2011 Cardinals Week 14: Five observations

Five things I noticed while watching the Arizona Cardinals during their most recent game, a 21-19 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 14:

  • Great body language in the secondary. Strong safety Adrian Wilson and cornerback Patrick Peterson in particular played with obvious fire against the 49ers. They were the aggressors. They celebrated positive plays and seemed unfazed following negative ones. Defensive backs could simply be playing with more confidence now that they have a better grasp of a new scheme and are enjoying some success. The personalities might also be meshing better, a consideration as free safety Kerry Rhodes rejoins the rotation after recovering from injury. Cardinals fans will recall Rhodes repeatedly looking back toward Wilson when Carolina's Steve Smith scored in Week 1. As noted then, there's a line between expressing frustration and showing up a teammate. I thought Rhodes crossed that line.

  • Nick Eason's strong hands. The Cardinals' rotation at nose tackle has changed since Dan Williams went on injured reserve. Eason caught my attention by rag-dolling Alex Smith to the ground with one hand. Eason grabbed Smith by the sleeve and brought him down instantly.

  • Improved speed on the perimeter. The Cardinals' move toward younger players at linebacker has shown up on the stat sheet. Sacks are up. It's also showing up against the run. The Cardinals appear less reliant on the defensive ends to contain outside runs. Linebackers Sam Acho, O'Brien Schofield and Daryl Washington have the speed to chase down plays near the the sidelines. Free-agent addition Stewart Bradley got to the sideline in coverage against Frank Gore as the Cardinals held the 49ers to a field goal in the red zone.

  • Natural use of LaRod Stephens-Howling. The shovel pass Arizona executed freed Stephens-Howling for an 18-yard gain and made the 49ers pay for getting upfield quickly. It was the perfect play call at the time. There have been times, in past seasons, when the Cardinals' use of Stephens-Howling, though well-intentioned, felt a little forced. I remember seeing Stephens-Howling come into the game, usually on second down, and knowing the Cardinals would throw to him near the sideline. Stephens-Howling has justified an expanded role. The team has needed him to provide explosive plays lost when rookie Ryan Williams went on injured reserve.

  • Ray Horton delivering on promise. The Cardinals' first-year defensive coordinator vowed to come after opposing quarterbacks. Arizona's defensive players were leaning forward before the snap as if they could hardly restrain themselves from coming across the line early. Wilson and Peterson were among the defensive backs blitzing and getting to the quarterback. I never got the sense Arizona feared or respected Alex Smith's ability to beat them with big plays downfield.

This was a huge victory for Arizona. I made more than five notes when jotting down observations. A few more, quickly: Officials flagged Rashad Johnson for a late hit on Delanie Walker, who dropped a third-down pass a short while later. Related? I thought it could have been. Those types of hits get receivers' attention. ...

The Cardinals' Reggie Walker had a hard time with 49ers' punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. in the open field. Ginn juked him a couple times on returns into Arizona territory. ...

Not sure why the Cardinals left their right tackle, Brandon Keith, singled up against Aldon Smith on a three-man pressure deep in Arizona territory. Smith got the sack. Skelton was partly to blame. He held the ball too long. ...

Just when quarterback John Skelton seems to be making progress in his decision making, he throws a high pass across the field for an interception. ...

The Cardinals did exploit Patrick Willis' injury absence from the 49ers' defense. Larry Fitzgerald broke a tackle attempt by Willis' replacement, Larry Grant, during a 53-yard reception to open the fourth quarter. Willis would have made that tackle, most likely.