve the lives of all of our players. I think that's kind of my mission, so to speak."

Winston's mission, to serve as the collective voice of the players, came about with a simple question, he said: "Would you be interested in running?"

He was at the biannual NFLPA meetings when the question was posed. If he was nominated, Winston said, he'd run. It didn't take long for someone at the meetings to follow protocol. A speech later and Winston was the new face -- clean-shaven after a season of growing out a hockey playoff-like beard -- of the players' association.

"It happened fast, that's for sure," Winston said. "I'm happy it happened. I'm eager to try to make a difference."

[+] EnlargeEric Winston
Michael Starghill, Jr. for ESPNEric Winston wants to "find out what's hurting our players today and what are the few things we can do right now that can improve the lives of all of our players. I think that's kind of my mission."
Whether he knows it or not, Winston has already made a difference. And it's built an air of confidence from his side of the table and the other.

Cardinals linebacker Lorenzo Alexander knew Winston but never spent much time around the hulking right tackle. After spending last season with him, Alexander, who has been an NFLPA player rep and was voted onto the current association's executive committee, believes the NFLPA has the right leader.

"He has great leadership qualities and I think a great grasp on the vision he has for the PA," Alexander said. "I think all those things really help him as far as moving forward and strengthening our union as a whole and the perception, I guess, internally and externally from the players."

The perception of Winston was built two years ago, when he was protecting Matt Cassel's strong side for the Kansas City Chiefs. Winston showed everyone -- thanks to countless replays -- that he's more than a big, burly blocker. After Cassel was knocked out of a game against Baltimore and booed by Chiefs fans, Winston verbalized his frustration with the fans and his disdain for their gesture. As Winston's voice rose, his passion for the sport filled the locker room.

Troy Vincent, recently appointed NFL executive vice president for football operations, is also a former NFLPA president. He thinks Winston's passion is only part of the reason he will succeed.

"That says a lot about who an individual is," Vincent said. "I think he's going to be a great leader.

"I know what it takes to be elected. That's not a given and I think he's going to be a fine leader. He's very thoughtful. I think Eric is also very reasonable. I think at that position it has to be balanced to get things done, where you're not always going to agree on everything but you've got to find a common ground that works for everybody and I think, with his experience, I think with his values, I think he's going to be a very good leader for the union."

Assuming the presidency at a time of labor peace gives Winston the opportunity to focus on the players. Winston can lean on the experience of eight NFL seasons of serving as part of three different organizations and apply it to make the difference he's seeking.

The question Winston has to answer first: Where to start?

His overarching goal is to improve the day-to-day lives of the nearly 2,000 players in the NFL, but to do that, Winston understands he has nearly 2,000 different sets of issues to tackle. Each player has his own concerns about the direction of the league and his own career, but Winston has narrowed his first set of priorities to three areas: health and safety, financial literacy and working conditions.

When it comes to health and safety, Winston, who's second among active tackles in consecutive games played and started, thinks looking toward the future can help players now. Continuing to invest in technology and research is a priority, Winston said, because it'll help the league and its players learn more about the health and safety issues that they face on a daily basis, namely head injuries.

[+] EnlargeEric Winston
AP Photo/Greg TrottEric Winston has played eight NFL seasons with three different organizations.
"Doing that now is going to help the guys when they become former players and I think it's going to help the research side of it and it's going to help our former players now that have been suffering," Winston said.

Having watched thousands of players come and go during his career, Winston is also placing an emphasis on teaching players -- young and old -- the importance of taking care of their finances.

"Guys need to understand how to budget, guys need to understand what it means to have a mortgage, what it means to pay something like that, what does the typical cost of living [look like]?" Winston said. "It sounds clichéd but those checks are going to run out at some point. They're not always going to be there and what is really enough, so to speak, to retire on? And, in a way, [I want to] get that word ‘retire' out of the lexicon. You play 10 years and you're 32. There's other things you could do, but it doesn't mean you shouldn't have a nest egg, you shouldn't have something you can fall back on if you can't play that long."

Winston also wants to address workplace conditions, especially when it comes to the locker rooms.

A year ago at this time, Tampa Bay's locker room hadn't been infected by the MRSA outbreak, which occurred in October, nor had the situation in Miami involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin been exposed. Both will help shape the way Winston approaches changes in the locker rooms, albeit in extremely different ways.

"Working conditions are something that's going to be coming up, and we have to do something," Winston said. "I think there needs to be some standardization throughout the NFL and of course, you never know what's going to happen around the corner."

