NFL Nation: Yeremiah Bell

Free-agency primer: Cardinals

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
11:00
AM ET
» 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.
TEMPE, Ariz. – Cracks in the Arizona Cardinals’ defensive armor are few and far between.

The Cards' run defense is second in the league in yards per play, and their pass defense is fifth in the same category. Overall, the Cardinals are seventh in the NFL in yards per game.

But every Superman has his kryptonite, and tight ends have been bringing Arizona to its knees all season. The Cardinals have given up 14 touchdowns to tight ends this season, five more than the next closest team, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

[+] EnlargeDaryl Washington
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsDaryl Washington and the Arizona secondary have struggled to stop tight ends.
In losses, tight ends have accounted for 45 catches for 662 yards and 11 touchdowns.

In wins, Arizona has allowed tight ends to catch 35 passes for 400 yards and three touchdowns.

It’s no secret that the Cardinals have a hard time stopping tight ends. When they have, Arizona built a game-plan specifically around Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez. But not ever tight end is worthy of that kind of attention. Just the greatest to play.

With St. Louis’ Jared Cook coming to town this weekend, the Cardinals are reminded of how the season started: Cook had seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns in Week 1. Since then Arizona’s tried nearly everything. The Cards doubled guys off the line, they’ve stuck Yeremiah Bell on them to try to out-muscle them, last week Arizona even lined up Daryl Washington out wide in coverage.

But nothing seemed to work.

“They can have them covered like a blanket but there’s so much room to throw the football that these big guys can catch it and they’re so athletic, unlike the big tight ends in the past who were more blockers and have the catching circle that these guys have,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. “It’s an extremely big match-up problem throughout the entire league. You’re looking for taller, bigger safeties now who have that type of range to cover a guy.

“They’re rare animals, a 6-foot-2 safety that actually has coverage abilities.”

But after 12 games, how can the Cardinals finally stop tight ends when the mismatches are in the receivers’ advantage?

“You got to be able to get your hands on them,” said linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who defended Cook in September while Daryl Washington was suspended. “That’s the key. Any time any guy, any receiver gets a free release you’re in trouble. It can be trouble.”

In Week 1, Brinkley said Arizona didn’t jam Cook enough at the line of scrimmage. But when an offense has more than one weapon, the tight ends seem to be a lower priority. Of the 283 receptions by opposing teams this season, 203 of them were by a position other than tight end.

But when tight ends account for 14 of the 22 touchdowns given up, they need to be accounted for.

That’s why Washington lined up across either Zach Ertz or Brent Celek when they lined up as a wide out. Both times, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles barely got his passes by Washington, one was just a little too high and the other was inside.

“I’ll be ready for the challenge whether he lines up for the No. 1 receiver or whether he’s attached to the line of scrimmage,” Washington said. “I’ll be ready for him.”

Washington said he welcomes the challenge of stopping Cook, but he knows he won’t be on Cook every play, which will cause mismatches.

Arizona’s safeties top out at 6-feet, with Bell. Rookies Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson are 5-9 and 5-11 respectively and Rashad Johnson is barely hitting six feet. The mismatches are what gives Cook and the rest of the tight ends advantages over Arizona on Sundays, but Brinkley insists the Cards can counter by getting their hands on them within the five-yard margin can be the difference.

“Tight ends in the game today, they’re different,” Brinkley said. “They come in a different breed. Cook is more like a hybrid tight end, definitely have receiver speed, naturally create a mismatch just like (San Francisco’s Vernon Davis) does.

“So, nowadays you got to be able to put your hands on him. It’s really the big thing – putting your hands on them and making them restart their feet, throw the timing off with the quarterback. Once you can do tall that, you can pretty much control them.”
PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles quarterback Nick Foles' biggest mistake so far this season might be setting unreasonably high expectations for himself.

Foles has been so good, so statistically close to flawless, that it is easy to forget he hasn't started a full season's worth of games yet. He is 23 and still facing new challenges and unfamiliar situations almost weekly.

That's why it isn't a criticism of Foles to suggest that the Eagles' second-half offensive troubles Sunday against Arizona had more to do with the quarterback than with Chip Kelly's play calling.

