Arizona Cardinals: What Cards Can Take to Philadelphia from Rams Win

Luke Bunger@LukeHBCardsCorrespondent IIINovember 12, 2011

Arizona Cardinals: What Cards Can Take to Philadelphia from Rams Win

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    In the battle to claw themselves out of the NFC West basement, the Arizona Cardinals beat the St. Louis Rams in a nail-biting, if ugly, game, which went to overtime.

    The final score—13-19—tells nothing about how odd this game really was.

    When you see a score like 13, you think one touchdown and two field goals (or two touchdowns and a failed two point conversion), not three field goals and two safeties, yet that is nonetheless how the Rams reached 13.

    The Cardinals win came thanks to a Patrick Peterson 99-yard punt return for a touchdown.

    The game was the very definition of an ugly, arguably undeserved win, but it is a win nonetheless.

    Win or lose, however, as the Cardinals prepare to face the Philadelphia Eagles there is always a lot they can learn from the Rams game—this Cardinals team is definitely one in transition, one which needs to find its identity, and one which will need to make a great number of changes, both procedurally and in terms of personnel if they intend to succeed in the future.

    So, what lessons should the Cardinals take with them to Philly? Join me as we take a look.

The Arizona Cardinals Defense Can Play an Entire Four Quarters of Football.

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    One of the Cardinals' major disappointments this season has been consistency. The Cardinals have lost far too many games by far too close a margin, and thrown away far too many leads because they were unable to maintain the level of focus, concentration and energy required throughout all four quarters.

    The Cardinals defense has looked spectacular at times. Sometimes, like the first half against the Ravens, they have looked practically unstoppable. However, they have appeared unable to maintain this for more than a few drives. A quarter here, a drive there, the Cardinals have excelled, and then something changes.

    At some point in every game—and there isn't an easy way to define when, or why, it will happen—the Cards' D just falls apart.

    The Cardinals are not alone in this. The Eagles have been known to beat themselves in the second half, committing many of the same errors which have marred the Cardinals' season. The winner between the Cardinals and Eagles may very well come down to which defence maintains focus longest.

    Both teams have been known to give up stupid penalties, allow their coverage to become soft, their play calling predictable and the players just lose focus and heart. They allow teams back into games when they should be closing the door firmly in their faces.

    Most worryingly for Cardinals fans, however, is they do so at times which put their opponents into scoring range. On third and 20 they will find ways to give up penalties which take the team into field goal range, or after a great goal line stand, they'll fall apart and allow easy walk-in touchdowns.

    Perhaps it's to do with conditioning, and the truncated preseason—though it's hard to imagine John Lott allowing any of his players to slack off. Perhaps it's the young core of players, like Patrick Peterson, A.J. Jefferson, Dan Williams, Daryl Washington and Sam Acho who are just not quite ready to play a full game at NFL tempo yet. Perhaps it's first year jitters for new defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Whatever it is, thought against the Rams, the Cardinals managed to overcome it.

    They were not spectacular, and gave up a significant chunk of yards both on the ground, through the air, as well as the ubiquitous penalties, but significantly, they came up big when it really mattered, preventing touchdowns, and unnecessary field goals, and forcing punts.

    They will need to build on this against the Eagles.

    They put Sam Bradford in the turf often, and managed to stop Steven Jackson from making positive gains, especially on third and fourth and short, and kept the Cardinals within touching distance of the win.

    However, Eagles QB Michael Vick is nothing if not elusive. Sacks will be harder to come by against a passer who is arguably even more devastating with his feet. While the Eagles O-line is as soft as the Cardinals own, and the Cardinals should face little difficulty rushing the passer, Michael Vick will prove a much more difficult target to chase down than Bradford was.

    Though he has taken his fair share of licks this season, it remains to be seen if the Cardinals young pass rushers, which appear to be lacking an elite, veteran pass rusher, will be able to come up trumps against the quick footed quarterback. 

    The win against the Rams was hardly a defensive masterclass, especially against an offense as suspect as their own, but, significantly, they were consistent throughout four quarters, and into overtime, which has been sorely lacking to this point.

    The Cardinals defense should take heart from this, and attempt to improve still further against a much more potent Eagles offense.

The Cardinals Special Teams Unit Is Something Special

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    They blocked a field goal to take the game into overtime.

    They returned a punt for 99 yards and a touchdown to win the game.

