There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the offensive line and the impact it has had on the Arizona Cardinals' fortunes in 2012 -- and rightfully so. But I'm more concerned about how well the defense plays.
The Cards offensive line is…what it is. At this point of the season there is little that can be done to turn D'Anthony Batiste and Bobby Massie into seasoned, experienced tackles. Injuries to Levi Brown and Jeremy Bridges have offered Russ Grimm few options at the tackle position. And the interior play of Lyle Sendlein, Adam Snyder and Daryn Colledge has not been stellar either.
If you're a positive person and believe people can change for the better, people can get better at their job, people can evolve, than hope this is the case with Batiste and Massie; this alternative is, after all, the easiest and most plausible way to improve Big Red's protection poser. If you're a negative person and believe people don't change, people can't get better at their jobs, people devolve, I hope you use the same measure of judgment with yourself.
The protection problems for the Cardinals can improve at the tactical level by using backs to chip on the tackles (understanding you can't do it all the time), lining TEs up on the tackles' hip and running them through opposing DEs, using screens and draws against up-the-field-rushers, changing up your protection schemes so you don't become predictable and, most importantly, having D'Anthony Batiste and Bobby Massie take better pass-sets and use better technique. These are all ways to improve a team's pass protection…at the tactical level.
But I think the answer for the Arizona Cardinals' protection woes lie at the strategic level. I think Big Red's defense is the passé partout, the all-purpose skeleton key that unlocks the season for this team. If the X-Men play the way they're capable of, offenses are going to have a difficult time scoring points. And if opposing offenses are having a difficult time scoring points, the Cardinals offense has a much better chance of being successful because they can run a balanced, three-dimensional offense.
Unfortunately for the Cards offense, they don't have the luxury of attacking whatever the defense is giving them. Defensive coordinators are not dumb, they know what afflicts the Cards offense: a struggling offensive line.
In a gross simplification, most coordinators need only to jam the box and unleash the fury of their pass rushers and one of two things will most likely happen:
1) If the Cards run into the jammed-up front, the extra defender in the box and the lack of movement from the OL will most likely yield a marginal gain.
2) If the Cards elect to throw the ball, most coordinators will take their chances in getting to Kevin Kolb before he can get the ball to an open receiver.
Sometimes this strategy has worked against the Cardinals, and sometimes the Cardinals have destroyed this strategy. Recently, against Miami and St. Louis, this strategy has been employed by defensive coordinators and has been effective.
Why? What was different about the Miami and St. Louis games than the first three?
The Cards offense became one-dimensional in both games. The amount of points given up by the defense early and the lack of success running the ball had a huge impact on protecting Kevin Kolb -- at the strategic level.
Enter the X-Men, the passé partout of the Arizona Cardinals season. It's not good enough to keep the Dolphins to 21 points, even though they gave up huge yards to Ryan Tannehill; it's not good enough to keep the Rams to 17 points if they allow them to take the opening possession and take a seven point lead five plays later; it's not good enough.
The margin for error for this defense is small because the Cards are in a difficult spot with how their offensive line has performed. But I believe this defense is THAT good. I believe this defense is special. The yoke of responsibility must be accepted, harnessed and applied by this defense.
Until D'Anthony Batiste and Bobby Massie get better, the key to protecting Kevin Kolb lies on the defensive side of the ball. If they play up to their capability every week, the Cards can beat anybody. If they come out of the tunnel flat and give up leads, the Cards can lose to anybody, including the Buffalo Bills.
And that's why I am more concerned with how well the defense plays week-to-week. Is this fair? No. But greatness knows nothing about a part-time work week. This defense needs to play great on a full-time basis and Kevin Kolb will enjoy the benefits of their full-time status.