When it comes to approaching the locker room culture, which has come under siege since the reports of bullying in the Dolphins' organization were revealed in November, Winston believes his experience in the league is a bonus. But he's careful to warn that what happened in Miami isn't permeating through the NFL.

"I always think you're going to have something that's out of your control," Winston said. "You're always going to have a 'bad apple,' something that just happens. For whatever reason it happens and obviously it needs to be fixed.

"It's a challenge for all of us," Winston added. "We're professionals now. We got to act professionally. We can't be doing immature things."

Vincent wants to make sure he and Winston work together to "preserve our game."

"Have we forgotten the art of sportsmanship?" Vincent asked.

Vincent foresees working together to educate "all audiences" on eliminating facets of the game that either lead to injury or cast a negative light on the league, such as "harmful" plays.

Another one of Winston's priorities is curbing fines, an interesting dynamic since Vincent is the man responsible for assigning the fines. Winston would like to see fines eliminated for first-time incidental offenses. He thinks they should be levied for a second or third offense.

[+] EnlargeTroy Vincent
AP Photo/Doug Benc"When you watch him, when you look at his demeanor, you see how he answers questions, he's very thoughtful," NFL Executive Vice President for Football Operations Troy Vincent said of Eric Winston. "Frankly, I think he's going to do a phenomenal job."
"I know plenty of guys that whether you fine them $5,000 or $15,000, it's the same to him," Winston said. "They get it. I don't think we have to fine guys an extraordinary amount to get their attention.

"They understand the value of money and what it means to them. To get the fines going up at a rate, it doesn't make sense. It seems much more punitive more than sending a message."

Winston will also help usher in a new era for the NFL when it welcomes its first openly gay player; Missouri's Michael Sam is expected to be drafted in May. The league, Winston said, is more ready than it gets credit for, mainly because this generation of players -- even on the older side -- is more accepting than previous generations.

One issue Winston said the players won't accept, though, is an 18-game schedule.

"I just don't see how that would ever make sense for us," Winston said.

"I don't think there's a need for it. I don't think there's a want for it. There's not a lot of scenarios that I'd say, 18 games in that context make sense. I just don't understand why that would make sense for our players and our guys."

While it's still early, there's an outside chance Winston may not play in any of the 16 games next season. He's been a free agent since March 11. But he's not fretting. Last season, Winston didn't sign with the Cardinals until the first day of training camp.

If Winston isn't signed for the 2014 season, he'll still hold onto his role as president. He'll just have more time on his hands to advocate for the players. Vincent would know. He was the NFLPA president for a year after retiring following the 2006 season and spent it crisscrossing the country, meeting with players, listening to their issues and helping them when called upon. Winston is ready for the responsibility if his career should go that way, but he'd rather be on the field.

Winston admits he has plenty to learn. He's served on NFLPA committees and understands the politics and policies, but has never held a role comparable to this.

Even though Vincent has crossed over to the league, he still offered a piece of advice to Winston: Listen. Vincent told him he doesn't need to have every answer, but he needs to be a great listener.

The more he listens, the more Winston will learn about his constituents. And the better president he'll become.

"You got to have balance," Vincent said. "There's a reason you have to be able to make sure that you're hearing all arguments, all positions, all opinions and then be able to come back to your group and properly inform the player on what is taking place and what has happened. That itself is one of the responsibilities for that position.

"When you watch him, when you look at his demeanor, you see how he answers questions, he's very thoughtful. He's not jumping out there. Frankly, I think he's going to do a phenomenal job as a leader."
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Baltimore Ravens are still interested in tight end Owen Daniels, according to coach John Harbaugh.

Daniels
Tight end is the thinnest position on the Ravens. No tight end on the roster other than Dennis Pitta has played in a regular-season game.

Daniels, 31, would fit with the Ravens because he has familiarity with Gary Kubiak's offensive system from his days in Houston. Durability is the biggest concern. Last season, Daniels played only five games because of a fractured fibula.

"We just have to see how it plays out," Harbaugh said. "It's got to be a fit for everybody. There's a lot to it financially and other things. He's in our conversation."

Harbaugh also mentioned that the Ravens are considering re-signing Ed Dickson to fill the No. 2 tight end role.

There has been speculation that the Ravens could bring in another former Texans player. But right tackle Eric Winston is currently not on the team's radar.

"That's not to say it couldn't change, but that's not a guy we're talking to right now," Harbaugh said.

