Behind enemy lines: Arizona Cardinals

Last season, the Arizona Cardinals were one of the rare teams that could play awful, then flip a switch and be impressive the next week. Well, it's 2009 and the Cardinals hope they can find the switch again. They went 0-4 in the preseason and looked awful in the last two games against the Packers and Broncos.

Little they did in the last two weeks should give them confidence on Sunday when facing the 49ers in the season opener in Glendale. If the Cardinals sleepwalk through this one, they will be beaten.

And they seem to know it.

"We've been running our base stuff and that's the stuff you gotta be good at," strong safety Adrian Wilson said. "We haven't been good in the preseason running our base stuff."

Wilson said he was excited for the start of the regular season, "but at the same time I'm worried because of the things that have happened so far in preseason."

He's not the only concerned veteran. Quarterback Kurt Warner wasn't sharp the last two games, and while he didn't want to blame his receivers, he hinted that not all of them were running routes correctly.

Offensively, there were some bright spots in the preseason but you had to search a bit for them. The Cardinals ran the ball well and the pass protection held up for the most part.

"I think our offensive line played very well," Whisenhunt said. "To me that's a good indication of what we're trying to get done. We ran the ball well. We protected our quarterback well with our first line."

But the performances were wildly inconsistent, just as they were last year. The Cardinals started 7-3 but were blown out in three of the final five weeks. They righted themselves, got hot and advanced to the Super Bowl.

Whisenhunt hoped his team would mature this year and play consistently well each week. The Cardinals didn't do that in the preseason, and it's fair for fans to wonder if they will see progress this season.

The 49ers played the Cardinals close twice last season, and do as good a job as any team at defending Arizona's powerful offense. If the Cardinals aren't ready, the season will open in embarrassing fashion.

"I can't say the fans shouldn't be worried," Whisenhunt said. "Obviously, everything is about wins and losses. I think I had one of my friends say his son was torn up because we didn't win a game in preseason. He really didn't understand what preseason is all about.

"All I can say is I feel good about our team and I feel good about what we've done and where we are. It think we'll do well in the season and that's what I'm looking forward to."

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The 49ers haven't forgotten how they blew the game against the Cardinals in Arizona last year. The 49ers were on the Cardinals 1-yard line with no timeouts. Instead of handing it off to Frank Gore, the 49ers gave it to fullback Michael Robinson, who was stuffed as time ran out. The Cardinals won, 29-24, to take a four-game lead in the NFC West.

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After Arizona went 0-4 in preseason, Whisenhunt was confident he would have his team's attention entering the first week of the regular season. He was right. At least he thinks he was right.

"With the way the preseason went, I'm a little hesitant to say anything," Whisenhunt said. "It was a little bit different focus, which is what you want to see. I don't think we had a ball on the ground (Monday), and that was nice to see."

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Backup center Ben Claxton has been trying to make an opening day roster since being drafted by the Broncos in the fifth round in 2003. This is the first time he's made it. He spent two years out of the league and has bounced around between eight teams. He almost quit in the summer of 2008 to prepare to go to law school.

A guy like me, it seems like every day you're fightin', just trying to survive," Claxton said. "It's a double-edged sword I guess. You can never get complacent. It keeps you hungry."

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While Whisenhunt seemed unconcerned about the team's pre-season record, quarterback Kurt Warner didn't like how his team played.

The Cardinals emerged from the exhibition season with little to show for itself other than embarrassment. Whisenhunt cautioned that the Cardinals never game-planned for the preseason, which added to Warner's frustration. Warner often came to the sidelines with a handful of play suggestions.

"And I have to say, 'Kurt, look, we can't run that. That's great but we're not going to run those,'" Whisenhunt said. "To me, that's a great sign he's into what we're trying to do."

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The Cardinals signed offensive lineman Jeremy Bridges on Tuesday, and he should give them more versatility on the depth chart.

They released Elton Brown, whose strength was playing guard. Bridges can play both guard and tackle and could save the team a spot on game day.

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The release of safety Aaron Francisco on the final cuts not only hurts the special teams but leaves an opening in one of the team's dime schemes. Francisco and safety Matt Ware both played in the dime, with strong safety Adrian Wilson playing linebacker and free safety Antrel Rolle moving to cover the slot. The fourth safety is now rookie Rashad Johnson, who could fill Francisco's spot in the dime.



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