It's certainly no secret, especially around here, that the Arizona Cardinals ground game was, frankly, terrible in 2008. Despite a potent passing game, the running game simply couldn't produce consistent results and we spent countless hours wondering why and how it could be fixed (here, here, here, here and here). They ended the season ranked dead last in yards per game (73.6) and 31st in yards per rush (3.5), although they did pick up the pace in the playoffs averaging 91.5 yards per game, but their yards per rush plummeted even further (3.3). With the yards per rush actually trending downward in the playoffs, it appears that the only significant difference was the amount of times that they tried to run (21.2 in regular season vs. 28.0 in the post season).
Upgrading the ground game was one of the Cardinals biggest priorities this off season and they acted quickly in the draft adding Chris "Beanie" Wells in the first round and subsequently cutting Edgerrin James just a couple of days later. Whether or not Wells is an upgrade in talent, James' departure leaves quite a bit of pressure on a group of backs (Hightower, Wells, Wright, Stephens-Howling) who have combined for just 302 carries and 987 yards (by far the least in the NFL). The Cardinals will enter a season in which they have unprecedented expectations with a group that has eleven combined NFL starts and a combined 3.3 yards per carry average. With such high expectations and unproven talent, can the Cardinals ground game become a consistent compliment to the high flying passing game?
Scheme vs. Talent: At numerous points last season we wondered if the coaching staff had either given up on the running game or simply allowed the passing game to flourish at the expense of a ground game. Too often running plays boiled down to a delayed hand off out of a shotgun formation or trying to run the ball out of three or four wide sets. Ken Whisenhunt stated countless times, both during the season and throughout the off season, that he wanted to become more balanced on offense, but will that only be possible by throttling down the passing game? While it's true that any offense with Kurt Warner under center will be a 'pass-first' system, it's possible that some schematic changes will need to be made in order to help the running game become more effective. Beanie Wells, who will play a large part in either the success or failure of the ground game, is not only more accustomed to running out of an I-formation but his skills are best utilized out of a 'power' set. He's a down field runner who can punish a defense and his counterpart, Tim Hightower is at his best when moving straight ahead with a bruising full back leading the way. So will the Cardinals alter their offensive schemes to better suit their running backs or will they continue to tailor their game plan towards a high flying passing attack.
Playing with the Lead: One common factor in each of the Cardinals first three playoff games was that they held significant leads in each game and thus were able to run the ball (averaged 33 carries per game) more than they did in the regular season, regardless of the results of each run. Too often the regular season, especially late in the year, the Cards would fall behind by double digit points before halftime and would be forced to abandon the run for large stretches o the game, if not entirely (NYJ, PHI, MIN, NE and NYG averaged 12.4 rushes per game). While there's no simple way to ensure that each game remains close, the Cardinals need to cut down on the mental mistakes, both offensively and defensively, that led to them falling into big holes early in games.
Progression of the Offensive Line: It would be pointless to discuss the running game without mentioning the offensive line and there's no doubt that they need to improve in 2009. There is some hope that another year of experience for guys like Levi Brown, Deuce Lutui and Lyle Sendlein combined with the success of the playoffs will lead to an increased level of confidence heading into the season. Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm have preached consistency, especially on the offensive line and it's led to the same four starters at tackle and guard for two consecutive seasons. The pressure of competition could also play a role considering that it's possible for Brandon Keith, Elliot Vallejo and even Elton Brown to push for playing time. Fifth round pick, Herman Johnson could also be a wild card later in the season if the running game continues to struggle. With so much promising depth across the line (except at center of course), it will be interesting to see if changes are made if the ground game is inconsistent or ineffective for another season.
The Cardinals running game will be under increased scrutiny this season after drafting a first round running back and struggling for most of last season. With such a potent passing attack though the ground game doesn't have to be great, it just has to be closer to average. Do you think the Cardinals have the talent in the backfield and on the line to get the job done? How do you think they'll fair in 2009, top 10, top 15, top 20 or bottom 10?