Free-agency primer: Cardinals

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
11:00
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: LB Karlos Dansby, RT Eric Winston, S Yeremiah Bell, K Jay Feely, LB Matt Shaughnessy

Where they stand: Arizona has talked to all of them, but it's unlikely the Cardinals re-sign any of the team's key free agents until after March 11. Dansby could be the trigger, however. If he re-signs for an affordable price or doesn't re-sign, Arizona may be able to re-sign some of their veteran free agents instead of opting for cheaper options. According to reports, Arizona has been negotiating with linebacker Shaughnessy. Bell has expressed his desire to return to Arizona mainly because of what the Cardinals' defense started last year. Winston may be the Cardinals' best option at right tackle for another season and his camp has begun talks with the Cardinals. Feely has said he talked to the Cardinals this week.

What to expect: Don't expect Dansby to re-sign before free agency begins. If it hasn't happened yet, it probably won't until he tests the market to see what his worth is. Then the Cardinals could come into play again. Winston could be whom Arizona needs to anchor the line for another year. He, along with the rest of the offensive line, matured together and were protecting quarterback Carson Palmer better in the second half of the season than the first, momentum that can only continue to grow. Bell isn't likely to return because his size and speed make him a liability against bigger, faster receivers and tight ends. Even though he was in Bruce Arians' dog house at the end of the season, Feely can return because of the limited number of good kickers available. Shaughnessy is also likely to re-sign because of his value at a low cost.
A week from now, the NFL universe will be in an (un)organized chaos when free agency begins at 2 p.m. MT. The Cardinals have their sights set on a few needs, namely offensive tackle, tight end and safety.

ESPN Stats & Info put together a list of the best available free agents. Three Cardinals made the list -- linebacker Karlos Dansby, right tackle Eric Winston and safety Yeremiah Bell.

Here they are for the positions Arizona is targeting in free agency:

Defensive tackle

Hatcher
Hatcher
Jason Hatcher

B.J. Raji

Randy Starks

Kevin Williams

Paul Soliai

Henry Melton

Defensive end

Jared Allen

Lamarr Houston

Michael Johnson

Justin Tuck

Michael Bennett

Cornerback

Verner
Alterraun Verner

Aqib Talib

Charles Tillman

Captain Munnerlyn

Vontae Davis

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

Linebacker

Shaun Phillips

Jon Beason

Daryl Smith

Brandon Spikes

Karlos Dansby

Bell
Safety

Jairus Byrd

T.J. Ward

James Ihedigbo

Yeremiah Bell

Ryan Clark

Donte Whitner

Tight end

Scott Chandler

Brandon Pettigrew

Brandon Myers

Garrett Graham

Jermichael Finley

Winston
Offensive line

T – Branden Albert

T – Eric Winston

T – Eugene Monroe

T – Michael Oher

C – Ryan Wendell

C – Jonathan Goodwin

G – Zane Beadles

G – Richie Incognito

G – Charlie Johnson
TEMPE, Ariz. -- With the ink on Larry Fitzgerald's restructured contracted barely dry, it's time to look at what Arizona may do with the extra cap room the Pro Bowl receiver provided them. Arizona has 15 free agents left to sign after securing punter Dave Zastudil last month, but they won't bring them all back.

I ranked all 15 from highest priority to lowest and told you why:
  1. Karlos Dansby -- He's coming off a career season and was a main cog in a defense that kept getting better. Arizona would take a step back without him.
  2. Matt Shaughnessy -- He filled in better than expected at outside linebacker after injuries decimated the unit, and his length and power coupled with his speed make him a threat from the outside in Todd Bowles' defense.
  3. Andre Roberts -- The Cardinals need a speed receiver to take the top off defenses, but then again, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians had Roberts last year and barely used him.
  4. Antoine Cason -- He proved himself as a tough corner and nickel back after Tyrann Mathieu went down late last season. That could be valuable tape come time to prove his worth to the powers that be.
  5. Eric Winston -- As the season went on, Winston got better, allowing just one sack in the final nine games, according to Pro Football Focus. While left tackle is more important for the Cards, Winston could be the right fit to return at right tackle.
  6. Rashard Mendenhall -- Bringing back Mendenhall isn't a huge priority because it's likely that Andre Ellington takes over the every-down role, but Mendenhall can return in his previous role and continue to mentor Ellington.
  7. Frostee Rucker -- Rucker was the perfect kind of backup for the Cardinals' vaunted defensive line, and at the right price, he could be continue in that role and be a good mentor as the defense continues to grow.
  8. Jay Feely -- Feely was consistent last season, even clutch at times, but a few late season misses left his future with the team in question.
  9. Yeremiah Bell -- Bell provides veteran leadership in a very young secondary but at 35, he's slowing down.
  10. Javier Arenas -- Arenas saw the field most on special teams as a kick returner but was only able to return 23 kicks this year and often frustrated Arians with his decision making. He's a defensive back, too but hasn't impressed in either role.
  11. Jim Dray -- A starter in 2013 Dray was a run blocker but never blossomed into an offense weapon. The Cardinals could find another option who's a combination of both.
  12. Bryan McCann -- McCann filled a much needed role as a gunner across from Justin Bethel when Teddy Williams went down. McCann's role next year will depend on if Williams is brought back.
  13. Mike Gibson -- Gibson was a steady backup on the offensive line and a special teams player in all 16 games, but his return in 2014 will depend on if his $715,000 is worth it for a backup.
  14. Kory Sperry -- Active for just eight of 16 games, Sperry saw most of his playing time on special teams.
  15. Jeff King -- Injured all of last season, King's role was filled by Jake Ballard, a restricted free agent this year.

