Going into the 2011 season, it was clear that the Arizona Cardinals hadn’t done much during the offseason to address some of the problems that plagued them last year.
Offensively, the Cardinals made some pretty good moves to become more competitive in the NFC West. Bringing in quarterback Kevin Kolb and tight end Todd Heap, and re-signing wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, are all moves that have helped to stabilize a struggling offense.
Defensively, Ken Whisenhunt seems to have forgotten that the Cardinals were one of the weakest teams in the league. Despite all of his offseason acquisitions for the offense, he did little to bring in help for the ailing defense.
Last year, the Cardinals were 29th in the league for total defensive yardage. If we take out the rushing game, the team was 23rd in the league in defensive passing yards allowed. They gave up an average of 228.4 yards per game in the air.
After the first two games of the season, the offseason neglect of the defense has become painfully obvious. The Cardinals are right back where they ended last year—at 29th in the league for total defensive yardage per game.
Their passing defense has, if anything, gotten worse than last year. They’ve fallen to 29th in the league in yards per game in the air, giving up an average of 343 yards each week.
With a defense like that, Arizona will never be competitive in the NFC West, no matter how many boosts they give to their offense.
In the fairness of full disclosure, there is more to the abysmal 2011 numbers than is obvious just by looking at the statistics.
Many of the starting linebackers and cornerbacks are relatively new to the Cardinals franchise, and in some cases the NFL. Several of the current starters were on the team last year, but actually played in very few games.
For all intents and purposes, the Cardinals are in the process of building a pass defense from scratch. There are some veteran leaders on the team (notably Darnell Dockett and Kerry Rhodes), but they are working with a lot of new blood.
Then there’s the guaranteed setback of dealing with a new defensive coordinator and a new defensive scheme. That’s hard enough in a normal year, let alone in a year with almost no offseason.
The shortened offseason activities were particularly harmful to franchises with a lot of free-agency turnover, as there was less time to get up to speed. The Cardinals may have brought back some of the same guys, but they’re all rookies in this newest defensive scheme.
The new defensive scheme is not a bad one, but it does lend itself to poor passing statistics, with more emphasis on a “bend-don’t-break” mentality. The Cardinals have arguably done a fairly decent job in implementing that mentality—despite the huge number of passing yards they give up, they are still 11th in the NFL in scoring defense.
Still, they’ve lost one game and they’ll lose others because they’re not keeping points off of the board when it matters the most.
The team is crossing the line from bending to breaking, particularly late in the game as weariness sets in. There’s dual blame for that: The defense can’t get off the field and the offense can’t stay on the field for longer than a few minutes at a time.
Keep in mind, though, that the biggest problem currently plaguing the Cardinals defense (inexperience with the new scheme) is an area where the team can improve over the course of the season.
And they will improve—eventually.
It might just be too little, too late by the time we see the passing defense really step up to make a positive impact.