Monday, September 29, 2014

Stepping Back To Baseball For A Moment

Arizona didn't play, so they're still in first in the NFC West. A trip to Denver - who are also coming off a bye week - awaits. But that's for next week.

In the meantime, the baseball season ended. The Cardinals managed to hold onto the NL Central, despite doing their level best to blow it against the Cubs and the Diamondbacks. Now they have to travel to Los Angeles and play the Dodgers, a team that won four more games than the Cardinals, scored 99 more runs, but allowed 14 more runs. L.A. has a run differential of +101 (suggesting they should only have won 92 games), the Cards +16 (suggesting they should only have won 83. Yipes).

I have no idea how much any of that matters in a 5-game series. 4 games difference across 162 games isn't very much at all, and plenty of teams have won playoff series against teams with better records. The major concern for the Cardinals should be the same one they've had all year: Can they score? You could tell me they were gonna get swept because they only score 4 runs in 3 games and I wouldn't be terribly surprised. I still can't figure it out. They have enough above-average hitters it seems like they ought to be able to score more consistently, but they can't ever get more than a couple guys on track at the same time.

One thing that might work in their advantage is the state of the Dodgers rotation. Kershaw and Greinke are going to be trouble, no doubt, but I've read a few things that make me wonder if Ryu is available, Josh Beckett definitely isn't, and Dan Haren hasn't pitched terribly well this year (though that would hardly preclude him from shutting down the Cardinals' offense). And outside of Kenley Jansen, Brandon League, and J.P. Howell, the Dodgers' bullpen doesn't look too imposing. And Howell walks a batter every other inning, so that makes me think he's vulnerable (though he barely allows any hits, so maybe not).

Of course, I don't know what the Cardinals are going to do with their rotation. Wainwright and Lynn are certainties, but between Lackey, Miller, and Wacha, I don't know who gets left out. Lackey's had only a couple of good starts out of the 10 he had for St. Louis. Miller pitched poorly for 4.5 months, then pitched well the last 6 weeks. Wacha's seems like he needs more rehab starts. I'd probably go with Miller and Lackey, but make sure to include Marco Gonzales in the 'pen to step in for long relief if either one struggles. I have my doubts Matheny will pass up Wacha, though. More likely it'll be Shelby getting left behind, given Matheny was willing to take Joe Kelly over Shelby last year, when Miller had pitched much better than he has this season. Beyond that, I'd have Rosenthal, Martinez, Maness, Choate, Neshek, and Freeman in the bullpen. 12 pitchers is excessive, 11 should be plenty.

Of course, the question is whether they have enough guys worth putting on the bench to bother carrying six bench guys. Figure Molina, Adams, Wong, Peralta, Carpenter, Holliday, and Jay are set. My guess is they take Pierzynski over Cruz for backup catcher, and Bourjos, Grichuk, and Taveras round out the outfield options. Then you can take Descalso, Ellis, Kozma, er maybe swap in Xavier Scruggs for Ellis, if they can do that. Or Greg Garcia. Like I said, they may not have a 6th bench guy worth having, but there has to be some way to leverage that spot. I don't want them to end up in a situation like last year, where Matheny carries 12 pitchers, but two of them just sit there taking up space (Miller and Mujica).


Monday, September 22, 2014

Pleasant Surprises Abound For Arizona

Arizona defeated the 49ers 23-14 yesterday, moving the Cardinals to 3-0, and keeping them in sole possession of first place in the NFC West. The Niners helped by declaring Vernon Davis and Ray McDonald inactive, but heck, Arizona didn't have Palmer or John Abraham either, so it evens out.

In the first half, the Niners came out with a lot of 5 wide receiver, quick route stuff, and Kaepernick torched Arizona's defense. Also, the Cardinals' offense consisted of telling Drew Stanton to throw the ball downfield and hope his receivers made a play. Or the Niners got called for pass interference, whichever. Hey, it worked for Peyton Manning, back when he could still throw downfield.

In the second half, Arizona adjusted to the Niners and contained their QB, and San Francisco opted not to go back to their power rushing attack for some reason. They only ran for 82 yards, and Kaepernick had 54 of those. Meanwhile, Arians realized that Stanton isn't Daryl Lamonica, and went to shorter passes. Along with some help from the Niners penalty happy defense, the Cardinals managed to score a couple of touchdowns and win the day.

The good news is Stanton again avoided turnovers. Larry Fitzgerald lost a fumble, but that's not on the QB. Stanton also wasn't sacked, though he took some hits. The defense stiffened up, holding the Niners to just over 100 yards in the second half and 0 points. Arizona's offense went 8-13 on 3rd down conversions, which is good. The Cardinals only ran for 84 yards, but the ran 27 times, so Arians is at least committed to keeping a balanced offense.

