The Cards hope keeping their line generally intact will help this season.
FLAGSTAFF – The Cardinals could have blown up their offensive line this offseason, with their three interior line starters hitting free agency and their tackles works-in-progress.
Other than left guard Alan Faneca, who retired despite the Cards making a pitch to bring him back, the Cards kept their line intact. And they remain optimistic that as a unit, its play will improve.
"It's about knowing the guy next to you," offensive line coach Russ Grimm said.
Lyle Sendlein returns to play center. Brandon Keith and Levi Brown are the tackles on the right and left side, respectively. Free-agent signee Daryn Colledge replaces Faneca at left guard, while the right guard is Rex Hadnot, with former starter Deuce Lutui working to get his spot back and his weight down. Veteran Jeremy Bridges waits on deck in either tackle falters.
There will likely be no youth. The leading candidates for the final couple of spots include backup center Ben Claxton – who returns – and veterans like guard Pork Chop Womack and tackle D'Anthony Batiste.
The Cardinals need improved play up front, especially with a new quarterback to protect in Kevin Kolb. But he already has their back. "I know they take a lot of criticism but I think they have done outstanding up until this point," Kolb said.
Citing good chemistry, coach Ken Whisenhunt has remained steadfast in endorsing what his line can do, eschewing significant changes.
"There has been a lot said about our tackles and the line and those guys just seem to shrug it off and play," Whisenhunt said. "They have performed well the first two preseason games. That doesn't mean anything, it's got to be shown over time. But there is a sense of camaraderie with those guys, and the good lines I have seen in the past, that's part of it."
Over an absent offseason – and the missing on-field work this summer – keeping continuity up front was a goal. The Cards went to keep Lutui, although he signed with Cincinnati, only to fail his physical and end up back in Arizona. Sendlein agreed quickly to come back.
"It helps for sure," Sendlein said. "If you go to a new place, and luckily we only have a few guys learning a whole new system in four weeks, that's part of the reason guys opted to stay here."
The biggest questions seem to be reserved on the outside with Keith and Brown. Brown said earlier in camp both Whisenhunt and Grimm have been on him to improve technique. Keith is coming off knee surgery after an up-and-down partial first season as a starter.
"Have I done anything? No," Keith said. "You need that season to get credit. I started shaky and I was building to a good situation, but at the end of the day, I haven't finished.
"Last year, it was just about talent. Now I am more comfortable, I know what to do."
Like every spot on the team, the line has had its moments of good and bad in the two preseason games. In Green Bay, there were some holes for Beanie Wells and some decent protection for Kolb. The scrutiny is no doubt more intense than at other positions, given all the questions of the last couple of years.
But the familiarity with each other allows a bond that seems to be including the quarterback.
"The biggest thing is trust and I have no issue with trust," Kolb said. "The thing we and I want in the huddle is guys who will fight for you. You can get beat here and there, but make sure you keep fighting and never give up. That's what I try to reiterate to the guys. Everyone gets beat. It's a matter of how you respond."
One of the facets of the Cardinals' Super Bowl run was the consecutive games streak of the five offensive linemen – Sendlein, guards Reggie Wells and Lutui, and tackles Brown and Mike Gandy. The current Cards are trying to replicate that, hoping to replicate some of the same success.
"The offensive lines that are successful, the ones that help teams win championships are usually the ones that have guys who can stay healthy all year," Colledge said. "When it comes to offensive line, it's all about cohesion. It's all about knowing what the guy next to you will do."