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Arizona Cardinals: What We've Learned About Every Positional Unit This Preseason

Shaun ChurchContributor IAugust 14, 2012

Arizona Cardinals: What We've Learned About Every Positional Unit This Preseason

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    The Arizona Cardinals are two games into the 2012 preseason and there are still questions to be answered about nearly every positional unit.

    Going through those questions can cause severe depression, but rest assured they will be answered by the time Week 1 of the regular season is upon us. It’s not as bad as the local writers make it out to be.

    It’s not great, but it’s not terrible.

    And now, what we’ve learned about the Cards’ positional units so far.

Quarterback

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    I can’t speak for everyone, but what I have learned this preseason is that Kevin Kolb will never become the long-term solution to Arizona’s quarterback issue.

    “Zero. Point. Zero.”

    No, that’s not Kolb’s grade-point average. That’s his quarterback rating through two preseason games.

    And though it’s a small sample-size (2-of-9 for 25 yards and one interception), it is indicative of the quarterback that he truly is. He can’t get all the way through his progression without becoming terrified his toes may be stepped on by an offensive lineman.

    He starts from his right, and by the time he looks to the middle of the field, he ends up rolling out to the right to avoid a pass rush that is sometimes not even there.

    Because of that, I have a new nickname for Kolb (h/t to B/R Featured Columnist Jesse Reed, via his Twitter account): Zoolander.

    Rookie Ryan Lindley has looked like a professional quarterback so far, albeit his competition has been mostly against third- and fourth-string defenders. Rich Bartel was solid against players in KC who won't make the roster, but if it's a close battle between these two, I would expect Lindley to get the nod due to the higher potential that he develops into a starter down the road.

    As for John Skelton, I still don’t understand why everyone believes his performances have been bad. What we’ve learned about Skelton is that he possesses great pocket awareness, he has improved his ability to read coverage (though it still needs work) and perhaps most importantly, he can take a hit and come back for another play without crying about bruises.

    There is much left to find out from both quarterbacks, but as of right now, the starting quarterback will wind up being John Skelton.

    And that’s not a bad thing, everyone. Just let it soak in for a while, watch some highlights of Skelton’s intangibles and assume he will improve this year as he did from his first to his second season.

    Doesn’t that feel better?

Running Back

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    What we’ve learned this preseason is that the offense is doomed without a starting-caliber running back.

    The Arizona Cardinals have two such players at their disposal, and both have missed the first two games of preseason action.

    Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams are recovering from knee surgery and are needed for the offense to have any continuity in 2012.

    Wells is coming off his first career 1,000-yard season as a pro, and Williams has yet to take a handoff in a real NFL game. Some believe Williams will be better than Wells sooner rather than later, and while they push each other on the field, the beneficiary will be the Cardinals franchise.

    Why?

    Since 2009, 10 teams have ran the ball in at least 49 percent of their offensive plays (the New York Jets did it twice). Those teams combined for a regular season record of 100-76 (.568), won seven playoff games, and the only team that didn’t finish at least 8-8 were the 2009 Cleveland Browns (5-11).

    Running the ball—and running it successfully—keeps the opposing offense on the field.

    The blueprint for a successful rushing attack is there. Keeping those running backs healthy is paramount to Arizona’s success now and in the future.

    It begins Friday against the Oakland Raiders, when Williams will make his first appearance in a game since the knee injury last preseason.

    Wells may also play, but he and Coach Ken Whisenhunt are being cautious about the 1,000-yard rusher’s return.

    From Darren Urban of the Cards’ official site:

    The game is a possibility for Wells as well, but Whiz said he wants to see Wells in a padded practice and how he [his knee] reacts. Beanie sounded like he felt the same. “I don’t know if it’s this week,” Wells said, but “I went through warmups last week [in Kansas City] and it felt great to be out there just preparing for a game.”

    Wells added, “I definitely need preseason. Maybe one game, maybe two games, but I definitely need it.”

Wide Receiver

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    The success of the wide receivers will hinge on the performance of the quarterback.