Kiper mock 1.0 reaction: Cardinals

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
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There’s something to be said for the Arizona Cardinals drafting a kid whose nickname is Ironman.

In his first mock draft, Insider Mel Kiper Jr. has the Cardinals selecting Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin, who set a school record with 52 straight starts in four years for the Fighting Irish. He’s 6-foot-4 and 308 pounds, and while some draftniks believe he isn’t tall enough to play left tackle, his strength and athleticism may combat his size.

Martin was the foundation of an offensive line that gave up just eight sacks, tied for second most in the country, playing against the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma and Stanford. His durability is intriguing for the Cardinals, especially since the offensive line has been hit with injuries during the past two seasons. The Cardinals need someone quick enough to redirect the likes of St. Louis' Robert Quinn or San Francisco's Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, or Seattle's Cliff Avril or Chris Clemons, just to name a few.

The Cardinals allowed 41 sacks last season, which ranks among the middle of the league pack.

Martin opted to return for his redshirt senior season and proved to NFL scouts that he got better with age. But his success in the NFL will depend on how well he can handle outside rushers at his height, when Arizona now employs a left tackle (Bradley Sowell) who’s 6-7, 315 and a right tackle (Eric Winston) who’s 6-7, 302.

If those three inches can come with fewer sacks, count coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim in.
TEMPE, Ariz. – The two most important pieces on Arizona’s offensive line have only heard about how loud CenturyLink Field in Seattle can get.

Winston
Sowell
Neither right tackle Eric Winston nor left tackle Bradley Sowell have ever played in the loudest stadium in the NFL. That may present a problem at some point Sunday, when the Cardinals are fighting to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.

Arizona will go with a silent count in Seattle, like it does for every road game. That part doesn’t concern Winston, an eight-year veteran. It’s getting the plays from quarterback Carson Palmer to the huddle and then changing the blocking scheme at the line of scrimmage that has Winston worried.

“What slows you down is, all of a sudden, backers shifting around and moving, that changes calls and all of a sudden we’re trying to make calls, [and it’s like] ‘What did you say?’” said Winston, who also hasn’t played at Soldier Field in Chicago and Ford Field in Detroit. “Everybody has calls to make. That’s what can get confusing with the crowd noise in a way, for me at least. The silent count doesn’t slow you down.”

Arizona has prepared all week with sound piped into practice, including Friday in the bubble. The Cardinals need to do everything they can to make the noise a non-factor, offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said.

Easier said than done. Seattle’s noise isn’t just a myth that has made its away from locker room to locker room, the lore growing in stature each time a player retells his story about playing in vaunted CenturyLink Field.

The noise is real.

Against New Orleans on Dec. 2, the crowd noise inside CenturyLink Field reached 137.6 decibels, which set a new Guinness World Record. According to The Associated Press, a jet engine at 100 feet is 140 decibels.

“Everybody told me it’s really loud,” Sowell said. “But silent count is silent count regardless of how loud it is, we do a lot of silent count on the road. So, it’ll be the same thing this week and hopefully we’ll adjust to it.

“It’s really challenging to make it to where it’s an even jump off the ball. Sometimes if you’re a little late and they get a good jump, it could be tough.”

Sowell said he’ll be keeping one eye on the ball and another on his lineman. It’s basically the only thing he can do to make sure he gets a good enough jump when the ball is snapped.

Arizona has 17 false start penalties – including eight by Winston and two by Sowell – and going off a silent count against the top-ranked defense in the league in the loudest stadium in the NFL doesn’t bode well for that number staying where it is.