On three possessions in a row, with a 24-14 lead, Kelly remained aggressive with his play calling. Foles simply didn't throw the ball very well on several plays. He was under intense pressure on a few others.

After the Cardinals scored to make it 24-14, the Eagles got the ball back on their 29-yard line. The first-down call was for a pass to DeSean Jackson, who was running a shallow crossing route from right to left. Jackson was wide-open.

Last week, Kelly was asked whether those flyswatter contraptions in practice could help explain how Foles had avoided having a single pass batted at the line of scrimmage. Well, Calais Campbell didn't have a flyswatter, just a long reach. He smacked Foles' low throw away.

After a LeSean McCoy run was stuffed for a 2-yard loss, Foles dropped back to pass again. This time, linebacker Daryl Washington blitzed behind two linemen, sliding off and making a beeline for the quarterback. Foles stepped to his right and into the arms of Matt Shaughnessy for the easy sack.

A Cary Williams interception gave the Eagles the ball at their own 49 with 51 seconds left in the third quarter. Not only did they fail to take advantage of the field position, they had to punt on the first play of the fourth quarter. They took less than a minute to go three-and-out.

The first two plays were both passes. Foles missed Brent Celek, who had a step on safety Yeremiah Bell. A better throw and the Eagles are nearly in field goal range with a first down. On second down, Foles overthrew McCoy on a swing pass to the right. Kelly called a run on third down, and the Eagles punted again.

The final relevant sequence came on the Eagles' first possession of the fourth quarter. It was still 24-14. They needed to move the ball and score or at least kill a chunk of the remaining time. They used just under two minutes.

Foles threw two deep balls on this possession. On the first play, from his own 36, he had tight end Zach Ertz matched up one-on-one with safety Tyrann Mathieu down the left sideline. Foles overthrew Ertz when a back-shoulder throw might have gone for a long gain. Ertz made a great effort, nearly catching the ball by diving forward.

After getting a first down at the Arizona 46, Foles went deep down the left sideline again. This time he had Riley Cooper matched up with cornerback Jerraud Powers. This time, Foles underthrew the receiver. There was contact as Cooper tried to fight his way back. He got his hand on the ball, but couldn't gather it in. The TV cameras caught Cooper on the ground, looking up at an official and saying, it appears, “He grabbed my arm.”

The next two plays were pass calls. Foles was sacked both times, as unblocked Arizona defenders blitzed him and forced him into the arms of teammates.

Three of the Cards' five sacks took place during those three possessions. Foles and the offensive line, usually so adept at reacting to blitzes, were overcome by the pressure. On the next series, Foles was hit as he threw the interception that was negated by a penalty. Frequent hits will do that to even the most experienced quarterback.

Foles is not that, not yet. The Arizona defense raised its game in the second half, desperately trying to get back into a game with huge playoff implications for the Cardinals. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was more aggressive, taking risks in order to stop McCoy and create turnovers.

“People aren't playing the normal defenses they normally play in the first, second and third quarter,” Kelly said. “They're putting an extra guy on the line of scrimmage. If you bring in an extra tight end, they're going to have two more than you -- one for the quarterback and one for the extra player. That is a difficult situation to run the ball against. The answer is easy: Hey, throw it. If you throw it and it's incomplete, the clock stops.”

When Foles threw Sunday, it was incomplete. With experience, he will get a better feel for how to deal with situations like that. For now, he handled it well enough to avoid killer mistakes and secure the win. That's good enough.
Carson PalmerJohn Geliebter/USA TODAY SportsCardinals QB Carson Palmer throws for 302 yards and 3 TDs in a three-point loss to the Eagles.
PHILADELPHIA -- Consider Sunday afternoon under the gloomy skies of Philadelphia a dress rehearsal for the Arizona Cardinals.

Two hours from the dazzling rays of Broadway, the Cardinals saw first-hand what it will take to win in the playoffs. The Eagles are in a dogfight of their own in the NFC East, which raised the stakes of Sunday's soiree at Lincoln Financial Field. Philadelphia, which now owns the tiebreaker between these two, needed the win as much as Arizona.

