Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Cardinals, Part II

In Part II of an exclusive three-part series, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and AZRedReport.com's Amberly Richardson continue their back-and-forth interaction with 10 questions from Craig to Amberly. How's life atop the NFC West? Is there any way the Cardinals don't win the division? How vulnerable is Arizona's defense? Is Kurt Warner a legitimate MVP candidate? These Q&As and more inside.

Click here for Part I.

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, SFIllustrated.com: So, how's life atop the NFC West? Does this feel like an unusual place for the Cardinals to be at midseason – leading the division by a full three games – or is the team taking it in stride and not really getting caught up yet in the fact it is running away with the division title?

Amberly Richardson, Publisher, AZRedReport.com: The Cardinals appear as if they've dominated the division every year and are elated to finally get past the Rodney Dangerfield era. They aren't surprised by their success and are finally getting the respect that this year's team deserves. Ken Whisenhunt thought they had the opportunity to have a good football team. He ran with it. Whisenhunt isn't thrilled with the record (5-3), but he is happy that they are leading the division.

But Arizona isn't taking anything for granted. Breathing room is nice, but Whisenhunt & Co. know that nothing is decided yet. Kurt Warner continues to have the mentality that he can bring something special to the field every week. With a few exceptions he's done just that.

However, there are certain glimpses of the old Cardinals team every now and then. For example, last week's statistics were a bit misleading against the St. Louis Rams. Arizona was shutout for much of the first half, but had resurgence with about 12 minutes to go before hitting the locker room. From then on Warner got his team back in the groove, but nearly 20 minutes of playing like the disastrous Cardinals worries some.

Craig Massei: At this point, with such a huge lead and the rest of the division struggling and playing like crap, are the Cardinals playing the second half of the season simply NOT to lose the division title? What's it going to take the rest of the way for Arizona to finish off its first NFC West championship? Is there any scenario where you see that NOT happening? Is there any way the Cards don't win this division?


Coach Ken Whisenhunt
(Getty)

Amberly Richardson: This is a great question Craig. From what I've seen, nothing about Whisenhunt's game plan or personality would let the Cardinals just skate by. He is in it to win it. The Cardinals plan on wrapping up the division, but want to take care of the Philadelphia Eagles of the league, see how they do against the New York Giants, etc. Fairing well against these teams will go a long way in a trip to the playoffs. The NFC East may not be the Cardinals nemesis for getting to the post season, but will be once they are there.

With the don't count your chickens before they've hatched mindset, the Cardinals will be their own worst enemy. We've seen what an unconfident Cardinals crew can do. They fell back into their old ways against the Washington Redskins in week three after enjoying an opening two-game winning streak. The following week against the New York Jets, Warner closed in on the massive deficit Brett Favre created, but they lost their ability to gel. Arizona let its emotions get to the best of it and the game didn't turn out well for the Cardinals.

On defense, the Cardinals can't let 80-yard touchdowns run past their secondary; they need to tackle, period.

Honestly, I see the Cardinals continuing to click and play confidently. Key injuries could obviously derail the plan. The offensive line doesn't have a whole lot of depth. Left tackle Mike Gandy will likely be out for Monday, and the Cardinals are scrambling to find a suitable replacement. That said injuries and losing at home on Monday night could halt the Cardinals flight plan. Arizona plays its best with the red backdrop, if it loses to San Francisco under the spotlight of MNF and in front of its fans that could be bad news.

Craig Massei: From your viewpoint, what are the primary things that have turned the Cardinals into a legitimate contender this year and changed the culture of losing that has existed in Arizona for so many years? By outward appearances, the Cards appear every bit as good as their 5-3 record at midseason, if not better. Is that an accurate perception? Does the win-loss column reflect how well the Cards are playing?


WR Anquan Boldin
(Getty)

Amberly Richardson: For the most part, the Cardinals record reflects how they've played. But as I mentioned earlier, there have been times where Arizona narrowly got by. Although, the Cardinals might not think that's a bad thing. Last season, the Cardinals lost so many close games decided by a touchdown or less. This year, they are pulling out all the stops to get the win. Warner just spreads the field out and gets the job done.

Week one is a perfect example. The Cardinals didn't blowout San Francisco, at least not in the first half. The teams went into the locker room at a deadlock, 10-10 after struggling to contain Frank Gore. But the Cardinals were able to keep possession for most of the second half, limit the 49ers to a field goal and get Anquan Boldin involved. Arizona manages to pull it together at the right time this season.

The Cardinals ability to win the games they are suppose to have turned the Cardinals into contenders. Now they just need to find out how to win on the road against teams with better records than the St. Louis Rams.

Craig Massei: It appears the decision to go with Kurt Warner as the starting quarterback over Matt Leinart to begin the season was certainly the right one. How well is Warner playing this season, and what has he meant to the team and the success it is having? Is this the best he has played in a Cardinals uniform? Is Warner playing so well that he should be mentioned as a MVP candidate?


WR Larry Fitzgerald
(Getty)

Amberly Richardson: Without a doubt Warner should be mentioned for MVP. I think a big part of holding that title is the ability to make those around you better; he has succeeded on that level and more. Larry Fitzgerald and Boldin are awesome on their own, but Warner has a special way of knowing when to use which one and getting the No. 3 receiver, Steve Breaston, and the Cardinals No. 4 guy Jerheme Urban involved in the perfect play.

Warner has his team playing for him on every down, the true meaning behind the offense's success.

Yes, Warner is playing his best since arriving in the desert, which makes it easy to understand why he and the Cardinals would like to sign him for a couple more years. What that means for Leinart, I can't make that call yet.

