Behind Enemy Lines: Cardinals

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The Cardinals know it's not realistic to expect to eliminate mistakes as they come off their bye week and prepare for the final nine games. But if they can just reduce the number of penalties, turnovers and other mental errors, they think they can make a playoff run.

Those mistakes are what have kept them from having a better record than 3-4. They lead the league in penalties and are minus-seven in turnover ratio. Only five teams are worse.

The turnover ratio is a problem on both sides of the ball. The Cardinals have 16 turnovers, eight of which have come in the past two games. It's probably not a coincidence that those are the games quarterback Kurt Warner has started.

Against Washington, Warner had two interceptions and a fumble. Against Carolina the week before, he lost a fumble and was injured on a sack.

If the Cardinals are going to make anything of the final nine games, Warner must take better care of the ball. That is a simple fact, but it's complicated by a torn ligament in Warner's left elbow.

That's his non-throwing arm, but the injury has weakened his left arm and made it less flexible. It's supposed to gradually improve without surgery, but Warner is wearing a brace on the arm that limits its flexibility.

Warner's passing motion isn't affected but the injury does impact his ability to hand off on runs to the left. In his first game after the injury, Warner used his right hand to hand off, and the whole operation looked awkward.

That's why coach Ken Whisenhunt put backup Tim Rattay in when the team was close to the goal line, to avoid mistakes.

In the first seven games, Whisenhunt has shown a willingness to take chances, and almost all of his gambles have paid off. He's going to have to do more of that in the final nine games to give his team a shot at the postseason.

That style fits Whisenhunt's personality anyway, so it's not as if he's uncomfortable going against the norm. And the players like it, believing it shows Whisenhunt's faith in their ability to execute.

"I don't know of an offensive lineman who doesn't want to go for it on fourth down," center Al Johnson said, "or doesn't want to do the things that they (opponents) aren't expecting. As a team, it shows he has a lot of confidence in us."

SERIES HISTORY

16th meeting. Cardinals lead, 8-7, and won the last meeting, 12-7, in 2004. Only two of the Cardinals victories have been by more than a touchdown. Despite the small number of games they've played, the teams are tied together in some ways. The Cardinals traded running back Thomas Jones to Tampa in 2003. Simeon Rice and Michael Pittman went to Tampa via free agency after their time with the Cardinals. Shaun King played quarterback for both clubs. Tampa had the fourth pick in the last draft, taking defensive end Gaines Adams, while the Cardinals had the fifth, taking offensive tackle Levi Brown.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Quarterback Matt Leinart said his fractured left collarbone is healing, but he must wear a sling for a few more weeks. "I can't wait to get this sling off," Leinart said. "Once I get it off, then I can start rehabilitation."

Leinart suffered the fracture on Oct. 7 at St. Louis and was placed on injured reserve, ending his season.

--The Falcons tried to sign tight end Ben Patrick off the Cardinals practice squad late last week. The Cardinals promoted Patrick, their seventh-round pick last April, to the 53-man roster, signing him to a two-year contract.

--Edgerrin James needs 12 rushing yards Sunday to reach the 11,000-yard mark for his career. He already is the leading active rusher and is No. 16 on the all-time list, 238 yards behind O.J. Simpson.

BY THE NUMBERS

10-for-15 -- That is kicker Neil Rackers' field-goal statistics this year. Three of the misses have been from 50 yards and beyond.

QUOTE TO NOTE

"There's certainly a pressure to win. And there's always that pressure not to be second-guessed. But I'm not out there taking random chances. There's a lot of thought that goes into this stuff." -- Coach Ken Whisenhunt, on his willingness to do the unconventional.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Cardinals would like to get tight end Leonard Pope more involved in the passing game. Pope has shown improvement, but his blocking still needs work and he must improve his understanding of the offense. With Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald on the outside, there should be openings for a tight end as a receiver.

The club is getting solid play from its defensive line, especially the ends, Darnell Dockett and Antonio Smith. They've done a solid job against the run and have proven to be competent pass rushers.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--QB Kurt Warner is 3-14 as a starter with the Cardinals. Not all of that is his fault because he's played on some bad teams. But Warner can't be totally absolved, either. He has to do a better job of avoiding turnovers.

--If left tackle Mike Gandy (calf) can't play this week, right guard Deuce Lutui will be the only offensive lineman to start every game at the same position.

--RB Edgerrin James has rushed for more than 100 yards in just one game this year, but he's averaging about 86 yards a game. At this pace, he'll gain 1,382 yards and finish with 357 carries.

--WR Larry Fitzgerald will receive a $5 million bonus if he makes the Pro Bowl. He's on his way, leading the NFC in receptions (46) and yards (642).

--WR Anquan Boldin needs 80 yards to reach the 5,000-yard mark for his career. If he reaches that mark this Sunday, he will tie Jerry Rice as the fourth fastest to reach that milestone.

GAME PLAN

The Cardinals have a one-armed quarterback and are playing a team, Tampa Bay, that has trouble stopping the run. It would make sense for the Cardinals to try to pound away at the Bucs, and they will. But they won't ignore their offensive strength -- the passing game. If given time, Warner can do some damage by getting the ball to Boldin and Fitzgerald.

On defense, the Cardinals need to figure out a way to hit quarterback Jeff Garcia. The Jaguars did that last week and Garcia threw his first interceptions of the year. The Cardinals defense is fast, so it won't be easy for Garcia to avoid the rush.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Cardinals WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin vs. Bucs secondary, including corners Ronde Barber, Phillip Buchanon and Bian Kelly. The Bucs won't let Fitzgerald get isolated deep very often, so the Cardinals must work underneath. Boldin excels in running after the catch so the Bucs must be good tacklers.

Buccaneers QB Jeff Garcia vs. Cardinals front seven. The Cardinals will mix up their pass-rush looks but they have to stay disciplined to keep Garcia from getting out of the pocket much. Garcia is creative on the run, and the Cardinals must be able to hit him.

INJURY IMPACT

Warner will likely start a second straight game while wearing a brace on his left arm. Warner reports improvement in the arm but it still bothers him to hand off.

ILB Karlos Dansby has a sprained MCL in his left knee and didn't practice Wednesday. It seems likely that Dansby will miss another week, and that Monty Beisel will make his second straight start.

LT Mike Gandy has a right calf injury but is practicing this week. It's expected he will play. Just how much is in question. Rookie Levi Brown is working at both right and left tackle. If Brown spends a lot of time at left tackle this week, Elton Brown will continue to start on the right side.

S Aaron Francisco practiced Wednesday after missing a game because of a sprained right knee. A backup, Francisco plays in some nickel packages and is an excellent special-teams player.


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