For the past four weeks, the Cards worked on their lines against a slew of understudies -- Atlanta, Houston, Jacksonville and Indianapolis. After beating up on each of them, the reviews were the same: Look at who Arizona was playing; of course, they'd win those games. Yet the push back every week was equally as consistent: It didn't matter the opponent, the Cardinals were improving.

As it turned out Sunday, there was truth in both.

Beating understudies helped the Cardinals polish an offense that has taken since April to figure things out. At the same time, facing the bottom feeders of the NFL -- save the Colts, but even they haven't played like a division leader without Reggie Wayne -- Arizona didn't know much about its team.

That became a little clearer in its 24-21 loss to the Eagles. The understanding of the Cards' offense is in a different galaxy from even a month ago, but on Sunday they reverted back to the team that couldn't stop edge rushers. That closed the pocket around Carson Palmer quickly, which led to quick throws and two interceptions. On one, Palmer said he didn't even see the pass because he was hit so quickly.

[+] EnlargeMichael Floyd
AP Photo/Matt RourkeMichael Floyd catches his only touchdown of the game, a 23-yard pass in the third quarter Sunday.
But it's not just the offense that isn't playoff-caliber. Arizona's defense continued to struggle defending tight ends; all three of the Eagles' scores came at the hands of either Brent Celek or Zach Ertz.

Arizona also got caught playing from behind. As they've done so many times this season, the Cardinals started flat only to come alive after halftime. When they've done it before, Arizona was able to rally with the deep ball and eventually overtake the other teams, but Philadelphia isn't like those other teams. Neither are the six teams above them in the standings.

Sunday showed that the Cardinals aren't ready for Broadway. And until that happens, the playoffs will simply be an idea, not a reality.

"We learned a lot of lessons about what a playoff atmosphere is on the road and how to overcome it and how to handle it when bad things happen and when good things happen," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "I was pleased with the way we handled it on the sidelines. But we got to learn from it and know if we play error-free, we can win games like this."

For the past few weeks, once the idea of playing in the postseason became a legitimate possibility, the motto around the Cardinals' locker room has been "every game is a playoff game." For all intent and purpose, it's the truth. Arizona can't afford to lose with how the playoff picture is shaping up.

Yet, for as much as Arians has his team believing it controls its own destiny, it doesn't.

At this point, the Cardinals would need help to make the playoffs, such as San Francisco, Carolina and either Philly or Dallas losing. The 49ers' win against St. Louis puts them a game up on the Cardinals. But, as the NFL has seen every year, anything is possible.

The Cardinals have to create their own good fortune, and that doesn't happen when they trail 17-7 at halftime. As Roman philosopher Seneca once said: "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." If the Cardinals can't fix the issues on the offensive line or figure out how to stop tight ends, their luck might run out.

"We just got to keep working," Palmer said. "There's a month of football. There's a lot of football left. A lot of crazy things happen this time of year. We just got to keep our heads down, continue to fight, continue to work."

After Sunday's performance, the Cardinals are sitting between the playoff contenders and the rest of the league. Just two weeks ago, the Eagles led the NFC East. Now they’re barely sitting outside the playoffs.

The consolation for Arizona is its top-10 defense got beat -- barely -- by a gimmick offense. No other team runs a no-huddle, high-tempo scheme like the Eagles. But Arizona needs to stop shooting itself in the foot, Arians said. A late-game interception by Patrick Peterson, which would've set up the Cardinals for either a game-winning touchdown or a game-tying field goal, was negated by Tyrann Mathieu's holding penalty.

It's the small things that separate the Cardinals from a playoff team.

"We are what we are," safety Yeremiah Bell said. "There's no sugar coating anything in this league. Teams watch tape on us, we watch it on them. They know our strengths and weaknesses, and we know theirs. We're too far in the season for that.

"All you can do is prepare and whoever plays best on Sunday is going to win."

It's hard not to look ahead, especially with four games left and the playoffs still within reach. But Sunday was the kind of gauge Arizona needed. Playing the Falcons, Jags and Texans, it's showed, can only prove so much.

