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At The Bye, Cardinals In A Good Place

Posted Nov 5, 2015

Analysis: There are things to improve against a harder schedule, but Arians gets solid start

Safety Tyrann Mathieu is one of the many reasons the Cardinals hit the bye week with a 6-2 record.

The Cardinals get their time off exactly halfway through the season. Leading the NFC West at 6-2, Bruce Arians’ team has had their hiccups, enough so that there has been more lamenting about the two losses that could have been wins rather than the wins themselves.

Part of that is the knowledge of what it to come – namely, a schedule that gets markedly harder over the final eight games of the year.

“I think we all understand that,” wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said.

The Cardinals have built a nice foundation, however. There are parts of the game that have to improve, without question. But their wins – even with the struggles against the Ravens and Browns – haven’t been that close. And the losses not only have been close, it’s easy for the Cardinals to look upon themselves as the culprit.

As Fitzgerald noted, it’s hard for the Cardinals to see the first half and be frustrated they are not 7-1 or 8-0.

“We’re capable of playing at a very high level,” coach Bruce Arians said. “When we don’t, we want answers and reasons. Sometimes, the guy on the other side is pretty damn good.”

With the players off until Tuesday before ramping up for the second half of the season, a look at the good and the concerning thus far:

GOOD: The Running Game

There hasn’t been a year – or a coach – that hasn’t started with the idea that the Cardinals’ run game has to be better. There were flashes in 2013 and then injury-related setbacks last year. But the Cards upgraded both the offensive line and the running backs, and look at what we have here … a pace for 2,000 yards rushing and a perfect component of the play-action.

GOOD: Carson Palmer

He came back sooner than expected in the summer. He was amazing in training camp. The veteran quarterback has been everything the Cards hoped their healthy signal-caller could be. He’s already thrown 20 touchdown passes and he’s averaging a stellar 9.2 yards per attempt, showcasing the effectiveness of the downfield passing game.

CONCERNING: Turnover flare-ups

The Cardinals have just 14 turnovers, so turnovers on their own aren’t a major problem. But 10 of them have come in just three games, including the two losses. Miraculously the Cardinals were winning despite a minus-four in the turnover department in Cleveland (they later shrunk the ratio to minus-two.) But they gave the ball away three times and took none in the two losses, and that frankly cost them their undefeated hopes.

GOOD: The secondary

It was supposed to be the strength of the defense and it has been. Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson are having bounceback seasons as promised. But Rashad Johnson continues to make smart interceptions and the group overall has done well.

CONCERNING: The four-man pass rush

Getting pressure on the quarterback has been an ongoing thing for this team. It’s not like the pass rush without a blitz never pressures the QB, but it hasn’t been as consistent as the Cardinals need it to be.

GOOD: One-year veterans

This is nothing new, but Chris Johnson has a chance to challenge Karlos Dansby as the king of Steve Keim’s one-year wonders. Johnson has been fantastic and is on pace to rush for more than 1,300 yards. But tight end Jermaine Gresham has contributed, linebacker Dwight Freeney came in late to give two sacks in three games, and even linebacker LaMarr Woodley has provided a steady outside presence with Markus Golden growing and Alex Okafor hurt.

CONCERNING: Lulls

Arians has talked about them. Players have talked about them. There really have been only a couple of true dead spots – the second half against the Steelers, and the first half against the Browns. The Cards survived the latter, they couldn’t survive the former. Extended lulls like those will cost them games against the teams they play the back half of the season.

GOOD: Red-zone efficiency

The Cardinals are converting 65.7 percent of their red-zone trips into touchdowns, good for fourth in the league. Yes, they bogged down in their two losses, but it has been a strength more than a weakness.

CONCERNING: Consistency punting the ball

Arians has backed Drew Butler every time he has been asked, but the Cardinals need more consistency out of the punting game and the coverage unit. Butler’s average (41.0) and net average (34.5) are both near the bottom of the league. Arians correctly pointed out Butler has been asked to kick shorter at times to pin a team inside the 20. But there are times when the punting could be better.

GOOD: Fitz and Smoke

Larry Fitzgerald said he was going to work on his legacy. He wasn’t wrong. Meanwhile, John “Smokey” Brown has become the receiver Palmer kept insisting he’d become.

GOOD: An NFC West lead

Yes, the Cardinals have lost a couple of games. But they are more than a game up on everyone in the division. And that’s a good place to be. 

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