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Balancing Act

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The Cardinals have been able to find more of a balance with the pass (with Larry Fitzgerald, left) and run (with Edgerrin James, right) in the playoffs.

The play was one of the more popular of the win over Carolina, the 41-yard bomb from Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald that jump-started the Cardinals' first scoring drive.

But it might not have been available without Warner's fake toss, a piece of play-action that the Cardinals hadn't been able to use much late in the season – not when opponents had no reason to expect the Cards to run.

"That's the deadliest weapon you can have, the threat of the run," fullback Terrelle Smith said, opening up the "smorgasbord" of the Cards' playbook.

Much has been made of the Cardinals' ability to run in the playoffs, after a season

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in which they didn't seem to have much success. For the Cards, however, offensive balance doesn't always translate into raw numbers.

And it is balance which they seek.

"If you are just calling runs to call runs and you are getting nothing, just the fact you ran it doesn't mean much," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. "You have to be able to do it successfully, or for a profit anyway. You have to run it successfully when they are playing pass, but you have to be able to do it a little when they are playing run."

Haley said it only took a few games to mess with the numbers, he said, and change the view of the team.

After the first three games of the season, in fact, the Cards had averaged 31 rushing attempts for 102 rushing yards. But then came the blowout in New York, when the Cards fell behind the Jets, 34-0, at halftime and were forced to pass in the second half.

The Cards went back to the run the next two games in wins over Buffalo and Dallas (53 attempts) before playing in Carolina, where the Panthers stacked the line against the run and the Cards weren't even sure on the plane ride there if they would even have a single healthy tight end.

Then there were the bad losses late in the season that piled on the problem.

"When every time you give the ball up, no matter how you give it up, if you are down another touchdown, there's nothing you can do," Haley said. "Unless you say 'Screw it, we don't care if we win or not' and run it every down. That's never been our mentality.

"There are a lot of variables and circumstances that put us where we were. There were games that skewed it. …  Add in the New England game, the Minnesota game, the Philly game, how are you going to make it up?"

The Cardinals didn't. The Cards went 9-1 in games in which they ran the ball at least 19 times, a record that bulges to 11-1 including the two playoff games. In the other six games – all losses – the Cards didn't have more than 15 attempts in any one game.

"There was a point where maybe we were having too many passes called," guard Reggie Wells said. "We knew we could do it. It was just a matter of getting the runs called."

FOX analyst and former quarterback Troy Aikman noted the Cardinals aren't necessarily running the ball better now as much as making the effort to run it. That, he said, is partially because the defense has improved its play and kept the Cards in games.

Putting Edgerrin James into the lineup to replace struggling rookie Tim Hightower also helped.

"We never really ran the ball bad," Smith said. "It's just the fact we didn't do it. That's the reason things are working the way they are. Basically, that's the bottom line."

Haley isn't about to boast that the Cardinals have turned into the Giants on the ground. The Cards did run 43 times for 145 yards against the Panthers, but that was in a second half in which the main goal was to grind the clock rather than score points.

Balance, James said, forces defenders to pause – if only for a moment. That moment is enough to allow James to find a crease to run through. Or for Larry Fitzgerald to beat his man deep.

"It gives us a chance," James said, "to make defenses pick their poison."


Contact Darren Urban at askdarren@cardinals.nfl.net. Posted 1/16/09.

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