The Cards needed to see how they stacked up against a team that very well could be playing in January. And come Monday, when it looks at the film, Arizona may not be looking at a playoff team.

"It was a great challenge for us," Fitzgerald said. "We knew it would be a tough environment. We played OK and not well enough to win, but we have some things we can build on, for sure."
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Being the conductor of one of the league's best defense doesn't change a man.

Watching your scheme fail repeatedly does.

[+] EnlargeTodd Bowles
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesThe odds were against Todd Bowles as head of Philadelphia's defense last season, but that grind has served him well in Arizona.
The coaches box at Lincoln Financial Field, where Todd Bowles will direct the eighth-best defense in the NFL on Sunday, is the same place Bowles learned he was a defensive coordinator. After six games last season, the Philadelphia Eagles promoted Bowles from secondary coach to defensive coordinator, but the results Philly hoped to see under Bowles never materialized.

While his team struggled to adjust to his scheme, Bowles matured as a coach.

"I think the growth, you saw it last year when he took over," said Cardinals inside linebackers coach Mike Caldwell, who coached with Bowles last season. "You could tell there was a difference. Now, the results weren't any different but there was a difference as far as what we were trying to take away and how we played defense.

"He just added to that. He has his philosophy that he wants to take away things and he takes them away. And he sticks with that and it's been successful for him."

Bowles never questioned the type of coach he was or if his scheme could work. Even as the frustration set in, Bowles kept his head up.

"Any time you have failure, you grind, as a coach or a player," Bowles said. "You try to be better than you were the year before and you're more determined, understanding things that went wrong and what you need to do going forward.

"I learned to just keep grinding. You're never too old to learn anything. You're never too knowledgeable not to take advice from everything else."

Caldwell compared the problems the Eagles had with Bowle's scheme to a college student preparing for a test. A student, Caldwell says, can get the foundation of any subject over the course of a few semesters. In Philadelphia, Bowles was trying to cram all that work into just one semester.

And it didn't work.

"Some guys got it and some guys didn't," said Caldwell, the Eagles' linebackers coach last season. "It takes a while for a defense to jell together and when you try to cram it together, sometimes you hit and miss, and we missed more than we hit."

But that didn't matter to Bruce Arians.

When he was putting together his staff in Arizona last January, Bowles was one of the first people he called. Arians saw the football intelligence in Bowles from the moment he met him at Temple University and it's carried over into his coaching career.

Arians, you could say, saw this coming.

"There was never a doubt in my mind he would be [successful], so it's really not satisfaction, no," Arians said. "I knew it coming in and I just hope we get to keep him –- but I'd really like to see him become a head coach."

What Bowles learned in Philadelphia is working in Arizona.

He inherited one of the best run defenses in the league, but it just needed Bowles to know it. Last year, the Cardinals were ranked 28th in stopping the rush. When Bowles came in, he eliminated the multi-gap 3-4 system that Ray Horton ran last season and installed a single-gap 3-4. The Cardinals have flourished under it, climbing to second in the NFL in rushing yards allowed with 81.3 per game.

This week, Bowles said he won't get any personal satisfaction in beating the Eagles.

That might be Bowles' public facade, but if Arizona can stop Philadelphia's ground game, one of those sly smiles and hearty laughs is bound to cross his face. Arizona will have its toughest rushing test of the season in the Eagles, who lead the NFL with 150.6 yards per game.

Safety Yeremiah Bell and Bowles were separated for a year, but the two didn't miss a beat when the Cardinals signed Bell in the spring. Enough of the defensive scheme was the same from their time in Miami that Bell had little trouble picking up what Bowles was trying to do with the Cardinals.

But one thing Bell noticed immediately was that Bowles is the same person. His demeanor hasn't changed. His fire is the same.

Bowles understands what it's like to be at the top of the mountain, guiding a defense that has quietly established itself as one of the best in the NFL.

He also knows what it's like to fail. For 10 games last year, he tried to rise above the chaos in Philadelphia, but no matter how hard he tried, regardless of how many tweaks he made, the Eagles continued to struggle and it all fell back on him.

