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Cardinals need more from ground game

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

PHOENIX -- If the bruises on Kurt Warner's body could speak, they would ask the Arizona Cardinals to develop a running game, and fast.

They would ask management for a tight end in the mold of the New York Giants' Kevin Boss.

And they would express relief now that only one NFC East team remains on the Cardinals' schedule.

The lessons Arizona learned during a 37-29 defeat to the Giants in Week 12 were not new ones. But they appear likely to determine how far the Cardinals advance in the playoffs.

The temptation will exist for Arizona to blame this defeat Sunday on other factors. The Cardinals' special-teams play was indeed horrendous at times. Their defense buckled in the red zone after Arizona repeatedly gave the Giants' offense a short field. Anquan Boldin, Steve Breaston and J.J. Arrington let Warner's passes bounce off their hands.

Those deficiencies affected the course of the game, no question. But a balanced offense would give the Cardinals a better chance against teams with fearsome pass rushes. No one knows that better than a battered quarterback.

"I just understand how hard it is to throw 50 times," Warner said after completing 32 of 52 passes for 351 yards. "I think we are very good at that aspect of the game and probably as good as anybody out there, but it's just tough to do that against good teams and not have turnovers."

The Giants held Arizona to 1.5 yards per carry and a long run of five yards.

"We thought we had a pretty good run plan in there, but we missed one or two blocks early and that led to not having as good a play as we would have wanted," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "When we got down, we had to do what our strength was -- moving the football."

The Giants sacked Warner only once, but they hit him once every 4.4 dropbacks -- 12 times in all. The Giants forced and recovered a Warner fumble. They intercepted Warner once and limited the MVP candidate to a single touchdown pass.

Warner failed to complete 65 percent of his passes for only the third time in 11 games this season and the first time since the Washington Redskins held him to 53.3 percent in Week 3. The Giants also held Warner to a season-low passer rating of 79.9.

"We just have to continue to get more efficient in the pass game and hope that the run game comes along where they can balance it out nicely," Warner said.

Ten more observations from the Cardinals' fourth defeat in 11 games this season:

1. Warner could be vulnerable in Philly.

The last time Warner recalled taking a beating like this one was during a Week 6 game against the Dallas Cowboys.

In that case, the schedule offered a bye the following week.

In this case, the Cardinals must travel to Philadelphia for a Thursday night game against the Eagles on Thanksgiving.

The Eagles aren't as good as the Giants, but their pass rush and home crowd could put Warner at additional risk on a short week.

2. Arizona remains undeterred.

The Cardinals' respect for the Giants' efficient, largely mistake-free play did nothing to dampen their own expectations.

Defensive lineman Darnell Dockett predicted a Giants-Cardinals rematch in the playoffs.

"I believe this loss is going to help us in the long run," he said. "We know we can compete with the best team in the league so there are no excuses why this team shouldn't go all the way. We look forward to playing against the Giants again."

Whisenhunt: "I'd like to see what would happen if we don't turn the ball over twice and give them two big kickoffs. I tell you, they are a good football team. They don't make mistakes. But our team showed up and played hard today. And if we don't make those mistakes, I feel good about being there in the fourth quarter with a chance to win it."

3. Special teams were the surprise story.

Will Warner's quick passing solve the Giants' pass rush? Can the Cardinals' defense hold up against the Giants' bruising ground game?

Perhaps we should have devoted more pregame coverage to the special-teams matchups.

The Giants began five scoring drives in Cardinals territory, including two pivotal second-quarter drives after Domenik Hixon's kickoff returns of 83 and 68 yards.

"Hixon's kickoff returns were probably the difference," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said.

Hixon couldn't have done it without an assist from Matt Ware. The Cardinals safety committed three penalties on special teams. One of them precipitated the re-kick that Hixon returned 83 yards.

Cardinals punter Dirk Johnson also muffed a hold on an extra point.

4. The score could have been more lopsided.

The Giants played without injured running back Brandon Jacobs. They lost top receiver Plaxico Burress to a hamstring injury early in the game.

Not many teams could beat the Cardinals by a touchdown in Arizona after losing two starters as prominent as Jacobs and Burress.

