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What The Cardinals Have Learned

Halfway through the season, some of the top takeaways from a 3-4-1 start

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Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer throws a pass against the Rams earlier this season.


Halfway through the season, the Cardinals aren't where they want to be, not with a 3-4-1 record. The famous cliché popularized by Bill Parcells – "You are what your record says you are" – can't be argued, although there is a chance to fix that by season's end.

Beyond the record, who are the Cardinals? As they get ready to resume the season this week, here's a look at the top things learned about the Cardinals during the first half of the season.

DAVID JOHNSON IS THE MAN

Face it, it wasn't hard to see this coming, even with the health of all the running backs to begin the season and all the other weapons available on offense. The front office loved Johnson, the coaches loved Johnson and Johnson had already shown he could do a lot of damage both running the ball and catching it. Johnson already has 1,112 combined yards and barring injury, he'll run for more yards than any Cardinal since the team moved to Arizona. The offensive line took a hit when left tackle Jared Veldheer was lost for the season, but that might just put more on Johnson's shoulders as the Cardinals try to manage their pass protection.

THE DEEP BALL IS M.I.A.

The Cardinals and Bruce Arians are still trying to throw the ball down the field. That isn't going to change. But those plays – and the chunks yards that come with them – have been mostly absent. No one can really put a finger on why, mostly because it's a combination of factors. The Cardinals certainly haven't gotten the same level of play from two of their top receivers, Michael Floyd and Smokey Brown. Quarterback Carson Palmer has missed some open chances, and there have been times that the shot down the field never had a chance because the protection didn't hold up in one way, shape or form. The numbers bare out the struggles – according to Pro Football Focus, on passes thrown at least 20 yards down the field Palmer is just 9-of-34 with one touchdown and four interceptions. (Last season, Palmer was 34-for-96 with 10 TDs and 9 INTs.) Teams are hyper-aware of it now. Connecting on a few more would be hugely beneficial.

A CONTRACT YEAR DOESN'T AFFECT EVERYONE THE SAME

The Cardinals have a lot of players set to hit free agency after the season. Most of the time, that knowledge sparks a high level of play. Money is on the line, and it's naïve to think otherwise. Safety Tony Jefferson is having a very good season. Safety D.J. Swearinger has upped his play. Linebacker Chandler Jones was already a Pro Bowler, but he has been excellent. That's what was expected from Floyd – Arians said as much in training camp – but it hasn't come to pass. Floyd has been up and down, perhaps pressing too much knowing what is on the line. The Cardinals need him to come around – and if he does, it benefits both the team and his bottom line.

THE DEFENSE IS DIFFERENT WITHOUT HONEY BADGER

Yes, Tyrann Mathieu has played all season (although he'll likely miss at least one game with a shoulder injury going forward.) But like 2014, when Mathieu was coming back from a torn ACL, his 2016 coming back from a torn ACL has played out in a similar vein. While Mathieu started the season playing a centerfield role, his numbers are down not because of where he is playing but instead that he's just not himself. The Cards were dynamic last year because Mathieu spearheaded playmaking and versatility on the back end. The reality is, while Mathieu works his way back, the Cards are missing that aspect of their defense. Can Mathieu reach that point this season? And will the Cardinals still be contention when he does?

THE PASS RUSH IS SOMETHING TO LOVE

The Cardinals traded for Chandler Jones knowing he was already a Pro Bowl pass rusher. He's been pretty much what was expected, which is a big deal. Between Jones and Markus Golden – who has emerged in his second year – the Cardinals have been consistent in generating four-man pressures. That only helps the defense in terms of staying versatile and hard to predict. The Cards don't have to blitz as much as they once did.

SPECIAL TEAMS NEED TO BE SPECIAL

There are times when what special teams contribute, good or bad, is hard to evaluate. This has not been one of those seasons. The missed field goal at the end of the Patriots game. A long punt return allowed in Buffalo, in addition to a bad snap on a field goal returned for a touchdown. The Seattle game, with a blocked field goal, a blocked punt and then a missed field goal. In games that are often close in the NFL, details that are often forgotten about – people assume the 30-yard field goal will be made, until it isn't – loom large. It's been everywhere. Justin Bethel taking a finger in the eye, allowing a back-breaking long punt return by the Rams to set up the winning score. John Brown's ailments, taking him away from the solid job he had been doing as a punt returner. The Cards will need more from the transition game as the second half plays out.

CLOSE GAMES CAN GO THE OTHER WAY

If anything has marked the tenure of Arians, it was the way the Cardinals have been able to win close games. That hasn't happened this season. In games decided by one score (eight points) or less, the Cards are 0-2-1 – and the season is much, much different if the Cards had been able to win all three of those games. In Arians' first three seasons, the Cardinals were 15-5 in such games. Sometimes it takes a team to build some confidence they will pull it out at the end of games to create some momentum. The Cardinals don't want it working the other way this season.



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