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Cardinals' pass protection in focus

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Cardinals' pass protection faces one of its toughest tests of the season when the Eagles visit for the NFC Championship Game.

Philadelphia pressured Kurt Warner into mistakes when the teams played in November, but the Eagles did not sack him. This was one of three games all season in which the Eagles failed to sack the opposing quarterback. They finished with 48 sacks for the season.

Sacks don't matter as much if the pressure is forcing mistakes. The Cardinals have provided Warner with better protection recently, in part because they are running the ball frequently enough to set up play-action opportunities.

A few related notes and observations:

  • The Cardinals rarely help their tackles in pass protection. I just finished watching left tackle Mike Gandy on the Cardinals' first two series against the Panthers in the divisional round. He matched up with Julius Peppers five times in pass protection during those drives. Gandy was effective on four of those plays. Peppers pushed him back into the pocket one time. Guard Reggie Wells helped out, leaving center Lyle Sendlein singled up against Damione Lewis. Warner stepped away from Peppers. Lewis then collected the Panthers' lone sack of the game.

  • Arizona was a four-receiver team in the passing game against the Eagles in that Thanksgiving game. They went with four receivers even before they fell behind. The Cardinals have favored tighter formations and heavier personnel groupings more recently. That gives them additional options in protection (using tight ends if necessary) while making the run game more natural. Both of those things could prove important for the Cardinals in this game.

  • The Cardinals used four receivers six times in nine third-down pass plays against the Eagles on Thanksgiving. Those six plays produced three incomplete passes (one on an Anquan Boldin drop), one interception and receptions of 26 yards (Tim Hightower) and 3 yards (Steve Breaston).

  • The Cardinals have used four-receiver personnel only six times in 26 third-down pass plays during the playoffs, with five of those against the Panthers. They have used at least one tight end on 19 of the remaining 20 third-down pass plays. They used one tight end and three receivers on Boldin's 71-yard touchdown reception against the Falcons. They had two tight ends on the field when completing a 41-yard pass to Larry Fitzgerald on third-and-1.

Overall, the Cardinals appear to be managing the opposing pass rush more intelligently in at least three ways:

  1. Personnel selection. This includes revisiting Edgerrin James and using fewer wide receivers. Warner has faced fewer jailbreak situations where he's been forced to make hasty decisions with pressure in his face.

  2. Play selection. The Cardinals are mixing in more running plays. That affords them the ability to be aggressive without taking undue risks. Going deep to Fitzgerald on third-and-1 was one example. Throwing a 23-yard pass to the tight end on third-and-16 while running out the clock against the Falcons was another example. Both decisions carried risk, but neither risked putting undue pressure on the quarterback.

  3. Formations. This area dovetails with the Cardinals' evolving use of personnel. Fewer wide receivers means more people available in protection. Warner's 29-yard touchdown pass against the Panthers featured key blocks by running back J.J. Arrington and tight end Stephen Spach. Warner might have been at additional risk if the Cardinals had used four receivers and motioned Arrington out of the backfield for an empty look.