Opening the season with a 4-0 mark despite having arguably the worst offensive line in football and without a legitimate quarterback was a testament to how well Ken Whisenhunt and Ray Horton were scheming the talent they have. Even though they did not have the personnel to match up with the likes of Seattle, New England, Philadelphia or Miami, they still started October tied with the Falcons and Texans for the NFL’s best record.
Since RB Beanie Wells went down in Week Three and RB Ryan Williams in Week Five, the running game has fallen apart, with LaRod Stephens-Howling lacking the power to wear down defenses the way Whisenhunt’s run game is designed to function. Levi Brown and Jeremy Bridges were one of the worst starting tackle tandems in the league, and their replacements, vagabond OLT D’Anthony Batiste and wide-eyed rookie ORT Bobbie Massie, have been heavily exposed, a big reason why the Cardinals lead the league in sacks allowed (41) at the NFL's midway mark.
Since the Thursday-night contest against the Rams, when the Cardinals allowed nine sacks, no team in the NFC has fallen harder, as the Cardinals have dropped five consecutive games with a defense not able to overcome the team's anemic running game. Against Green Bay, the edges were fairly well protected. It was their best blocker, ex-Packers OLG Daryn Colledge, who gave up the only two sacks, getting beat twice in the first half by the quickness of Mike Neal and Mike Daniels.
The Packers, like most opponents, struggled to keep Larry Fitzgerald in check even with heavy double coverage, and Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd were able to pick up some of the slack with Early Doucet’s drops (two in the first half) remaining an ongoing issue. If Floyd can continue to emerge in the second half of the season, it offers a sign of hope for a grounded offense.
The Cardinals’ defense was vulnerable against Aaron Rodgers, the quickest triggering quarterback in the league, who was set up by fine offensive play-calling that exploited the Cardinals’ overaggressive nature. The encouraging sign for the Cardinals, despite having the undefeated Falcons up next on the schedule, is that they have an extra week to rest and get healthy, and the defense, anchored by missile LB Daryl Washington and stout DLE Calais Campbell, who ranks a very close second to J.J. Watt as an impact five-technique, remains capable of competing with the best offenses in the league.
Despite having to travel to the Eastern time zone at Atlanta in Week 11, the Cardinals remain a contender and are well-positioned to play a spoiler role and put the first blemish on the Falcons' season.
• Coordinator Rob Ryan has done an excellent job coordinating the Cowboys' defense, especially scheming around the absences of OLB Anthony Spencer, NT Jay Ratliff and ILB Sean Lee. If he didn’t have to bail out the offense so much, the Cowboys might have the NFL’s top-ranked "D."
• For as much criticism as Jason Garrett receives, few coaches would be able to run a precise offense with undisciplined, simpleton receivers such as Dez Bryant, Kevin Ogletree and Miles Austin. Moving OT Tyron Smith from the right to the left side has required patience, as he is not playing as well as he did a year ago while acclimating to the adjustment, a long-term change the Cowboys have to hope will correct itself unlike fellow OT Winston Justice, who was never able to adapt to playing on the left side in Philadelphia after a career spent on the right side at USC.
• Sources in the NFL league office have been saying for months that commissioner Roger Goodell has been pressuring Tom Benson to clear out the Saints’ leadership team and reshape the image of the franchise following the "Bountygate" scandal. If Goodell has his way, it could be a welcome change for Sean Payton to land in Dallas, following the path of his most influential coaching mentor Bill Parcells and moving closer to his family, who resettled in the area a few years ago. Though the Saints will not want to lose the only coach who brought them a Super Bowl, Payton's strong relationship with Jerry Jones and a very appealing situation in Dallas, with one of the best defenses in the league already in place, could make it very difficult for Payton to turn down Dallas. Payton, it should be noted, is also an Eastern Illinois graduate, like Tony Romo, and has a strong relationship with the quarterback from giving him his only shot in the league. The lure of bringing Payton to Dallas could be too much for Jerry Jones to resist moving on from Jason Garrett after the season.