Craig Massei: How much is Warner and the passing game making the offense go in particular and the team go in general? The Cards rank No. 2 in the NFL in passing offense – which has led to a No. 2 ranking in total offense – and is that the one facet that makes Arizona so tough and so dangerous right now? What can you tell us about how the passing game, with Warner and his receivers, has taken it to the next level this season?

Amberly Richardson: Fitzgerald and Boldin both want the ball. Any good receiver duo is going to want the ball more than the other person, but Warner knows when to give it to whom. When a quarterback throws a canon downfield, most teams hold their breath. With the Cardinals, if Fitzgerald and Boldin are there, the ball is going to be caught. That attitude and execution make it exciting for the rest of the team.

When the defense gets on the field, they typically get the opponent's offense off the field quickly. However there is a glaring need to tackle. A player can get by two to three guys before he is brought down.

Overall, I have to say it's a team effort, but the fact that the Warner and his targets are making things happen gives the rest of the team pep in their steps.


RB Edgerrin James
(Getty)

Craig Massei: What went into the decision to bench veteran Edgerrin James in favor of rookie Tim Hightower as the starting running back? Are the Cardinals more effective with the rookie than the Edge? Does it look like Hightower now is in the starting saddle to stay, and if so, what becomes of James and what does that mean for his future in Arizona?

Amberly Richardson: In James' words, the situation has been brewing for a while. He is feeling edged out of Arizona (pun intended). James has taken Hightower under his wing from day one though, so he's happy for Hightower's success. But he still feels like he has more to give and isn't happy with the organization.

I can see where James gets ticked off. Last week, instead of working James in as the backup, the Cardinals opted to use J.J. Arrington instead. He took that personal, and I can't say that I blame him. It will be interesting to see what happens on Monday. Hightower will start, but how will the Cardinals work in James?

As far as Hightower, he's a quality character. He could be in Arizona for a long time. The Cardinals are more effective with him in. Although he will be tested for the remaining of the season because he's never played 16 games before.

Craig Massei: One thing we noticed when the 49ers played the Cardinals in September is Arizona's ability to control the football. It looks like the Cards have been able to do that all season. Even with the prolific passing game, the Cards lead the NFL in first downs per game and are among the top teams in third-down conversion efficiency. How important have these factors been to the Cardinals and to keeping their defense off the field?

Amberly Richardson: Extremely important. In the offseason, the Cardinals put an emphasis on being able to control the ball. They've made a point to get the ball into scoring position and make something out of it. Taking time off the clock and getting points out of it made the Cardinals effective in the second half against the 49ers in week one. Warner's ability to manage the clock will continue to work in the Cardinals' favor.

Also, Hightower is a big part of the Cardinals ability to get first downs and convert on third down.


Karlos Dansby
(Getty)

Craig Massei: Now, about that defense: It seems to be holding its own and holding up its part of the bargain. But there was that 56-point game against the New York Jets back in September, too. How is the defense playing, and how vulnerable is it on a day when the offense isn't putting up its average of 29 points a game?

Amberly Richardson: The defense is a bit vulnerable. The Cardinals have more depth on that side of the ball then they've seen in years past, but wrapping up receivers and running backs on the first point of contact is a struggle for Arizona. Similar to the previous answers, the Cardinals best days are when they keep the defense off the field.

With safety Adrian Wilson aside, I wouldn't say that the secondary is much stronger than last year. Rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has the possibility of starting on Monday night over Eric Green who says he has been nagged with injuries all season, which hasn't allowed him to play at his full potential.

Craig Massei: The Cardinals have looked good stuffing the run this year and they have been putting good pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Has that pretty much been the team's formula for success on defense this year? How good has Arizona's pass rush become, and who in particular is leading the charge there?

Amberly Richardson: Karlos Dansby has been the leader of the Cardinals' defense. He leads the team in tackles with 55, has recovered two fumbles and compiled three sacks. Travis LaBoy has been a great addition to the Cardinals defense. He was hurt last week, but he's rushed the passer better than anyone on the team.

He took over 11-year veteran Bertrand Berry's starting role earlier this season, but Berry hasn't just slipped away. He has four sacks on the season and makes it appear that there isn't much difference between a starter and a non-starter.

The Cardinals have been effective at getting the ball out of the opposition's hands. They might not be able to wrap them up so well, but can force a fumble any day. If the Cardinals get after the quarterback they'll do alright.


Arizona Cardinals
(Getty)

Craig Massei: Despite the way they've taken control of the NFC West this year, the Cardinals still might be something of an unknown on the national NFL scale this season. Are the Cardinals looking at Monday's game as a prime opportunity to change all that on a national stage? Is it particularly important for them this week to show everybody how good they really are with a whole football nation watching? What – if any – extra dynamics has that added to this game for the Cards? How important is it for them to go out and play well and not fall on their faces in the Monday night spotlight?

Amberly Richardson: It's imperative for the Cardinals to have a good showing on Monday at home. They haven't faired so well in the past on Monday night and now is the opportunity to show the nation how far they've come. Arizona is often a forgotten state, and the Cardinals want to put themselves on the map.

Edgerrin James was once the cornerstone of the Cardinals organization, now he is somewhat seen as an after thought. The Cardinals have the best receiver tandem in the league, a 37-year-old quarterback who could earn another MVP crown, an elite safety in Adrian Wilson and a rookie running back who could steal the show. Arizona has the cast to pull in the ratings, but like you said, its team is flying under the radar on the national scale. Showing what they have is the Cardinals extra incentive. It's their time to say, "look at what we can do."

Click here for Part I.


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