Arizona Cardinals: Five Midseason Observations


A lot of good things have happened for the Arizona Cardinals en route to a 7-1 start to the 2014 season

In what may feel like the blink of an eye, the Arizona Cardinals have played through half of the regular season. The results should be to their liking. The Cards, pegged as a decent team who faced too stiff competition to make the postseason, hold the best record in football at 7-1, and are looking like a team no one wants to face. They’ve endured a good deal of misfortune in the injury department, but have powered on through to a nearly unblemished record.

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The rest of the season brings a new set of challenges. Arizona will play Detroit (6-2) at home, and play the defending champion Seahawks twice, as well as the 49ers, who will still pose a challenge despite the lackluster 4-4 record. Regardless of what the future holds, the Cardinals have been playing good football through half the season.

Without further ado, here are five observations about the first half of the season

1. Stability at the most important position

With Carson Palmer skillfully driving the Cards to five wins, the shortcomings of last season seem a distant afterthought. Palmer has completed 116 of 188 attempts (61.7 percent) for 1,385 yards with 11 touchdowns and two picks, and is on pace for drastic improvement over his 24 TDs and 22 INTs from last season.

Everything’s better this year in terms of his play. He understands and communicates with his receivers better,  his passes are sharper,  his willingness to not force the ball is a drastic improvement, and he’s using footwork and toughness to extend plays better than he may ever have in his career. Yes, he will still occasionally throw a “who was that too?” pass, but this is the level of play the Cardinals have needed from their signal caller

Of course, we can’t give all the credit to him. When a nerve issue kept him from throwing, backup Drew Stanton stepped in, leading the Cardinals to two wins despite having gone four years without a start in the NFL.

Stanton’s efforts were admirable and effective, even if not statistically spectacular, and he seemed comfortable with the system. He managed to even garner some support as the long term starter, but Palmer has done much to put that to rest. Still, Stanton’s play has opened doors for him in Arizona or elsewhere.

After years of being held back by lack of good play at the quarterback position, the Cardinals have put two effective signal callers on the field, and it’s a big part of their success.

2. Depth= The cure to the injury bug

The Cards have lost a lot of important players to injuries this season. It began with Darnell Dockett tearing his ACL in practice. Since then, Carson Palmer, Calais Campbell, Matt Shaughnessy, John Abraham, Dave Zastudil, and Stepfan Taylor are either out for extended time or were and then returned.

Patrick Peterson, Drew Stanton and Andre Ellington have also suffered notable injuries, though they didn’t miss much time. One would think that with that many injuries to significant players, the Cardinals season would fall apart, but that hasn’t been the case.

Yet, several backup players have helped the Cards weather the storm. Tommy Kelly and Ed Stinson,have helped on the defensive line, and Drew Butler has been serviceable in place of Zastudil.

The loss of Abraham has not been fully addressed, though Alex Okafor and Sam Acho have been good replacements in some aspects of the game. These players stepped into major roles and have done their part to keep the Cards season afloat, and they deserve major props for their work.

The Cardinals have run on the next man up mentality, and so far it’s been going in their favor

3. Young players making big contributions

The Cardinals have a balance of experience and youth on the roster. So far, rookies and second year players have been able to make a big impact for Arizona.

First round pick Deone Bucannon hasn’t moved mountains, but he’s been effective at playing both safety and often linebacker. He came in with a reputation for being a hard-hitter and that had certainly carried over to the NFL.  He’s got room to grow, but his play so far indicated he fits the bill of late first round talent.

Fellow rookie John Brown has also lived up to hype. He’s grabbed 24 passes for 326 yards and four touchdowns, including a 75 yard game winner against the Eagles. His speed is the decisive advantage in his matchups, and the Cards have put that to use. So far, Brown in the third round was a big steal for Arizona.

Then there’s Chandler Catanzaro, who despite being undrafted, won the kicking job and has given the Cardinals no reason to regret their decision. He’s 16 for 16 of field goals, which is the best start for a rookie kicker in NFL history, and he booms kickoffs as far as anyone in the league.

Lastly, sophomore Andre Ellington obviously deserves a mention. He’s become the workhorse for Arizona, and his versatility is still a key to diversifying the Cardinals offense. He was pegged as a big breakout candidate, and some might be disappointed by his 3.8 yards per carry average, a big drop from 5.5 last season.

With more touched comes more attention, Ellington has responded well by getting the job done when he was called on. Once his foot issues heal, he’ll likely only accelerate his production, a big boost for the offensive unit.

The Cardinals young talent is paying off now and gives them a good outlook for the future.

4. Not a great year for everyone

While much of the Cardinals roster is having adequate to good seasons, there’s some players who struggled notably through eight games.

The offensive guards have been pretty off, to put it nicely. Ted Larsen and Paul Fanaika seem to be regularly overmatched in pass protection and unable to open running lanes.  Despite this, former first round pick Jonathan Cooper has been unable to see the field.

Many analysts and fans have started to wonder why. Cooper is a fine athlete and, in spite of poor performance in training camp, should get a fair shot at starting.

Then there’s the elephant in the room: Patrick Peterson. After signing for big money, his season has been far below expectations. He’s yet to grab an interception, has allowed opposing quarterbacks a passer rating of over 100, and has been flagged for ten illegal contact or pass interference penalties.

To be fair, the focus on illegal contact by defensive backs is more strict than ever, but the general point is that Peterson hasn’t done well in the first half of the season. The defensive star in the backfield has been Antonio Cromartie, graded as the fifth best corner by Pro Football Focus.

Peterson did have a good performance against the Cowboys, though, limiting Dez Bryant to two catches and a TD, all of which came in garbage time. Hopefully that positive performance will be something he can build on to turn the season around.

5. A mixed bag on defense

The Cardinals have built their identity on tough defense for the past few years. After being the bets team at defending the run last year, they’ve remained a brick wall for running backs, and currently sit at third in rush yards allowed per game with 79.6.

Every defender seems to have a great nose for the ball, and it shows. The Cardinals managed to break DeMarco Murray’s streak of eight games rushing over 100 yards.

The rest of the defense hasn’t been as great. The Cardinals have eight sacks this season, second worst in the league. The pass rushing talent just isn’t there, but the creative blitzing of Todd Bowles has given the Cardinals the ability to disrupt opposing QBs, which so far has been sufficient. Whether or not that will work against the elite quarterbacks is another matter Arizona may have to confront.

The pass defense looks bad from a narrow point of view. The Cardinals are ranked as the worst pass defense in terms of yards allowed , but are first in interceptions and eighth  in passer rating. It could be better if the Cardinals didn’t need to commit to blitzing so much, but as long as those yards don’t translate to points, it really doesn’t matter.

When it comes down to it, there’s two stats that matter: how many points did you score, how many points did they score. The cardinals are fifth in points allowed at 19.5, so whatever nuanced statistics make the defense look bad aren’t all that significant. The defense can still improve in several facets, but they’ve held down the fort well enough to giver the Cardinals the best record in the league after eight games.