The best record in the NFC through Week 9 belongs to… the Arizona Cardinals? No one predicted that ‒ not in a division with the defending NFL Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks and two-time NFC Championship runners-up San Francisco 49ers in the mix. How have the Cards raced out to a 7-1 record in 2014?
What has Arizona done to exceed preseason expectations? Can they sustain that success down the stretch? Let’s look at the factors that have propelled Arizona into the pole position.
In 2013, the Cardinals finished 10-6 under new head coach Bruce Arians, a five-win improvement on their 5-11 mark in 2012 under previous head coach Ken Whisenhunt. However, playing in a division with NFC powerhouses San Francisco and Seattle kept Arizona on the outside looking in, just missing the playoffs. Arians arrived in January 2013 from Indianapolis where he had served in 2012 as offensive coordinator and interim head coach, the latter while Chuck Pagano underwent treatment for cancer.
Heading into 2014, the Cardinals looked to have taken a step back after losing a number of starters to free agency or retirement, including right tackle Eric Winston and left guard Daryn Colledge, running back Rashard Mendenhall, slot receiver Andre Roberts, defensive backs Antoine Cason and Yeremiah Bell, and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby. Further, starting ILB Daryl Washington was suspended for the season due to a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Arizona did add depth with former All-Pro cornerback Antonio Cromartie, LB Larry Foote, center Ted Larson, tight end John Carlson and kick returner Ted Ginn Jr. However, their prize free agent signing was left tackle Jared Veldheer, the key piece in a renovation of the offensive line that Pro Football Focus rated the worst in the NFL last year.
The Cardinals also excelled in the draft, selecting safety Deone Bucannon, TE Troy Niklas, defensive lineman Kareem Martin, wide receiver John Brown, quarterback Logan Thomas, and DL Ed Stinson – all of whom have started at least one game this season or played a key reserve role.
Strength of Schedule
Through Week 8, the Cardinals had faced the 4th-toughest slate of opponents per Pro Football Reference, trailing only San Francisco, Denver and Kansas City. Their only loss to date came on the road against the Broncos (41-20 in Week 5).
Arizona is unbeaten at home thus far, besting San Diego (18-17 in Week 1), the 49ers (23-14 in Week 3), Washington (30-20 in Week 6), and Philadelphia (24-20 in Week 8). Their two road wins came against the Giants (25-14 in Week 7) and the hapless Raiders (24-13 in Week 7).
Now, at their halfway mark, the Cardinals’ résumé includes quality opponents ‒ the Chargers, 49ers, Eagles and Cowboys ‒ and they suffered their only defeat on the road against perhaps the best team in the NFL. But has Arizona’s on-field performance matched up with their lofty 7-1 record? With eight games still to play, can the Cardinals rightly be anointed the NFC’s best team?.
Arizona runs a base 3-4 defense which is ranked 7th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) by Football Outsiders. DVOA is calculated by “[breaking] down every single NFL play and [comparing] a team’s performance to a league baseline based on situation in order to determine value over average.” In more traditional statistics, the Cardinals are 4th in scoring defense at 19.5 points per game, and the NFL’s 4th-stingiest rushing defense while allowing just 3.4 yards per attempt.
However, the Cardinals rank just 25th in limiting opponents’ passing yards per attempt at 7.0, while the NFL average is 6.5. This suggests they are keeping teams from scoring by shutting down the running game and forcing teams to throw against them.
That Arizona’s foes have been so efficient through the air is somewhat surprising, given that the Cardinals boast one of the most talented secondaries in the game. Two-time first-team All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson leads the unit, while former All-Pro Antonio Cromartie mans the other cornerback spot. When deploying a nickel defense, Arizona utilizes slot corner Tyrann Mathieu who has played well despite limited opportunities. Free safety Rashad Johnson and strong safety Tony Jefferson rank first and second on the team, respectively, in tackles this season.
If Arizona’s struggles can’t be blamed on the coverage personnel, we can find a big clue in the team’s total lack of pass rush. Only one NFL team (St. Louis) has fewer sacks than the seven logged so far by the Cardinals. For comparison, Buffalo has amassed a league-leading 28 sacks. Injuries have been a significant factor for Arizona’s front defenders. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett is out for the year with a torn ACL sustained in the pre-season, and defensive end/outside linebacker John Abraham went on season-ending injured reserve after Week 2 with a concussion. Defensive end Calais Campbell has also missed games with a knee injury.
Another factor in the struggles of the pass defense is defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ penchant for the blitz. In 2013, the Cardinals led the NFL by blitzing on almost half of their defensive plays (49.2%). They have continued that emphasis this season (41.8%, 4th-highest in the NFL) and last weekend against the Eagles they launched blitzes on 24 of 40 pass plays. Blitzes can help the secondary when defenders get to the quarterback or hurry throws, but the Cardinals are not providing enough pressure ‒ allowing opposing signal callers time to find holes in the coverage.