Now the Cardinals have a bye week, which seems like bad luck (it seems better to have them later in the season, after guys are more beat up), and then they have to play Denver. It's at Denver, which is going to make things tougher, but may work out in the long run. I figure beating Denver, even in Arizona, might be a tall order. But the other teams in the AFC West are the sort that might not be too difficult to host, but could be rough if you have travel to their stadium. So maybe it's better to face KC in Arizona. Although I think Arizona's defense ought to be able to do at least as good a job against Denver as Seattle did. May be a question of whether Arizona's offense can dial it up. They went 1-for-4 scoring touchdowns on red zone trips again yesterday. That has to improve, especially against better teams.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Who Is That Atop The NFC West?

Arizona, that's who.

Yes, I know it's only week 2. Yes, I know they could fall into a tie for first as soon as next week, when they play the 1-1 49ers, who will no doubt be pissed they blew a 17-point lead last night. Just let me enjoy the moment.

The Cardinals beat the New York Giants 25-14 yesterday. There were a lot of potential excuses if they lost. They were coming off a Monday night game that didn't even start until after 9 p.m., playing an early Sunday game, on the East Coast, minus both their starting QB (held out with a shoulder sprain), and their best remaining pass rusher (John Abraham, who suffered memory loss after his concussion in the Charger game).

Incidentally, I would totally understand if Abraham took that as a sign to retire. He's 35, probably made a pretty good chunk of change over the years. Take it home and enjoy remembering your family's names.

Besides the fact they won, there are several good things to take away from the game for Arizona. The team ran for 124 yards and 4 ypc, and the defense held the Giants to just 81 yards and 3 ypc. Andre Ellington had 91 yards on just 15 carries, and another 10 on his one catch, so 101 yards on 16 touches overall. The defense sacked Eli Manning twice, intercepted him twice (no great trick, admittedly), and recovered a fumble. Ted Ginn returned a punt 71 yards for a touchdown, then the Cards' special teams forced and recovered another fumble on the ensuing kickoff. Backup QB Drew Stanton didn't turn the ball over. Kicker Chandler Catanzaro was 4-for-4 on field goals.

Still, there are concerns. The Giants outgained Arizona 341 yards to 266, and averaged 5 yards per play. Eli Manning completed 67% of his passes, and I get the feeling the defense still can't get consistent pressure on the QB. The Cardinals were whistled for 7 penalties (though New York got 9), and Patrick Peterson drew two on one drive. For the second week in a row, Arizona got an early lead, then lost it and had to stage a comeback. The lead was lost and regained a little earlier this week than last week, but I'm hoping to see a game where they take control early and maintain. Stanton was sacked 4 times, which solidifies my concerns about the offensive line's pass blocking abilities. Which could be critical if they want to keep Palmer upright against the Niners in Week 3. Stanton didn't really have a great game. I know he hasn't played in a game since 2010, but 14-29 for 167 yards isn't all that special. It might be good enough against a shitty NFC East team, but the offense will have to do better against their divisional foes.

But for now, as I said above, I'm just going to enjoy what they've got going in the moment.


Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Arizona Wasting No Time With the Narrow Escapes

The harder the NFL has tried to keep my attention in the offseason, the more I find myself ignoring it. I gave up monitoring the draft years ago, because I got tired of the hype that was so rarely matched by players Arizona drafted. Ultimately, I figured it was best to wait and see what the did once the games started.

Still, I was aware that the Cardinals' defense - which did most of the heavy lifting last year - had taken some hits this offseason. Karlos Dansby got a multi-year contract from Cleveland the Cards wisely didn't match. Daryl Washington is suspended for the year for multiple drug test failures, Darnell Dockett blew out his ACL, and Mathieu hasn't fully recovered from blowing out 2 knee ligaments last year. So there was concern.

But the defense did all right for itself last night against the Chargers. They didn't sack Rivers, and they only forced one turnover, but they did hold the Chargers to less than 300 yards of offense (and only 52 yards rushing, at 2.2 ypc). And late in the game, when San Diego was trying to drive the field and retake the lead, the defense kept bringing the house, and even if they didn't get to Rivers, they at least made him feel the pressure.

All of this is good, because Arizona's offense had trouble putting points on the board until the 4th quarter. I saw a little of the game, the last half of the second quarter, but the bit I saw didn't look promising. The O-line couldn't seem to open holes for Ellington, Palmer seemed to be under pressure constantly, and they were in a lot of third and longs. But they did better overall than I thought. Ellington averaged over 4 yards per carry on 13 carries, and totaled 80 yards on 18 touches. So with no Mendenhall, Arians at least seems determined to get Ellington more touches. The team went 6 for 13 on third down, which isn't superb, but it's a step up from some of the lousy performances they had last year. Palmer didn't throw any picks, though he and Ellington each lost a fumble.

But since Seattle and San Francisco both won this week, the Cardinals needed to win to keep up. The NFC West doesn't look like it's gotten any weaker this year, so Arizona is going to need every win they can get.