"You're frustrated as a coach or a player, you try to win every game and you don't," Bowles said. "It starts snowballing. Sometimes there's no way out and we couldn't get out of our own way."
TEMPE, Ariz. -- To Arizona Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson, trap games don't exist.

They're a figment of the media's imagination, another story line with another headline.

It doesn't matter to Johnson or anyone else in the Cardinals' locker room that the Jacksonville Jaguars are 1-8, finally getting their first win just a few days ago. If they're getting paid to play, there's a chance they can win, Johnson said.

[+] EnlargeDansby
AP Photo/John Cordes"It's not a trap," Karlos Dansby said, "when you know what's coming."
“We all respect one another,” Johnson said. “If we don't show up, we can get beat.

“If you don't prepare and you don't take that team seriously, then you're going to get beat because they have players on that team who are getting paid just like you are.”

All week, the refrain has been the same.

The Jags don't look like a 1-8 team on film. They play hard. Their defense is tough up front. They play all 60 minutes.

These are the types of games in which teams can easily go through the motions. Johnson looked to the Indianapolis Colts' 38-8 loss to the then-three-win St. Louis Rams last weekend as proof. But Arizona knows what happens if it looks past teams like Jacksonville, regardless of their record or stats.

The Jags are ranked last in the league in defending the run, but running back Rashard Mendenhall won't hear any of it. The game isn't played on paper, he said. He's seen it too many times: a team ranked low in the stats comes out and plays well in that area.

“The margin of winning and losing is so slight, I can't imagine any team in this league taking anybody lightly,” Mendenhall said.

If the Cardinals decide to take the Jags lightly, safety Yeremiah Bell said Jacksonville is good enough to take advantage of it, especially because they're playing with nothing to lose.

“They're more dangerous,” Bell said. “They're more apt to take chances, especially defensively (or) trick plays, flee-flickers, anything, onside kicks. So you always have to stay on your toes.”

While it might sound outrageous, if the Jags can win seven straight and finish 8-8, a wild-card berth could be in play. But a win by the Cardinals on Sunday at EverBank Field could derail those optimistic hopes quickly.

Arizona is in the midst of the NFC playoff hunt, sitting one game outside the wild card and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said the Cardinals can't afford to lose a game, so they must treat Sunday like it's a make-or-break game.

“This is a playoff game for us,” Fitzgerald said. “We're sitting at 5-4 right now. You look at the teams right now that are in the hunt for a playoff spot, it's tight. It's a tight race. We can't afford to give up any game.”

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians started the week praising the Jaguars and their defense. He was quick to talk about their 1-8 record not being an accurate indicator of what kind of team Gus Bradley is coaching, especially after watching the film.

Any given Sunday has become a cliché around football, but to the players it holds true.

On any given Sunday, a team that's 1-8 can beat a team that's 5-4. That's where the parity comes into play, linebacker Karlos Dansby said. He's also not a believer in trap games. Not in the NFL. Not against the Jaguars.

“It's not a trap,” he said, “when you know what's coming.”
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.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- When the Cardinals sent out all four safeties for most of Sunday’s win over the Lions, not all of them were playing in the secondary.

Bell
Safety Yeremiah Bell lined up at inside linebacker as a counter to Detroit running back Reggie Bush and finished with three tackles. The Cardinals asked Bell to learn the linebacker schemes in two different fronts, and the 10-th year pro came through.

Bell gave up one big play to Bush, who appeared to make a move on Bell, freezing the safety.

“I can’t say enough about the guy,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s the ultimate pro, no matter what you ask of him. He got knocked around a little bit but he made a bunch of tackles.

“He gave up one to Reggie where he thought he had inside help and that was, I think ,the only negative play he had in the entire ball game.”

Fitz’s hammy a concern: Arians said there’s no way to predict how Larry Fitzgerald's hamstring will respond to treatment, rest and then practice later this week. But the coach wants to make sure it’s not an issue all season. He said he’ll trust his star receiver when it comes time to make a decision on Sunday in New Orleans.