    Larry Fitzgerald will always do what he does, but other receivers need to step up this season as well.

    What we’ve learned so far is that LaRon Byrd should have been drafted, and that the Cardinals are lucky he was not.

    Byrd will make the team as either the No. 5 or No. 6 receiver this season because of his efforts not only as a receiver, but as a special teams player as well. He has been impressive as a pass-catcher during the two games, flashing the ability to make catches in traffic and hang on (he was blasted once in Kansas City and got right back up).

    We’ve also learned that Andre Roberts is not going to give up the No. 2 receiver spot easily. He hasn’t been great, but he has not dropped a pass and has shown he can create separation from defenders.

    Rookie first-round pick Michael Floyd needs to step up his game this preseason if he wants that starting receiver job Week 1.

Tight End

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    Todd Heap still has some gas left in the tank, but second-year TE Rob Housler is breathing down his neck on the depth chart.

    As of the latest depth chart released Saturday, Heap is still listed as the No. 1 tight end.

    But that may change if Housler keeps doing what he’s doing.

    And what he’s doing is creating a severe mismatch with defenders on the field. A handful of times already, Housler has found himself wide open down the field, and the quarterbacks have failed to get him the ball.

    That needs to change.

    But the success of this position also ties into the success of the run game. The more aspects of the offense opposing linebackers and nickel corners have to worry about, the easier it will be for the tight ends to make a difference in the passing attack.

Offensive Tackle

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    Left tackle Levi Brown has not been great. He has been steady, but not great.

    He looks better when Skelton is in the game.

    Though some fans believe that’s because the team wants Skelton to be the quarterback, so the line is not giving it their all when Kolb plays, that’s not the case at all.

    A job or two is also on the line (pardon the pun) for them.

    Kolb makes the line look bad when he plays. As stated earlier, he has a tendency to roll out when he senses pressure, even if pressure is not there—they call that “phantom pressure.”

    Overall, the tackles have been average. Jeremy Bridges was beaten soundly on numerous occasions, most notably by Kansas City defensive end Ropati Pitoitua (don’t ask me to pronounce that), but Kolb was able to get away after he failed to see a wide-open Housler in the left flat.

    Fourth-round pick Bobby Massie still needs to work on some things if my prediction of him starting Week 1 is to come to fruition. As of now, I don’t foresee that happening anymore, but—as is becoming a kind of mantra—with Whisenhunt, anything is possible.

    And he’s already working that mantra this preseason. A new wrinkle following Bridges’ less-than-admirable trip to the Heartland: Veteran lineman D’Anthony Batiste is now listed as the starting right tackle. He had previously been the backup right guard. Bridges takes over Batiste’s former role, while Massie remains the No. 2 RT—for now.

    What we’ve learned from the tackles is that they are not perfect by any stretch, but that they need to be when Kolb is behind center.

    That’s just not possible.

Guard

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    Top free-agent pickup Adam Snyder, outside a couple plays in which he’s struggled, has looked very good so far.

    He has proven to be the mobile, athletic lineman offensive coordinator Mike Miller scouted for Cards’ fans during the offseason—save for one play in KC where his job was to pull from right-to-left and he failed because center Lyle Sendlein got in his way.

    The right guard spot has been a revolving door of candidates for years, as Arizona shuffled through large human beings in search of “the one.”

    Well, now they’ve got him.

    Also looking sharp has been left guard Daryn Colledge. He dominated Glenn Dorsey the entirety of their time together on the field. When Colledge was ordered to pull, he did so effectively.

    What we’ve learned about the guards this preseason is that the position now has some solidity to it. No longer will guard be an issue.

    The team of Snyder and Colledge, or “Snydedge,” as they like to call themselves, could help the offensive line become a good one in the near future.

Center

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    I did not see myself writing this before the preseason started, but there is an issue at center.

    Lyle Sendlein has given the team more than they ever expected since going undrafted in 2007.

    So far, he is my biggest concern on the line. His run blocking is a problem, as he has allowed multiple tackles-for-loss in two games.

