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Cardinals' Offensive Line Paving The Way

Skill players' gaudy numbers helped by work of teammates in the trenches

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Guard Mike Iupati (left) and tackle Jared Veldheer protect quarterback Carson Palmer against the Eagles.



Carson Palmer was asked how it felt to be voted into the Pro Bowl on Wednesday, and spent precisely one word responding to that question.

"Great," the Cardinals quarterback said.

The rest of his answer shifted the focus to his offensive line. For the second straight week at his Wednesday press conference, Palmer made a case that the unit deserves more recognition. Guard Mike Iupati was another one of the Cardinals' seven Pro Bowl representatives, but Palmer felt center Lyle Sendlein, left tackle Jared Veldheer and right tackle Bobby Massie also played well enough to be in the conversation.

"I was a little shocked we didn't have another offensive lineman in it," Palmer said. "It's obviously an honor, and all of our guys are honored, but I was hoping to see Lyle or Bobby or Jared. Those guys played phenomenal this year and the way we ran the ball and the way we've protected, that was the only disappointing thing in (the Pro Bowl results)."

The Cardinals' offensive line has dealt with injuries and personnel changes throughout the year, but as the regular season winds down and the playoffs beckon, it seems to be peaking.

Rookie running back David Johnson impressed in his 187-yard, three-touchdown performance on Sunday night against the Eagles, but it was also impossible to ignore the running lanes he was given. There were times that the offensive front pushed the Eagles defense two or three yards beyond the line of scrimmage as Johnson was getting handed the ball.

"We just kicked their (expletive) up front," Massie said. "There was nothing they could do. They couldn't stop us. They knew what plays were coming."

While the Cardinals passing game gets its deserved due for the offensive explosion this year, the running game has also played a big part. After averaging a league-low 3.3 yards per rush in 2014, that number is up to 4.3 this year. The team has a deep stable of running backs, but it's the blocking which seems to be the catalyst.

Analytics site Pro Football Focus has graded the Cardinals as the second-best run-blocking group in the NFL behind only the Eagles and one spot ahead of the lauded Cowboys' line. The only starting offensive lineman with a negative run-blocking grade is guard Ted Larsen.

"When you're able to have that type of success in the run game, it's awesome," Veldheer said. "It takes all the guys working cohesively to move guys at the line of scrimmage."

The pass-blocking doesn't get graded favorably by Pro Football Focus, but when it comes to sacks, the Cardinals have only allowed 23 – the fifth-fewest in the NFL. The overall numbers look good already, and the upshot is that the group has improved as the season has gone on.

Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin is usually quick to harp on mistakes but was quite satisfied with the caliber of play in the blowout of the Eagles. He said the group's cohesiveness has grown as the players gather more experience together.

"You're getting late in the year," Goodwin said. "We've had a lot of time to work together now, and the sense of urgency is sky-high for everybody. … Guys can see the end of the tunnel a little bit."

Iupati missed the first three games with a knee injury but has been dominant when healthy. Veldheer didn't make the Pro Bowl at a stacked position but is still a key piece protecting Palmer's blindside. Massie has had some protection issues but still earned high praise from Palmer, who said the pending free agent "should be the top tackle on the market."

The Cardinals have a quarterback playing at an MVP level, an emerging star at running back and arguably the deepest wide receiver corps in the NFL. If the offensive line continues to keep Palmer protected and open up running lanes, it seems no defense in the league can slow this offense down.

"If we don't score 70 points, then it's like, 'Man, we left some stuff out there,'" Veldheer said. "Because we did. That's just how it is. There are just very high standards for what we can do, and we hold ourselves to that."

Images of the seven players on the team named to the Pro Bowl



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