• For a declining, old cornerback who Bears coaches have believed to be fading for years, Charles Tillman has been exceptional at forcing fumbles, forcing four against Tennessee by treating ballcarriers like heavy bags. No cornerback is more adept at stripping the ball or making momentum-changing, big plays. Special teams, starting with Sherrick McManis' TD-creating punt block to a near punt return by Devin Hester flipped the game for the Bears — along with Brian Urlacher’s interception return for a TD — creating an insurmountable lead in the first quarter. The Bears’ talent base might be declining rapidly on defense with too many defenders who are 30-plus years old, but Lovie Smith has assembled the best supporting cast of coordinators he has had since he arrived and they are working well together to stack wins. How the Bears do the next two weeks against the NFL’s elite (Houston and San Francisco) will reveal their playoff prospects. Expect both teams' talented 3-4 fronts to mirror what Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers did to Jay Cutler in Week Two and exploit the Bears’ greatest weakness — its marginal offensive tackles and Cutler's tendency to be frustrated by it.
• Reestablishing the running game early against the Redskins was critical to the Panthers’ 21-13 victory, even if it were much less potent without injured C Ryan Kalil, as Redskins wave NT Chris Baker showed when he jolted Kalil’s replacement, Geoff Hangartner, off the ground with his violent punch, helping control the line of scrimmage. The turning point in the game came late in the second quarter when on three successive tries inside the Panthers' five-yard line, the Redskins could not punch it in for the lead. The Panthers swarmed the edges and shut down an Alfred Morris sweep, Brandon Banks bubble screen and Robert Griffin sweep on fourth down that never had a chance with the Panthers’ defense overstacked to its left. Instead of leading 10-7, the Redskins allowed Carolina to march down the field and take a 14-3 lead entering the half.
• Quickly joining Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson among the most physcially gifted receivers in the game this season has been Broncos third-year pro Demaryius Thomas, who is becoming a star under the guidance of Peyton Manning. Thomas is so gifted that he often has been able to create separation down the field, where Manning recognizes it but realizes he cannot get him the ball in time, and is forced to check down. Though Josh McDaniels was widely criticized for making the pick at the time along with Tim Tebow in the first round, Thomas is proving well worthy of the pick. Also emerging as big-time playmakers this season are Vikings WR Percy Harvin, undoubtedly driven by a contract year, and Packers WR Randall Cobb, who gouged the Cardinals as a punt returner, kickoff returner, speed-toss back and slot receiver, where he scorched William Gay on a go route for a TD. Both however, must do better to protect the ball, with Harvin being stripped deep in his own territory that quickly led to the Seahawks’ first score, and Cobb, after letting Gay come away with the ball as they came to the ground following a reception, also failing in the ball-security area.
• It has been a rough year for linebackers. From season-ending injuries suffered by Brian Cushing, Ray Lewis and Sean Lee and to the pulled hamstring suffered by Clay Matthews in Week Nine, many of the game’s top linebackers have been shelved this season, and that’s not including those who started the year injured, such as Terrell Suggs, Brian Urlacher and James Harrison.
• Coinciding with the Vikings’ plight has been the average performance of second-year QB Christian Ponder, who continues to hold on to the ball too long and take needless sacks the Vikings cannot afford. Losses in three of their last four games can be chalked up heavily to his inability to play the kind of mistake-free football he was playing early in the season and that the Vikings need at the position to win. He does not need to win games by himself with playmakers such as Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin available, he simply cannot lose games by turning over the ball.
• Good covermen can make the job of pass rushers much easier, offering the opportunity to create coverage sacks. In Buffalo, where Mario Williams has come under heavy scrutiny given the size of his NFL-record contract, the Bills' cornerbacks have been among the worst in the league this season despite being littered with many early draft picks, and have not helped the cause of Buffalo’s high-priced D-line additions.
• The class of the NFL was represented in New York when the Steelers visited the Giants. Responsible for winning four of the last seven Super Bowls, the two teams understand the blueprint to success, possessing stable ownership and sound quarterbacking to contend for championships every season.