“It’s probably toughest on the guys that have to block the D-ends,” Palmer said. “You are a guy away from the ball and you are trying to use your peripheral vision. You have two very good pass-rushers, three very good pass-rushers that they have, so you have to try to jump the count, try to stay on sides.

“There is a fine line between those two and also worry about the guy that is coming at you.”

Winston and Sowell know all about it.
TEMPE, Ariz. – When Cardinals running back Andre Ellington went down in practice on Nov. 28, quarterback Carson Palmer gave the rookie an important piece of advice.

Don’t go back in, the veteran told the newbie.

“That day, when I went down, he told me, ‘Don’t go back in at all … just kind of get your mental reps. We need you healthy,’” Ellington said. “He was the main guy to tell me not to go back in.”

If there was one person for Ellington to listen to about taking mental reps, it’s Palmer. He spent the week leading up to Sunday’s win over the Rams not throwing any balls in practice while a sore throwing elbow healed. Instead, Palmer took mental reps every day, and it worked. Palmer’s 84.38 completion percentage against St. Louis was the best for an NFC quarterback this season, the best of his career and the second best in Arizona franchise history.

The idea of taking mental reps is to let players -- usually veterans -- walk through each play in practice without adding more wear and tear to their bodies. A novel idea for the 8-5 Cardinals, who need a win on Sunday at Tennessee to stay in the NFC playoff hunt.

“You stand right behind center and you see the field and you see the coverage unfold as you would if you had the ball in your hands and you were delivering it,” Palmer said. “You try to get the mental rep as much as you can and try to match it up with what you see on film after practice when you watch it.”

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said the mental reps are what helped Palmer play so well against St. Louis. But it’s a skill that’s learned with age. Rookies don’t know how to take those mental reps as well as vets.

Call it a trick of the trade.

“I think if you’re a vet and you know what you’re doing, absolutely you put yourself in that situation so when you get in the game and you know what’s going on you can do it,” right tackle Eric Winston said.

While some players use mental reps to just get a day off sometimes, others take advantage of them when they’re hurt.

When wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was out with his hamstring injury, he went through mental reps in practice. They helped him visualize how the defense would play him, which he put to good use in games.

But for as much as they help, mental reps don’t replace the real thing.

“It’s not as good as actually running the rep for me but when you don’t have any other choice, mental reps are very important,” Fitzgerald said. “And as you saw last week, Carson didn’t throw a ball all week. All he did was take mental reps in the passing game and he only posted the second-highest passer rating in history. He shouldn’t take any reps this week.”
TEMPE, Ariz. – Offensive lines and quarterbacks are, in theory, attached at the hip – or backside.

They've been linked together throughout football history. One can’t operate without the other. A line would have no one to block for, and a quarterback would have no one to protect him. And when paired together, how the line goes, so usually goes the quarterback.

It’s true for every team in the NFL, but none more so than the Arizona Cardinals. Through the first seven games, Arizona gave up 20 sacks of quarterback Carson Palmer. In the last six the Cards’ offensive line has surrendered 16, but five of those came in their only loss during that stretch. Overall, something has changed. The Cardinals’ line has been blocking better and has been giving Palmer more time.

The difference isn't just in protection. It can be seen throughout the offense. In the last six games, Palmer has averaged 286 yards passing, compared with 248 in the first seven. Arizona averaged 77 yards per game on the ground in the first seven and 104 per game since.

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer
John Geliebter/USA TODAY SportsCarson Palmer has enjoyed greater protection from the Cardinals' offensive line in recent weeks.
“You all need to play well for it to work,” Palmer said. “If a group doesn’t play well, then you won’t play well, or if a position doesn’t play well, you don’t play well.”

Once the line started giving Palmer more time, the entire team’s production went up. Palmer’s thrown 12 touchdown passes in the past six games compared with eight in the first seven.

As one of right tackle Eric Winston’s college coaches said: Protection equals completions. They also mean scores. Winston has seen Palmer’s decisions improve once he’s given more time to go through his reads. Palmer isn’t the type of quarterback to look at one option and take off, Winston said, so the more time he gets, the better passes he’ll throw.

If doubters need more proof, Palmer’s 69.3 completion percentage since Week 8 is second-best in the NFL.

“The times we’ve protected him well, he’s performed really well,” Winston said. “The times we haven’t we’ve made life hard on him.”

To the outsider, it looked as if a light switch had been flipped with the offensive line. To them, their performance since Week 8 has been the result of gradual and steady progress. Right guard Paul Fanaika said the line wasn’t surprised it finally happened. It takes time, he said, for a group that was put together at the start of training camp to finally mesh.

