On Broken Wing

Coach Ken Whisenhunt and his players have mostly declined to point to injuries as the excuse for the defense's decline in the second half of the season. But it's clear the loss of three key starters near the midway point contributed greatly to the team not making the playoffs.

In five weeks, the team dropped from ninth overall in defense to 18th. It's no coincidence that the slide came at the time the club lost end/outside linebacker Bertrand Berry, strong safety Adrian Wilson and cornerback Eric Green.

Of the three, only Wilson was playing at an elite level, but all the injuries forced the club to explore its depth. The results were not favorable.

Much of the Cardinals defensive scheme was designed around Wilson. In a nickel scheme called the "Cardinal package," Wilson moved closer to the line of scrimmage, where he could blitz, cover a slot receiver or just roam the middle. Backup safety Aaron Francisco entered the game in that package, but Francisco was out for most of those weeks with knee and calf injuries.

With those two players out, the package wasn't used. Instead, the team kept its safeties deep more often, and the resulting lack of pressure on the quarterback led to some big passing days by opponents.

Atlanta's Chris Redman, a spot starter at best, threw for 315 yards and two touchdowns. Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck passed for four touchdowns in a key division game three weeks ago. The Saints' Drew Brees completed 26 of 30 for two touchdowns in a loss that eliminated the Cardinals from the playoffs.

The Cardinals have played some hot quarterbacks in the second half of the season, and haven't done much to slow them down.

"That's the NFL," Whisenhunt said. "It's our job to do some things to stop it. It's nothing we can complain about, we just have to be better."

Defensive end Darnell Dockett had eight sacks in the first eight games and none in the next seven. Defensive end Antonio Smith has gone nine games without a sack. Part of the problem is the absence of Berry.

He might not be the player he was when he made the Pro Bowl in 2004, but he was a pass rusher who commanded attention. The Cardinals could not afford to lose him.

Green had shown great improvement over last year, though he hasn't played at an elite level. His absence, however, has illustrated the club's lack of depth. Antrel Rolle had to move from his nickel back slot, where he had excelled, to the starting job. Ralph Brown has taken over the nickel role.

Rolle was burned for a 74-yard touchdown by Falcons rookie Laurent Robinson, and cornerback Roderick Hood was twice called for interference.

In the last few weeks, Brown and fellow backups Michael Adams and Oliver Celestin also have been burned for touchdowns. All three are playing because of injuries.

Hood, however, refused to blame the team's struggles on injuries.

"I'm not one to make excuses," Hood said. "I'm not the one to speculate, I'll leave that up to y'all. When I'm out there, I need to make a play. We're just not making the plays as a whole defense that we should."

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Anquan Boldin now has 409 receptions. He became the fastest NFL player to reach 400 receptions, doing it in 67 games. The previous fastest was Kellen Winslow, who did it in 72 games. Boldin also tied a career high with his eighth touchdown reception this season, and he has missed four games because of injuries.

--QB Kurt Warner has 24 touchdown passes, the most by a Cardinal since the team moved to Arizona. It's tied for the second highest total in team history, behind Neil Lomax and Charley Johnson, who had 28.

--RG Deuce Lutui suffered a sprained left knee and is scheduled to undergo an MRI on Monday. Lutui didn't think the injury was serious. Elton Brown took his place and appeared to do a solid job.

--LS Nate Hodel suffered a sprained ankle on Neil Rackers' game-winning field goal in overtime. Hodel doesn't think the injury is serious.

--RB Edgerrin James gained 76 yards on 25 carries. James had some running room but didn't seem to break many tackles and looked slow to reach openings.


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