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Opponent Overview: Arizona Cardinals

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Arizona Cardinals

Weighted 3 year record (50-30-20): 5-11

Weighted 3 year point differential: -68

Weighted 3 year offensive passing DVOA: -3.56%

Weighted 3 year offensive rushing DVOA: -23.05%

Weighted 3 year defensive passing DVOA: 6.53%

Weighted 3 year defensive rushing DVOA: -2.8% (negative being bad for an offense and good for a defense)

Football Outsiders Mean Projected Wins: 6.2

Offensive Philosophy: Rushing Centric Downfield Passing Attack

That's as much guess as declaration. Very few coaches have as little experience as Ken Whisenhunt. He also doesn't come from any specific coaching tree. His most obvious antecedent is Mike Mularkey, and like Mularkey Whisenhunt prefers a rush centric downfield passing attack. In each of Ben Roethlisberger's first two seasons he averaged 8.9 yards per attempt. To put that into perspective best spokesman on Earth Peyton Manning has only twice averaged more than 8 YPA. Whisenhunt isn't quite on par with Inspector Gadget when it comes to trick plays, but he certainly doesn't shy away from them either. Rather than true gadget plays, Whisenhunt uses lots of cretive run packages. Calling end arounds, direct snaps and two half back sets where either could run and the other work as a decoy.

It would seem that 2006 set those trends on their ear, as the Steelers passed more, ran less and, in general, sucked harder. That final component somewhat explains the first two. In the first four contests of 2006 (1-3), the Steelers (not counting quarterback scrambles) passed on 56.2% of all plays. In the final four (3-1, all three wins were blowouts) they passed on just 42% of all plays (again not counting QB scrambles). Whisenhunt prefers to run, but in the absence of a viable second running back will throw. Monday's contest against the 49ers showed both his tendencies and the Cardinals limitations. He ran on 53% of all plays despite playing from behind for most of the contest. Edgerrin James received the brunt of the load, 26 of 32 carries, but receiver Anquan Boldin tallied a direct snap rush and J.J. Arrington saw four caries. Boldin has some ability as a passer and that dual threat allowed him to scramble for 14 yards, but Arrington was completely ineffective, garnering 6 yards total. Arrington will continue to get looks as the rushing back in shotgun formations, but if he continues to be ineffective, Whisenhunt will likely resort to relying almost solely on James, much as he relied on Parker in 2006, a burden that could be debilitating for the older than his years rusher.

One thing that didn't change much in 2006 is Whisenhunt's preference for four WR sets and disdain for three WR sets. That might be a problem in Arizona, where the team features one of the better third WRs in football, Bryant Johnson, and essentially no 4th WR. The Cards made no effort in free agency to acquire a fourth WR and selected only Steve Breaston in the draft. Breaston is a returner/trick play specialist and has a very slim chance of ever being a viable wide receiver in anything but the most limited capacity. In Monday's matchup against the 49ers, Matt Leinart average just 3.64 YPA and threw two picks. That's a performance poor enough and by a quarterback promising enough to outstrip mere growing pains. It could be simply that poor talent acquisition during the offseason has left Whizzie without the weapons he needs to make his offense work. It wouldn't be the first time that general manager Rod Graves had poisoned the well for a genius-reputation offensive minded head coach.

Defensive Philosophy: A Mess (Hybrid 3-4/4-3)

One day someone will effectively create a hybrid defense. Until that day, teams that employ hybrid defensive schemes, lacking the proper talent to effectively do either; I will call these schemes what they are--A mess. The problem lies in both formations different but demanding needs. A 4-3 needs faster defensive linemen who can rush the passer and take on blockers. The linebackers in a 4-3 can be smaller and quicker. A 3-4 requires three massive linemen that must attempt to occupy the opposition's 5 down linemen. Having only three down linemen puts an emphasis on larger, more physical linebackers who can shed blockers. A mishmash of the two tends to create a unit that can't rush the passer because of plodding defensive linemen, can't stop the run because of smaller linebackers who are incapable of shedding blockers.

Given the Cardinals current personnel, a 3-4 would likely make more sense. Gabe Watson and Alan Branch supply the muscle up front and Bertrand Berry and Karlos Dansby could anchor the physical, larger than average linebacker corps. It's not a scheme that can be expected to generate a ton of pass rush, but it could easily be better than average at stopping the run--and that's a start. Further, both Berry and especially Dansby are skilled pass rushers, though Berry's best days are behind him, who have the fast first step and pass rushing lane awareness to fly to the quarterback from the second level.

If someone could make Whisenhunt's dodo fly, it's Clancy Pendergast. Pendergast is a versatile, well respected defensive coordinator who's had some very suspect talent to work with. Pendergast is the sort of controlled creative that takes new ideas and makes functional schemes out of them. For the past three years Pendergast's defenses have looked on the verge of breaking out, but each offseason the players beginning to emerge get older and little talent is added. Blame Rod Graves for that, the largely ignored villain of Arizona athletics. Graves is one of the worst GMs in professional sports. His laziness, deference to coaches, and talent acquisition (or lack thereof) has largely escaped scrutiny, perhaps because Arizona is no mans land in the sports scene, but have taken their tole on the Arizona Cardinals. Despite a top five pick in each of the first three rounds in this last draft, and six picks total entering draft weekend, the Cardinals, a team that could start the second stringers of most NFL teams at easily a half dozen different positions, produced only two starters and a special teams player. Graves firing or resignation will be the Cards first true step towards respectability.

Pendergast adapts his schemes to his opponent. He famously created a five man front when facing Michael Vick in 2004, though Vick still rushed for 68 yards his Falcons only scored six points. This week we should expect a heavy dose of linebacker blitzes. The Hawks feature poor blitz pickup and receiving from their backfield corps. Berry and Dansby are both better than average blitzers and after losing Chike Okeafor for the year, it's hard to see Arizona generating pass rush without sending additional men. It wouldn't be too surprising to see Roderic Hood and Eric Green working in short zone coverage in an attempt to take away the slant, drag and short crossing routes endemic to the Walsh offense.

Key Additions:

Alan Branch: I was critical of the Cardinals trading up to acquire Branch, not just because I'm wary of players that fall as far as he did without being injured or arrested, but because I did not think that The Cardinals had the luxury to move draft picks. With that said, Branch should be another big body to plug the middle and stifle the rushing game. He received nothing but praise during camps, a real positive for a player who was known to loaf in college, but, otherwise, the jury is still out on a player once thought to be an elite, three-technique defensive tackle talent.

Levi Brown: Brown is a right tackle, better known for his run-blocking prowess than pass blocking. Because Matt Leinart is left-handed, Brown is functionally a left tackle.

Terrence Holt: Holt is more noteworthy for who he replaces, former free safety Robert Griffith. Griffith is positively ancient in NFL years, 37, added little to the pass defense and was a cipher in run support. Holt is a considerably better run stopper, but, also, a considerably worse model.

Roderick Hood: Once thought of as a true up and coming corner, he was relegated to nickel duties for the Eagles in 2006. Hood is a competent cover corner that may be exposed without elite cover safety Brian Dawkins. Hood offers nothing in run support.

Key Loss:

Leonard Davis: Davis signed a 49.6 million dollar contract with the Dallas Cowboys after proving to be a truly rotten left tackle for Arizona. Further proof that Jerry Jones liver spots have taken hold of his brain.