“We don’t want it to linger, that’s for sure,” Arians said. “I trust his judgment on game day. We’ll just see how it goes and we won’t know until each day how it responds.”

Fast-paced plan: The Cardinals don’t want to play at quite the same pace as the Eagles under Chip Kelly, but Arians wants to see more plays per game.

His goal is 70 or more, and Arizona is averaging 64 through two games. They had 62 against St. Louis and 66 against Detroit.

“It’s one of those things, we’re not no-huddling right now but we still are getting a lot of snaps,” Arians said.

Practice squad moves: A few changes to the practice squad were announced Tuesday. The Cardinals released wide receiver Sam McGuffie and added receivers Dan Buckner and Brittan Golden. Buckner, an University of Arizona product, was an undrafted free agent this year and was cut on Aug. 30, when the Cardinals trimmed their roster to 53.

Golden spent the preseason with the Chicago Bears.

Technique still troubling Brown: Arians saw improvement out of left tackle Levi Brown, who was the highest graded offensive lineman, according to Pro Football Focus, but there’s still work to do.

“His technique wasn’t perfect,” Arians said. “He tried to use his hands more but not enough. He played a much better game but he can still play much better.”

2013 NFL age rankings at reduction to 53

September, 1, 2013
9/01/13
12:16
PM ET
The mandatory reduction to 53-man active rosters Saturday provides an opportunity to pass along average age ranks for NFL active rosters overall as well as for offense, defense and specialists.

The chart shows the Detroit Lions as the oldest team and the St. Louis Rams as the youngest. Where the Rams rank comes as no surprise if you've been following their building process in the NFC West recently.

The Seattle Seahawks rank among the younger teams overall. They have the youngest offensive players after releasing fullback Michael Robinson.

The rankings exclude players placed on various reserve lists (physically unable to perform, non-football injury, injured and suspended). Note also that rankings are based on ages calculated to the day, not rounded backward to the nearest birthday. A player born in January will be older than a player born in October of the same year, for example. I've taken into account the difference in making these calculations. Rounding backward to the nearest birthday shaves about a half-year off the average ages.

I've shaded the NFC West teams in the chart for easier reference.

While the Arizona Cardinals did part with older players such as Adrian Wilson, they still have veteran flavor with Yeremiah Bell, John Abraham, Carson Palmer, Darnell Dockett, Daryn Colledge, Larry Fitzgerald and the NFL's oldest specialists.

Seattle got younger by releasing Robinson and 36-year-old cornerback Antoine Winfield. No player on the active roster has had his 32nd birthday. By comparison, six San Francisco 49ers are at least 32 years old.

The 49ers parted with 36-year-old long snapper Brian Jennings, 33-year-old Kassim Osgood and 33-year-old Seneca Wallace. They also added some veteran players this offseason, including Anquan Boldin, Phil Dawson, Nnamdi Asomugha and Adam Snyder. Asomugha and 32-year-old Carlos Rogers help give the 49ers the NFL's oldest defensive backs by average age. We should expect the team to get younger there over the next year, possibly by using an early draft choice for a cornerback.

Note: I have not visited courthouses to pull birth records for NFL players. Neither have teams. As someone who has tracked dates of birth for NFL players since 2007, I know there are times when listed birth dates change or conflict with records listed elsewhere. I make efforts to verify the dates. The team rankings at the extremes are more valuable than the ones in the middle because there is very little difference in average age for some teams.

Major overhauls at quarterback, running back and in the defensive secondary jump out when analyzing the Arizona Cardinals' roster heading toward the 2013 season.

The chart at right shows which players have left the roster this offseason after playing offensive or defensive snaps for the team in 2012.

Most striking: The Cardinals didn't really "lose" any of the players listed. They decided to move on from most of them for reasons relating to performance, health, salary, age, scheme fit or some combination of those factors.

Teams usually keep the players they really want to keep. That was the case with Arizona this offseason.

So, while the Cardinals' current players account for a division-low 60.9 percent of offensive and defensive snaps played last season, Arizona isn't complaining. The team lost 11 of its 12 final games and the roster had crept up in age. A few of the players logging considerable snaps in 2012 did so only through injuries to others.

