Running the ball
Sure, it was nice to see second-year RB Tim Hightower grab 12 receptions for 121 yards last week. It reminded many of us of Larry Centers, the former Cards fan favorite that set running-back reception records in the mid-90s.
However, there has to be more from the RB position than receptions. They actually have to run the ball! And herein lies the problem.
A notoriously lousy running team, the Cardinals showed last week why improvement in that area is a must for this team.
Sure, they have their aerial attack. But with nagging injuries to No. 2 Anquan Boldin and No. 3 Steve Breaston, the results speak for themselves.
Last week, the running game started to perk up when rookie Chris "Beanie" Wells was inserted in the third quarter. But for reasons known only to themselves, the coaches abandoned it after their best drive of the day.
This is NOT a call for Wells to start at RB. It's a call to the coaching staff to use what's working. And Wells' third quarter drive, including two plays in particular on their lone solid drive of the day, was moving the ball on the ground. At least a few times.
Which brings us to...
The Offensive Line
I feel like a lone voice in the woods, because it seems no one is or has been talking about the offensive line's part in both the lack of a running game, as well as pass protection.
We in Cardinal-land know that this line has been together some 25+ weeks now, if you consider pre-season. Its an amazing achievement in today's NFL, to be sure. But for a group with that much time together, they often play undisciplined and/or in disarray.
There were four false starts last week in Glendale. When a team only gets between 12 and 16 drives per game, that averages out to 25 percent to 33 percent of drives that are retarded, or at least affected, by false starts.
If it happens early in downs, as it did on the first play of their final drive, it hurts, but may not kill the drive. If it happens on second or especially third down, it could spell disaster.
Follow it up with a holding penalty (as happened on that same drive, turning a first and 10 at the SF 38 into a first and 25 and the Cards 47) and barring a big play, you're toast.
Levi Brown hasn't lived up to his fifth-choice-in-the-draft status thus far, although he IS getting better. But he has trouble sticking to D-linemen, and picking up a linebacker on a blitz if they stunt, or the play moves away from his side.
The reason that Hightower had such a big game is because Brown and RG Deuce Lutui aren't taking their man out of the play.
When the 49ers brought a blitz, Warner's ONLY choice was to hit the vacated area where Hightower roamed in the flat. He had time to do little else.
Which brings us to...
The Pass Protection
Or lack thereof. Okay, it hasn't been horrible. But the Cardinals pass protection in the preseason AND in Game 1, wasn't anything to write home about either.
Warner was sacked three times. But two of the sacks happened on that last drive, the last one turning into a fumble out of bounds as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
But he was pressured constantly, which forced throws before the double-teamed All-everything WR Larry Fitzgerald and Pro Bowl partner/gimpy-legged Anquan Boldin could get open for mid-range and deep opportunities.
Unless and/or until the line can help turn the running game into a true threat, Warner will need a bit more time for plays to develop.
That forces walking that fine line of holding your blocks, and being called for holding. But that's the way the rules are set up these days.
Today's defensive linemen are fast as well as strong. Moving their feet better and staying low will help in keeping their arms inside, while being able to stick and slow down the defender.
Once a defender is able to shed a block, the disciplined O-lineman needs to do anything short of extending his arms, or the inevitable holding call will come.
The Bottom Line
This is a young offensive line, but these guys have been together for over a year, shoulder to shoulder.
There's really no excuse for the pre-snap penalties. Russ Grimm needs to get on them, and start threatening jobs if this not horrible, but sloppy play continues.
In the immortal words of one John Madden, "It ALL starts in the trenches."
It all ends there, too.