Camp tour: Cards' success depends on how they line up

BACH

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http://www.sportsline.com/nfl/story/9600672

Camp tour: Cards' success depends on how they line up
Aug. 14, 2006
By Pete Prisco
CBS SportsLine.com Senior Writer

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- On one side of the Arizona Cardinals' locker room is Kurt Warner, the veteran quarterback who has MVP hardware. Down the way is Edgerrin James, the star back, he of the mega-contract and a player who gives the franchise some much-need glamour. In another spot there's the receiving duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, a twosome that is second to none.


Larry Fitzgerald can't catch the ball if Warner throws it from his back. (Getty Images)
It is a skill set as good as any in the league, one capable of amazing numbers if ...

There it is again, as it is in almost every story or column or prediction about this team in 2006.

If the offensive line plays better.

The Cardinals have a new feel about them. They're no longer playing in a college stadium. Their new digs in this Phoenix suburb are as nice as any in the league. They have sold out all their season tickets and, for once, they're not casting a doom shadow here in the Valley of the Sun.

Bringing in James as a free-agent back from the Colts to go with Warner and his big-play receivers brought immediate excitement to Cardinals fans, setting off a ticket-buying splurge.

None of it will matter, though, if the line doesn't play better. It's that simple, really. Block better or all the optimism of the preseason will mean nothing come January and this team will once again remain, well, the Cardinals.

"I think the offensive line has taken too much heat," Warner said in the locker room after the team's preseason opener against the Steelers. "At the same time, I think they'll step up to the challenge. You never want to be perceived as the weak line. I'm excited about playing behind those guys."

The Cardinals finished dead last in the league in rushing last season, averaging 71.1 yards per game. That was 12 yards fewer per game than the 31st-ranked New York Jets. While they did lead the league in passing, that number stings. They were also last in rushing attempts, running it 22.5 times a game when the league's best ran it 33 times a game. That is an insult to offensive linemen.

Ask any lineman around the league what they like to do most and that's pound on opposing defenses, particularly when it's late in games and the power of their size takes over. Pounding teams late in the fourth quarter would be a new approach for the Cardinals.

But you don't pay James $25 million to leave the comforts of a winning team in Indy without making a commitment to run the football.

"With Edge here, we have no choice but to run the football," left guard Reggie Wells said.

When James came to the Cardinals, he said he had heard all the talk about the line being problematic. James, fresh off two consecutive 1,500-yard seasons with the Colts, now has a different view of the line.

"This line is good," James said. "I'm not even concerned with this line. You'll see good things from this line. This offensive line ... they're going to be ranking them real high next year."

The best player on the line is left tackle Leonard Davis. He came to the Cardinals as the second overall pick in the 2001 draft out of Texas. He had franchise tackle written all over him. But in the years since, that has not quite been the case.

He has bounced around from guard to right tackle and now has settled in as the left tackle. His play has been inconsistent at times, but he was voted as an alternate to the Pro Bowl last season.

"That doesn't mean anything," Davis said. "All it means is there were three better tackles in the NFC than me. Big deal."

At 6-feet-6 and 365 pounds, Davis is a huge man. So big in fact, he dwarfs the 6-4, 320-pound Wells, who is dressing in the locker next to him.

"Reggie's my little son," Davis said laughing.

The two play next to each other on that left side and are road roommates. Their goal is to be one of the best power sides of any line in the league, not unlike what the Seattle Seahawks had with Steve Hutchinson and Walter Jones before Hutchinson signed with Minnesota this spring as a free agent.

Wells signed an offer sheet with the Buffalo Bills as a restricted free agent, but it was matched by the Cardinals. In talking with some members of the Cardinals front office and the coaches, both Wells and Davis have been impressive so far this summer. For Davis, there is added incentive -- money.

He is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the season. A Pro Bowl season could mean he'd move to the top of the pay lists for tackles. He's young, powerful and the Cardinals are raving about his conditioning work this summer. Some around the league, as well as with the Cardinals, have speculated that it's all a money rush for Davis, that the devotion is aimed at getting the lucrative deal. But that's okay if his play rises, too.

"All those people who are talking about me in a bad way aren't watching film," Davis said. "I don't care what the critics say about me or the offensive line. I've had a bulls-eye on me since I got here."

While the left side is solid, the right side is a different story. Oliver Ross, who signed as a free agent last season only to have a so-so year marred by injury, is out again at right tackle. He is expected to miss 10 weeks, forcing Jeremy Bridges in as the starter. Milford Brown, who comes over from a Houston Texans line that was bad in 2005, is the right guard. The center is Alex Stepanovich, an undersized player who is more tough than powerful.

While the line lacks name recognition, the word is the group has played pretty well so far this summer. Davis, the senior player of the line with just four years, has taken over a leadership role, helping the younger players with the nuances of their positions.

"I've played nearly all of them, so I give them tips," Davis said.

In the preseason opener, the Cardinals starting unit didn't run it well. James had minus-two yards on two carries. At one point, Warner was the leading rusher. That's not good.

Early indications are the passing attack, which was sharp against the Steelers in the opener, will once again be the focal point of the offense. How much will be the key to the season.