    For the third time this season, Patrick Peterson ran back a punt for a touchdown. Traditional wisdom says you don't field a punt inside the 10, but when you're Patrick Peterson, and your team has already given up two safeties resulting from balls downed inside the 10, traditional wisdom doesn't apply.

    Peterson may still have a lot to learn (more on that in the next slide) but his punt returning abilities are, frankly, unbelievable. Not for the first time this season, Peterson shrugged off multiple tackles—four by my count—that would have, and should have, taken down lesser players.

    With the ball in his hand, Peterson is devastating to the opposition.

    LaRod Stephens-Howling, the Cardinals kick return ace, also appears to be only one additional block away from being able to do the same on kick returns, and will look to do some damage against the Eagles if he is able to start.

    And then there is Calais Campbell. The guy is a beast, pure and simple, and the Cardinals need lock him up to a long term contract soon, or face the consequences.

    Forgetting for a moment his 1.5 sacks and six tackles, including two for a loss against the Rams, out of every player on the field, Campbell may be the one most responsible for the win.

    Sure, Patrick Peterson ran back the TD, but he also committed the pass interference penalty in the dying seconds of regulation, which took the Rams into field goal range, and forced Campbell to make his spectacular field goal block.

Patrick Peterson and Others Can Devastate Teams, Especially the Cardinals

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    Patrick Peterson is a beast, especially on special teams. Through just eight starts, he already has three punt returns for touchdowns. He has two interceptions too. 

    His speed and closing ability can only be described as elite, as demonstrated on his interception against the Rams, where, although well beat, he managed to chase down Brandon Lloyd—himself hardly a slouch—and cut off the ball as though the pass was intended for him.

    On the whole, he managed to keep Lloyd in check pretty well, and although his coverage skills are not yet elite, he shows all of the potential to dominate in the NFL for years to come.

    But what he gives the Cardinals with one hand, he takes away with the other. Because Peterson cannot help but put his hands on receivers, and give up penalties at the most inopportune times, often when there is no need to do so.

    Matched up against either DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin, Peterson should be serviceable, but not if he isn't able to reign in his sloppy, bad habits in pass coverage.

    I agree that a pass interference penalty is preferable to a touchdown. Sometimes you just need to take the flag to save the score and and give your team another few chances to make that big stop. But for a player with the speed and catching ability of Peterson, there is no good reason for him to lay hands on receivers anywhere near as often as he does.

    The Cardinals clearly trust Peterson's ability to catch the ball, at one point sending him out on offense either as a back or wide-receiver—It wasn't completely clear which, as the play never saw the light of day due to no shortage of confusion—but in coverage, Peterson seems less likely to go for the pick than to put his hands on his opponent and draw a penalty.

    Giving up the penalties is only part of the story, the bigger problem is that he appears unable to stop himself from doing so at huge, pivotal moments in the game. He did so against the Rams, for example, on third-and-six at the Cardinals' 37, with just a few seconds to play in the game. A stop, or even a completion wrapped up behind the first down marker, would have left the Cardinals in a position right at the very outer reaches of any kickers range.

    He had no reason to touch Brandon Lloyd, he could have knocked down the ball without giving up the penalty, but instead, he gave the Rams a few much needed yards, and a chance to pick up still more on the ensuing play. Fortunately the kick was still blocked, but—let's be honest—this sort of thing is becoming altogether too familiar to Cardinals fans.

    Against an Eagles team who, while hardly performing like the dream team they were billed as, are nonetheless more potent on offense than the Rams, this sort of thing will lose the game for the Cardinals. Giving the Eagles offense extra yards and additional chances to pull off that big play—because they are full of big play potential—is pretty much the same as chalking up another one in the L column before you start.

    He is certainly not alone. A.J. Jefferson has given up his fair share of penalties, as have numerous others on the Cardinals defensive line.

    Michael Adams, who played in place of Jefferson, looked better, at least in terms of not giving up additional yards on penalties, but the Cardinals are still amongst the most penalised teams in the league, and they need to sort this out if they want to win on a more consistent basis, starting with the Eagles.

The Cardinals Offense Needs to Step Up.

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    Yes, Larry Fitzgerald managed to get his first touchdown catch in four games. Yes Andre Roberts and Early Doucet appeared a little more confident in their route running and pass catching. But we would be kidding ourselves to believe that this was in any way a major offensive improvement.

