Arizona Cardinals  

 

Exit Interview: Cardinals can contend for NFC West crown in '12

With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror for most NFL teams, it's time for NFL.com's annual "exit interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of the 2011 season for each team and look ahead to 2012.

2011 in a Nutshell: Do you think anyone east of some campsite in Eagar, Ariz., realizes the Cardinals finished 8-8? Arizona closed out the season winning seven of its final nine games and should not be underestimated as a contender for the NFC West title in 2012.

What Went Right: For all the hubbub centered around obtaining Kevin Kolb in the offseason, defensive coordinator Ray Horton had his troops playing ball by the end of the year. In fact, over the final nine games, the Cardinals allowed only 165 points (18.3 per game). When the Cards got off to a 1-6 start, they allowed 183 points for a whopping 26.2 points per contest. The improved play of the secondary was a huge reason for their success down the stretch, while first-year cornerback Patrick Peterson made a case for rookie of the year … especially with his four return touchdowns.

The Kolb experiment went, uh, kind of rough, but the running game showed signs of life. Beanie Wells had his first 1,000-yard season and scored 10 touchdowns. He's still inconsistent, but the team has second-round draft pick Ryan Williams, who missed the entire season, waiting in the wings. Larry Fitzgerald was Larry Fitzgerald, posting 80 catches for 1,411 yards and eight touchdowns despite the inconsistent play at quarterback. What would he do with Tom Brady throwing him the ball? One can only wonder.

What Went Not So Right: Fitz needs help. Early Doucet is serviceable, and Andre Roberts excites only his parents, but this club lacks a threat to pair with Fitzgerald. Arizona has no tight end who is a threat to defenses. In fact, the Cardinals leading tight end, Jeff King, caught all of 27 passes. Yikes.

Of course, it didn't help that the offensive line couldn't pass protect to save its life. The Cardinals allowed 54 sacks in 2011. Only the Seahawks fared worse. Kolb and John Skelton got put on the turf frequently, though they didn't exactly light it up when given time. Before going down to injury, Kolb threw just nine touchdowns to eight interceptions in nine games. He was actually decent handling pressure, as his passer rating versus the blitz was a sterling 98.6. But at the end of the day, Ken Whisenhunt has to find a better way to protect his investment.

Another major issue was kick returns and kick coverage. The Cardinals ranked 30th in average starting field position, while giving opponents the third best starting field position in the league. The offense and defense weren't good enough to be handicapped like that from the start.

Cardinals' Offensive Struggles This Season
Category Total NFL Rank
Sacks Allowed 54 31st
10-play Drives 15 31st
Third-down Conversions 32.2% 29th
Time of Possession 28:11 28th
Turnovers 32 28th

Offseason Crystal Ball: Whether it's via a strengthened pass protection or further developing the short passing game, Whisenhunt and his staff must limit the beating their quarterbacks take.

Expect Kolb to get more comfortable with the benefit of organized team activities and minicamps this offseason, a luxury he didn't have last spring. Kolb should expect to compete for the No. 1 spot with John Skelton, who had a 5-2 record as a starter despite worse numbers than Kolb. Irrespective of the starter, offensive coordinator Mike Miller surely will spend time on his unit's third-down situations, as Arizona was one of the worst teams in the league on the all-important down in 2011.

Team Needs and Draft: Drafting or acquiring another wideout would be a start. Still, that won't amount to a hill of beans if the front line isn't fortified. Look for the Cards to consider offensive linemen, specifically a tackle, in the first round. Levi Brown's large cap hit is at play here. Despite giving up 11.5 sacks, he performed better as the season progressed. Guard is another need.

Another need is an elite pass rusher, as the Cardinals pressured the quarterback by committee once again and no one finished with more than eight sacks. Drafting a replacement for the aging Adrian Wilson at safety is not a bad idea, either. The Cards only have drafted one safety in the past 10 years (Rashad Johnson in 2009).

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @harrison_NFL

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