One Advantage the Arizona Cardinals Have over Each NFC West Foe in 2012

Shaun Church@@NFLChurchContributor IJuly 30, 2012

Daryl Washington is a leader of one of the best young defenses in the NFL.
Daryl Washington is a leader of one of the best young defenses in the NFL.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

While highlighting one advantage the 2012 Arizona Cardinals have over each rival NFC West franchise, be sure to remember the word “victory,” because these advantages will lead to many of them this season.

Larry Fitzgerald—the most obvious advantage—will not be used by himself. He is too easy to fall back on, so instead we dig deeper to find the subtle advantages not many have yet accounted for.

There will be no trickeration here; these advantages are real and will lead to big things for Arizona in 2012.

San Francisco 49ers

Overall Defense

Yeah, I said it.

The San Francisco 49ers defense was incredibly opportunistic a year ago.

They totaled the second-best turnover margin since the 1970 merger—their plus-28 tying them with the 2010 New England Patriots.

Here is a chart highlighting the change in turnover margin for the four other top-five seasons:

  Top-Five Season Next Season TO Differential
WAS 43 (1983) 15 (1984) -28
NE 28 (2010) 17 (2011) -11
KC 26 (1990) 11 (1991) -15
NYG 25 (1997) 2 (1998) -23

There is a great chance this happens to Jim Harbaugh’s crew this season.

Though San Francisco had the NFL’s top turnover ratio last season, it also had one of the worst red zone offenses, scoring a touchdown on only 40.68 percent of trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line (via TeamRankings).

According to FootballOutsiders, they also led the NFL in average starting field position (a result of an NFL-leading 38 defensive takeaways).

Chances are, the defense won’t give quarterback Alex Smith a short field nearly as often as they did last season. If they cannot, the Cardinals could make life hard during their two 2012 matchups.

Arizona generated only 19 turnovers and gave it up 32 times for a minus-13 ratio—tied for 28th with the Pittsburgh Steelers. That should even out with the improved defensive play and (fingers crossed) better offensive play.

The defense was the NFL’s No. 2 unit at red zone touchdown percentage, however, surrendering “six” on just 39.66 percent of all attempts. They demonstrated their brilliance during last year’s Week 14 victory against the visiting 49ers.

After Cardinals turnovers, two of San Francisco’s drives began inside Arizona’s red zone, and all they could muster were two David Akers field goals. In total, four drives began inside Arizona territory. They scored just 16 points.

They scored only once after beginning a drive from their side of the field, a 27-yard Akers field goal in the second quarter.

Without the defensive turnovers, San Francisco will come back down to earth in 2012. Arizona will surpass them because of their own defense.

Seattle Seahawks

Pass Rush

The Seattle Seahawks struggled to get a consistent pass rush from the defense last season, getting to and taking down opposing quarterbacks 33 times. That total was good enough to tie them for 19th league-wide.

Their solution?

Drafting defensive end/outside linebacker Bruce Irvin at No. 15 overall.

The pick sends a message to the rest of the NFC West that Seattle is worried about its defense’s ability to create pressure as well as their division rivals did a year ago.

Even the lowly St. Louis Rams, winners of just two games in 2011, accumulated 39 sacks.

Arizona, on the other hand, finished seventh with 42 sacks and has two up-and-coming pass rushers—outside linebackers Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield.

2012 will be Acho and Schofield’s first season as full-time starters, a testament to the level of trust defensive coordinator Ray Horton has in the young men. Handing the keys to his high-octane pass-rushing machine to second- and third-year players cannot be done without such.

Acho recorded seven sacks while starting the final 10 games in place of veteran Joey Porter, while Schofield recorded 4.5 in nothing but rotation work. He backed up veteran Clark Haggans, who will now assume the backup role.

A typical 3-4 defense puts the brunt of the pass-rushing responsibility on the outside linebackers.

Horton’s 3-4 defense is not typical; the pass rush comes from everywhere.

That was evident last year, as Calais Campbell led all 3-4 defensive ends with nine sacks and Daryl Washington led all middle linebackers with five of his own.

Yes, the Cardinals pass rush is superior to Seattle’s, and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll made that obvious with his 2012 first-round pick.

Irvin would have been a reach even in the third round. In the middle of the first?

Actor Daniel von Bargen said it perfectly: Desperation is, indeed, a stinky cologne.

St. Louis Rams

Wide Receivers

St. Louis rented Brandon Lloyd from the Denver Broncos last season, and he left town the first chance he got. In 11 games with St. Louis, he tallied 51 receptions for 683 yards and five touchdowns.

Now he is gone and free-agent signee Steve Smith (formerly of the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles) is his replacement. That can’t do much to instill confidence in the fanbase.

He played in nine games during his only season in Philadelphia, catching 11 passes for 124 yards and one touchdown.

Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola are currently listed as the starters, and with not much experience or production from the two, the Rams drafted Brian Quick and Chris Givens in the second and fourth round of last April’s NFL draft, respectively.

That makes four receivers they have selected between the second and fourth rounds of the past two drafts.

St. Louis could have one of the more potent offenses if they spent money on a big-name wide receiver. If that does not happen, Sam Bradford could be one of the bigger busts in NFC West history. He needs help.

For the Cardinals, there is Larry, but it goes beyond that. Rookie Michael Floyd is an instant impact player on offense, and Andre Roberts and Early Doucet will be a good tandem from the slot.

It is possible Roberts remains the outside starter early on during the 2012 season, but he and Floyd could split time there depending on matchups (e.g. Floyd could start Week 1 to counter Seattle’s over-sized cornerbacks).

But they can be only as good as their quarterback. Whether it is Kevin Kolb or John Skelton doesn’t really matter. Whoever it is needs to produce.

Having been at the Cardinals’ annual Red and White scrimmage Saturday, I can tell you both still have a lot of work to do.

Kolb has done nothing to show he has any courage to stand in a pocket and go through a progression (he also fumbled a snap and threw a red zone interception); Skelton stood strong in the pocket but showed inaccuracy is still a concern.

Arizona’s receiving corps could be the best of the NFC West, and an undrafted rookie free agent, 6’4” LaRon Byrd out of Miami, could make it even better. He has impressed so far, and he also plays special teams.

If he makes the team, he would put the corps over the top, giving the Cardinals at least three receivers who stand 6’3” or taller—“at least” because they may carry six receivers and Stephen Williams stands at 6’5”.


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