Is Hall the answer in Arizona?
Cardinals: 3-3, 2nd in NFC West, Last Week: L @ Seattle, 22-10
Buccaneers: 4-2, 2nd in NFC South, Last Week: W vs. St. Louis, 18-17
Sunday, Oct 31, 4:15 p.m. EST, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, AZ
CARDINALS FACING A TURNING POINT IN THE SEASON:
Up until this week, the Cardinals have been plodding along compiling an acceptable .500 record considering the challenges they’ve been facing. The loss to the Seahawks last week was no doubt a disappointment, as it was a clear chance to establish some separation in the division. Instead, Seattle pounced on their chance to do the same and now holds a one game lead. Obviously, Arizona is welcoming the chance to host the Seahawks in Week 10, but before the Cardinals are able to exact some revenge a couple of road blocks stand in their way. After all, if Arizona doesn’t keep pace in Weeks 8 and 9, the next game against the first place Seahawks won’t matter nearly as much if the Cards are 3-5 and the Hawks are 6-2. Let’s not tally on future matters, but turn our focus to this week’s task.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Are They Who We Thought They Were?
Well, who are the Bucs? Surely, they aren’t the best team in the NFC as their head coach Raheem Morris claims. In fact, they surely aren’t the best team in the NFC South. They may not be the second best team in their division. Most would agree that the Atlanta Falcons and even the struggling New Orleans Saints are both better than the Buccaneers at this point. Apparently, the Buccaneers believe they are second to no team and it appears they will take their 2-0 road record to Arizona’s 2-0 home record to prove it.
Let’s take a closer look at Tampa Bay’s season so far. In Week 1, they squeaked by the Cleveland Browns at home by the score of 17-14; not exactly a show of strength to start the season, even though the Browns just beat the Saints. The Bucs kept things rolling in Week 2 by beating up on the Panthers in Carolina. Still nothing to write home about considering the Panthers are one of the worse teams in the NFL this year. In Week 3, Tampa Bay had a chance to show something against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Instead, they were destroyed by the Roethlisberger-less Steelers by the count of 38-13. The game wasn’t even as close as the lopsided score might suggest.
In Week 4, the Bucs rebounded by traveling to Cincinnati and upsetting the Bengals in a close one by the score of 24-21. Josh Freeman led his team to two scoring drives in the closing minutes of the game, the second setting up the game winning 31-yard field goal by Connor Barth. It was a gritty win and probably stands as their best testament so far this season, even if the Bengals are underachieving this season. A tough road win always counts for something.
The Bucs endured the wrath of the New Orleans Saints who were fresh off their upset against the Cardinals the previous week. The Saints rolled into Tampa and dismantled the Buccaneers 31-6. Finally, last week, a surprising St. Louis Rams team came within minutes of picking up a road victory, but Josh Freeman once again stole a victory with a touchdown pass to Cadillac Williams, leaving ten seconds on the game clock. Tampa Bay tallied their fourth win by the score of 18-17.
So at 4-2, the Buccaneers are at least in the conversation this year as one of the better teams in the NFC in terms of their record so far. Two of their four wins, however, have come in dramatic fashion with last minute comebacks. Also, their two losses were total blowouts. These facts suggest two things: (1) they are a gritty team; and (2) if you put them away they won’t have chance to work their fourth quarter magic.
The Arizona Cardinals: They Definitely Are Who We Thought They Were
In terms of their play, the Cardinals haven’t really surprised anyone this year. They have struggled mightily on offense and at last have started to maintain some consistency on defense. We also knew that they were probably not going to run away with the division, but since the rest of the NFC West is quite weak it will likely be a race to the bottom of sorts, with the best “bad team” making the playoffs. So far, this has been the case.
Personnel Questions Abound for the Cardinals This Week
Whether through injury or performance, Arizona will face the most personnel questions of the season this week. Their are a number of players that may or may not find their way into the lineup. Chief among them is quarterback Max Hall. Hall has passed the concussion tests and is cleared to practice today (Wednesday). Ken Whisenhunt has already stated that Max Hall is still the starter so if he responds well this week and doesn’t have any setbacks he will start this Sunday. Derek Anderson will remain the backup. If Hall struggles badly during the game, however, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Anderson relieve him.
