TEMPE, Ariz. — This is not exactly how the Arizona Cardinals drew it up, but it’s been working, for the most part.
The offensive line, which was addressed in the offseason via both the draft and free agency but lost a key player to injury and another was traded due to ineffectiveness, has performed admirably of late. Not great, sure. But good enough.
You know that because there hasn’t been much talk about the group, which usually only gets noticed when quarterbacks are getting hit and the run game is going nowhere.
“I think we’re doing some things well, but we’ve got things we definitely need to improve on,” guard Daryn Colledge said. “The run game last week was not good enough — won’t be good enough against the team that we’re about to face — so we’ve got things we’re doing great, but I think we’re fine with staying out of the limelight for a while and staying out of reach of everybody.
“I don’t think the offensive line is too hyped up on itself, but we feel like we’re doing some things good. We need to continue to improve in certain areas, but we’re taking some steps forward.”
Last season, Cardinals QBs were sacked a league-most 58 times. Some of that was undoubtedly due to the quarterback holding the ball too long, but anyone who watched the team knew the line struggled to protect the passer.
The 27 sacks allowed this season rank as just the 15th-most in the league, and the team is on pace to allow less than 44 sacks for the season. And take away the game against the Seattle Seahawks, when Carson Palmer was sacked seven times, and the Cardinals have allowed just 10 sacks since Week 5, when they allowed two in a win over the Carolina Panthers.
Not incidentally, that was the day Bradley Sowell stepped in for the traded Levi Brown at left tackle. Since then, the same five guys: Sowell, Colledge, Lyle Sendlein, Paul Fanaika and Eric Winston have lined up next to each other on a weekly basis, with Nate Potter and Bobby Massie occasionally getting some work due to injuries or scheme.
“The biggest thing is they play together, it’s the same group every week, so they’re getting stronger,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said.
No doubt the line that stays together tends to play well together, or at least better than one that is constantly shuffling roles. Each player gets a feel for the guy who is next to him, making it easier to work as a fully functional unit.
“We’re starting to jell finally,” Sowell said. “We’ve got the same line for whatever weeks in a row and we’re starting to jell and we’re just getting better and better each week.”
Ask anyone, though, and they’ll tell you the line still has a long way to go. While their sack numbers are better than last year, they are still not where the team would like them to be. And the running game has been inconsistent — at best — with the Cardinals ranking 25th in rushing yards per game and 27th in yards per carry.
Like with the quarterbacks last year, perhaps some of the struggles there can be attributed to running backs failing to see the hole or simply not being good enough to reach it.
Or, it could also be a case of teams stacking the box to stop the run, as was the case Sunday in Jacksonville when the Jaguars practically dared the Cardinals to throw. They did just that, with Palmer torching the secondary for 419 yards, but the flip side was Arizona running backs combined for just 17 yards on 21 carries.
“I think offensive linemen, tight ends, receivers — you take pride in what you get done,” Colledge said. “You know in four-minute offenses that you’re going to be in a situation where you’re going to have to run the ball with eight or nine in the box all the time, so we have to improve.
“We’re not necessarily going to rush for 150 on a defense that sets up like that, but we definitely need to get more than we got last week.”
For the most part, small improvements will probably suffice. The Cardinals are not the sieve they were last season, and they seem to be moving in the right direction.
“I think we have improved each week,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians admitted. “There is still a long ways to go. We gave up a couple of sacks that we shouldn’t have given up. I’ve seen steady progress and steady confidence building in that group.
“We still need to be a little better technical players, but the effort (is good) and the mental errors are down. So yeah, they are improving.”
And flying under the radar, which is a good thing. The less people talk about the offensive line, chances are the better they are doing. And lately, things have been pretty quiet.
“I’m never satisfied, never will be satisfied,” Goodwin said. “But it’s a work in progress every day. Those guys are getting better, they’re starting to jell.
“We’ve got to do a better job running the ball, tight ends included, blocking up front. But as long as we keep doing that, protecting the quarterback, we’re going to go where we want to go.”