    It’s just the preseason, so I will keep my calamity at bay. But if his poor preseason performance persists past Friday (the Oakland game), there may be cause for concern.

    What we’ve learned from this is that success is a work in progress. This is not to say that Sendlein has stopped working hard, or that he no longer cares; however, if he’s not playing a solid center by the time the regular season kicks off on September 9, don’t be surprised to see a second “C” on the 53-man roster.

    That man would be undrafted rookie center Scott Wedige out of Northern Illinois.

    Though he’s been in mainly against third- and fourth-string defenders, he has looked the part of an NFL center through two games.

    It’s early and entirely possible that Sendlein has simply gotten a slow start, so I’ll keep an eye on his progress and keep you all updated.

Nose Tackle

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    Coming off a nasty broken arm, Dan Williams got off to a shaky start against the Saints in the Hall of Fame game.

    He looked better against the Chiefs, creating a quarterback pressure and recording a tackle in run support.

    Williams was flagged for unnecessary roughness on the quarterback pressure, but he couldn’t do much differently on the play. He beat center Rodney Hudson, and in doing so, stumbled into QB Matt Cassel’s legs—yes, that’s known as the “Tom Brady Rule,” the same type of play that gave Cassel his first opportunity in New England.

    What we’ve learned is that Williams can be a run-stuffing maniac who has the ability to get to the quarterback when needed.

    He is a powerful man to begin with, and now that he’s lost about 30 pounds from last season, he’s more sudden with his first step following the snap. That could be huge for a defense looking to improve on its seventh-ranked pass-rush from a year ago. Even creating havoc enough to become a regularly double-teamed opponent will generate opportunity for others behind him—Sam Acho, O’Brien Schofield and Daryl Washington, namely.

Defensive End

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    We’ll keep this one short and sweet.

    Calais Campbell has looked like Calais Campbell; he’s been disruptive through two games.

    Darnell Dockett, who had problems acclimating to Ray Horton’s defense last season, has participated in only a handful of plays and hasn’t been good or bad.

    What we’ve learned is that Campbell will be himself, even after being paid an enormous sum of money this offseason. And Dockett needs to pick it up a bit after suffering an injury during camp and missing the Cardinals first preseason game.

    He will, and the defensive line will be better for it.

Outside Linebacker

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    Although the main pass rushers in Horton’s defense have not generated a sack through two games, that does not mean they have been useless.

    Sam Acho has been all over the field.

    During one great play Friday in which the Chiefs possessed the ball in the red zone, Acho stayed home on a naked bootleg from quarterback Brady Quinn. He was able to chase Quinn down at the sideline for a loss on the play to help hold Kansas City to a field goal.

    The other starting OLB, O’Brien Schofield, has been solid as well. He has not stood out on any spectacular plays like Acho has, but there have not been many bad plays of which to take notice.

    What we’ve learned here is that the time is now for Schofield to step up as the front-side pass rusher. Veteran Clark Haggans has lost a lot of get-off, but he doesn’t look as quick to the quarterback as he once did.

    One play I noticed in looking at film of the KC game occurred midway through the second quarter.

    He had an open lane to get to Quinn and really put a lick on him. But it took him too long to get there and Quinn was able to get the pass off just before Haggans got there. It looked as though he hesitated, perhaps unsure of what to do.

    That would never happen with the young-and-hungry Schofield. Quinn may not have gotten back up.

    The youth movement is in full swing within the defense, and they can’t wait for real games to begin.

Inside Linebacker

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    We’ve learned from these linebackers is that they are eager to be leaders.

    Daryl Washington is the given, but Stewart Bradley has impressed me beyond belief.

    I did not see that coming.

    I told you all last week how impressed I was with Bradley during the HOF game; he was not as flashy this time around against the Chiefs, but he was good nonetheless.

    The chances are increasing that he takes over as the starting weak-side inside linebacker for veteran Paris Lenon this season.

    Just how soon will be up to he and coach Whisenhunt, but it could be very soon if Lenon can’t get on the field following a sprained ankle on the first drive of the preseason.

