Starting over in the desert

Ken Whisenhunt is the new boss in Arizona, where the Cardinals have had a history of underachieving and never living up to their potential under his predecessors. Here, Whisenhunt – in his first season as a NFL head coach – talks Cardinals & 49ers and gives his takes on a spectrum of topics regarding how he plans to change a losing culture in Arizona and other things to look for with his new team.

Q: As a former offensive coordinator, you've had a few battles before with 49ers coach Mike Nolan, haven't you?
Whisenhunt: Well I have been on the staff with him. So we have battled together in New York and then I've had a few when he was in Baltimore.

Q: How do you get prepared for a Mike Nolan defense?
Whisenhunt:
They are playing solid football right now. You look at some of the things he has done in Baltimore as well as the past few years and you just kind of put it together.

Q: What is your appraisal of the 49er defense with five new starters?
Whisenhunt:
They felt a need on defense, and they certainly addressed those. It will be a good test for us going against those guys. I have been impressed with what I have seen in the preseason. I know they haven't shown everything that they have, but they play hard.

Q: Have you won part of the battle by making the 49ers worry about gadget plays?
Whisenhunt:
I don't know about winning the battle, but that is a part of what we did. In the Houston preseason game, we opened with a reverse pass. The one that we have done that has been a big part of our offense, is that when he have players like Randle El or Anquan Boldin, that could do some of those type of things, we would incorporate that into our offense. We have had success with it, so it will continue to be a part of what we do.

Q: Is Matt Leinart a good fit for what you want to run?
Whisenhunt:
He is a good, young quarterback, which is hard to find. I am excited about having him. I had the good fortune of working with Ben Roethlisberger the past couple of years and now I get a chance to work with Matt. A lot of the things we are going to ask him to do such as managing the offense, checking in and out of plays, being able to sit back in the pocket and make throws, he is very good at. He has had a lot of success at the pro and collegiate level, so I am excited to work with him.

Q: Is your goal to improve the Cardinals run game like you did with the Steelers in your first year there as a coordinator?
Whisenhunt:
It certainly has been a big part of our offense for a number of years. I learned that lesson, because midway through my tenure at Pittsburgh I was a tight ends coach, and we went a little bit more to the pass, and that was when our running game dropped to 30th in the league. That made it a lot more difficult on us offensively and on our defense. That emphasized to me how important it was to run the football. That is going to be a part of our game. It doesn't mean that you can always do it. Defenses can gives you multiple looks that can take you out of the run. When that happens, you have to be able to run the football. In our playoff run in 2005, when we won the Super Bowl, that's what we did, because people were really trying to stop the run. Our mindset is we want to run the football, but you can't ignore Larry and Anquan.

Q: Are you expecting a healthy Frank Gore?
Whisenhunt:
Absolutely I am. I'm sure he is chomping at the bits ready to play. It is something we have to be prepared to play against.

Q: Will you test out his hand early to see if it is fully healed?
Whisenhunt:
I think that is overrated. We are going to play our game. I don't know that it is a factor. We're just going to try to play and tackle him. That is the most important thing.

Q: Would Levi Brown play left tackle if you had a right handed quarterback?
Whisenhunt:
No he would not. We kind of retooled our offensive line. We had Oliver Ross and Mike Gandy and we played them on both sides of the ball and we tried to figure out which was the best spot for them. Part of it was in consideration for a left handed quarterback, but we felt like Mike looked and felt more comfortable at left tackle, so we thought that was the best fit for him. Levi, we feel is a good player, but because we felt Mike was more comfortable there, we would use Levi on the right side.

Q: Could you see Levi playing the left side?
Whisenhunt:
I think he could do it if we had an injury to Mike. If it were a long term injury, we would consider it. But for right now, he is going to stay at right tackle.

Q: With a left handed quarterback, do you feel the most important position is the right tackle?
Whisenhunt:
Well, a lot of the times, the best pass rushers are on the defensive right side, which is our left. Sometimes, those guys are not as effective if you flip them on the other side. I know that may sound crazy, but in talking to Joey Porter and Clark Haggans, to them it made a difference. Whether you have a left or right handed quarterback, that left edge of your offense is where the best pass rushers are going to be. We are certainly aware that Levi is going to have to protect Matt's blind side, but we have always been able to do some things in protection, whether it's a chip with a back or keeping a tight end on that side, to mix our protections up so that we can give him some help at times.

