Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Cardinals, Part IV

In the final segment of our exclusive four-part series, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and AZRedReport.com's Amberly Richardson wrap their back-and-forth interaction with five final questions from Craig to Amberly. Does Edgerrin James still have the edge? The Cards can pass, but are they any better at defending it? How close is Arizona to really being a playoff team? These Q&As and more inside.

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, SFIllustrated.com: With so much talk about Arizona's passing attack, we're wondering where Edgerrin James fits into everything the Cards want to do on offense. What's the Edge have left? He had a pretty productive season last year, and nobody wins in the NFL without a decent rushing game. James has some wear and tear on him, but is he still good enough to give the Cards the rushing dimension they need to be a top-10 offense?

Amberly Richardson, Publisher, AZRedReport.com: James still has a couple 1,000-yard seasons left in him. He turned 30 last month and the age doesn't faze him. Basically James has said that the 30-mark doesn't have anything on him. After all he's done, he's taken care of his body better than anyone. He says that there are guys who haven't played nearly as many snaps missing practices and sitting out games. Currently, James holds the No.13 spot in the league's all-time rushing list. To pass Marcus Allen, who sits in the No. 10 spot, he needs just 636 yards. Top 10 is a nice goal, but James wants Top 5. At the end of the day, James is still one of the premier backs in the league, but he is lacking the home run ability that the Cardinals would like to see. In the past two seasons, James has had a per-carry average of fewer than 4 yards, only one other time in his career (2002, 3.6) has that occurred. The Cardinals plan to put more rushing yards on the board is rookie running back Tim Hightower out of Richmond. Arizona liked Hightower because he came in with a bit of a chip on his shoulder as he was overlooked by most scouts. He has already won the No. 2 role, and coach Ken Whisenhunt has said that if Hightower continues his solid performances, then his load should increase. Look to see Hightower get at least 100 carries. Arizona's offensive line made vast strides last year and the continuity that is building with the big guys up front should help both players' numbers.


Craig Massei: The Cards made some big steps on defense last year, but passing defense seemed to be their Achilles' heel. What has been done to improve that area this season? How is the move of Antrel Rolle to safety working out? What's the secondary looking like now?

Amberly Richardson: Arizona spent the offseason loading up on defensive depth. DE Travis LaBoy beat out veteran Bertrand Berry for the starting role. Whisenhunt brought in Clark Haggans from his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Haggans is currently sitting behind Chike Okeafor who is returning to the lineup after missing all of the 2007 season. The weapons are there with returning Pro Bowler Darnell Dockett and Dockett's friend and teammate, Antonio Smith, a guy with big Pro Bowl aspirations and of course elite linebacker Karlos Dansby. Calais Campbell, a rookie out of Miami, is as pro-ready as they come. He is making a strong case to start and probably would on another team. All that said, the Cardinals have what it takes to improve their pass defense. To me, their run defense looked a bit disappointing in the preseason, Cardinals opponents averaged 123 yards on the ground. In the air, the Cardinals allowed nearly 200 passing yards a game to land in the bottom 10 of the league during preseason, but the Cardinals did stack up their defense and have plenty of playmakers in the bunch. In 2007, Arizona finished in the bottom five of pass defense, which had a lot to do with injuries. The Cardinals made a solid decision by moving Rolle to free safety. With a healthy Adrian Wilson, the safeties look unbeatable. Arizona came up big with rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but he won't be starting any time soon.


Craig Massei: In his first season last year, Ken Whisenhunt seemed to implement in the Cardinals discipline, accountability and other characteristics that perhaps were somewhat lacking during the Dennis Green era. What's your assessment of the job Whisenhunt is doing as he enters his second season with the team? Is everyone on board with his program now, or are there still a few stragglers?

Amberly Richardson: Lately, discipline has come down to on-the-field penalties. After finishing with the most in the league last season, Whisenhunt is benching players for mental errors. Dockett caused a 15-yard penalty in the preseason game at Oakland, and he was immediately benched. Whisenhunt joked that there weren't many mistakes after that. His no-nonsense coaching style is getting the Cardinals in shape, but not causing rifts in the locker room with a couple of exceptions. Management is listening to Whisenhunt and in an organization that's made some errors of its own, that's a good thing. He's changed the culture in Arizona and the players know what is expected of them, but Whisenhunt has had two major issues heading into his sophomore year. One setback was the quarterback saga. Matt Leinart wasn't his drafted guy, but he knew that the franchise wanted Leinart to be the future of the organization, but Kurt Warner could win. Whisenhunt's second dilemma is ongoing, with the Anquan Boldin drama, as Boldin has gone public that he has no relationship with Whisenhunt. Just in part II of this Behind Enemy Line series, I said Boldin had his chin up about the whole situation. A couple short days later, his agent is saying that a trade is the only option. Whisenhunt can't be happy with the soap opera as he's led a clean campaign so far. If there are any stragglers, it's mostly cash related.


Craig Massei: The Cardinals put 404 points on the scoreboard last season - that's a lot of points - and were on the edge of contention with their 8-8 finish. But they had six losses by a touchdown or less, including both games against the 49ers. What was it that prevented the Cards from getting over the top last season? In your estimation, how close were they to being a playoff team, and did they carry momentum or frustration into the offseason? What intangible is manifesting itself within the team now as the season begins?

Amberly Richardson: I think the Cardinals are the worker bees that are hyping most of the buzz. There is an unmatched optimism within the players. Winning two games to close out the season played a big role in carrying the momentum from the offseason into camp. Obtaining quite a few talented, fresh-faced rookies in red is also another reason that Arizona feels it's ready to produce in 2008. Of course, staying healthy will be the Cardinals biggest benefit. The Cardinals know they need to clutch those close games, which was one of their biggest downfalls last season. Arizona hopes a bit of revenge is looming for the 49ers. They barely missed the playoffs and fingers are pointed at the two losses to San Francisco last year. If the Cardinals put away a pair of wins against the 49ers, they would have secured a 10-6 record and would have been playoff bound. Arizona is close to being a playoff contender.


Craig Massei: All things considered, the Cardinals still are a team that has produced just one winning season in the past 23 years. Tell me what has to happen this year for that to change. There seems to be some real playoff buzz around the Cardinals this year, but we've heard that before. How realistic is that buzz? And on the dark side, give me the reasons why history could repeat itself and the Cards fall short yet again.

Amberly Richardson: It's true that the Cardinals are always the chic pick, but the Cardinals are more comfortable in their system entering year two under Whisenhunt and they really have the depth to go beyond .500. Alright Craig, making me go to the dark side. Here we go: The dark side could be injuries, injuries and more injuries. Arizona was plagued by injuries last season. With the exception of Gabe Watson and Al Johnson everyone is healthy and ready to go this time around. While I am confident in Warner, his immobility worries me against some of the better pass rushers in the league. Then again, he earned a Super Bowl ring with the same feet. Speaking of the big show, the Cardinals face both of last year's Super Bowl participants, the New York Giants and New England Patriots. Their schedule is a bit more difficult this season but manageable. Fans might have to worry about the Cardinals starting strong and then tapering off.



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