Red (Zone) Suddenly Means Go

Signs are growing that the red zone no longer is the dead zone for the Cardinals. With upgrades on the line, signing the game's premier back, and drafting a promising rookie tight end to augment one of the NFL's most prolific receiving duos, newly drafted Golden Boy Matt Leinart, and a former MVP quarterback, the Cardinals now appear capable of punching it in.

That was among their major maladies last season, when they accumulated eye-popping passing yardage, and then, because they couldn't run the ball, almost always settled for three points instead of seven. The only thing positive to be said for that is that it made a record-breaking field-goal kicker out of Neil Rackers.
But the offense has come away with red-zone touchdowns in preseason outings against Pittsburgh and Chicago, yet still failed miserably at New England. It's a barometer of their improvement, but also a reminder that they still aren't quite where they need to be.
Acquiring right tackle Brandon Gorin in a trade Aug. 22 may make them better yet. Starter Oliver Ross is recovering from knee surgery after his initial campaign with the Cardinals in 2005 was thwarted by a series of injuries.
Gorin, a three-year starter for New England, hasn't yet won the job in his first week with his new team, but it appears to be only a matter of time -- and perhaps as soon as this week, when the team hosts Denver in the closing preseason game.
The Cardinals acknowledge that the first step in improving the rushing game, and with it their red-zone efficiency, is making a commitment to it. Too often too early they gave up on the run in 2005. Consequently, it wasn't there when they needed it. But in their latest preseason outing against the Bears, who have a playoff-caliber defense, the Cardinals rushed 38 times for 127 yards.
At the very least the Cardinals hope to present enough of a rushing threat to give opposing defensive coordinators pause before automatically playing zone coverage in the red zone, a luxury they had last year knowing they needed only to commit minimal personnel to stopping the Cardinals' run. In the process, those zone coverages took away passing lanes.
The threat of the run should give new life to the play-action series.
Running back J.J. Arrington has received the bulk of the preseason work with the first offense while the team allows Edgerrin James to save himself. Arrington is beginning to run like a confident NFL back. As a rookie in 2005, he was handed the starting job and then lost it to Marcel Shipp, now the No. 3 back, because Arrington too often had that deer-in-the-headlights look and froze.
"Our first offense can move the ball and I think we can score points, but I just don't think we have enough talented depth to play against the people we are playing against," coach Dennis Green said. "But I'm not concerned about the first offense and the players who will be playing for us when we go against San Francisco, St. Louis and Seattle."

PLAYER NOTES
--DE Bertrand Berry, the right-side starter, will miss the final preseason game after suffering a left knee injury. The move is largely precautionary for the team's leading sack man. An MRI was negative for major structural damage.
--DE A.J. Schable has gotten extensive work with starter Bertrand Berry (knee bruise) and backup Kenny King (hand surgery) out, and coaches have been pleasantly surprised. The opportunity probably enabled Schable to earn a roster spot.
--RB Edgerrin James, who doesn't care to play in preseason games, is getting a free ride from the Cardinals despite his being new to them, and at a time when they are attempting to improve the league's worst rushing attack. Through three preseason games, James has carried seven times for 1 yard. Backup J.J. Arrington, getting most of the work with the first unit, through three weeks has 67 yards on 20 carries. "Everything I've seen, I've liked," James said. "I know we're going to be all right."
--QB Matt Leinart is solidifying his position as the No. 2 quarterback ahead of John Navarre. During one stretch, Leinart completed 12 successive passes against the Bears, who had most of their first unit on the field.
--RT Oliver Ross, the starter, is back in Tempe doing rehab on his right knee after surgery on the meniscus. He is expected to return in the first three weeks of the season, although he remains a long-shot to make it back for the opener. When he returns, he will face a formidable new challenger for his job: Brandon Gorin, the New England Patriots starter the past three seasons, who was acquired in trade after Ross had surgery.
--RT Brandon Gorin (6-6, 308), a New England Patriots starter the past three seasons, was acquired in a trade and, with starter Oliver Ross recovering from knee surgery, immediately becomes a strong candidate to win the starting job with his new team. A tag-team of Jeremy Bridges and Fred Wakefield has been playing RT since Ross went down.
--OLB Karlos Dansby, the strong-side starter, continues to irritate management and coaches with his series of injuries that have caused him to sit out training camp and preseason games. Dansby is recovering from a left toe injury that he says precludes him from pushing off and has caused issues with his leg muscles. He was evaluated in Alabama two weeks ago, and no surgery was recommended. But, said Dansby, who is now back in Tempe, "It's a serious injury. They say (it could be a) career-ending injury." Dansby had three interceptions -- two of which were returned for touchdowns, and four quarterback sacks in a breakout 2005 season. He appears to have lost his job to Calvin Pace, and there has been talk that when Dansby returns he will be moved to the weak side.
--OLB Calvin Pace is one of the team's success stories of preseason and has all but wrapped up the starting strong-side starting job. Pace, a first-round pick at DE in 2003, was a huge disappointment as a rookie, posting one sack in 16 starts. He lost the job in 2004 to free agent Bertrand Berry. Last year, Pace nearly lost his position on the roster after he suffered a season-ending non-football injury during the bye week. Coaches asked him to make the position change in the spring, he was receptive, and he has dazzled them with his performance. The job was open because Karlos Dansby has had an assortment of injuries -- thumb surgery, strained groin, toe injury -- that slowed his off-season work and precluded him from doing anything since the team went to training camp.
--MLB Gerald Hayes, the projected starter a year ago before a knee injury sidelined him, is working with the first unit, started vs. Chicago, and appears to have won the job from veteran James Darling, who moved to the middle a year ago.
--LB James Darling, the starter in the middle a year ago when Gerald Hayes was out (knee surgery), has been moved to the weak side to compete with Orlando Huff and Darryl Blackstock. Darling is a fierce competitor, a veteran leader who has played outside before. The team was not happy with Huff a year ago and first moved Blackstock from the strong side to compete. Darling becomes a strong candidate to dislodge Huff.
--CB Antrel Rolle, the team's 2005 first-round pick who missed most of his rookie year to a knee injury, is coming back strong. He had an interception to set up a touchdown in a preseason game at Chicago. Rolle said later he thought the Bears were testing him.
--TE Leonard Pope (6-8, 265), a rookie third-round pick, each week gets more playing time, and while still listed third on the depth chart, has closed the gap with Eric Edwards and Adam Bergen. Pope caught a TD pass in the goal-line offense vs. the Bears.
--FB James Hodgins, who has battled an assortment of injuries that have kept him off the field for most of two years (shoulder, 2004; knee, 2005), was activated from physically unable to perform. He saw his first action at Chicago. Hodgins is a big body (6-1, 275) and was Marshall Faulk's lead blocker in St. Louis when the Rams won the Super Bowl. While the role of the fullback is limited in Cardinals' three-wideout sets, the role is invaluable in short-yardage and goal-line situations. There is a spot on the roster for a blocking fullback. Converted TE John Bronson has been filling it. Hodgins was the Cardinals starter in 2003. Starting FB Obafemi Ayanbadejo is more of a receiving/third-down back and not known as a strong lead blocker.
 

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