Cardinals preview: Finally ready for that breakthrough?

The Cardinals have finished over .500 just once in 20 years since moving from St. Louis to the desert (9-7 in 1998). There has been a feeling in recent years, however, that the team is close to making a breakthrough, and maybe this will be the year.

One reason for optimism is that, for the first time in more than a decade, the Cardinals return their entire offensive line intact.

Throw in the return of some defensive players injured last year (Bertrand Berry, Chike Okeafor, Adrian Wilson), the move of Antrel Rolle from cornerback to safety, the signing of free agents who provide depth, and the Cardinals appear to be on the right track.

Second-year coach Ken Whisenhunt, the former Pittsburgh offensive coordinator, will be more of a big-picture coach this year after turning play-calling duties over to offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

Whisenhunt, who helped to develop Ben Roethlisberger, has not been as successful so far with Matt Leinart. Kurt Warner clearly outplayed Leinart last year, but Warner is 37, an injury waiting to happen because he often holds the ball too long in the pocket, and prone to turnovers.

Leinart has shown flashes of brilliance, but for the most part his work has been pedestrian. In training camp, however, he showed signs he might be ready, but in Week 3 of the preseason, he struggled against the Raiders with three interceptions. Whisenhunt's offensive approach is not exactly conservative, but the Cardinals want their quarterback to manage the game better and limit the mistakes.

The defense, which fell from ninth at midseason last year to 17th at the end as injuries mounted, should be improved. Free-agent signings Travis LaBoy and Clark Haggans didn't generate big headlines but provide important depth. The first two draft picks also were used for defensive players.

As usual with the Cards, there also are plenty of question marks. While the return of the o-line is good, it still needs to improve its blocking for the running game. And, while the defense begins the season healthy, it's hard to ignore Berry's injury history; since registering 14½ sacks in 2004, his first season with the Cardinals, he has finished three consecutive years on injured reserve.

On the hot seat

Running back Edgerrin James has not made the impact with the Cardinals that he did with the Colts. James is 30 now, old for a running back, and if he has lost a step, fifth-round draft choice Tim Hightower could push him for some carries.

Difference-maker

Antrel Rolle looks much more natural and comfortable at free safety than he did as a cornerback in his three previous seasons, when he was used mostly in nickel situations. The Cards plan to put Rolle, who last year returned three interceptions for touchdowns, in situations where he can make plays.

Hard road to hoe

After opening against the 49ers and Dolphins, it gets tough. The Cardinals face back-to-back trips to the East Coast to face the Redskins and Jets, then come home to meet the Bills and Cowboys. They almost certainly need a 2-0 start.

Cardinals will be better than you think if ...

The offensive line stays healthy. Arizona is dangerously thin, especially at tackle.

Cardinals will be worse than you think if ...

Whisenhunt has to begin juggling his quarterbacks, not out of the question given Warner's age and Leinart's performance during his first two seasons.

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