Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Cardinals, Part II
Craig Massei, publisher, NinersDigest.com: So what has gotten into the Cardinals? We saw a sloppy effort by Arizona in San Francisco three weeks ago, but apparently that was an aberration of the way the Cards have been playing lately. With four wins in their last five games, Arizona is one of the NFL's hottest teams. Are the Cards just running good right now, or have they really become a better team? What has changed to turn the Cards into a 5-7 team after they started 1-6?
Brad Wilbricht, publisher, AZRedReport.com: I don't think the Cardinals have suddenly became a playoff-caliber team but some of the breaks that were going against them earlier in the year have started to go their way. That said, two constants during the Cards' recent hot streak have been their commitment to running the ball and their ability to make plays on special teams. Despite ongoing injury issues, RB Beanie Wells exploded for a career-high 228 yards two weeks ago against St. Louis and rookie CB Patrick Peterson continues to rewrite the punt-return record books. Arguably most important, though, has been the development of Arizona's defense. After allowing 30 or more points in four straight games, the Cardinals have given up 13, 17, 23, 20 and 13 points in their last five outings.
Craig Massei: What did it mean for the Cardinals to get Kevin Kolb back at quarterback last week? After missing four weeks with his foot injury, did he return a different guy? Even though he was shaky and inconsistent, John Skelton did lead the team to a 3-1 record as the starter in Kolb's place. Where does the QB situation stand in Arizona now that Kolb is back in the saddle as the starter?
Brad Wilbricht: Due to the commitment made by the organization towards Kolb, he's still the guy and will be for some time. The Cardinals still like what they've seen from Skelton over the past two seasons and it never hurts to have two capable quarterbacks in this day and age. More than anything, I think Kolb's return gave the Arizona offense a sense of stability. Like you mentioned, Skelton went 3-1 as a starter while Kolb was out, but there's always a different dynamic when your franchise quarterback (hopefully in the Cards' case) is on the sideline. While Kolb wasn't spectacular in his first game back since October 30th, his 109.9 quarterback rating and 64 percent completion percentage were both season highs.
Craig Massei: It may sound a little crazy, but the Cardinals have put themselves back on the edge of playoff contention, particularly with the way other NFC Wild-Card contenders seem to be falling over themselves in recent weeks. There's a tough road game ahead in Cincinnati, but Arizona's schedule seems to shape up favorably once the Cards get past the Niners. What is the vibe around Arizona now about the recent/comeback turnaround, and what's the talk about the Cards riding this momentum and possibly running the table? Is this team good enough to do that and be put in that kind of conversation?
Brad Wilbricht: The rest of the Cardinals' schedule does set up nicely, but the postseason is still a substantial reach at this point. In order to make that a possibility, a win this week against the Niners is a must. While two more winnable games at home against Cleveland and Seattle remain, another road contest against Cincinnati looms. Arizona would need to win out to finish 9-7 and still need quite a bit of help from the teams ahead of them. Although making the playoffs is the ultimate goal, finishing the 2011 campaign strong would also bode well for next season. The Cards have been facing an uphill battle all season, suffering through several injuries while breaking in a new quarterback and defensive coordinator.
Craig Massei: The Cardinals seem to have really picked it up on defense lately since allowing 30 or more points in four consecutive games during October. What have been the changes there, and who are the individuals that have led the charge? What has new defensive coordinator Ray Horton done to finally get his players to buy into his program?
Brad Wilbricht: Arizona's defense has done a complete 180 throughout the second half of the season thus far and much of that has been the result of players buying into Horton's system. In addition to that, the continuing learning curve of minor details has made a major impact in the defense's performance. Besides the usual suspects, two players that have stuck out of late are DE Calais Campbell and rookie LB Sam Acho. Campbell (6.0 sacks) and Acho (5.0 sacks) are first and second on the team in sacks and their ability to rush opposing passers has been the difference. The Cards' two young cornerbacks, Peterson and A.J. Jefferson, are light years ahead of where they were earlier in the year and continue to get better.
Craig Massei: It's five consecutive victories and counting now for the 49ers against the Cardinals, and Arizona hasn't hit double digits on the scoreboard against San Francisco in the last four meetings between the teams. Is that something that's starting to stick in Arizona's craw? What have been the primary reasons behind the Niners' recent superiority after the Cards had won six of the previous eight meetings before San Francisco's recent run? How badly does Arizona want to end that current streak, and how much would an upset victory before the home fans mean to the Cards and their season?
Brad Wilbricht: Arizona desperately wants to end that current streak. The Cardinals consider San Francisco their main rival and it certainly eats at them that the series has turned so one-sided. I think the 49ers have simply had better teams starting last season while their 2009 squad was a pesky thorn in the Cards and then-QB Kurt Warner's side. During that time frame, regardless of who was coaching, San Francisco has made it a point to be a physical team on both sides of the ball. I think that's been the biggest advantage during the current winning streak. Arizona has been playing with more physicality in the second half of this season, a trend that will need to continue in order to snap a five-game skid against the Niners.
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