The Cardinals have 10 players age 30 or older, down from 14 at this point last year. That includes specialists Jay Feely, Mike Leach and Dave Zastudil. Arizona has seven offensive or defensive players age 30 or older, matching the NFL average, according to my records.

Paris Lenon, Todd Heap, Adrian Wilson, Adam Snyder, Clark Haggans, Jeremy Bridges, D'Anthony Batiste and Vonnie Holliday no longer remain from the 30-plus group on the roster in June 2012. That group averaged about 33 years old at this time last year.

Quarterback Carson Palmer, safety Yeremiah Bell, linebacker Karlos Dansby and linebacker Lorenzo Alexander are 2013 newcomers in their 30s. They average 32.6 years old and there are only four of them. Palmer in particular represents a clear upgrade at his position. That could also be the case for Dansby, although Lenon annually outperformed expectations at inside linebacker.
We interrupt ongoing coverage of Michael Crabtree's surgically repaired Achilles tendon to continue our recent discussion on average ages for projected 2013 NFL starting lineups.

Offense went first. Defense is up next.

The chart ranks teams by average ages for defensive starters.

I've recalculated the numbers and you can see just how close some of them are -- indistinguishable, in some cases. One change to the projected starting lineup could affect the order by several places.

The way the ages are calculated -- number of days since birth divided by 365.25 to account for leap years, then rounded down to the tenth of a year and averaged -- can cause slight changes to the order from one day to the next. That happened with the defenses for New England and Baltimore over the past couple days, for example. They actually switched places from a couple days back because the calculation for Tommy Kelly's age changed from 32.3 to 32.4.

For that reason, I'm more interested in the extremes from one end of the rankings to the next. A few spots here or there? No big deal.

The gradual changes add up through the range of teams, and we can see why the Chicago Bears weren't all that excited about bringing back Brian Urlacher to a defense that has the oldest starting linebackers without him.

A few thoughts on the defensive numbers for NFC West teams:
  • Arizona Cardinals: Arizona released veteran safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes primarily to shed their contracts. Had getting younger been the priority, Arizona wouldn't have signed 35-year-old Yeremiah Bell as a replacement. His presence on the roster pushes up the average age in the secondary. Parting with Paris Lenon, 35, made the Cardinals younger at linebacker. This team had too many older backups in the past, I thought. That is changing. Note that the Cardinals had the NFL's third-oldest starting defense entering the 2010 season. That group averaged 29.3 years old. The current one averages 27.8 even with Karlos Dansby projecting as a starter over Kevin Minter. I listed Dansby and Daryl Washington as the starters at inside linebacker despite the four-game suspension Washington must serve to open the season.
  • San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers had the NFL's oldest starting defensive line last season. That will not be the case in 2013 now that Isaac Sopoaga left in free agency. Replacing Sopoaga and free safety Dashon Goldson with younger players has brought down the 49ers' average age across the defensive lineup. And if the draft secured an eventual successor for 33-year-old Justin Smith, the 49ers should be set up on defense for years to come. Note that strong safety Donte Whitner is entering his eighth season, but he won't turn 28 until July.
  • St. Louis Rams: The Rams own the second-youngest projected starting defense in the NFL. Their starting defensive backs, defensive linemen and linebackers all rank among the NFL's five youngest at their position groups. That is much younger than the Rams were on defense a few years ago. The biggest question initially is whether the Rams' young safeties, including rookie third-round draft choice T.J. McDonald, are ready to play prominent roles. Signing a veteran safety for insurance could make some sense, but this is looking like a season when youth will be served throughout nearly all the Rams' roster, save for portions of the offensive line. There's much to like about a young defensive front featuring Michael Brockers, Robert Quinn and veteran Chris Long.
  • Seattle Seahawks: There was some projecting at work in putting together a lineup for Seattle. I plugged in Malcolm Smith at linebacker and went with a defensive line featuring Red Bryant, Tony McDaniel, Brandon Mebane and Cliff Avril. That line would hardly be ancient, but it would rank among the older third of projected starting lines. Bruce Irvin's suspension and Chris Clemons' knee injury limit the options. We could see rookie Jesse Williams at defensive tackle over McDaniel, who has mostly been a rotation player. The Seahawks would have the youngest projected starting linebackers in the league if Smith joined Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright in the lineup. The starting secondary ranks seventh youngest. However, nickel corner Antoine Winfield is 35 years old and could wind up playing half the snaps, or more.
The St. Louis Rams said they would rather sign a couple big-money free agents than several mid-priced ones.

