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Cardinals' success better late than never

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Dan Arkush

darkush@pfwmedia.com
Executive editor

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Posted Dec. 12, 2011 @ 5:14 p.m. ET
By Dan Arkush

While it's doubtful the Cardinals will follow in the footsteps of the Diamondbacks and make an out-of-nowhere run to a playoff berth, it definitely appears Arizona's pro football team has turned into a real diamond in the rough the second half of the season. Overcoming three turnovers and a head injury that knocked out QB Kevin Kolb on the game's first series, the Cardinals brought down NFC West kingpin San Francisco a few notches in a 21-19 upset victory — their fifth in six games. At 6-7, Arizona still harbors faint playoff hopes. Hopefully, most of their fan base isn't faint of heart, as the team has had to storm back from first-half deficits in all five victories, all of which have been won by six points or fewer.

While backup QB John Skelton and star WR Larry Fitzgerald deserve major credit for the Cardinals' latest win, the biggest reason they were able to upset the Niners was once again a defense that has suddenly become one of the stingiest in the league. After falling behind 19-7 on RB Frank Gore's 37-yard run early in the second half, the Cardinals allowed San Francisco's offense only one first down the rest of the game. For the day, the Niners were limited to only 233 total yards and 3-of-17 third-down conversions. Niners QB Alex Smith was under steady pressure from the get-go, with five different Cardinal defenders registering five sacks for the second straight week.

The PFW spin

Switching the subject back to Skelton, should the Cardinals consider keeping him under center even if Kolb's head injury enables him to play? As we've written before in this space, while the big, strong-armed backup can look ghastly on occasion, that he has a record of 4-1 in the games in which he has played this season is reason enough to think long and hard about letting him continue calling the shots. One thing about Skelton that's most impressive is his unflappable demeanor. When he makes mistakes, they seem to roll off his psyche like water on a duck's back. And he really can make some nice throws.

While it might be a stretch to call him a poor man's Ben Roethlisberger, that's the kind of perception he is making on yours truly all of a sudden. Skelton's 60-yard TD pass to Early Doucet was the first score allowed by the Niners' outstanding defense in a first half in seven games. Despite a first half that was otherwise shaky, Skelton ended the day completing an impressive 19-of-28 passes for 282 yards and three TDs to three different receivers and establishing a terrific rapport with Fitzgerald, who had seven catches for 149 yards and a TD after operating more inside. Operating only outside in the first game vs. the Niners this season, Fitzgerald had only three catches for 41 yards.

The way the defense is operating in coordinator Ray Horton's Steelers-style scheme at the moment, it might not matter much at all whom the team decides to play at quarterback. Lightning-quick ILB Daryl Washington, a young under-the-radar star in the making in the eyes of many daily team observers, said only 60 percent of Horton's package has actually been fully implemented.

Will the remaining 40 percent result in Steel Curtain II in the desert? That's probably too strong a blanket statement (pardon the pun).

That said, there hasn't been a more impressive defense in the league in the last month or so, and that includes the Steelers.  

 

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