Arizona Cardinals: What Cards Must Do to Overtake NFC West in 2012

Shaun Church@@NFLChurchContributor IMay 17, 2012

Arizona Cardinals: What Cards Must Do to Overtake NFC West in 2012

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    If the Arizona Cardinals wish to win the NFC West in 2012, some important things must be improved upon along the way.

    Arizona rallied to finish 8-8 in 2011—as you all know—and though the 7-2 finish to the year was impressive, they could have been better. Much better.

    Flip through this short series of slides for an in-depth look into how exactly the Cardinals can win the NFC West for the third time in five years.

Build on Defensive Momentum

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    During its 1-6 start last season, Arizona’s defense surrendered 390 total yards per game.

    After bottoming out in a two-week span in which opposing offenses averaged 425 yard per game (Weeks 7 and 8 against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, respectively), the defense settled into the new scheme and allowed only 327 yards per game the remainder of the season, while the team went on its 7-2 run.

    Losing Richard Marshall to Miami hurts, but the cornerback combination of third-round draft pick Jamell Fleming, free-agent signee William Gay and the returning Greg Toler should help fans keep their minds off losing 2011’s team defensive MVP.

    Outside linebacker Sam Acho started 10 games as a rookie, generating seven sacks and forcing four fumbles. He—along with third-year linebacker O’Brien Schofield—is expected to contribute a great deal to the pass rush in 2012, as well as in run support.

    The defense, as a whole, has the potential under second-year defensive coordinator Ray Horton to finish as a top-five squad in 2012 and beyond.

    Whether that comes to fruition or not remains to be seen, but they are on the right path.

Better Play from Quarterback Position

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    It remains unknown which quarterback will start at season's beginning; however, the “who” is not as important as the “how.”

    As in: How will he perform?

    Kevin Kolb is coming off his second consecutive injury-tattered season, his first with Arizona, and much of the missed time was due to concussions.

    After the most recent incident, just a few plays into the Week 14 game against San Francisco, Kolb said it took him until three weeks after the end of the regular season to feel normal again, a timeline that had him worried.

    “To be honest with you, when I first went home it was still pretty severe,” he told AZCentral.com. “It kind of worried me because I figured once I got away from the game it would clear up pretty fast. But it didn’t and I stayed in contact with our guys here [in Arizona]. Within three or four days after that three-week period it was fine. I was glad to be feeling back to normal.”

    Kolb was not spectacular in the games in which he did play, and his replacement, John Skelton, was no better.

    Skelton was better under pressure than Kolb, succumbing to 23 sacks in 120 drop backs while under pressure. Kolb was sacked 30 times in 115 drop backs while under pressure (via ProFootballFocus).

    Whether it’s Kolb or Skelton, there needs to be more production from the signal-caller in 2012. That means not only less sacks (yes, a sack can a QB's fault as much as an offensive lineman's), but fewer errors in the passing game as well.

    Kolb had the highest percentage of attempted passes which were batted down by defenders—a staggering 5.53 percent, or 14 BP out of 253 PA (via PFF).

Improve Offensive Line Play

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    Perhaps the most obvious of what needs to be done, the improvement of the offensive line is almost automatic in 2012.

    I mean, it can’t get much worse, can it?

    Arizona’s line surrendered 54 sacks in 2011, second to only St. Louis for most in the NFL.

    If there can be a silver lining in a season that fraught with peril, it is that despite the outrageous sack total, Arizona's offensive line tied for sixth in the NFL (with Pitt) in fewest total QB hits (19). That is, the number of times the quarterback is hit immediately after releasing the ball. Washington finished last in the league with a staggering 43 QB hits. (All stats via PFF.)

     

    Additions

    Former 49ers guard Adam Snyder signed during the offseason via free agency and will start on the right side. Fourth-round draft pick Bobby Massie started 29 consecutive games at right tackle for Mississippi and will likely win the same job by the start of the regular season.

    Those two upgrades might mean a much tougher path to the quarterback for opposing defenses in 2012, and at the least will help the running backs find lanes on the right side of the line.

     

    The Incumbent

    Levi Brown is one of the most scrutinized left tackles in the league—and for good reason.

    His play at the end of the year, though, was great. In a five-week span from Weeks 12 through 16, Brown didn’t allow his quarterback to be touched even once. No sacks. No hits. Just seven QB pressures in that time.

    And the pass-rushers he faced over that span are not exactly no-name players.

    He held DeMarcus Ware to his worst performance of the 2011 season in a Week 13 overtime victory over Dallas. Defensive Rookie of the Year Aldon Smith was held in check the next week against San Francisco. Cincinnati's star defensive end, Michael Johnson, also suffered through his worst performance of the season against Brown, earning an overall minus-2.8 ranking from PFF.com.