    Beanie Wells—who appeared, at best, about 70 percent healthy against the Rams, and looks likely to be only at about the same level this week—was effectively useless, as were the backup rushers.

    The Cardinals are clearly missing natural pass catching tight ends Rob Housler and Todd Heap, who though active was still visibly limited by the injury which has kept him out of previous games, and are in a great deal of trouble at running back when Wells is not 100-percent, an unfortunate reality which the Cardinals will have to get used to, given that his knee injury is likely to continue to limit him throughout the season.

    The problems start with the Cardinals O-Line, which is an absolute joke.The Rams, who can hardly be considered a defensive powerhouse, managed to sack Skelton three times, and had another in all but name—it is recorded on the stats sheet as intentional grounding, but the result was the same, a safety.

    On those occasions where the quarterback was able to escape the pressure and make a pass, they are altogether too often tipped, dropped or worse. Although Skelton managed to avoid throwing any picks against the Rams, don't read too much into it. The Rams had several of chances to do so, and only luck, not judgement, prevented the Cards from giving up a couple.

    The Eagles defense has been abysmal this season, so the Rams are a fair benchmark, but, given the Eagles ability to put up points the Cardinals offense will need to really step up if it is to prevent a whitewash. 

    Even the usually sure handed Larry Fitzgerald was not able to capitalise on his chances. In spite of being targeted a dozen times, Fitz was able to haul in just four passes for 42 yards and one TD—hardly the stats he is used to.

    Yes, some of the passes were wayward, yes some were practically uncatchable, but that's Fitzgerald's bread and butter. He made his name hauling in seemingly impossible grabs, in double and triple coverage, and even Firtzgerald appears to be performing well under par at present.

    Against an Eagles team which can hurt teams on offence if given half a chance, the Cardinals own offense will need to take each and every chance it is given if they hope to lead their team to only their third win of the season, and keep hopes of a .500 season alive.

    The Eagles are giving up plenty of points this season, so this could be a shootout, but given the Cardinals difficulties putting up points on offense, we need to see a big improvement here.

John Skelton May Have Eventually Developed into the a Starter If Not for Kolb.

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    John Skelton won, and as I predicted, in spite of a below average performance, fans and speculators are now calling for him to be given the starters position ahead of Kevin Kolb.

    Coach Ken Whisenhunt added fuel to the fire. “He was poised,” Whisenhunt was quoted as saying “I think that was the most important thing today. He’ll get even better with more time.”

    While hardly guaranteeing future starts for Skelton, the implication was clear. The Cardinals are not ruling him out as their future starter, potentially as early as this week, if Kolb is not available. Although Whisenhunt has all but confirmed that Kolb will not back up Skelton if fit, this appeared on the Cards for a while.

    I like Skelton a lot, and would have preferred if the Cardinals had brought in an older QB than Kolb to mentor him for a year or so and allow him to develop. However, the Cardinals gave up a second round pick, and the talented corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in order to get Kevin Kolb, and they cannot, and should not give up on him yet, especially on the basis of Skelton's performance against the Rams.

    There was quite a lot which Skelton did well. He threw a nice TD pass to Fitzgerald. He managed not to throw any picks. He got the ball out of his hands, and completed some nice check-down passes rather than waiting for plays to develop. Most of all, however, he stood tall in the pocket and ran only when he could see a lane, rather than at the slightest indication of pressure. When he did run, he ran for big gains, but when he set his feet and picked his target, he generally threw the ball pretty well.

    When you put it like that, it's hard to see why he isn't already starter in stead of Kolb.

    But he also gave up two safeties on back-to-back plays, was dropped behind the line three times for a loss of 30 yards total, and fumbled the ball for a huge loss on one of those sacks. Although he completed 57 percent of his passes, for 222 yards, respectable, but hardly staggering numbers, the vast majority of those completions came on a single touchdown drive.

    Although he looked on a par with Sam Bradford, a player picked 154 picks ahead of him, who has played many more games than him, importantly, he looked, overall, no better than Kolb has been to this point in the season.

    If the Cardinals had not given up so much for Kolb, my suggestion would be to start Skelton, and give him chance to see how he develops, but I have to believe that the Cardinals scouts and coaches had seen something in Kevin Kolb which we, the fans, have yet to see.