By far, the best thing the Cardinals have done defensively this season is generate takeaways: 14 in all (tied for 5th in the NFL) including 10 interceptions (tied for 3rd in the league).
Arizona ranks 25th in offensive DVOA, 30th in rushing with 3.4 YPA (NFL average 4.2), and 23rd in passing with 7.0 YPA (NFL average 7.3). They’re in the middle of the pack in scoring, ranking 15th in the league with 24.0 points per game. As with the defense, the Cardinals have been hit by injuries on this side of the ball. Starting quarterback Carson Palmer has finally recovered from a shoulder nerve issue that kept him sidelined from Week 3 through Week 6. Running back Stepfan Taylor and wide receiver Michael Floyd have also been hobbled.
Most of the Cardinals’ damage has been done through the air, with 14 of their 19 offensive touchdowns coming on the arms of their quarterbacks (Palmer, backup Drew Stanton and the rookie Thomas). According to the NFL’s QB Rating system, Palmer has been the 8th-best signal caller in the league this year with a 99.3 rating. Stanton has logged a 75.4 rating and Thomas, despite being 1-for-8 in pass attempts this year, has a 108.9 rating because that one completion went for 81 yards and a touchdown.
However, advanced metrics do not fully mesh with that data. Pro Football Focus now has Palmer ranked 13th among 36 quarterbacks that have taken at least 25% of their team’s snaps, but prior to Sunday’s game against Dallas he placed just 22nd on that list. Stanton fares even worse, ranking 25th. Arizona certainly has no shortage of targets, with Larry Fitzgerald (an 8-time Pro Bowler), deep threat Malcolm Floyd (a team-high 16.9 yards per catch), 5th-round draft pick John Brown, and running back Andre Ellington (2nd on the team with 32 receptions).
Ellington also comprises most of the Cardinals’ running attack, with more than 70% of the team’s carries (149 of 212) and over three-quarters of their rushing yards (559 of 724). Depth is a big issue for the ground game, with Taylor’s injury (2 games missed thus far) and Jonathan Dwyer suspended for the season after a domestic abuse incident. The offensive line, while improved from EPA SuperFund hazardous waste cleanup site status, is still a sub-par unit (only 10 NFL teams have lower run-blocking grades, per Pro Football Focus).
So how are the Cardinals 15th in scoring? Help has certainly come from rookie placekicker Chandler Catanzaro. After the Cardinals suffered through a mediocre 2013 by Jay Feely, Catanzaro won the job with a strong training camp and has not let up. He’s a perfect 16-for-16 in field goals (only four NFL kickers have split the uprights more often this year) and he hasn’t missed an extra point in 18 tries. Catanzaro has had just as big an impact on field position: 28 of his 44 kickoffs have been for touchbacks and, in combination with Arizona’s coverage specialists, they have limited their opponents to an average offensive starting point of 19.3 yards in front of the end zone, 5th best in the league and a significant improvement from last season when the Cardinals ranked just 21st.
Ted Ginn, Jr. has taken over Arizona’s kick return duties from last year’s primary returners Javier Arenas (kickoffs) and Peterson (punts). Peterson, despite his occasional brilliance, had a dismal 6.0 punt return average that ranked in the bottom five among punt returners last season. Arenas was in the bottom five in kick returns as well, averaging just 21.3 yards per runback. Ginn has improved the punt return game, averaging 12.6 yards per return with one returned for a touchdown. Meanwhile Ginn has actually taken a step backwards in the kickoff return game, only averaging 16.3 yards per return, though he’s only had 6 runback chances this season.
The Road Ahead
Arizona is fortunate to have banked so many quality wins early, as the Cardinals still have road games remaining against all three of their division rivals ‒ Seattle, San Francisco and St. Louis ‒ plus Atlanta. Their remaining home games are against St. Louis, Detroit, Kansas City, and Seattle. Despite Dallas’ loss to Washington in Week 8, the Cowboys should have proven a stiff test for this Cardinals club this weekend. However, with Brandon Weeden starting at quarterback in place of the injured Tony Romo, the Cardinals were able to focus on shutting down running back DeMarco Murray ‒ which they did in limiting him to just 79 yards on 19 carries. The schedule definitely gets tougher from here.
The Cardinals have been fortunate to start the season 7-1, taking care of business at home and performing better than expected on the road. But they do not appear to be a dominant team capable of holding the #1 seed in the NFC. Offensively, they are relying heavily on an excellent kicking game. Arizona’s success can be attributed to a quality defense despite a rash of injuries and, while they can improve further with health, they need to find a stronger pass rush to help out the secondary. However, getting out to a hot start has increased their chances of making the playoffs this season and Arizona is well-positioned to cause problems in the division and conference for the rest of the season.
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