Davis laughed when asked if he'd be stunned if this team was last in the league in rushing again.

"Not if I have something to do with it," Davis said.

James was more to the point when posed with the same question.

"The bottom?" James said. "That's not even the question. Don't even look at that. It's out of the window right there. That's not happening."

It's all on the five guys up front. But they know it, and they accept it. When you read all those stories about how skilled your team is on offense, but it's the big guys up front who might hinder the playoff chances, it's time to do something about it.

"You never want to hear those negative things," Wells said. "So we just have to go out and do something about it. We have talent. So we know it can get done. It's time for us to show everybody what we can do. We're tired of hearing all that talk."

Out of Nowhere Man
KR Michael Spurlock
Michael Spurlock was a quarterback at Mississippi noted more for his running than his passing. The Cardinals signed him as a rookie free-agent receiver and he has a chance to stick as the team's return man. He will likely have to beat out veteran Troy Walter for the fifth receiver spot. But if he shows enough on returns -- Walters is a return man candidate as well -- Spurlock has a chance to make the team

Cardinals: Five things to know
1. The Cardinals have been a joke of sorts since they moved to Arizona in 1988. They played in a college stadium in front of sparse crowds and didn't win much. Now there is a state-of-the-art stadium that is as good as any, all the tickets for the season are sold and there is a good, young talented team on the field. This team can push for the division title. Things have to work out the right way, but it wouldn't be shocking to see this team with Seattle fighting for the NFC West in the end. That's hard to believe, right?

2. How much does Kurt Warner have left? That's what a lot of skeptics say when breaking down the Cardinals. But Warner showed on the opening drive of the preseason against the Steelers on Saturday that he can still make all the throws. He's an accurate passer and he hits receivers in stride. If the Cardinals can protect him -- a big if -- he should put up big numbers again.

3. The Cardinals' scouts and front office people are raving about corner Antrel Rolle. The second-year player from Miami has had an outstanding camp. Rolle missed time last year with injuries, but he is being counted on to be the team's shutdown corner. The word is he's made a play in nearly every practice.

4. Another defender who is getting high praise is linebacker Calvin Pace. The Cardinals moved him from defensive end to strong-side linebacker and he has had a big summer so far. He's playing in Karlos Dansby's spot since Dansby is out with a hand injury, but he has played so well there is talk that he might stay there and Dansby could move to the weak-side spot.

5. The Cardinals have a lot of talent, but there is little depth. If they have serious injuries, which they did last year, the optimism of the preseason could be gone quickly. They already lost right tackle Oliver Ross for 10 weeks with a knee injury, and they can't afford many more injuries like that.

Why I like this team
They had the best passing attack in the league last season, and it should be even better with Edgerrin James helping the running game. Warner still has plenty left in his right arm, and he has two outstanding targets in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. I also like the young players on defense, many who are ready for breakout seasons.

Why I don't like this team
The offensive line is a concern. Can it be pieced together to get James going and protect Warner? If Warner goes down, it can be another long season for the Cardinals. Matt Leinart is not signed -- which is a mistake on his part -- so there is little behind Warner
 

Duckjake

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Why the concern over the Oline protecting Warner? They didn't have a major problem in pass protection last year did they?
 
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Gotta like the attitude Edge has brought to the Cardinals and the OL. When questioned about the possibility of again being at the bottom of the league in rushing. Edge's attitude is 'don't even go there, it's history, and it won't be the case this season'.

:raccoon: :raccoon:
 

D-Dogg

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I thought Ross was only out for 5 weeks, and would be playing in the second regular season game. What's this 10 weeks stuff?
 
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D-Dogg said:
I thought Ross was only out for 5 weeks, and would be playing in the second regular season game. What's this 10 weeks stuff?
A mistake...

Aside, from that I thought it was a damn fine article! :D
 

Russ Smith

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Duckjake said:
Why the concern over the Oline protecting Warner? They didn't have a major problem in pass protection last year did they?

45 sacks last year, one every 15 attempts, not great but not bad. Especially when you realize that with Warner the number was slightly better about one every 16.5.

Now if Navarre plays a lot you have to be concerned, he is not the most pocket aware QB, but with Leinart that shouldn't happen. matt's a rookie and all rookies get sacked, but he's pretty mentally advanced I don't expect him to be the sack machine so many rookie QB's often are.

I think in general most people don't realize Warner wasn't even hit when he got hurt last year, he's still good but he's not durable at all, that's why getting Matt signed was so critical, it's very likely he's going to play this year no matter what we say our wish is.
 

seesred

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Prisco writes very well and has done some homework. IMO the right side of this years line will be very, very good as long as they can stay injury free. The right side with our FA Brown plus who really knows how it will wash out at RT. I've always liked Step at center and he has more expeirance now that should translate to improvments. At last weeks game , I noticed Edge talking and hanging around the )-line guys. I also saw Step and Edge in a lo9ng coversation and hanging out together most of the game.

GBR
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RedRob

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I like Prisco's stuff; he's one writer who can point out the faults of a team without riding the negative nancy bandwagon. Local sports writers would be well off copying his style.
 
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