Mailbag: Don't forget the Cardinals' defense

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Jose from Anchorage writes: I wrote before the season started about the Cardinals defense. I speculated that Arizona could have a top ten defense. For the beginning of the year they were living up to my expectations. I know they trailed off a bit in the final weeks but now in the playoffs I think they are finally playing like they should. Before the Philly debacle the only rusher that gained 100 yds on them was Williams from Carolina.

So why is it that a lot of "experts/pundits" are shocked to see the defense playing this way? I mean they were inconsistent but they have a lot of playmakers. There are also tapes and all the games are available to said experts/pundits. As showcased early in the season the Cardinals had a formidable D. So why the deer and the headlights look?

Mike Sando: I think the Cardinals' defense is the huge wild card in this game. The Cardinals' offense and Eagles' defense are commanding much of the attention. If Arizona advances, I expect to be writing about its defense. That group has played very well lately.

PaulieP from Scottsdale writes: Hey Mike! People have started talking about Donovan McNabb as a Hall of Famer because his stats are better than Aikman's (so are Brad Johnson's stats). I submit to you that as he stands now, he is behind a few, not the least of which is a man who has more attempts, more completions, a longer career, but a higher completion percentage, more touchdowns, a higher percentage of touchdowns to attempts, and a higher yard per attempt.

I'm talking of course about Dave Krieg. Take a look at his stats sometime, and I think you'll be surprised. He had a very long career (which should be a good thing), but his percentages are pretty respectable as well. Why doesn't he ever get any talk about being left out? I don't necessarily think he deserves the hall, but he should be in the discussion.

Mike Sando: I'm fully aware of Krieg's stats. He ranked even higher when he retired -- among the top 10 in some all-time categories. He was a three-time Pro Bow quarterback, good but not great. I wouldn't advocate either one for the Hall of Fame at this point.

Greg from Phoenix writes: Mike, Thought you might find this interesting. We here in Arizona have been a close knit group when it comes to the Cardinals but lately we have found it to be a bit more crowded on the bandwagon. With that in mind there is now a quiz where fans of all levels can find out just where they should be sitting on that bandwagon. Check it out.

Mike Sando: That's a fun test. I'll admit, I did not get all 15 correct. I've got a lot to learn about the history of the team. Where are the answers?

Roger from Arkansas writes: Mike, at the first of the year the cardinals were one of the most penilized teams in the nfl, but without looking at the stats it seems they have cut down on the mistakes a great deal. Is this correct? IF it is it be a good reason they are having more succes.Thanks

Mike Sando: The Cardinals finished the 2008 regular season with the fifth-most assessed penalties and the 11th-most penalty yardage. I think they have cut down on the most damaging penalties. Perhaps I'll have time to quantify it better at some point this offseason.

LA49ers from parts unknown writes: Greetings Mike. Let me apologize for the heated ongoing debate about who should/not be in the playoffs and of the language tones.

My overall point however is I feel the system is flawed if you allow the Arizona Cards with 9 wins (6 in the pathetic division, 2 over Bills/Cowboys, one more (forgot whom) to host a playoff game whereas the Falcons with 11(?) wins were not allowed to host because they were 2nd in their division and the Eagles at 9-6-1 have a stronger record and both should have hosted Arizona.

Is it time to end the Divisional numbers and go by the record? Please address this heated issue as I feel the system is getting worse with bad officiating and an unfair advantage to the other team. Do you personally feel if Arizona went all the way that they are deserving? I don't due to the issue that they won by questionable means over the 49ers and were destroyed by 5 other teams on schedule. I also take exception to Mora saying this is 'his division.' Thks.

Mike Sando: I think the Cardinals did what they had to do to win their division. As such, they should reap the benefits. If another team in the division had pushed them, perhaps the Cardinals would have scratched out another victory or two. The only problem I could see would be if a 14-2 or 13-3 team visited an 8-8 or 9-7 team in the first round. Then again, if a 14-2 or 13-3 team cannot beat an 8-8 or 9-7 team, regardless of venue, perhaps that tells us all we need to know about that 14-2 or 13-3 team.

