Report Card: Arizona Cardinals midway through the 2016 season
The Cardinals began the season with incredibly high expectations, and why not? They won 13 games and reached the NFC Championship Game last season before appearing this offseason to have improved the roster to the point where it was not only a Super Bowl contender, but perhaps even the favorite.
To say things have not gone according to plan would be an understatement.
The Cardinals began the season with a close-but-surprising loss to the New England Patriots, and since then have not been truly able to find their footing. There have been some good moments, sure, but also some poor ones.
The result of it all is a 3-4-1 record at the team’s bye week, which happens to come exactly halfway through the regular season.
Asked to give his team a letter grade at the midway point, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians would give his team an overall C.
“Half of the league is right here together,” he said. “Or more than half of the league is sitting right here together within a half game or a game of each other. That’s the parity of the league.”
Now it’s our turn.
Obviously Carson Palmer has not been the same player he was last season, though the reasons for that are varied. However, while he has not played at an MVP level, it is worth noting he’s mostly been good enough for the Cardinals to win in completing 63 percent of his passes for 2,068 yards and 10 touchdowns with six interceptions in seven games. He has turned the ball over in just three of his games, and was arguably at his best in the Week 8 loss to Carolina in which he threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns while being pressured most of the afternoon. Backup Drew Stanton struggled in relief of Palmer in a loss to the Rams but played well enough in a win over the 49ers.
Running back: A
You do not transition from a pass-first team to a run-first team without a great running back, and the Cardinals have one in David Johnson. The second-year pro has run for 705 yards and eight touchdowns while also being a force out of the backfield as a receiver. The Cardinals have relied on him heavily, and for the most part, Johnson has delivered. After him, Andre Ellington has been fine as a change-of-pace and will likely see more touches as Chris Johnson continues to rehab from a sport hernia. With all three healthy, the Cardinals have a dynamic group of runners.
Wide Receiver: C+
This group was supposed to be the strength of the team, but instead has been one of the biggest question marks. Veteran Larry Fitzgerald is still great, and he leads the team with 56 catches, 554 yards and five touchdowns, but the guys after him have been very inconsistent. Michael Floyd (19 catches, 257 yards, 3 TDs) has struggled with his routes and drops, John Brown (28 catches, 350 yards, 1 TD) has had health problems, and Jaron Brown (11 catches, 187 yards, 1 TD) tore his ACL and will miss the rest of the year. A promising development is the growth of J.J. Nelson, who has 15 catches, 214 yards and two touchdowns on the season but has come on strong the last two weeks and earned a starting role.
Tight end: C-
For the most part there has been nothing wrong with this group, though it’s difficult to find much of a statistical impact. Jermaine Gresham has caught 11 passes for 106 yards and Darren Fells has nine catches for 61 yards, but after them not much has gone on. Troy Niklas caught one pass before being lost to injury and Ifeanyi Momah, who was coming on a bit, caught two passes for 50 yards before landing on injured reserve with a wrist injury. Tight ends are rarely a big part of Arizona’s passing game, though, and where Gresham and Fells have (and can continue) to stand out is as blockers.
Offensive line: C-
Besides the secondary, no group on the team underwent as much change as the offensive line, which replaced three starters from last season. By way of injury and inconsistency, it hasn’t been any better than before. In some ways, it’s actually worse. Halfway through the season, Cardinals QBs have been sacked 25 times, which is just two fewer than were surrendered all last season. When QB Carson Palmer has had time to throw, he has been rather effective. When he hasn’t — well, you can figure that out. At least the run blocking has been solid. At any rate, it’s difficult to imagine things getting much better, with guard Evan Mathis done for the season and left tackle Jared Veldheer recently landing on injured reserve. When the Cardinals return from the bye, they will have John Wetzel at left tackle, Mike Iupati at left guard, A.Q. Shipley at center, Earl Watford at right guard and D.J. Humphries at right tackle. Iupati has mostly been solid this season and Shipley has been surprisingly effective, but Humphries has not been quite what was hoped in his second NFL season. At any rate, this is not the group the team envisioned having, but it’s the one that will have to carry the load the rest of the season.