Another big question mark surrounds the running back situation. Whisenhunt still hasn’t made any final announcements regarding his intentions towards Tim Hightower, whose fumbling problems seemed to finally have reached a head. This could be the week that Beanie Wells finally supplants Hightower on the depth chart. Whisenhunt’s latest on the subject is as follows: “At some point, you have to say the fumbles are going to keep you from playing. If that’s the way it’s going, it’s going to curtail your play[ing] time…When you are a team trying to grow together, you can’t afford to have those types of situations. It just makes it too tough for you.” It’s the most dire Whisenhunt has sounded on Hightower’s fumbling, but Whisenhunt also noted that it’s tough to bench a player that’s effective; effectiveness presumes an offensive player is able to hang onto the ball, though.
There’s also the situation at wide receiver. As it stands, Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Roberts are currently the two starters. Steve Breaston was reportedly able to go in Seattle, but the wet conditions prompted Whisenhunt to keep Breaston inactive for at least another week. Presumably, Breaston is ready to retake his number two spot within the friendly, weather controlled confines of University of Phoenix Stadium.
Finally, Gerald Hayes may return to action against the Buccaneers. Like Breaston, there was a chance that Hayes was going to play in Seattle, but also like Breaston, the veteran linebacker remained inactive. Hayes still has not been activated, but we’ll have to wait and see if he finally makes his season debut at home this week against Tampa Bay.
Matching Up the Cardinals and Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Season Outlook:
So far, the Bucs have definitely surprised the league with their 4-2 record so far, but they have a lot of work to do to even win their own division. The Falcons are considered one of the best teams in the NFC and it’s doubtful the Saints, though struggling, are just going to roll over and die. To make good on Morris’ proclamation the Bucs will have to deal with the Cardinals this week in Arizona, where the Cards often play as well as they want to.
Luckily, the Buccaneers aren’t great at stopping what the Cardinals offense does best when given the opportunity, running the football. Tampa Bay ranks 31st in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing a ridiculous 157.7 yards per game. The Bucs’ passing defense, however, is considerably better ranking 18th in the NFL, allowing 210.8 yard per game. Considering Max Hall’s learning curve, which is substantial, the Cardinals would be well advised to take advantage of the Bucs weakness on the ground. The problem, though, is that the Cardinals must keep themselves in a position to run the ball. If they don’t keep pace with the Bucs, they are going to have to go into an all out passing attack to keep up; this clearly would not favor Arizona, which is such a strange thing to say after the past two years.
Tampa Bay isn’t particularly effective running the ball either. They rank 22nd in the NFL averaging 96.7 yards per game. Cadillac Williams and the offensive line really aren’t getting the job done as Williams has gained only 202 yards on 80 carries for a 2.5 average with no touchdowns. As we all know, Arizona has struggled mightily in stopping the run as they rank 29th in the NFL (just three spots ahead of the Bucs) allowing 141.3 yards per game.
Josh Freeman, on the other hand, is developing at an alarming pace. Freeman has started the season 117/199 for 1,255 yards, completing 58.8% of his passes with 7 TDs and only 3 INTs. In addition, he pretty much single handedly brought the Bucs back from the brink of defeat in their two fourth quarter comebacks by showing the poise of a grizzled veteran. Wide receiver Mike Williams (28 receptions, 365 yards, 3 TDs) has provided Freeman with a trusted pair of hands as Freeman has targeted Williams a team-leading 53 times. The Freeman-Williams connection is clearly the strength of the Buccaneers’ offense, which places quite a burden on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie who has had a disappointing season to this point.
Luckily for the offensive line and Max Hall, the Bucs don’t really bring the heat on defense. They have tallied only five team sacks so far this season. Defensive ends Tim Crowder and Stylez White share the team high with two apiece. It’s a give and take situation for the Bucs defense, though, and Tampa Bay may do most of the taking. The Buccaneers’ defense excels at picking off opposing quarterbacks as they’ve totaled 10 in just six games. CB Aqib Talib leads the way with three picks, but two other defenders have multiple interceptions, including the always reliable Ronde Barber. Also, safety Cody Grimm, offensive line coach/running game coordinator Russ Grimm’s son, has an interception return for a touchdown this year.
The Bottom Line
Arizona should be able to control the tempo of the game early by running the ball with relative ease. Considering the defense’s effort the past two weeks, I see no reason why they can’t come away with a victory by simply following that formula. If, however, Whisenhunt asks Hall to do too much (something Whisenhunt said he would not do) or the Cardinals continue their turnovers and stupid penalties, disaster may be in the cards. Arizona just doesn’t have the offensive firepower to compensate for such mistakes. If the Cardinals let the Buccaneers hang around all game, we may be in store for another wild one with Josh Freeman leading the Buccaneers to yet another fourth quarter comeback.