One thing I know for certain: Points of view carry more credibility when delivered with the tone you used in this particular mailbag submission, as opposed to the tone you alluded to when mentioning the "heated debate" elsewhere on the blog.

Some have complained about inflammatory tactics in the comments. My advice has always been to ignore it. To engage it is to sustain it and encourage it.

Mike from Seattle writes: Sando, Since I already spilled my thoughts on the playoffs and have nothing else but the draft and college basketball to look forward to, I figure its time for some NFC West draft discussion. The Rams have addressed the defense in the first round of the last 3 drafts. Only one, Chris Long, had significant contribution in 2008. Do you see them continuing this trend?

I see some mocks going with OT and Oher, is it a lock? Or do they rebuild a position and steal a Crabtree from a division opponent and take some pressure off Holt? The Hawks first round seems up to the Leroy Hill signing. If Leroy signs or is franchised, we may be going with Crabtree. If he doesn't sign or is not franchised, do you see Seattle going with anyone but Curry, if available?

The mock I am looking at has the Niners going with CB Smith from Wake. I suppose they could go with any of the four CB's projected within the top 15. With Singletary at HC, I figure they would address the defense, although, I would suggest they have greater needs on offense at QB, with a decent pool of QB's it might be a wait and see.

The Cardinals will be drafting within the last four spots 29-32. The draft position is one that is historically, at least to my recent memory, a hit or miss type spot. What are they're glaring needs, or will we know after this weekend?

Do they trade a guy like Boldin away for a high draft pick? Since they are still playing, the questions still linger. Thanks again Sando.

Mike Sando: So much ground to cover. The Rams need to rebuild their offensive line one way or another. I wouldn't fault them for using their first two choices on offensive linemen, really. They've put so much money in Steven Jackson and Marc Bulger, and they even made Donnie Avery the first receiver chosen in the 2008 draft.. They won't realize a suitable return on those investments without committing to the offensive line in a big way. If that means going that route early and often, so be it.

The 49ers need a right tackle, but they were able to get their left tackle much later in the first round. And while a cornerback would help, they have already invested in the secondary pretty heavily. If the value is there, perhaps they find another piece for that defensive front seven.

The Cardinals could have sev
eral options that late in the round. Perhaps they protect themselves at linebacker. They might be able to justify taking an offensive lineman, running back or tight end.

As for Boldin, I see not real need to trade him. It's a dicey situation and one they'll need to handle well publicly, but they hold the leverage. They also can give Boldin something he couldn't always get in Arizona, a chance to win.

Chris from Spokane writes: Hey Mike!! Are you going to AZ for the NFC championship game? Hope the weather is nice. Anyways...What do you think Seattle will do with their 4th pick in this years draft? With Crabtree out there will Seattle use this pick to grab a gut that has a great potential to be a top receiver for years to come or will they go with a safe pick?

I personally feel that getting Crabtree would help Deion and Koren (if he's still here, i hope so). Most everyone wants Engram back but it seems the front office doesn't want to move on him. And yes we have a plethora of wrs: Deion, Koren, Nate, Jordan Kent, Courtney Taylor, Logan Payne, and Ben Obomanu. Four of which have 3 years or less experience. Bobby probably won't be back. So, back to my question, will they splurge for Crabtree? Thanks for your time. Enjoy your weekend.

Mike Sando: I do not know specifically what the Seahawks think about Michael Crabtree, but adding a playmaker to the offense makes lots of sense. They need to help Matt Hasselbeck.

Leesters from parts unknown writes: Mike! I have the answer. After months of over analyzing the Cardinals with TIVO and SandoSheets, it dawned on me while reading a fellow fan on a message board.

The Cardinals are 10-0 when they don't lose the turnover battle. Ding. The truth does not rain down any harder on me than that. Explanation... Now, the question comes immediately, and its "Does winning football create turnovers, or does turnovers create winning football"? And this is where the Cardinals define themselves. This is who they are. I've finally found them. The answer for them is a resounding "Both!".

I'll pause for your mind to see the truth in it. Yes. When the Cardinals start getting hot, they get really really hot. When they start bad they can easily turn into a complete trainwreck. All season this holds true, and really, during the playoffs, you can hold the same truths.