    If Brown has turned the corner and can continue the dominance with which he finished the 2011 season, there is little doubt the Cardinals’ offensive line will be better in 2012. Pair that together with the bulked-up right side in Snyder and Massie, and there is no way the line has a repeat performance of last season.

Close out Games When Leading Late

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    Three times in 2011, Arizona inexplicably blew fourth-quarter leads.

    Had Arizona held on to win those games, they would have finished the season at 11-5 and made the playoffs in the NFC.

    In Week 2 at Washington, Week 4 against the Giants and Week 8 at Baltimore, the Cardinals led at the start of the final 15-minute frame, only to see those leads evaporate. Granted, the Week 4 loss to New York can be blamed on referee Jerome Boger, if you wish.

    I have found that, in life, it is easier to blame myself for the problems I have than to find other people or circumstances on which to place blame. Arizona has only itself to blame for those losses. Not Boger; not Victor Cruz; not anyone or anything else.

    “When you blame others, you give up your power to change.”—Dr. Robert Anthony.

    They made strides toward correcting this as the season wore on—hanging on to beat division rival St. Louis after initially blowing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead.

    The added support in the run-game with the return of running back Ryan Williams and the addition of Snyder and Massie should help them keep more fourth-quarter leads in 2012.

Get Young Players to Pull Their Own Weight

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    Since Coach Ken Whisenhunt took over in 2007, Arizona has relied heavily upon aging veterans to be team leaders.

    But with the recent success in the draft the team has had, a younger crop of players is beginning to take hold on the starting spots on both offense and defense.

     

    Greg Toler, CB

    Coming off a season lost to a torn ACL, Toler may be behind in on-field knowledge of Ray Horton’s defense, but he should be well-versed in all things pertaining to the complicated and dense scheme considering the unfathomable amount of time in which he had it to study.

    As I stated in a previous article, no one should be surprised if he falters early on in 2012, as translating the scheme from film study to on-the-field work will take some getting used to.

    William Gay may begin the season as the No. 2 corner, opposite Patrick Peterson, but scheme-wise, it may be best to play Toler on the outside and have Gay in the slot covering speedy receivers.

     

    Rob Housler, TE

    Among tight ends with at least 20 passes intended for them, no one in the NFL dropped more passes than Housler in 2011. His six drops were second-most among rookie tight ends (Rams’ Lance Kendricks had 9), and he was a non-factor the entire season.

    The Cardinals signed veteran Todd Heap following his release from Baltimore, the team that drafted him in the first round (No. 31 overall) of the 2001 draft. He was expected to be the go-to guy among the group of tight ends; however, injuries interrupted that idea.

    Housler did not take advantage of the opportunity, as he, himself, was hampered with a nagging groin injury for parts of the season.

    Entering his second season—his first containing an official offseason—Housler is expected to progress to the level that he can be a difference-maker down the field as a primary target for his quarterback.

    He certainly possesses the speed and leaping ability to make big plays when his team needs him.

     

    Dan Williams, NT

    As a first-round pick, and a large one, at that, Williams has not yet lived up to the expectations many have placed on him.

    He was just coming into his own as a disruptive force in between two of the better 3-4 defensive ends in the NFC last season, when he broke his arm against arch-rival San Francisco.

    Veteran Nick Eason and rookie sixth-round pick David Carter filled the hole left by Williams nicely. If he is unable to become an offensive lineman-magnet in the upcoming season, Williams may soon find himself as a backup.

    Having a 6’3”, 327-pound heaping man in the middle of a 3-4 defensive line should create open lanes through which linebackers can rush the passer and stuff running lanes—not to mention the running lanes such a presence fills just by being on the field.

     

    O’Brien Schofield, OLB

    It took a while for Schofield to learn the playbook Ray Horton established. He had to resort to wearing a wristband with a list of defensive plays written on it in order to keep up in practice and throughout games on Sunday.

    Toward the end of the 2011 season, however, the wristband was not needed as often—if at all.

    “He was frustrated early on, and he got tired of coaches getting on him,” teammate and fellow linebacker Daryl Washington told AZCardinals.com. “I told him, ‘Hey, when the coaches stop coaching you, that’s when you should be worried.’ I think he took a different approach then and really started getting into his playbook.”

    Schofield has not started a game in his two-year career thus far, but that will change in 2012.

    He is expected to be the starting left outside linebacker, a position held by 36-year-old veteran Clark Haggans in every game he’s played but two since 2009.

    As of now, Haggans remains unsigned by anyone; however, Arizona has shown interest in re-signing him—strictly as a backup to Schofield.