Super stupor? What ails the Cardinals

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Writing off the defending NFC champions after three games would be a mistake.

For all their struggles during a 1-2 start, the Arizona Cardinals have proven at least one thing under coach Ken Whisenhunt: Past performance isn't a reliable indicator.

The team that went from 7-3 to 9-7 to the Super Bowl last season could turn its current 1-2 record into 3-2 simply by defeating Houston at home and Seattle on the road following its Week 4 bye.

The Cardinals still face St. Louis twice, Carolina at home and Detroit on the road.

Getting to 9-7 again seems doable even if Arizona fails to recapture the consistency it showed in the playoffs. That might be good enough to win the division, and if that happens, who knows?

It might not be that easy.

Like the AFC champion Steelers, who are also 1-2, this team faces significant challenges in trying to get things right. This isn't some mystical Super Bowl losers' curse. The reasons for Arizona's struggles are clearer than that.

"I don’t think it has anything to do with having played in the Super Bowl," Whisenhunt said. "I think it has to do with us not executing the way we needed to execute. Our two losses have been against two pretty good football teams. San Francisco is playing well. We had opportunities to win that game and we didn't get it done. That is difficult. We also played a team that is playing probably as well as anybody in the league right now in Indianapolis."

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. joined me to discuss some of the potential issues affecting Arizona. We settled on a few:

1. The offense could be suffering from an identity crisis

The gap between what Whisenhunt envisioned doing and what works best for the existing personnel might be tougher to navigate without former offensive coordinator Todd Haley calling the plays. Haley, a former receivers coach, might have been more comfortable gravitating toward more of a sandlot style.

"They are trying to build for the long term," Williamson said, "They are saying, 'Kurt Warner is not going to be there forever and we need to run the ball a lot. In the meantime, we are a contender and have to throw it all over the place again.' But they do not protect very well. That killed them in the Super Bowl."

The Cardinals' inability to pass protect against the 49ers in Week 1 and the Colts in Week 3 stood out as the issue most pivotal to Arizona's defeat. San Francisco's Parys Haralson and Justin Smith always seem to give the Cardinals problems. The Colts' Dwight Freeney was a nightmare for Arizona on Sunday night, preventing Warner from getting comfortable.

The Cardinals have drafted big, run-blocking offensive linemen in starter Levi Brown and backup Herman Johnson. They drafted a big running back in Beanie Wells. But Warner is most comfortable throwing the ball, and the team does not yet trust Wells in protection.

"That puts Tim Hightower on the field and he was very ordinary last season," Williamson said. "I feel like they are trying to build for future and hedge their bets as well."

2. Expectations might be unrealistic

Seasons exist independently of one another.

The Cardinals were not going to automatically pick up where they left off last season, in other words.

"I think the expectations are a little overblown with them in that you look at last year and they really weren't that great," Williamson said. "They got hot at the right time and got on really good three-game streak. They did play great when it mattered and I do not want to take too much away from them, but if it happened in Weeks 10-13, nobody would have cared."

3. The defense lacks a top pass-rusher

The Cardinals tried to address that deficiency by drafting Cody Brown in the second round. A serious wrist injury landed Brown on injured reserve before the season started.

Arizona has good players on defense, but converted defensive tackle Darnell Dockett might be their best rusher.

"You are running a 3-4 and there is no James Harrison or DeMarcus Ware or Shawne Merriman types and that really cripples you," Williamson said. "They have some good, versatile players in Karlos Dansby and Adrian Wilson, but there is no true Vince Wilfork type on the nose. The defensive ends are fine, I like the secondary and the inside linebackers are fine, but the edge rush just isn't there."

4. The running game is mediocre without Wells

I've charted the Cardinals' offensive personnel for every snap since the 2008 opener, looking for trends.

When sizing up Arizona's run game and adjusting for game situations, I figured first-down rushing plays in the first halves of games could be telling. Those plays would represent the Cardinals' efforts to establish a running game early. The findings suggest Arizona is struggling to get much going on the ground.

The Cardinals averaged zero yards per carry on five such plays against the 49ers. Their average was 1.8 yards per carry on six such plays against the Colts.

In the playoffs last season, the averages grew from 4.8 to 5.4 to 6.6 before falling off to 1.8 in the Super Bowl.

"It's not like Edgerrin James was great -- far from it," Williamson said. "But he was a hell of a protector and could catch balls out of the backfield."

Wells, meanwhile, projects as a very good runner, but perhaps less of an all-around back. And he's having a hard time getting onto the field.