Arizona Cardinals: How the (NFC) West Was Won

Cedric Hopkins@FieldandCourtContributor INovember 3, 2011

Arizona Cardinals: How the (NFC) West Was Won

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    Most in the NFL community have written off the Arizona Cardinals this season. The Cardinals have been boxed up, stamped with a "bust" label and shipped off into the NFL wastelands. 

    I respectfully disagree.

    The issues that plagued Arizona in the first half of the season are cemented in everyone's mind—a bad offensive line, a generous secondary and quarterback play that is best left forgotten. 

    I'm not here to argue that those things will necessarily improve; they may, or may not—that's up the players. Factors outside of the players' control will define their fate the rest of the way. 

    The landscape of the second half of Arizona's season, along with one change along the offensive line, will fortify the Cardinals' resurgence in the NFC West. 

Cardinal Defense Will Make the Difference

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    Arizona Cardinal defensive coordinator Ray Horton dialed up the pressure against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 8. It was relentless. 

    During the first half of the game, the Ravens couldn't get anything going. They were held to two field goals, one of which came after the Cardinals stopped the Ravens two yards out. Quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 94 yards and one interception in the first half.

    In the second half, the Ravens went to a no-huddle offense and were able to move the ball seemingly at will against the Cardinals' soft secondary. The momentum changed after the Ravens' first drive at the start of the third quarter, when Flacco led an 80-yard touchdown drive. The Ravens turned a 24-3 deficit into a 27-30 triumph. 

    Once Horton works with his front seven (there's little hope for the secondary at this point) on sustaining the pressure against a hurry-up offense, the Cardinals will be a dominant force on defense. That pressure will disrupt opposing offenses and allow Arizona to make plays on defense.  

    With Cardinals' quarterback banged up (foot), Arizona will have to keep the game close on defense. Horton has shown the know-how to get that done for the most part; he just needs to keep it going for all four quarters.  

    Horton's aggressive play-calling will be key in Arizona not waiving the white flag over the next couple of weeks.

Arizona's Schedule Is Soft

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    The combined record for the teams remaining on Arizona's schedule is 29-33—nothing special. 

    Other than San Francisco (six wins) and Cincinnati (five wins), no team on Arizona's remaining schedule has won more than three games. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who predicted either of those teams would be doing as well as they are right now. In other words, their wins have been fluky. And yes, that includes the San Francisco 49ers.

    Games against the 49ers, Cowboys and Eagles will prove to be the biggest challenges for the Cardinals. Those teams, however, are no better than the Baltimore Ravens, and the Cardinals should've beat the Ravens.

    The Cardinals will be able to stop the 49ers' one-trick-pony act of Frank Gore. And between the Eagles' inability to stop running back Beanie Wells and the pressure that will be applied to Michael Vick, the Cardinals should beat Philadelphia. 

    The toughest matchup on the schedule will be the Cowboys. Keep reading to find out why.

Arizona's Remaining Opponents Struggle in the Passing Game

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    It's no secret that the way you beat the Cardinals is through the air—Arizona ranks 30th against the pass. 

    The good news for Arizona, however, is that over the next nine games, seven opponents rank 20th or worse in passing yards. In Weeks 10 and 13, the Cardinals face the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys, respectively. The Eagles are ninth in passing yards and the Cowboys sit at seventh in the league. 

    Against the Eagles, Arizona's front seven will be able to hound quarterback Michael Vick. The blueprint has been drawn up for stopping Vick: apply pressure and he'll make mistakes. 

    Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo presents a more challenging matchup for the Cardinals, however. The Dallas pass catchers historically have shown good timing with Romo and are big, physical receivers. The Cardinals secondary has struggled against similar wideouts (Hakeem Nicks & Anquan Boldin). Week 13 will be their toughest matchup.  

    The fact that the Cardinals' remaining schedule is littered with some of the worst passing offenses, including the San Francisco 49ers, provides optimism that they will be able to win the majority of those games. The Cardinals secondary will not be tested as much as they have been, and the front seven will display their dominance as they did in the first half against the Ravens.

    The wins are coming.

Patrick Peterson and the Cardinals Special Teams Will Be Key in Reviving Season

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    Against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 8, Arizona rookie Patrick Peterson's punt return for a touchdown in the middle of the second quarter was the highlight of the game for the Cardinals.

    Other facets of Arizona's special teams are providing the Cardinals with the often overlooked but essential part of the game.

    The Cardinals have made solid open-field tackles on kickoffs and punt returns. Last week against the Ravens, Arizona held Chris Carr and Lardarius Webb to an average of 7.3 yards on three punt returns and held kick returner David Reed to an average of 21.3 yards on four kickoffs. 

    Not only does Arizona possess one of the most dangerous punt returners in the game in Peterson, LaRod Stephens-Howling gives the Cardinals a legitimate threat on kickoffs as well.  The Hyphen is averaging just under 25 yards per kick return this season.  

    Arizona's special teams kick started their momentum against the Ravens and will continue to do so in the coming weeks.

Arizona Needs to Overhaul the Offensive Line

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    The right tackle for Arizona that got beat on the play in the video was Jeremy Bridges. He replaced Brandon Keith during the game and didn't do much better. Obviously.

    Following the loss to Baltimore, quarterback Kevin Kolb said about his offensive line, "We need to do whatever we can as individuals to make sure we all get better in that area." Obviously.

    One obvious change that will help is replacing LT Levi Brown with D'Anthony Batiste. Batiste has good size at 6'4" 315 pounds and can't do much worse than Brown at protecting Kolb.

    The guys at Pro Football Focus have graded Brown out at dead last (73/73) among left tackles in the NFL in pass protection. Like I said, Batiste couldn't do any worse. 

    Head coach Ken Whisenhunt said, "I think when you're 1-6, you've got to look at anything." 

    The offensive line is the first thing for Whiz to look at. And the first player that needs to be replaced is Brown. That change would go a long way towards helping keep Kolb upright and getting a few more W's in the Cardinals' win column.

    This change on the offensive line, coupled with an attacking Arizona defense against mostly inept passing offenses on the slate of second half games, will have the Cardinals being contenders in the NFC West.