Quality over quantity was the rationale.

That approach helps explain why the Rams rank sixth among NFL teams in contractual commitments for unrestricted free agents signed from other teams this offseason despite landing just two of them in Jake Long and Jared Cook.

Maximum potential contract value can be misleading, but in general, the more aggressive teams will commit larger total dollar values toward free agents. As the chart shows, St. Louis ranks relatively high in total dollar values despite signing fewer UFAs than any other team ranked among the top 10.

ESPN.com's John Clayton takes a closer look in his column Sunday. While the Rams focused their UFA resources narrowly, the Arizona Cardinals added a long list of players at relatively low cost. Clayton liked the approach from a value standpoint.

"Three winners emerged from the post-frenzy shopping market -- Arizona, Chicago and Tennessee," Clayton writes. "Based on playing time from last year, I'd give the Cardinals the slight edge from the post-March 17 market."

The chart below, updated from the version published here March 27, lists playing time and contract information for all the UFA players Arizona has signed or re-signed this offseason.

Snap judgments: Turnover can be good

April, 30, 2013
4/30/13
10:20
AM ET


Roster change can be good for teams looking to dramatically upgrade.

The Arizona Cardinals, for instance, have parted with players who logged 8,842 offensive and defensive snaps last season, or 39.1 percent of the total, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The figures are 36.3 percent for the St. Louis Rams, 15 percent for the San Francisco 49ers and 10.6 percent for the Seattle Seahawks.

Those changes, displayed in the first chart, can help us frame in our minds how much these teams expect to change for the upcoming season.

Not all snaps carry the same value, of course. The Cardinals can reasonably expect the new snaps they get from quarterback Carson Palmer to help them more than, say, the new snaps they get from veteran safety Yeremiah Bell.



The 49ers and Seahawks were very good on both sides of the ball when last season finished. They were further along in their development than the Cardinals or Rams. They're hoping to stay the course, for the most part. And so it's natural they would return a higher number of key contributors from last season.

The second and third charts break down the numbers specifically for offense and defense.

We see the Rams in particular will be looking for change on offense. Robert Turner, Barry Richardson, Brandon Gibson, Steven Jackson, Danny Amendola, Matthew Mulligan, Wayne Hunter and Quinn Ojinnaka are among the players no longer on the St. Louis roster after playing at least 300 offensive snaps last season.

Newcomers Jake Long, Jared Cook, Barrett Jones, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Brian Quick, Chris Givens and Zac Stacy will be getting some of their snaps in 2013.

The Cardinals have also turned over quite a bit of their offense. Adam Snyder, D'Anthony Batiste, Early Doucet, Kevin Kolb, LaRod Stephens-Howling, John Skelton, Rich Ohrnberger, Beanie Wells, Pat McQuistan and Todd Heap are among the regular contributors (or projected contributors) from 2012 no longer with the team.


The final chart shows Arizona turning over a somewhat surprising 44.6 percent of its snaps on defense after a mostly successful season on that side of the ball.

Kerry Rhodes, Paris Lenon, William Gay and Adrian Wilson are all gone after playing at least 800 snaps last season. Quentin Groves, Greg Toler, Nick Eason, Vonnie Holliday and James Sanders are gone after playing smaller roles.

Some of these players were ones the Cardinals thought they could replace without declining. They'll be looking for upgrades in some cases.

Third-round choice Tyrann Mathieu will fill some of the void in the secondary. Second-round pick Kevin Minter steps in at middle linebacker, where Lenon had been a regular.

Note: I updated this item to reflect Ryan Lindley's status on the Cardinals' roster. Thanks, @cblack315.

SPONSORED HEADLINES