Cardinals learn tough road lessons

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Quarterback Kurt Warner couldn't remember his Arizona Cardinals playing better than this against a tough opponent on the road.

And still it wasn't enough.

The Cardinals proved two things during their 27-23 loss Sunday to the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.

One, this Arizona team is mentally tougher than it was even a few weeks ago, something the Cardinals can build upon as they march toward a likely NFC West title.

Two, the margin for error shrinks and sometimes disappears for teams unable to run the football on their own terms. Coach Ken Whisenhunt flatly rejected that second point, more a reflection of his competitive nature than the evidence he brought to support his argument.

"Well, we had 400 yards of offense, we scored [23] points against the No. 3 defense in the league," Whisenhunt said. "I'll take that any week, whether we got to throw it, whether we can run it.

"Whatever we have to do, if we're operating the way we operated today, we're going to win football games and that's what this is all about."

The Cardinals ran the ball twice in 27 plays to finish the game after taking a 17-3 lead with 10:20 remaining in the third quarter.

Play selection wasn't the problem. The Cardinals simply weren't good enough in the ground game to justify handing off. And when they did, bad things happened.

Warner played at an MVP level most of the game, passing for 381 yards. His receivers, including the newly healthy Anquan Boldin, were at least as good. The offensive line protected better than anyone could have expected, particularly after injuries forced top tight ends Leonard Pope and Ben Patrick onto the inactive list.

It's just tough to execute the intricacies of the passing game play after play, drive after drive, in a hostile environment without even a serviceable ground game as insurance. Warner found out the hard way when a miscommunication with running back J.J. Arrington precipitated an interception after Arizona had driven to the Carolina 15-yard line while trailing 24-23 early in the fourth quarter. Warner said one thing and Arrington heard something slightly different.

"That's the difference when you're playing a good football team," Warner said.

Ten more things we learned from watching the Cardinals:

1. Time is running out for Edge.

The Cardinals are clearly trending away from Edgerrin James, renewing questions about his future in Arizona beyond this season. James' contract pays him $5 million in 2009, the final year of his contract. That's a high price for a potential backup, particularly if James continues to complain about his role.

"I don't want to just be on a team, I like to play," James told reporters last week. "If I'm not playing, it's not serving a purpose."

James carried only seven times against Carolina. He dropped a ball on a screen pass and lost a critical fumble when Panthers defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu met him at the handoff.

The running game is struggling, but rookie Tim Hightower is more elusive, giving him a better shot at making yardage on his own.

2. The Cardinals know their strengths.

The Cardinals are not a very good running team.

They do have a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback.

Arizona took into account these factors from the beginning. The Cardinals trusted Warner to make the right decisions in the short passing game. They also found ways to manufacture yards on the ground, notably with a deftly conceived end-around that sprung Boldin for a 30-yard gain.

Boldin's big play began with receiver Steve Breaston running right to left in the backfield as if to take a handoff. Warner faked the handoff. Instead of Warner handing to Boldin in the opposite direction, which would have been standard fare, Boldin took the handoff in the same direction Breaston was heading.

The play made vulnerable any defenders who "stayed home" in anticipation of a reverse. Boldin ran into the open field and nearly scored a touchdown.

That is great play calling.

The play sparked a 13-play drive to a field goal on the Cardinals' first possession, a dramatic departure from Arizona's turnover-fueled meltdown against the New York Jets in Week 4.

3. Yes, but the play calling wasn't perfect.

The Cardinals paid dearly when they didn't play to their strengths, never more than when they handed off to James for that 3-yard loss and a fumble. This is the height of second-guessing, but worth pointing out nonetheless.

The Cardinals had been throwing the ball almost at will with three and four wide receivers on the field. They arguably telegraphed the run when they switched to conventional personnel on the fumble play. Arizona lined up from the I-formation with two receivers.

The Cardinals had used that personnel and formation two times previously in the game, plus one time from an offset-I backfield. Arizona handed off to James on each of those three previous plays, netting gains of 3, 2 and 3 yards. The Panthers jumped all over the fourth attempt.

"We wanted to take a little pressure off the line so they weren't having to be in protection mode the whole time," Whisenhunt said. "We just blew an assignment there. The guy came free. Regardless of that, we can't fumble the football."

Arizona, which used three or more wide receivers on 74 percent of its offensive snaps, would be well served developing its ground game from passing formations and personnel groups. That might help the Cardinals keep opponents off balance.