5. Nothing changes for the Cardinals.

While victories over the Giants and Eagles in back-to-back games would have vaulted the Cardinals into contention for home-field advantage in the playoffs, that was never very realistic.

Arizona remains a lock to win the NFC West and play host to a playoff game. The Cardinals could conceivably win the division in Week 13 even with a loss to the Eagles.

6. Whisenhunt knows his rulebook.

The Cardinals instructed Breaston to signal fair catch on a punt return with 5 seconds remaining in the first half.

The idea?

To send kicker Neil Rackers onto the field for a 68-yard field-goal try on a free kick.

Rackers missed badly, but Whisenhunt was clearly ready for the situation.

"Th
at's something we have talked about and we have worked on at points, but it was one of those situations you don't see very often."

No team in the NFL had attempted one since the Titans' Rob Bironas missed from 58 yards during a 2005 game against the Houston Texans.

No team had executed one successfully since the Chicago Bears' Mac Percival made one against the Green Bay Packers from 43 yards -- way back in 1968.

From Rule 11, Section 5: "The kick must be a placekick or dropkick made by the offense, from behind the line of scrimmage or from the spot of a fair catch (fair catch kick)."

Rules prevented the Giants from standing within 10 yards of the ball. Johnson, the punter and regular holder, held for Rackers at the Arizona 42. Rackers approached the ball as he might have approached a kickoff, only to skull it along the ground.

7. The Cardinals need to upgrade at tight end.

The Indianapolis Colts continued drafting for offense in the first round even after becoming a top-flight team on that side of the ball. The Cardinals might want to consider a similar approach.

Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley worked tight ends Ben Patrick and Stephen Spach into the game only twice at the same time. They used one tight end with two backs on seven other plays.

That left the Cardinals with three or more wide receivers on the field for more than 85 percent of the offensive snaps.

A strong blocking tight end with good receiving skills would help the Cardinals achieve more balance and versatility in their offense.

Whisenhunt, a former tight end, surely would make good use of a talented player at the position.

Instead, the Cardinals are switching tight ends from week to week. Leonard Pope, Jerame Tuman, Patrick and Spach have taken turns on the inactive list recently.

Arizona needs more from the position.

8. The stats keep coming for Arizona.

The Giants' defensive backs got away with physical play in part because their pass rush prevented Warner from waiting long enough for receivers to recover.

Boldin still caught 11 passes (albeit for only 87 yards). Larry Fitzgerald caught five passes for 71 yards.

Along the way, Fitzgerald became the youngest player in league history to reach 400 career receptions. Randy Moss also did it at age 25, but he was older than Fitzgerald by 186 days.

Boldin holds the NFL record as the fastest player to reach 400 receptions. He needed 67 games. Fitzgerald needed 71, second-fastest in NFL history.

Warner surpassed 300 yards passing for a fifth consecutive game, tying Joe Montana and Kerry Collins for the longest streaks in NFL history. Warner, Steve Young and Rich Gannon share the record (six games).

Warner is on pace to throw for 5,099 yards this season, which would surpass Dan Marino's NFL record of 5,084 yards, set in 1984.

Warner has also thrown a touchdown pass in 19 consecutive games, tying Neil Lomax for the franchise record.

9. The Giants' offensive line is as good as advertised.

The Giants didn't put up huge numbers on the ground, but they finished with seven first downs rushing, five more than Arizona.

"They came out and played us as hard as any offensive line has played us all year," Cardinals defensive end Antonio Smith said. "We had to get them out on third downs and we didn't do that. That was the only thing I thought they were efficient at."

Eli Manning completed 78.8 percent of his passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. His rating was 127.3.

10. Arrington might be the Cardinals' best back.

Rookie Tim Hightower scored two more rushing touchdowns near the goal line, but J.J. Arrington might be better suited for the Cardinals' style of offense.

Arrington played 26 of 33 snaps from the Cardinals' four-receiver offense. He caught five passes for 38 yards and proved elusive in the open field.

Hightower's superior size makes him the more logical choice in a traditional offense. He would be the choice if the Cardinals could run more effectively with a tight end on the field.

But if the Cardinals remain a passing team that tries to manufacture rushing yards on reverses and draws, Arrington becomes the better option. That's why he's playing more.