Although they started slow in Carolina, a big play started the explosion that turned the momentum from a 7-0 deficit, to a 30-some-odd unanswered points. Now, when things fall apart, its been over before the first quarter. That's never happened when it's mattered, but geez ... who's to say that's not coincidence?

With the Arizona Cardinals, good football creates turnovers, AND turnovers also determine what kind of football this team will play. Mike, you've studied this team more than its avid fans, myself included. ... Does that hit your truth pitchfork like it hit mine?

Mike Sando: Yes, and we have discussed this in some detail, and mentioned it in passing. The Cardinals recovered a league-high 17 opponents' fumbles during the regular season. The fumble return for a touchdown against Atlanta was the key play. The forced fumble, fumble recovery and quick touchdown at Carolina also proved important.

Fred from Chandler, Ariz., writes: Hi Mike, boy are the NFL analyst STUPID in figuring out how the Cardinals will play! I hope that got your attention. The reasons are obvious and I'm surprised no one (NFL Analysts) have the guts to say what will most likely happen and have fun with it.
I'll give you the reasons in a minute but here is how this week's game is going to turn out. Yes, there are two scenarios; a win or loss. However the probability is higher on a win for the Cards.

Scenario 1 the Win - The Cardinals will win with a score of over 35 points and the Eagles with no more than 17 points.

Reasons why: ' For every team there has to be an assumption on a strength that will remain. I'm going to assume the Cardinals are going to have the same intensity they had for the last two games. ' Offense ' Come on, the Cardinals can move the ball on anyone. They obliterated two hot teams.

Look at every team they've come across when they were motivated. They have over 360 yards of offense. The Eagles can't stop that. '

Stupid analysts ' They keep thinking that the run has to be established first! WRONG. The Cardinals have proved you can establish the pass to open up the run. Look at our early season success against good teams and the last three games. If you evaluate the losses, the Cards usually try to establish a run. You don't have to, they have such a good receiver core that they just have to get the short passes going then the runs and screens will work.

I'm not denying the run isn't important, I'm just denying that the run has to be established first. Proof again is the last game, the passing worked to establish our runs. Our runs were very limited but the limit run caused the Carolina defense to spread out and weaken after the pass was established. '

Let's hope, the Cards use 3 or more receiver plays with crossing patterns to keep the defensive backs constantly guessing plus it gives Kurt quick, short, and long route options where he can handle blitzing.

' Defense ' The Cardinals have finally figured out that you always need to send 4 to 5 men to pressure the quarterback. AND THANK GOD they stopped using the 3 men down pass defense. It is the most useless defense ever created'. It doesn't matter what quarterback is in, if they have all day to throw the ball they will find a receiver. You can have one receiver and he'll always find an opening.

That defense has lost us Carolina and other close games for years.

' Defense 'McNabb is very good and we will have to use 4 to 5 men constantly (I prefer 5) to keep the run and McNabb contained. This means a lot of 1 on 1 coverage. ' Come on, you can feel it. The Eagles have to shut down a motivated team right now and the probability is unlikely especially at home.

Scenario 2 the Loss - If the Cards lose it will be a close loss. You can't tell me that Eagles defense is significantly better than the last two teams. What analyst keeps focusing on is the end of the season losses. You can, but the Cards are playing differently because they're motivated differently. Just as they were proving themselves when they were 7 and 3. They have three games (two huge) where they dominated the teams because they scored early causing the other to change their game plan.

And, we know how good they're running game was suppose to be and they're touted defenses. Thanks.

Mike Sando: It's not every day we get to read a doctoral dissertation here on the NFC West blog -- wink, wink -- but thanks for sharing.

Teams do indeed have to respect the pass, helping Arizona run the ball against lighter fronts, but the Cardinals have been at their best running to set up the play-action pass. This can become a chicken-and-egg discussion, but let's just say NFL offenses are at their best when defenses aren't sure what to expect.

As for the Eagles' defense, I think we can say it's better than anything the Cardinals have faced in the playoffs. They get pressure quickly. They're aggressive in the secondary. They pushing receivers and disrupt offenses. Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley will earn his money in this one. If Arizona solves that defense, Haley emerges as a more serious head coaching candidate in the future.