Q: Will the weight loss of your offensive linemen help in run blocking?
Whisenhunt:
Some of our power schemes, that San Francisco does as well, requires those guys to move and pull. It wasn't as much about losing weight as it was reshaping their bodies. We changed philosophies offensively where before they were a stretch zone, try to be a power running team to a counter power scheme. That requires those guys to move a little bit better and that is part of the reason why they did it. We got a new strength coach that changed the weight program and changing their bodies resulted in them losing weight.

Q: What's the biggest challenge of coming from a winning team to a team used to losing?
Whisenhunt:
You just try to implement things that you know have been successful for you. We got to the point where we have been together for a number of years and had been successful that you took things for granted as far as how you operate in practice, how you prepare, and how the team works together. Those are the things you take for granted when you do them all the time. When you come to a new program, I was fortunate to bring Russ and a couple guys over, which made it easier to establish a tempo in practice, to train them in how we prepare. That has been the biggest adjustment is getting the players to operate how you are used to. There are a number of things here in place with the new stadium, things we have done in free agency, as well as changing our weight room, that has worked towards changing the make up of our team. But getting the players to practice and prepare the way you are used to was what was different.

Q: What kind of changes have you made to the weight room there?
Whisenhunt:
We put in a new weight room in the off season. We completely tore out the old one. It was about a $200,000 dollar commitment by the owner Mr. Bidwill and Michael (Bidwill). That made a big difference because it was a change for our team. It was kind of a shock to them that we were changing the weight program and the room. Anytime you make a change to an organization, you are going to have a ripple effect and it does wake them up. The former weight room had been here since they were here since the late 80's. We went to more of a free weight, power lifting, core training weight program as opposed to a more machine program that they used in the past. So it was a departure from what they had done in the past.

Q: How well has your defense made the transition from the 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme?
Whisenhunt:
We are mix between a 4-3 and a 3-4. A lot of our fronts are going to look like a 3-4, but we are playing some of the rules of 3-4 and some of the rules of a 4-3. What we really did was along the lines of our offense, which was trying to match our defensive scheme to what best matched our personnel. That was putting Chike (Okeafor), who unfortunately got hurt, and Bertrand Berry on the outside as edge rushers and getting some bigger guys inside to help compete with the run game. We had some things where we had to find out about our team in the preseason, so we tried to keep it simple to see how they competed with one another.

Q: Who will start in place of Chike?
Whisenhunt:
Calvin Pace. He started the last preseason game for us against Denver, so he is our starter.

Q: What kind of preparations have you made for 49ers tight end Vernon Davis?
Whisenhunt:
Vernon Davis is becoming a good player. He does a good job blocking and in the pass game because of his speed and the way he can get down the field. As far as preparing for him, you have to know where he is. I am sure they are going to move him around and put him in spots where they can exploit match ups. Much like Frank Gore, you just have to be aware of where he is.

Q: Can you take advantage of Vernon's excitable nature in terms of penalties?
Whisenhunt:
I would hope he has some penalties. That is certainly something I have no control over and it would definitely help us. I have been around some excitable players in Pittsburgh, more notably Joey Porter, and the kind of energy that he brings to the team and the competitive fire a lot of times can be a good thing. From what I have seen on tape, he plays hard and that's what you want out of your player.

Q: What's your feeling about opening the season on Monday Night against the 49ers?
Whisenhunt:
Anytime you play in your division, especially the first game of the season, and more importantly on Monday Night, it is great for both football teams. Obviously the 49ers finished on high note last year and did a good job. We feel we made some improvements. Both teams feel good about themselves now and feel like we have a chance to compete within the division. Anytime that you are coach or a player on this level, you want opportunities to compete against a good football team, and that's what we get to do. What's even more exciting is we get to do it on Monday Night. I'm excited because I know Coach Nolan, have a relationship with him, and I know how well coached that football team is and how hard they will play. I am excited to get on the field and see how we match up with them.


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