    Second-year ILB Quan Sturdivant has been a pleasant surprise thus far. He’s covered well from sideline to sideline and appears to understand the intricacies of the defense. That’s the area in which he struggled most as a rookie—the lockout really hurt his progression.

Cornerback

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    The main thing we’ve learned so far about the cornerbacks is that Michael Adams is the weak spot and is holding the unit back.

    Rookie Jamell Fleming looks like he is ready to be productive from the nickel role, and rookie corner-turned-safety Justin Bethel has proven why he deserves a chance to take Adams’ role as the gunner on punt coverage and as an edge rusher for field goal defense.

    Fleming will make the team almost by default as the team’s second player taken in the most recent NFL draft (third round).

    Bethel making the squad would likely spell the end of the line for Adams.

    Patrick Peterson has been good, and newcomer William Gay has been quietly solid so far. He had a pass interference call against him last Friday, but the call was bogus—and part of three consecutive questionable calls against Cardinals players.

Safeties

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    Coach Whisenhunt will have a tough decision to make when the time comes for it.

    There are the three men who have been with the team and are a lock—Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes and Rashad Johnson.

    Then there are a heap of newcomers to the team who have all been impressive in their own right.

    Free-agent signee James Sanders has shown he can contribute in the box as well as on special teams; rookie Justin Bethel has already been talked about as a special teams master; and the other rookie, undrafted Blake Gideon out of Texas, has been impressive in his limited action.

    I originally predicted only Bethel would make the team, but Gideon has been too good to simply leave out, and with Adams’ continuing struggles, if he were to be cut from the roster, Bethel could play the occasional slot corner role on four- or five-receiver sets while continuing to do his thing on special teams.

    What we’ve learned so far is that the position is deep, and that has not always been the case—especially recently.

    This is one of the good problems with which a coach has to deal—too much talent at a position. Although he will indeed have a tough decision to make when the time comes, the team will be fine no matter which player he chooses.

Kicker/Punter

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    I’ve learned one thing from watching Arizona’s kickers and punters this preseason: Dave Zastudil is not very good.

    You might say, “But Shaun, we already knew that!”

    You’re right. We did know that already.

    However, just how bad he is was not known. Last year, Zastudil at least did a decent job pinning teams inside the 20-yard line when given the opportunity.

    He did so twice against the Saints, but then he put two in the end zone against the Chiefs. He has routinely out-kicked the coverage, which has played a part in allowing eight punt returns for 123 yards (15.4 yards per return).

    Kicker Jay Feely is 2-for-2 with a long of 40 yards; he is just fine.

Bonus What We’ve Learned

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    When the referees are noticed during a game, it’s not because of a good call that has been made.

    It’s always because the call somehow screwed your team or the opposition.

    The replacement referees, though nervous I’m sure, have been worse than awful throughout the preseason. I’ve heard from fans of other teams about how bad the officiating has been. Though I can’t confirm their situations, I can attest to how poor it has been during Cardinals games.

    I mentioned earlier a three-play span in which a penalty was called on Arizona consecutively.

    The first was on a second-and-4 in which Alfonso Smith took a handoff five yards up the right side for a first down. It was called back on a holding call by fullback Anthony Sherman. The replay showed Sherman execute a perfect block; there was no holding. It backed the team up to a second-and-14 play, and Skelton threw an interception.

    On the play, a questionable holding penalty was called on left tackle Levi Brown, but it was declined for obvious reasons.

    Then, on the ensuing play, Brady Quinn attempted a deep pass to wide receiver Jamar Newsome. CB William Gay had the coverage, and he made light contact with Newsome, drawing a flag despite the ball being overthrown and uncatchable.

    As the penalty occurred in the end zone, the ball was placed at the two-yard line—again, a mistake. That is the rule for the NCAA. In the NFL, the ball should be placed at the one-yard line.

    The labor dispute, according to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter, could linger into the regular season, meaning the replacement referees would also linger on the field into the regular season.

    That is every fan’s—and Roger Goodell’s—worst nightmare.

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