Defensive line: B+
It’s difficult to find fault with this group, as Calais Campbell (27 tackles, two sacks, four tackles for loss) has been quite good and his play has been supplemented by solid performances from Corey Peters (11 tackles, two tackles for loss), Josh Mauro (12 tackles, three tackles for loss) and Frostee Rucker (five tackles), among others. The group has done a nice job occupying blockers and allowing the team’s linebackers to make plays, while also taking advantage of opportunities themselves. The only real blemish in this unit is the play (or lack of) from rookie Robert Nkemdiche, who has yet to carve out any kind of significant role or make any real positive impact.
The team’s linebackers have done pretty much everything that was expected of them, with Chandler Jones (five sacks, 24 tackles, two forced fumbles) and Markus Golden (six sacks, 29 tackles, two forced fumbles) providing a steady pass rush and Kevin Minter (46 total tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Deone Bucannon (61 tackles, two tackles for loss) providing excellent support against the run. Alex Okafor (1.5 sacks) and Kareem Martin (1 sack) have also contributed, though injuries have taken a toll here, too.
Since inserting Marcus Cooper into the starting lineup in Week 3, the cornerback spot appears to have solidified and been overall solid. Patrick Peterson (2 interceptions, 3 passes defensed) has been very good, though maybe not as great as he was last season, as he has tracked the opponents’ top receiving threat, and Cooper (3 interceptions, 6 passes defensed) has been fine as quarterbacks have routinely targeted him. The Cardinals would like to be getting more out of Justin Bethel, who has dealt with a foot injury, and Brandon Williams, who has contended with inexperience, but for the most part have to be pleased with this position.
Tony Jefferson (56 tackles, one sack, two passes defensed) has been a stud and D.J. Swearinger (28 tackles, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 5 passes defensed) has been a pleasant surprise, but the team did not get much from Tyvon Branch (23 tackles, 2 passes defensed) before he landed on IR nor Tyrann Mathieu (27 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 3 passes defensed) before he hurt his shoulder, which is expected to cost him three to six weeks. Getting Mathieu back to playing the way he did in 2015 before his injury would elevate this group tremendously, and it wouldn’t hurt to have Branch back in the fold, either.
Special teams: D-
If you want to find a real area of concern with the Cardinals, this is it. The Cardinals are just 20th in the NFL in kick return average and 31st (out of 32) in yards per punt return. They are last in the league in average yards per punt and net punting yardage, and have also had bad snaps lead to some missed opportunities on field goal attempts. The Cardinals replaced rookie Kameron Canaday with veteran Aaron Brewer at long snapper, and that seems to have solved that problem, but the move from Drew Butler to Ryan Quigley at punter hasn’t really improved much. Of course, you also can’t ignore the struggles in the kicking game, where Chandler Catanzaro has made 8-of-11 field goal attempts and 19-of-20 PATs, with two of his missed field goals likely costing the team victories (the other one was blocked).
It’s really easy to blame coaches for struggles on the field, though it’s worth noting how plays are designed to be executed and sometimes failure belongs to the players. That said, this has not appeared to be the best coaching job. At the top, Bruce Arians has had some issues with challenges (throwing a flag when he shouldn’t have against Seattle, not throwing one in Carolina when he should have) and, for whatever reason, is not seeming to get the best out of a loaded roster. His offense has not been nearly what it was last season, and the adjustment to a run-first style came a bit slower than it probably should have. The offensive line (Harold Goodwin’s area) has been average, at best, though injuries can at least be a factor there. Defensively, James Bettcher has done a fine job since a curious Week 1 performance against the Patriots (which Arians took responsibility for), though the Cardinals have struggled with mobile quarterbacks in losses to the Bills and Panthers.
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