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After injuries and inconsistency, Cardinals work to shore up special teams coverage

Seattle Seahawks kicker Stephen Hauschka (4) reacts to missing a game-winning field goal as punter Jon Ryan (9) looks on during overtime of an NFL football game as Arizona Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel (28) falls, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. The game ended in overtime in a 6-6 tie. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. — The Cardinals entered halftime in Minnesota with momentum, having responded to a pick-six thrown by Carson Palmer with a touchdown drive that made the score 20-17, Vikings, at the intermission.

While trailing, there was reason to believe the second half would hold positive things for the Cardinals, as they had outplayed the Vikings for the first 30 minutes and were still very much in the game. Arizona would be kicking off to Minnesota to start the second half, but get a stop, and the lead was within reach.

Chandler Catanzaro’s kickoff sailed four yards into the end zone, where the Vikings’ Cordarrelle Patterson caught it before heading up field. He eluded a few would-be tacklers and then was just…gone.

The Vikings would add a field goal later in the third quarter, but the kickoff return touchdown proved to be the game-winning score.

“The bottom line is we should have tackled the guy because we had three guys right there at the point to get it down,” special teams coordinator Amos Jones said. “Had the two safeties and we had Cat coming from inside out. Cat and Tony (Jefferson) both slightly overran the thing because it got on them pretty quick. Pat (Peterson) had a chance to hit it early and didn’t see it, but then again, we didn’t get over the top of the double-team blocks, so that was a situation there where we just didn’t cut the lane off before it got so big.”

It was easily the most notable return-game gaffe this season, though it was far from the only special teams miscue. As the Cardinals have been forced to shuffle players in and out of the lineup due to injury, the quality of play in the third phase of the game has suffered.

“That’s the hardest thing you can possibly do, is put guys in situations they practiced two days, in the National Football League,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “You’re usually going to fail, and it cost us on the kickoff return.”

A glance at the list of Cardinals on injured reserve shows the team lost key players in guard Evan Mathis, tackle Jared Veldheer and running back Chris Johnson, and no doubt their absence has hurt the team. But losing players like safety Tyvon Branch, receiver Jaron Brown, tight end Ifeanyi Momah and linebackers Alani Fua and Gabe Martin has also taken a toll, albeit a less obvious one.

Momah, you may recall, forced and recovered a fumble on a kickoff return in San Francisco; Martin recovered a fumble on a punt return just a few weeks ago in a home win over the 49ers. And remember the blocked punt in the tie with the Seahawks, the one that led to Seattle’s only points in regulation? It happened, in part, because Brown was hurt and not in the game to help protect.

“That’s a third of the game,” Arians said of special teams. “We’ve got five really core special teams guys on IR, all that would have been on the right side covering that kick.”

It’s easy for Arians to say had his players been healthy, Patterson’s game-changing touchdown would not have happened. It’s hindsight, of course, and not an assertion that can be disproven. But whether that is indeed the case or not, the fact remains that special teams is not made up of the players Arizona had originally hoped, and that has made the going more difficult.

“That’s why they call us ‘coach,’ so we’re always trying to coach guys — we try to get them lined up and ready to go,” Jones said. “But obviously guys, no different than offense or defense, when guys play beside each other they get familiar with how a guy’s going to play a block, so it affects you from a standpoint of schematically sometimes, but it also affects you, sometimes, for the experience.”

Jones pointed to Martin going down, who though not particularly experienced himself, had been playing more this year and was learning his role.

“When you lose guys like that, particularly guys that are on that bottom level, they’re not starters on offense or defense, they’re the guys that you hope can maintain being healthy throughout the year so you can have continuity,” he added.

Continuity generally leads to comfort, and comfort usually begets success. It’s tough to have any of that when different players are in and out of the lineup, and some are thrown onto the field with not much experience as Cardinals.

“That’s when you’ve just got to see it in practice and when you go out there just know what you’ve got to do and knowing who you’re supposed to block and knowing where you’re supposed to fit,” cornerback and three-time Pro Bowler for special teams Justin Bethel said. “It does kind of come with, guys who are used to playing beside me, I might do one thing and they are kind of used to seeing it, so they know how to play off me. Or the same, vice-versa, with other players.

“When you’re used to knowing what guys are going to do beside you, it makes things a little easier.”

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, easy has not been part of this season’s equation. With that said, they don’t want injuries to be an excuse.

“It’s the next man up mentality, that’s the biggest thing at any phase of the game, and special teams is no different,” Kareem Martin, who has also missed time this season and has been cited by Arians as one of the most important players on special teams, said. “Amos makes it simple enough, usually, for guys to come in and learn and be able to play fast, and I think that’s the biggest thing on special teams, just being able to play fast. Even with all these new moving parts, the guys come in and get it, and we don’t really skip a beat.”

That’s the idea, anyway. As Jones put it, when new players are brought in, the hope is that they have been taught something similar to what the Cardinals try to do and are also in good enough shape to finish a game.

“There’s a lot of factors that go into it,” he said. “We generally try to cover, if we’ve had a guy for a couple weeks on the practice squad, we probably put him in scout team looks where we would put him in our scheme. That doesn’t mean the scheme is going to tie in, because certain people do certain schemes, but you just hope you can have a guy for a couple weeks before you have to.

“Sometimes it doesn’t work out like that, and there’s no excuse. We just have to make sure we get it done.”

Stories for pre-game reading

Larry Fitzgerald said Bruce Arians being hospitalized “snaps you back to reality”

John Gambadoro wrote on how the Cardinals suddenly have needs to address

Arians got back to work because, as he said, it’s what he does

The Cardinals just have not been getting the bounces this season

Patrick Peterson is hoping for a better performance against Julio Jones

Carson Palmer understands taking hits and blame is part of the job

Miscellany

– The Cardinals have lost their last seven games in Atlanta and have not beating the Falcons on the road since 1993.

– Larry Fitzgerald needs one catch to run his streak of consecutive games with a reception to 190, which would tie him with Marvin Harrison for the third-longest such streak in NFL history.

– With eight catches, Fitzgerald (33 years, 88 days old) would become the youngest player in NFL history to reach 1,100 career receptions.

– David Johnson has posted 10 straight games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage, which is a franchise record. If he notches at least 100 yards Sunday, he would join Edgerrin James (2000 and 2005) to post 100 or more yards in each of the team’s first 11 games.

– Carson Palmer is two touchdown passes away from passing Joe Montana for 15th place on the NFL’s all-time passing TD list.

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