Time to Take the Cardinals Seriously

All season long, many have dismissed the Cardinals, labeling their hot start as a fluke and waiting for their inevitable downfall. However, even with the passing of 11 weeks, Arizona is still on top. No one has a better record than the Cardinals, who sit at 9-1 and have a record of 16-3 dating back to week 8 of last season. Let’s take a closer look at how the team from the desert has been so dominant this season.

The Cardinals’ success starts on the defensive side of the ball. Opponents have averaged only 17.6 points per game against Arizona’s defense, which is good for 3rd fewest in the NFL. Where the Cardinals’ defense has truly shined is stopping the run: Arizona is ranked 3rd in rush defense, holding opposing offenses to a dismal 80.5 rushing yards per game, and limiting backs to only 3.5 yards per carry. Calais Campbell has led this effort for the Cardinals, with the 7th most tackles in run defense, 22, of defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme. His 13.5 stop percentage (the percentage of a player’s run defense snaps where he was responsible for a stop, with a stop defined as a loss for the offense), is the highest in the league amongst defensive ends in 3-4. The visual below shows how Alfred Morris, LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray, all top-10 rushers, have faired against the Cardinals rush defense compared to their season averages.

Season Averages

Season Avg

Vs. Cardinals

Vs Cardinals

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Calais Campbell has been a force against the run for Arizona.

In fact, the only game in which DeMarco Murray rushed for less than 100 yards was against Arizona. The Cardinals’ amazing run defense has forced opponents to rely heavily on their passing games, as they’re 2nd in opponents’ pass plays called. At quick glance it would appear that their pass defense is poor, as they give up the 4th most yards through the air, with opponents averaging 263.2 passing yards per game and a middle of the pack average completion percentage of 62.1%. However, while the Cardinals’ defensive backs have not been locking down wideouts, they have been opportunistic – Arizona has intercepted 15 passes so far, only topped by division rival San Francisco’s 16, and quarterbacks facing the Cardinals’ defense have an average passer rating of 79.9, 5th lowest in the NFL. All-Pro corner Patrick Peterson gets most of the publicity, but the man on the either side of the field, Antonio Cromartie, has been the driving force for the Cardinals’ pass defense. Cromartie, along with free safety Rashad Johnson and fellow corner Jerraud Powers, lead the team in interceptions with 3, but “Al-Cro-traz’s” elite play goes well beyond his interception total.

Quarterbacks’ passer rating while throwing toward Cromartie is 57.1 – only 3 other corners have forced QBs into a lower passer rating. How good is Cromartie’s 57.1 mark? For some perspective, QBs throwing at his former Jets teammate Darrelle Revis have a passer rating of 68.5, and a rating of 73.3 while throwing at Richard Sherman. Cromartie has also only given up 23 receptions, 6th fewest in the league, while being targeted 51 times – an allowed completion percentage of 45%, 2nd lowest percentage amongst all corners. Cromartie’s profootballfocus.com coverage rating of 11.1 is the 2nd highest rating in the league, and 3rd corner Jerraud Powers’ coverage rating of 5.8 is good for 10th. With the incredibly stout run defense led by the elite play of Calais Campbell, and the excellent play of the ball-hawking secondary even outside of Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals are built to win ugly, grind-it-out football games.

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Patrick Peterson has plenty to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, starting with his second fiddle Antonio Cromartie.

Expecting Drew Stanton to step in and light up the league after Carson Palmer’s season-ending injury would be a tad unrealistic, but he certainly has a nice array of weapons at his disposal. His most important weapon lines up behind him in the backfield in running back Andre Ellington. Ellington’s rush yards total wont blow you away at 624, 11th best in the league, nor will his 3 rushing touchdowns. It’s his ability to create big plays and to catch the ball out of the backfield that will help Stanton the most. Breakaway percentage measures the percentage of yards that come on runs of 15 or more yards; Ellington is 6th in the league with a breakaway percentage of 29.2% and is tied for the second most 15+ yard runs with 10.

Where Ellington does even more damage, though, is in the passing game. He’s already hauled in 41 receptions, and only Matt Forte, who at one point led the entire NFL in receptions, and Le’Veon Bell of Pittsburgh, have more catches at the running back position. And Ellington wont be the only one catching passes for Stanton – the wideout combination of Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown has been hard to stop this season. Many believe Fitzgerald is having a real down year, and by simply looking at his stats, it’s an understandable conviction. This is not the same Fitzgerald that had five consecutive seasons of 1,000+ receiving yards, 80+ catches and 6+ receiving touchdowns, but this “Larry Fitz” has been incredibly efficient. His wide receiver rating of 113.5 (which measures the ratings quarterbacks have whilst throwing to a particular wideout) is 10th best in the league and ranks higher than those of studs like Demaryius Thomas, Alshon Jeffery and Jeremy Maclin. Fitz has been thrown to 69 times this season, has caught 46 of those passes, and has not dropped a single ball this entire season.

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Larry Fitzgerald is finally enjoying the luxury of playing with an explosive running back.

Fitzgerald has spent the majority of the season in the slot, 56.8% of his routes; Stanton is spoiled to have such a security blanket in the face of blitzes and quick decisions, but he’ll be getting his big plays from rookie wideout John Brown, who has thus far made a living taking the top off of defenses. Brown has 7 catches with 0 drops on targets of 20 yards or more. Of those 7 catches, 4 have gone for touchdowns, good for 5th most in the NFL amongst wide receivers. This is music to Drew Stanton’s ears, as 4 of his 5 touchdown passes on the year have been on passes of 20 or more yards.

With such efficient players at the skill positions, and a defense that can make up for and cover the mistakes Stanton is bound to make, do not be surprised if the Cardinals are right in the running for the Lombardi Trophy come February, even without their starting QB. It could be quite the Cinderella story given the motivational boost of University of Phoenix Stadium playing host of this year’s Super Bowl. It would not be the first time a backup quarterback won the Super Bowl after being inserted into the starting lineup mid-season – Hello Tom Brady, Trent Dilfer, Jeff Hostetler, Jim Plunkett, Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach – so don’t be surprised if Stanton finds his name on that list when this great season finally comes to an end.

by Sean Fener, Saint Joseph’s University

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