And when it did, a 5-1 record in the past six games has been the result.

“Once you start that momentum going, it’s like, ‘All right, I think this is going in the right direction,’” Winston said. “And it seemed like there was so much more consistency. Instead of having those flashes, you got it for longer and longer spurts of time. Now, I think we’re at a good point where we’re expecting to make these drives and open up games with scores and do those things and convert third downs.

“Now it’s not, ‘Oh, yes, we did it. Let’s not try to mess it up again.’ It’s something where I think a lot of people have a lot of confidence around here.”

But the offensive line shouldn't be the goat or the hero all the time, said Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak, who was a Hall of Fame guard. The key, Munchak said, is to avoid "stressful situations" during a game and so that the confidence Winston mentioned can grow.

On film, he's seen the confidence improve in every game, which has led to Arizona's line getting better throughout the season.

"The offensive line gets too much credit and gets too much blame," Munchak said. "There are more pieces -- it's the line, it's the tight ends, the running back -- there are a lot more pieces to the puzzle.

"Ultimately, you have to keep the guy upright. The offensive line has to give the quarterback a chance to be successful and not to fumble the ball in the pocket and things like that, and they've done a good job with that."
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It would take all day but right tackle Eric Winston would be glad to sit down talk about how the Arizona Cardinals' offensive line changed from its first game against the St. Louis Rams, a 27-24 loss, to this Sunday, a 30-10 victory.

But the short version goes like this: “We’re just a different team,” Winston said. “Different confidence. I wish we could go back and start over.”

Maybe then, Arizona wouldn’t have given up four sacks in that first game and let St. Louis defensive end Robert Quinn dictate what the offense did. But the Cardinals lived and they learned, and Sunday was a different story.

For starters, Quinn was going against a new left tackle in Bradley Sowell. Then the Rams’ defense was facing an offense that had three months to gel, and it made enough of a difference to hold the Rams to just one sack and two quarterback hits.

“It was a situation where I think we were ready for it,” Winston said. “We went into the week knowing we have two guys on the outside that we’re going to have to shut down.”

And that they did.

Every time Sowell read about his matchup against Quinn, the more personal it got for the second-year tackle. He heard all about Quinn’s three sacks and two forced fumbles in Week 1 and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen. There were times, however, where Quinn blew past Sowell and missed sacking quarterback Carson Palmer by a fraction of a second.

But, for the most part, Sowell was able to keep Quinn off Palmer. Quinn didn’t have a sack and hit Palmer just once.

“My goal was to go out there and every time I got my hands on him, try to beat him up,” Sowell said. “It was a good matchup between me and him. We had some physical battle up there.

“Today I end up not giving up anything so it was a big day.”

The coaching improved, too, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.

“We covered our guys up and chipped, and helped a little bit more than we have in the past,” he said.

The plan throughout the week was to help Sowell often, but he didn’t get as much help as he expected. But Arizona chipped on Quinn and those guys, tight ends and running backs, ended up open. Palmer saw that and hit them quickly.

The Rams only sack was by Alec Ogletree, and it didn’t happen until midway through the third quarter.

“That defense rarely only gets one sack and they always get quarterback pressures and quarterback hits and knock downs, but protection was phenomenal,” Palmer said.

While the focus was on Sowell stopping Quinn, Winston was able to handle Long on the other wise but he noticed how frustrated Quinn was getting.

“I think when you can do that to anyone’s defense,” Winston said, “you can make sure their good players don’t get off on you and now you have a chance to go downfield and you have a chance to do some things.”
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Before his 13 previous matchups against Indianapolis Colts linebacker Robert Mathis, Cardinals right tackle Eric Winston spent hours upon hours studying the league's most feared spin move.

Winston would look for any tell -- a lean, a nudge, an extra breath -- anything that could give him an advantage to stopping Mathis. Winston couldn't find anything.
Winston
"There's very few of them," Winston said. "There really is. He does a good job of just being in the same stance all the time, however he's going to play it. There's a few alignment things here and there but that was back with the old defense. In the new defense, they kinda move him around so much that it's tough to get a read on him."

But Arizona offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, who prepared the Colts offensive line every day last season to face Mathis, kept his instructions for the Cards' line basic: "Keep him away from the quarterback."

That's much easier said than done.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who benefitted from having Mathis on his side last season in Indianapolis, said Mathis isn't built like the prototypical linebacker. He doesn't have the perfect size nor the perfect speed, Arians said.

"But he is relentless," he added.

Goodwin called him the "Energizer bunny."