4. The Cardinals can't be covered.

The Panthers have one of the best defensive backfields in the NFL. They have modified some of their coverage schemes this season, generally making life tough on quarterbacks.

Carolina's opponents before Week 8 had completed 56.9 percent of their passes for 5.8 yards an attempt with five touchdowns, four interceptions and a 73.5 rating.

The Cardinals didn't seem to notice. Warner had enough time to wait for receivers to come open even when the P
anthers had good initial coverage on routes.

Breaston caught nine passes for 91 yards. Boldin caught nine for 63 yards and two touchdowns. Larry Fitzgerald, owner of the best hands in the league so far this season, caught seven passes for 115 yards.

Keeping Warner healthy must be the top priority. The Cardinals wouldn't be nearly the same without him, largely because they wouldn't have the ground game to help backup Matt Leinart.

5. Dansby deserves Pro Bowl consideration.

Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby pulled off a rare trifecta against the Panthers when he sacked Jake Delhomme, forced a fumble and then recovered it at the Carolina 5-yard line.

That type of play will earn Dansby consideration for the Pro Bowl. This might finally be his year if the Cardinals keep winning and their defense keeps pressuring quarterbacks.

"I've been overlooked so many years," Dansby said. "I'm just gonna line up and play the game the way it's supposed to be played. Just wrap it up every week and hopefully this year will be my year."

Seattle's Lofa Tatupu and Julian Peterson accounted for two of the NFC's six Pro Bowl spots at linebacker last season. Both could have a hard time earning spots this season based on the Seahawks' struggles. Tatupu and the San Francisco 49ers' Patrick Willis earned the two spots reserved for inside linebackers.

Dansby's chances improve as he keeps making plays, particularly if Tatupu fails to make a stronger case.

6. The Cardinals' defense can get sloppy

Arizona found much to like about its defense.

Cornerback Rod Hood batted away a deep ball for Steve Smith. Defensive lineman Antonio Smith punished Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme with a tackle to the front of the legs. Dansby set up a touchdown with his fumble-forcing sack.

But just when the Cardinals appear ready to become an elite defense, sloppy tackling or a blown coverage seems to intervene. The Panthers ran the ball effectively in the second half and Arizona couldn't bring down Smith along the sideline during a disputed 65-yard touchdown reception late in the third quarter (Whisenhunt's challenge failed).

Strong safety Adrian Wilson appeared to turn the wrong way during a key 31-yard completion to tight end Jeff King.

Carolina held the ball for the final 5:57.

Top defenses can't let those things happen.

7. Arizona didn't need tight ends.

The Cardinals masked their personnel shortage at tight end by using fullback Tim Castille in tandem with Jerame Tuman, the only true tight end healthy enough to play for the Cardinals. The arrangement allowed Arizona to use some of the double-tight end personnel groupings that can help in pass protection.

That was important as the Cardinals tried to keep Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers from dramatically affecting their plans in the passing game. Arizona used short passes to substitute for runs with Tuman and Castille on the field.

8. Holding isn't always holding.

Referee Walt Coleman and crew appeared justified in flagging Cardinals left tackle Mike Gandy for holding midway through the fourth quarter.

Here is the problem: The same officials allowed Gandy to get away with a blatant hold as Warner completed a pass for 13 yards on the next play. Holding calls against offensive linemen have trended down as the league promotes quarterback safety and exciting offenses.

Enforcing the rule consistently would improve the game. The call against Gandy pushed the Cardinals into a second-and-20 situation as they neared midfield while trying to cut into a 27-23 Carolina lead with 7:18 remaining.

9. Special teams can come and go.

A blocked punt and kickoff return produced 14 points for the Cardinals during their 30-24 overtime victory against Dallas in Week 6.

Special teams doomed them against the Panthers. Holder Dirk Johnson dropped the ball on a botched extra-point try after the Cardinals took a 23-17 lead on Warner's 2-yard pass to Boldin late in the third quarter.

The Cardinals also fouled up a daring pass on a fake field goal try shortly before halftime. Tuman slipped into the clear uncovered, but holder Johnson threw the ball too softly, allowing the Panthers' Charles Godfrey to tackle Tuman after a 10-yard gain on fourth-and-15.

10. This defeat was far from a total loss.

Warner said it best: "I hate to lose, and no moral victories, but we played with an intensity today against a good football team that I haven't seen this team play with since I've been here, and that's what I'm going to take away from this game.

"If we can bottle this up and we can take it with us on the road the rest of the year, we're going to win some football games and we're going to be a tough team to beat."