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Patrick Peterson's Cardinals have already suffered some big personnel losses on defense
The Cardinals’ goal this year is simple but also extraordinary: Become the first team in NFL history to turn the Super Bowl into a home game. Super Bowl XLIX will be played Feb. 1 in University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, and the Cardinals believe they’ve put together a team that can topple the pecking order in the NFC.
That’s a tough task given that they’re in the same division as the two best teams in the conference, Seattle and San Francisco. But there’s no question that Arizona is trending in the right direction under second-year coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim.
Keim has proven to be an astute judge of talent both in the draft and free agency, and Arians, who likes to think of himself as the “cool uncle,” has the players’ trust and respect.
It was the Cardinals’ bad luck last season to finish 10–6 and not make the playoffs while Green Bay finished 8–7–1 and hosted a playoff game. Maybe the football gods owe Arizona one this season. Like, say, a home game in February.
It all begins, or ends, with quarterback Carson Palmer. There are times when Palmer looks like he’s color-blind — he threw 22 interceptions in 2013 — but he’s tough, and he throws a great deep ball, a prerequisite in Arians’ offense. It’s too late for Palmer, 34, to again be an elite quarterback in the league, but he can be effective. The key is to avoid too many games like he had against Seattle last year, when he completed just 13-of-25 passes and was intercepted four times. The Cardinals accept that Palmer is going to have an off Sunday or two — he has so much confidence in his arm that he sometimes forces throws, leading to picks. But as long as the good outweighs the bad, the team can live with the inconsistency.
Palmer should have a cleaner pocket from which to operate — he was sacked 41 times last season — because the Cardinals have dramatically upgraded their offensive line, particularly on the left side. Left tackle has been a problem spot for years, but the Cardinals signed free agent Jared Veldheer to a five-year deal after the Raiders inexplicably didn’t franchise tag the 27-year-old. Jonathan Cooper, the team’s top pick last year and the seventh overall selection, will be plugged into the left guard spot after missing all of last season with a broken leg. He has Pro Bowl potential. If there’s a question mark up front, it’s at right tackle, where the Cardinals don’t have a ready replacement for Eric Winston.
Like many teams, the Cardinals have gone to a committee at running back, and they have an ideal combo in second-year pros Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor. Ellington was a revelation as a rookie. He’s a home-run hitter — the best comparison is a younger version of Darren Sproles — who averaged 5.5 yards per rush and has the potential to wow you every time he touches the ball. But, at 5'9" and 199 pounds, Ellington can’t handle a heavy workload. That’s where Taylor comes in. The Stanford product is a more effective inside rusher, and he’ll allow the Cardinals to limit Ellington’s carries to 15 or so per game.
The running game will serve as an appetizer to Arians’ love for the deep passing game. Don’t be surprised if this is the year Michael Floyd supplants Larry Fitzgerald as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Floyd had more receiving yards (1,041) than Fitzgerald (954) last year. Fitzgerald, who will turn 31 in late August, is simply not as dominant as he once was. The Cardinals needed a third receiver after losing Andre Roberts to Washington, and they filled the void by signing Ted Ginn, who had 36 catches and five touchdowns last year with Carolina.
When at full strength, the Cardinals have one of the best defenses in the NFL. They ranked sixth in total defense last year, first in rushing defense and allowed just 20.3 points per game. Unfortunately, injuries and other circumstances have already significantly impacted this unit's depth chart.
The biggest blow came on Aug. 18 when veteran defensive end Darnell Dockett tore the ACL in his right knee during a training camp practice. Dockett enjoyed a bounce-back year under coordinator Todd Bowles last season. Now even more of the burden will fall on fellow end Calais Campbell, who plays at a Pro Bowl level, even if he is snubbed by the voters every year. Nose tackle Dan Williams likely will never live up to his draft position (26th pick overall in 2010), but he’s become an effective player who can disrupt the inside running game. The team also added veteran defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga on a one-year deal to take Dockett's roster spot.
If there’s a concern defensively, it’s at linebacker. Karlos Dansby was the team’s best player last year, but he left for bigger dollars in Cleveland. Inside linebacker Daryl Washington was expected to anchor the defense in Dansby's absence, but he has been suspended for all of 2014 for another violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Additionally, fellow veteran John Abraham, who led the team with 11.5 sacks in 2013, could be facing league discipline stemming from a DUI incident in June. Arizona does have 2013 second-round pick Kevin Minter waiting in the wings, but he's dealing with a strained pectoral muscle. The bottom line is that more than one player will have to step up in order for this group to be effective.
If there is a silver lining for this defense, it's in the secondary. Arizona has two shutdown corners in Patrick Peterson and free-agent signee Antonio Cromartie and a dynamic playmaking free safety in Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu likely will miss most of training camp as he recovers from knee surgery, but Arizona expects him back early in the season. Peterson, a first-team All-Pro last season, signed a five-year, $70 million ($48 million guaranteed) contract extension in late July that made him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL.
The Cardinals addressed their glaring need for a big, physical strong safety with the first-round selection of Deone Bucannon. Tight ends killed the team last year, but Arizona believes the 6'1", 208-pound Bucannon can limit that damage and, over time, become the reincarnation of Adrian Wilson.
The Cardinals should have one of the best special teams units in the NFL. The only question mark enterting the season is at placekicker. Despite connecting on 30 of 36 field goal attempts last season, Arizona cut veteran Jay Feely near the end of training camp. That leaves the kicking duties to undrafted rookie Chandler Cantanzaro, who was one of college football's most productive kicker during his tenure at Clemson. Punter Dave Zastudil is one of the best in the business at placing the ball inside the 20, and gunner Justin Bethel made the Pro Bowl last year for his coverage skills. The big offseason addition was Ginn, who will replace Peterson on punt returns and give Arizona some much-needed explosiveness on kick returns. Ginn averaged 12.2 yards per punt return and 23.8 yards per kick return in 2013.
If they were in any other division and they were completely healthy, the Cardinals would be considered a sure-fire playoff team. At full strength, they have one of the best defenses in the NFL, their offense should benefit from the upgraded offensive line, and Palmer should be more effective now that he’s had a season to digest Arians’ offensive system. But, of course, the Cardinals reside in the NFC West, home of the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and much-improved St. Louis Rams. That combined with the personnel losses on defense have made what was already a tough road to the postseason that much more difficult. It’s hard to imagine these Cardinals being able to take that next step and supplant both the Seahawks and 49ers — unless both those teams suffer an important long-term injury of their own. Arizona's best option would be to earn one of the Wild Card berths, but remember the Cardinals went 10-6 last season and didn't get in.