That has helped Mathis record a league-best 13.5 sacks, but it's also made Goodwin's job tougher. Goodwin knows when the Colts are in their base defense, Mathis will be on the open side. When Indy goes into nickel, he moves back and forth from right to left.
Mathis
Even when an offensive lineman knows Mathis' trademark move is coming, it's hard to stop.

"There's no one else in the league save (San Diego's Dwight) Freeney that can spin like him," Winston said. "It's violent, it's quick. He knows exactly when your weight's a little on the outside. He can spin inside. He's got all the moves, he's got the speed.

"It's hard to really sit on a move or sit on any couple moves. You have to kinda play it all. When you're trying to play it all, you're not really sitting on one move and he can get you with one."

Goodwin may have tipped his hand when he said Arizona will most likely use another offensive lineman or a running back as a second blocker on Mathis. It's not something anybody hasn't tried before. No matter what the scheme is, Mathis has seen it, and clearly not much has worked. Arians, however, was quick to point out that Arizona can't double Mathis on every play because of how Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky moves Mathis.

While most teams may have one tackle with experience against Mathis and his spin, the Cardinals have two with an extensive knowledge of how he moves. Left tackle Bradley Sowell faced Mathis in practice last season when he was Mathis' teammates in Indy.

He's seen Mathis' spin too many times to count, but Sunday has been circled on Sowell's calendar for a while. To play well against Mathis might be Sowell's best accomplishment this season.

"It's going to mean a lot," Sowell said. "Obviously, the team that cut you, you're going to want to come out and show they made a mistake. At the same time once the game starts I'll be settled down and playing the ballgame."

After facing Mathis for all eight years of his career, Winston knows what's coming -- he's known every game -- yet he's still not ready for what he sees.

"It's like a knuckleball pitcher," Winston said. "You just don't see it very often. So it's really hard to practice. It's hard to imagine if you haven't played him a lot. You get out in the game and you're kinda surprised by the stuff he can do."

O-line will have hands full with Watt

November, 8, 2013
11/08/13
7:37
PM ET
TEMPE, Ariz. -- It's a chore no offensive lineman wants, yet every week five poor souls get the unenviable task of trying to stop Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.

Watt
Watt
Sowell
And that's when they're healthy. Imagine coming off the flu and attempting to block 6-foot-5-inches and 289 pounds of speed and power. Welcome to Bradley Sowell's world. The Cardinals' left tackle returned to practice Friday after missing Wednesday and Thursday with the flu. He will start Sunday against the Houston Texans, Arizona coach Bruce Arians announced.

While he was out sick, Sowell was able to follow the game plan and watch film on a team-issued iPad. He didn't miss any of the preparation but the two days away set him back in terms of technique, assignments and film study with coaches, Arians said.

But most of all, Sowell had two fewer days to prepare for Watt.

"It's not ideal to block him when you're fully healthy," Sowell said. "He's a tough guy to block. But there's different things we can do. Hopefully we can run the ball a little bit and hopefully get after him a little bit."

Sowell won't be the only Cardinal charged with blocking Watt.

Right tackle Eric Winston, who played for the Texans in 2011, Watt's rookie season, thinks Watt will line up across from both tackles and over right guard Paul Fanaika. Arians took it one step further and said Watt will most likely line up across from everyone on the line. But just because they know he's coming doesn't mean the Cardinals can stop Watt.

Midway through his third NFL season, Watt's numbers are off from last season's frenetic pace. He has 5.5 sacks and 38 tackles as the Texans are 2-6. Last season, his 20.5 sacks led the NFL to complement his 81 tackles.

His numbers are down because more teams are double and triple teaming Watt. But even then, Winston sees him as a threat.

"I don't see anybody out there blocking him regularly," Winston said. "He's going to be a load in the run game."

Arians, who coached against Watt twice last season while in Indianapolis, said one thing that makes Watt so tough is his ability to play with his hands and eyes. He'll rush the quarterback while keeping his hands on an offensive lineman, and still find the quarterback.

Winston backed up his coach, saying Watt's ability to go around a block and still make a play is uncanny. And frustrating. Most of the time, Winston said, if the offensive lineman can beat the defender to a spot, he can secure the block. Not with Watt. He'll just go around the the blocker.

"You're kinda damned if you do, damned if you don't against him," Winston said. "There's not a clear way to make sure you got him blocked every time. You got to hope you're getting the proper help."

None of what Watt does surprises Winston.

As a rookie, Watt came into training camp with a skill set of player two or three years older. His leverage as a rookie was most noticeable to Winston, who found out how hard it was to knock Watt off balance.

