With Monday night's win the Arizona Cardinals have a strangle hold on the NFC West but the Cardinals weren't overly impressive in the game. The Niners took them do the final second of the game despite being 10 point underdogs and losing the turnover battle -3. In the end this isn't college football, where style points count for something. Getting a W is the only thing that matters but did the ugly game expose some flaws in the Cardinals?
Lack of a Running Game: The Cardinals made plenty of news last week when they benched accomplished veteran Edgerrin James for a largely unknown rookie Tim
Hightower. They reaped immediate benefits when he rushed for 109 yards against a St. Louis Rams defense that ranks 30th against the run. On Monday night though the Cardinals couldn't ever get the running game off the...well... ground. The Niners have been middle of the road (16th) against the run but that didn't stop them from shutting down Tim Hightower and the Cardinals. Hightower rushed for just 22 yards on 13 carries (12 yards came on one play) and Anquan Boldin (19 yards on 3 carries) was the only other Cardinal with more than 4 yards. The Cardinals finished with just 46 rushing yards on 19 carries (2.4 avg) and they ended the game with just two first downs via the ground game. The passing game may be able to carry the offense during most games but a time will come when inclement weather forces the need to run the ball (@ NE in Dec or in the playoffs) and they'll need more than 46 yards to get the job done.
Third Down Defense: The Cardinals defense has had it's strengths and weaknesses over the first half of the season but one area that's definitely a weakness is their inablity to stop opposing offenses on third down. Overall the defense is 14th in points per game and 19th in yards per game, but they're tied for 24th in 3rd down percentage. Opposing offenses convert 43% of their third down situations against this defense on the season and the Niners converted on 50% (9 of 18) of them. Against the Niners, the Cardinals gift-wrapped two third down conversions with penalties and they allowed them to convert five third downs of at least nine yards. On the Niners longest drive of the game (TD drive in the 2nd quarter) they converted four third downs, including two that were at least 10 yards. It's hard to place blame on a certain area of the defense but one thing that really bugs me is that is seems like they get very conservative in third-and-long situations. They often switch to 3-man pass rush, that rarely works, and drop everyone else into coverage. It normally results in plenty of time for the opposing quarterback to scan the field and find an open receiver. They've got the players to put pressure on the quarterback but it seems like they rarely blitz on third downs.
Penalties: I'd imagine the officials from this game had to spend some time in the whirlpool Monday night because both teams played some sloppy football and drew a ton of flags. The officials made their share of questionable or non-calls but both teams can't blame anyone but themselves for the high number of flags throughout the game. The Cardinals moved into a first place tie with 72 penalties so far and this has to be the worst game, penalty-wise, in recent memory. The Cardinals extended Niners' drives and killed their own drives with penalties and had two defensive touchdowns erased by penalties. I have no idea how to cut down on the ridiculously high number of penalties but I wouldn't be surprised if head coach Ken Whisenhunt doesn't take some kind of action. Deuce Lutui, the division leader in penalties, picked up another two flags with a false start and a holding call and he might have been responsible for another false start that was credited to Levi Brown. Lutui's been on the verge of being benched all season and I'd have to think that this game didn't help his case.
There are other areas that the Cardinals will have to improve (stopping big plays and better special teams) but these are the three things that really hurt the Cardinals this week. What are the biggest flaws in this team in your mind? Is there any remedy for them?