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How Steve Wilks Can Stick (3 Key Improvement Areas)

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

By his own admission, Steve Wilks may be a “one and done” head coach in Arizona.

With each week, the odds appear to be stacking up against Wilks. This week’s news that star Patrick Peterson feels that things in Arizona are “rapidly deteriorating” and that the Pro Bowl CB “desperately wants to be traded” is yet another setback for the Cardinals’ rookie head coach. When team captains want to jump ship after 7 games—-that’s trouble with a capital T.

But—-the Cardinals have 9 more games to play, albeit versus an increasingly difficult schedule. Wilks’ Cardinals are 0-4 at home and have been outscored in the newly renamed stadium 47-105...eliciting boos form Cardinals’ fans and loud, exuberant cheers from large colorful sections of Redskins, Bears’, Seahawks’ and Broncos’ interlopers.

This week the Cardinals have home game #5 versus the 49ers—-the one team the Cardinals have beaten. Currently, the Vegas oddsmakers have this as a “pick ‘em” game.

While Steve Wilks has been sitting on a bed of hot charcoals—-owner and team president Michael Bidwill has remained ominously quiet. In a recent interview, the Cardinals’ controversial GM, Steve Keim, said that he is still in Wilks’ corner, although some “serious conversations” have to the take place regarding scheme and use of personnel.

Thus—-is Steve Wilks already a lame duck? Or—-can he manage to hang on?

Here is an analysis of what it would like take for Wilks to succeed:

  1. If newly promoted OC Bryon Leftwich demonstrates competency as a play caller, Wilks’ chances of sticking will rise considerably, perhaps even astronomically. Leftwich is receiving praise from a number of the Cardinals’ offensive players who are saying that the former Jaguars’ and Steelers’ QB and Bruce Arians’ disciple has been a ubiquitous presence in the locker room and on the practice field ever since he arrived in 2016. Leftwich has built a strong rapport with the players through daily conversations and coaching points. Just as a good QB must reach out to all the offensive players, Leftwich has been doing the same as a coach.

The strongest argument for making a change at the HC position is to put Josh Rosen in the most creative and capable hands. Therefore, if Byron Leftwich—-who seems to have already developed a good chemistry with Josh Rosen—-can show that he is an OC to depend on, then switching head coaches is no longer as imminent a decision as it was when Mike McCoy was struggling.

2. Steve Wilks and his DC Al Holcomb have to show some flexibility in addressing the weaknesses of the defense. Wilks keeps claiming week after week that the defense is not stopping the run because too many players are not holding up their gaps or using the proper techniques to do so. To be saying this repeatedly for 7 weeks does not speak well for Wilks and his coaches who preach trust, accountability and commitment.

When so many of the students are failing the test—-maybe the teacher should consider whether the test is too difficult. The fact that Wilks is trying to defend the run out of a hybrid 4-2-5 defense is proof enough that the test is too difficult. Just look at the numbers up front—-5 offensive linemen + a TE vs. 4 defensive linemen. Easy math says that’s 6 versus 4.

This just in—-a good double team block can ruin gap integrity in an instant. Free guards and tackles who can immediately get to their 2nd level blocks on the ILBers can ruin gap integrity in an instant.

The clear answer is to plug in a 5th defensive lineman. Wilks has been loath to do that.

The 4 man defensive line also prevents the Cardinals’ defense from setting hard edges. It’s no wonder that opposing QBs, even Kirk Cousins, are walking into the end zone off a simple read option. There is no clear edge and no clear contain. The Cardinals’ perimeter is easy to exploit—-you name it—-on bounce out runs, screens, swing passes, reverses, RPOs, etc.. And Wilks’ zone coverages are too soft—-which gives good QBs easy pitch and catches down the field—-which gets them in a rhythm and builds their confidence.

Defense is Steve Wilks’ forte—-but if he can’t offer some answers to the Cardinals’ defensive vulnerabilities, then does he really deserve to be a head coach?

Whatever is going on at halftime—-in all three phases—-has to change. The Cardinals have been getting absolutely dominated in the 3rd quarters. There were many good reasons why BA always used to say, that the outcomes of games often hinged on “the first five minutes of the 2nd half.”

When BA had Todd Bowles as DC—-those Cardinals’ teams put on 3rd quarter adjustment clinics.

3. The special teams seem to be getting worse and worse each week. Part of it is Jeff Rodgers’ questionable use of personnel. Everyone in Arizona except Steve Keim, Steve Wilks and Jeff Rodgers knows that Brandon Williams does not pose any significant threat as a kickoff returner. Meanwhile one of the most dynamic and explosive college kickoff returners in 2016, T.J. Logan, is languishing on the inactive list.

On kick coverages, Williams leads the unit in penalties—-and right behind him are Patrick Peterson and Jamar Taylor. Flags are flying left and right—-which does not speak well to the way these units are being coached. The Cardinals currently find themselves getting into a field position rut—-the struggling offense so often pinned back in their own territory, made many times worse by special teams’ penalties.

Ultimately, the success of the special teams and the coaches’ use of personnel is on Coach Wilks. The Cardinals’ fans are sick and tired of sloppy, error-prone and demoralizing special teams play.

Does Steve Wilks stand a chance? Can Byron Leftwich show enough play-calling skill to save the day? Can Al Holcomb make necessary adjustments when his defense is getting picked apart? Can Jeff Rodgers put the special back into the Cardinals’ special teams after a few weeks of Amos Jones-like efforts?

What do you think? It would be great to hear your thoughts before I throw in my two cents.