While he's not surprised by Watt, Winston said nobody expected him to be this good this fast.

"He's the best of the best," Winston said. "He's an elite player. I don't think it's an overstatement when [Texans interim coach] Wade [Philips] in the beginning of the season said he's going to be a future Hall of Famer if he keeps it up."

So how do the Cardinals block an elite future Hall of Famer? Just ask him.

"That's a good question," he said with a chuckle. "I'd use two guys."
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A lot of teams have practiced well during the week but come out flat or slow and lost on Sunday.

But not a lot of teams have the type of early-week practice that Cardinals coach Bruce Arians put his team through on Monday. Coming off a loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 17, Arizona had the weekend after off, so Arians took advantage of a new rule in the CBA that allows teams to practice in pads twice in a week just once during the season.

[+] EnlargeArizona's Bruce Arians
AP Photo/Rick Scuteri"We had a training-camp practice," Bruce Arians said of Monday. "A lot of teams would balk at that."
And it paid off in Sunday’s 27-13 win over Atlanta.

“We had a training-camp practice,” Arians said. “A lot of teams would balk at that.

“We had the best practice we’ve had all year and it set the tempo for this game and set the tempo for the rest of the season.”

Actually, a lot of players did balk but they knew at 3-4 heading into the Falcons’ game, they weren’t in a position to voice their displeasure. If they were 7-1, linebacker John Abraham said, Arians would’ve heard some moaning and groaning. But the Cardinals aren’t.

“If you’re trying to win, you’re going to do it,” Abraham said. “It was game speed. Literally it was game speed. We could’ve literally tackled, which a couple people did here and there. We could’ve took people down. It was a game. It was pretty much like training camp. It was going hard and we banged each other. We kinda just showed each other that we got it and we still can play. It was more for mentality thing.”

Two words were commonly used to describe Monday’s practice: character and maturity.

That the Cardinals took advantage of the extra work day proved to each other that they were committed to improving. And they all knew what was on the line, especially heading into a bye week -- 3-5 doesn’t sit as well as 4-4 does for two weeks.

“We just came back,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said, “and put our head down.”

Right tackle Eric Winston has been on teams that practiced well but didn’t play at the same level. He watched Monday’s practice carry over into Wednesday which propelled the Cardinals on Sunday.

“We knew we needed to get back to work,” he said. “We came Monday ready to work and we executed that. That, the execution part more so than anything, carried over into today.”
SAN FRANCISCO -- It's pretty typical for the offense to praise the defense and the defense to do it right back.

But it's not as often the offense flat out says the defense saved its rear.

“I really tip my hat to the defense in the first half because we could’ve been out of it in (the first) seven minutes,” Cardinals left tackle Eric Winston said.

Without the Cardinals’ defense, Sunday’s 32-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers could’ve been over long before seven minutes passed. Arizona held the Niners to no more than four plays on their first four drives, two of which ended in field goals. Arizona's offense, however, kept giving the Niners opportunities, throwing two interceptions in the game's first 6 minutes.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
Bob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsThe Cardinals defense limited the 49ers to field goals on several red zone trips in the first half.
But it wasn’t just that the Cards were stopping the Niners on third down, it was where they were doing it. Arizona held on its own 7-yard-line for three straight plays and then from its 11, 6 and 8 on another drive. Then in the second quarter, Yeremiah Bell intercepted Colin Kaepernick on the goal line from the 2.

Another red zone trip. Another trip without points.

“Our motto on defense, like Coach always said, (is) defend every blade of grass,” nose tackle Dan Williams said. “Just cause they’re down there, doesn’t mean they have to score a touchdown.

“We actually don’t want to give up any points. They get down there and we want to hold them to a field goal and when they get to a field goal we want to block that.”

Before San Francisco started its last drive of the first quarter, the one that ended with Bell’s interception, the Niners had a total of minus-1 yard. The defense saw the dividends of its work when the offense turned a corner midway through the second with a three-play touchdown drive.

But it started to slow in the second half, when the defense began not adhering to gap assignments and freestyling more, Williams said. The Cardinals couldn't stop the same running play no matter how many times the Niners ran it, rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu said.

“I thought our defense played outstanding until they were out there too long again,” head coach Bruce Arians said.

Sunday, linebacker John Abraham said, was an example of a true team effort. One side wasn’t going to let the other fail. They’d have each other’s backs, Williams added.

“I think it’s just the character of our defense,” Bell said. “We feel like we’re a strong unit. We feel like we can hold up against anything.”

Against the 49ers, the Cardinals showed they could.

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