NFL

Super Bowl Boom or Bust: Arizona Cardinals

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This is a very exciting time in the Valley of the Sun.

The Arizona Cardinals are fresh off a 11-5 season, which resulted in a wildcard berth, despite missing veteran quarterback Carson Palmer for majority of the season after he tore his ACL.

Palmer, 35, is fully locked in after recovering from his horrific injury.

“Literally from [surgery on] Nov. 18, I just had a very tight focus, a very small vision, a certain intensity, a certain realness, just a certain focus about everything I do,” Palmer stated.

Where is all of this energy coming from?

“You only get so many opportunities,” Palmer said. “If you’re lucky enough to play as long as I have, it takes you until you know you’re getting to the end that you realize how small that window is and how few of opportunities you’re going to have.”

Head coach Bruce Arians knows it’s now or never.

“We all know the clock’s ticking. It is for a lot of guys on this team. You get a window to make a run and most of it depends on your quarterback, and right now, it’s our window to make our run with him.”

Super Bowl 50 will be held in San Francisco, where the Cardinals will be, if you let Arians tell it.

“We’re dressing in their locker room,” Arians boldly stated. “We can write it down today.”

In order for this to become a reality, the Cardinals need to improve in key areas.

With Palmer missing in action, it was expected to see Arizona’s pass game struggle, but it’s their rushing attack that needs serious damage control.

Arizona finished 31st in rushing last season, as Andre Ellington saw a major dip in production from his rookie season, when he totaled 665 yards on 188 carries, which is a 5.5 yards per carry average.

This past season, Ellington was the team’s leading rusher with a mere 660 yards on 3.3 yards per carry.

To be fair, however, Ellington was dealing with injuries, which could’ve slowed him down a bit. If he’s anywhere near 100 percent come this fall, that could pay huge dividends for the Cardinals moving forward.

After all, Arizona’s aerial attack should be lethal if the offensive line is able to keep Palmer upright, which is a major reason why they took offensive tackle D.J. Humphries in the first round.

The rookie out of Florida got off to a slow start during mini-camp, but he’s showing growth each day.

“You’d like to see steady improvement in practice habits, work habits, weight-room habits, all those things,” Arians said. “And he’s doing that.”

With receivers like Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown to throw to, Palmer has more than enough weapons to choose from.

So, imagine if Arizona’s run game is able to catchup with it’s passing game?

Well, in an attempt to make it happen, Arizona drafted running back David Johnson in the 3rd round. From the outside looking in, you’d think this pick would’ve upset Ellington a bit, but that’s not the case at all.

“I don’t see why not, it allows me to have more rest time, and it should keep the offense upbeat,” Ellington said.

At this point, Arians has remain firm on who his workhorse will be.

“I think Andre will continue his same role,” the reigning NFL Coach of the Year said. “We’ll keep him healthy and let him continue to develop as a player, but the nice thing David can do is he can do everything Andre does, so you don’t have to change if there was an injury.”

The other side of the ball is what could end up making or breaking Arizona.

In 2014, the unit finished 24th in total defense. The run defense (13th) was dramatically better than the pass defense (29th).

Nonetheless, Arizona only allowed 18.7 points per game (fifth lowest total in the NFL), but with former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles bolting to the New York Jets, can we expect James Bettcher to have similar success?

Veteran safety Rashad Johnson doesn’t think the transition will take long for coach Bettcher.

I think he’s gonna jump right in,” Johnson said. “Coach Bettch is a very smart man. We all have a relationship with him, because he presents, every Wednesday, with personnel, tendencies of another team and he does the breakdown every week, so everybody gets an opportunity to actually see him work. Even though we’re not in his room, everybody as a defensive unit gets a chance to see what he does, see the time he puts in, to give us the stuff that he gives us on Wednesdays.”

It’s easy to just look at Arizona’s defensive pass numbers and assume their secondary is poor, but in actuality, it was their lack of a consistent pass rush that made their secondary look worse than it really is.

On draft night, the Cardinals front office didn’t ignore that weakness, as they invested a second round pick on outside linebacker Markus Golden.

During Golden’s final season at Mizzou, the 6-foot-2, 260 pounder received second-team All-SEC honors. With the Cardinals Super Bowl window potentially closing, Golden’s learning curve must come fast.

General manager Steve Keim is confident in Golden’s ability.

“When we watched Golden, he really stood out to us,” Cardinals GM Steve Keim said. “He’s disruptive and, again, his motor and his backside chase is tremendous.”

It’s put up or shut up time in Arizona.


About Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels is an NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has several years of experience covering the NFL and NCAA football. He's the radio color commentator for Lincoln University football. Mark's work has been featured on Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and Yard Barker.