    The Cardinals were clear. Kolb is not a project, he is the real deal, here and now. They gave up as much as they did for him because they believed that he could lead them to victory this season. I have to believe that Kolb has still not shown us his best, that the first half against the Ravens was not a fluke, and the second half fell apart because of his injury, not because he can't do it.

    So while I maintain that Skelton has the skill to become the Cardinals starter, right now, I'm hoping he won't be given that chance. And I hate myself for saying that. I want Skelton to succeed. I want him to be the real deal. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy. But I have to hope that there is something about Kolb, something special that the other players and coaches know he can do that just hasn't quite materialised yet.

    I have to hope, that against his former team Kolb can pull off something special, and prove to the coaches, his teammates, and the fans why the Cardinals paid the big bucks for him.

    I have to hope, and choose to believe, that the excuses made about Kolb are legitimate, and that he is struggling because of other factors which he eventually can, and will, overcome.

    If Kolb cannot do it, I have faith that Skelton eventually will, but if that is the case, Cardinals fans, be warned. On the basis of his last performance, it's going to be a few more long years before we see John Skelton winning on a regular basis, and leading our team to Super Bowl victory. 

Jay Feely and Dave Zastudil Have Found Their Stride.

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    If the Cardinals are having trouble putting up points through the air and on the ground, and giving up way too many yards on defense, it's nice to know that their kickers and punters still give them a chance.

    At first, both Feely—who had been pretty special last year—and Zastudil—who came in as a free agent in preseason—both looked shaky. The usually sure footed Feely missed three out of four attempts across the first three games, and lead many to question his reliability. Fortunately, however, Feely has now made each and every one the following seven attempts, including kicks from 27 and 38 against the Rams.

    Zastudil too, has looked much improved in recent games. Many fans were confused about why the Cardinals dropped Ben Graham, an expert at dropping the ball inside the 10, for Zastudil, who appeared to be little more than average at anything.

    Against the Rams, both men earned their salt.

    I like Ben Graham, and, when in range, few could match his abilities. He was the master of the coffin corner, and the downed punt at the one or two.

    However, on punts from further back, punts likely to be fielded, Graham was less than stellar. His hang time was not fantastic, and his punts were returned a little too far for Whisenhunt's liking. Given the Cardinals ineffective offense, and inability to move the ball, a punter who could help dig them out of holes was a must.

    At first Zastudil did not appear to be that man, but, against the Rams he showed everyone what the Cardinals hoped he could be, and his deep punts helped keep the Rams out of scoring range, and helped keep the Cardinals in the game.

    Expect more of the same against the Eagles.

Summary: In Spite of Positive Strides, Cardinals Still Underdogs vs Eagles.

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    The last time the Cardinals faced the Philadelphia Eagles, both teams were fighting for an NFC Championship and a place in the Super Bowl.

    In 2011, following one of the biggest trades of the offseason, between the two, both teams were tipped as contenders to at least make a run at the playoffs once more.

    Today, with the Eagles at 3-5 and the Cardinals at 2-6, both teams have little more to play for than pride. 

    Though there were some improvements seen during the Cardinals win against the Rams, to say that the Cardinals enter the Eagles game as anything other than underdogs is the height of optimism.

    Though the Eagles are struggling, the Cardinals have been playing much worse to this point.

    The Cardinals are struggling with injuries on both sides of the ball, especially at tight end, where both Rob Housler and Todd Heap are struggling with injuries, and in their rushing game with Beanie Wells, LaRod Stephens-Howling and fullback limited by ongoing injury concerns.

    Former Eagles backup and Cardinals defacto starter Kolb, who will undoubtedly be exceptionally motivated this week has not managed to practice all week and, although questionable, seems unlikely to have the breakout game many had hoped for, even if the does get the nod.

    Although the Eagles defense is almost as porous as the Cardinals own, the Cardinals offense will need to play at a level equal to or better than the best it has managed this season if it is to hope to outgun the eagles.  

    The Cardinals secondary is still a work in progress, and, following the loss of safety Kerry Rhodes, who is out of the game with a foot injury, needs to make huge strides if it hopes to contain the pass-happy Eagles offense.

    All in all, while a win is far from impossible against an Eagles team itself shook up by injury, and coming off a disappointing loss, the Cardinals will need to dig deep within themselves, and build upon the foundation laid in the win against the Rams, if they hope to win this game, or at least give the Eagles a run for their money.