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ESPN's KC Joyner: Why the Cardinals are legit

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 27, 2012 1:20 pm    Post subject: ESPN's KC Joyner: Why the Cardinals are legit Reply with quote

The main lesson to be taken away from Monday night's Fail Mary play is that we all learned a lot more about what constitutes a simultaneous reception.

A secondary lesson was that even in today's age of high-powered offenses, a team with a bruising and dynamic defense can still go toe-to-toe with any team in the league, even if that defense is paired with a somewhat limited offense.

Seattle may have provided that lesson on Monday night, but the same theory holds true for the current leaders in the NFC West division, the Arizona Cardinals. It is why Ken Whisenhunt's team is 3-0 for the first time since 1974, and a detailed look at the game tape and metrics indicates the combination of a powerful D and a fast-improving offense gives the Cardinals everything they need to win this division.

Let's start by reviewing some of the specifics of why this defense stands out.

Arizona has a significant volume of highlights on this side of the ball. The Cardinals' 12 sacks rank tied for second in the league. The 5.9 yards per attempt (YPA) they have allowed through the air ranks third. Their 53.8 percent completion rate allowed ranks fourth, and they have allowed just two passing touchdowns, which ties them for first in that category.

One player who has been a key factor in compiling those terrific numbers is cornerback Patrick Peterson. He has given up only two completions for 29 yards and two pass interference penalties for 42 yards on the 13 passes thrown his way. That equates to a 5.5 YPA that is much better than his showing in that category last year (8.6, tied for 60th among cornerbacks) and offers strong evidence that he was more than worthy of his early first-round selection in the 2011 NFL draft.

Another draft pick who is proving his worth is cornerback Jamell Fleming, as his level of play this year (5.9 YPA on 11 targets) is much better than his performance as a senior at Oklahoma (his first-team All-Big 12 status that year was based more on reputation than it was on his on-field play.

As much as the pass defense rightfully deserves a lot of credit for the Cardinals' success, Arizona ranks tied for 12th in rushing yards allowed per attempt (3.9). The Cardinals have also racked up a 38.9 percent mark in good blocking rate (GBR), which measures how often an offense is able to get good blocking against a defense (good blocking being loosely defined as when the blockers do not allow the defenders to do anything to disrupt a rush attempt).

To get an idea of just how strong that mark is, consider that a 40 percent GBR allowed will normally place a team in the top five in that category at season's end.

Add all of these defensive elements together and it equals a group that is giving up only 13.3 points per game, which ranks second in the league.

Arizona's strong defense makes this club a playoff contender, but the Cardinals can go a step further since their offense is showing signs of being able to carry its share of the load as well.

The central element here is the development of quarterback Kevin Kolb.

Kolb's issues in Philadelphia and Arizona revolved not around his physical talent but rather the high volume of mistakes he made.

This was something that plagued him during his tenure with the Eagles, but since filling in for an injured John Skelton this season, Kolb has made only one bad decision in 65 pass attempts (a bad decision being a mental error by a passer that leads to a turnover opportunity for an opponent). That equates to a 1.5 percent bad decision rate (BDR) that is well below the 2.0 percent mark that is considered the bar for above-average performance in this metric.

It isn't a good idea to put too much weight on a couple of games' worth of evidence, but being benched may have caused Kolb to finally take the necessary steps to rein in his penchant for risk taking. If that is the case, the odds are quite high that he will keep the starting job even when Skelton returns from injury, especially since Skelton had posted a 10.0 percent BDR in the early part of this season.

Whoever ends up under center for the Cardinals, there are signs that he will be able to increasingly rely on Arizona'a ground game. This didn't appear to be the case after the debacle in Week 1 (43 yards on 20 carries behind some of the worst run blocking in the league that week), but since then, the Cardinals' blockers have posted an impressive 46.7 percent GBR.

[+] Enlarge
Jennifer Hilderbrand/US PresswireRyan Williams will have more carries with Beanie Wells out.

One of the reasons for the turnaround is Arizona may be using the most creative run play calling in the NFL right now. Whisenhunt has weaved in runs out of the Wildcat formation, made creative use of trap plays and integrated a wide variety of counter plays into the run play calling sheet. That isn't even a full list of the innovative rush types the Cards have used, and that level of creativity will make this rushing game even harder to defend, especially if the GBR stays at or near its current level.

Oddly enough, the rushing attack could also benefit from the loss of Beanie Wells for the next seven games due to a turf toe injury.

Injuries aren't normally beneficial to a team, but Wells did a terrible job on plays with good blocking this season. His 4.1 mark in the good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) category is well below the 6.0 mark that typically serves as the low end of the spectrum in this metric. Wells just isn't very good at finding running lanes, and when he does find the lanes, he doesn't have enough burst to gain big yards.

That is not the case with Ryan Williams, who will be taking Wells' place in the starting lineup. His 8.9 GBYPA this season is admittedly based on a very small sample size (only 31 total carries), but that number is backed by the game tape assessment, as Williams has shown better vision and burst than Wells.

Any review of the offense also has to note the presence of Larry Fitzgerald. His 8.8 YPA this year despite having to deal with the Cards' quarterback rotation offers more evidence as to why he is one of few pass-catchers who can give Calvin Johnson a run for his money as the best all-around wideout in the NFL.

All of these personnel factors are compelling enough to vault the Cardinals into contention, but there are also in-division factors that should help their cause. Seattle has potential quarterback woes (Russell Wilson's 34.7 Total QBR ranks 27th in the league) and San Francisco's shocking loss to Minnesota showed that it still has not figured out how to consistently win games when it is forced out of its formula of getting an early lead and leaning on the running game and defense to finish off an opponent.

Put it all together and it very well could mean the Cardinals are on their way to their first division title since 2009.

This guy has done a great job researching actual numbers rather than just looking whats happening on the screen.

Very well written article. Most shocking stat is the one about Beanie compared to Ryan Williams...

Addtion by subtraction?
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PostPosted: Thu Sep 27, 2012 1:27 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Good read. Thanks Johnny.
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PostPosted: Thu Sep 27, 2012 2:20 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Beanie-Williams thing isn't shocking. 1, Beanie's hurt. 2, Williams heavily upped his average running against a worn out defense in the 4th quarter of a 3 TD lead. That's usually leads positive things.
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