The Arizona Cardinals are quickly taking on the personality of their coach, Bruce Arians.
We all saw Arians develop Ben Roethlisberger into a Super Bowl winning quarterback, then later take over the Colts when their head coach was sick and win with a rookie QB. Now he is molding the Cardinals into a dangerous team clearly not afraid of its NFC West opponents.
Arians teaches respect but also eliminates fear from his players, even if it means tough love. With minutes left in a good practice earlier this week, a fight broke out and the team lost its discipline. Arians made all 90 players run gassers then walked off the field and left the players to stew in their own mistakes and lack of discipline.
The team finished the practice on its own with the assistant coaches looking on. At that moment, I knew Arians had a dangerous team.
What to expect on offense: The Cardinals love to get into multiple personnel groups and look for favorable mismatches. Consequently they are not a big no-huddle, hurry-up team because when they sub in players the defense gets a chance to do the same. Carson Palmer told me he has a real feel for what Arians has on his mind as he sets up certain plays and can almost predict what is coming in from the sidelines. Putting Palmer and Arians on the same wavelength makes this offense dangerous to say the least.
Arians told me he expects to get the ball to RB Andre Ellington 20 to 25 times a game. I surmised from our conversation that it means 15 runs and 7 to 10 receptions. Ellington recognizes that he's not a big back but more in the mold of the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles. Barring injury, Ellington will account for close to 1,500 yards of offense this year.
Arians loves the passing game, and with Palmer pulling the trigger and Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd on the field I expect 38 to 40 pass plays a game with Palmer closing in on the 5,000 yard mark. Keep an eye on rookie wide receiver John Brown, the third-round pick from Pittsburg State. Arians compared him to a young Marvin Harrison, which is high praise for any rookie.
The offensive line is so much better with Jared Veldheer at left tackle and Jonathan Cooper rounding into shape at left guard. A number of the coaches cited right tackle Bobby Massie as the most improved Cardinals lineman. If it all comes together Arizona will reduce the 41 sacks they gave up last season. Palmer has to eliminate a significant number of his 22 interceptions for this team to make the playoffs, and it is possible with Floyd opposite Fitzgerald and the group of tight ends now on the roster.
What to expect on defense: The Cardinals defense ranked sixth in the NFL last season and was the backbone of the team. They have big holes to fill with Darryl Washington suspended and Karlos Dansby gone to the Browns. Right now at linebacker, it looks like 34-year-old Larry Foote and second-year Kevin Minter, who had zero tackles on defense as a rookie. Minter will hold up against the run but his pass coverage and drops will be challenged from the beginning.
If the defense can get opponents into third down situations Arians likes his four man rush of John Abraham, Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and rookie Kareem Martin. It is a big front four with Abraham still able to generate double-digit sacks and the other three able to push the pocket, block passes and chase down any QB breaking contain. If Abraham gets suspended for his off-the-field issues this spring it will hurt the rush.
The secondary could be one of the best in the NFL. Antonio Cromartie, at 6-foot-2, lines up opposite 6-1 Patrick Peterson on the corners and sooner rather than later Tyrann Mathieu gets back on the field opposite rookie Deone Bucannon. Mathieu told me he's ready to come off PUP and the veterans claim Bucannon is a nasty physical player that hits with the best of them.
Losing the two inside linebackers is a problem -- and it will hurt against power run teams like Seattle and San Francisco -- but the Cardinals will be better against passing teams.
The big questions
1. Can Arizona overcome the loss of both inside linebackers? No one knows the answer to that question and it could be the Achilles' heel of the season.
2. Will Carson Palmer reduce the 22 interceptions? I think that is probable considering how comfortable Palmer is in this offense and the weapons around him.
3. Can Andre Ellington become a 1,500 yard back? The answer is yes (if he stays healthy) because the coach and quarterback believe he has the talent and will feed him the ball.
Outlook: The Cardinals believe they are in it to win it and got a taste of success late in the season last year. I think they are a 10-6 type team, and their Week 3 home game against San Francisco will tell the story.