Edgerrin James (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
The ascension of rookie running back Tim Hightower into the starting lineup last week was not unexpected. But it was surprising that the guy he replaced, Edgerrin James, did not take a snap.It's the first time in James' 10 NFL seasons that he stood on the sideline, healthy, for an entire game.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt denied that not playing James had anything to do with Edgerrin James recently expressing frustration at his diminished role.
The game just dictated that Tim Hightower take the majority of the snaps, with J.J. Arrington filling the backup role, he said.
James doesn't buy that, saying after the game that the situation is "personal."
Several factors have contributed to James' benching. First, he was signed in 2006, a year before Whisenhunt became head coach. While consistent in praising James' talents, Whisenhunt has conceded that he would like to have a running back who is a threat to make big plays.
That's not James. His longest run in 21/2 years with the team is 27 yards, and he had only three others gain at least 20.
Hightower gives the team another dimension. His 30-yard run last week against the Rams was the team's longest run in three years and its longest touchdown run since 2002.
RB Tim Hightower
Hightower is no speedster, but he's a powerful back with quick feet, and he explodes through a hole.
To his credit, James has served as Hightower's mentor, counseling him on all parts of life in the NFL, from how to care for his body to how to watch opponents on video.
But James is not a team leader. He's an independent man who often prefers to go his own way. He works out on his own in the off-season and doesn't attend every voluntary workout.
It didn't go unnoticed by coaches, either, that James missed the only practice in the recent bye week. All of that likely would have been tolerated if James was still the team's best option at running back. But he's not, and that point was made clear last week against the Rams when Hightower gained 109 yards on 22 carries.
SERIES HISTORY: 35th meeting. The 49ers lead, 19-15, but the Cardinals won the first meeting this season, 23-13, in San Francisco. The Cardinals took advantage of five turnovers, committed none themselves, and took a measure of revenge for losing to the lowly 49ers twice in 2007.
The Cardinals opened up their game plan in the second half and Kurt Warner and his receivers moved down the field against the Niners. The Cardinals had the ball 11 minutes in the third quarter of that game. The Cardinals (5-3) have a three-game lead over the 49ers (2-6) and the rest of the division.
It's the first time the Cardinals have had a winning record at the season's midway point since 1984, and they are on their way to winning a division title for the first time since 1975.
--The Cardinals have won four of their last nine games by at least 20 points. From 1986 through 2006, they won just six games by at least 20 points.
--The Cardinals are 9-2 at home over the last two seasons. One of those losses was against the 49ers, who beat them in overtime when they sacked Kurt Warner in the end zone and recovered a fumble.
--A victory over the 49ers on Monday would be the Cardinals seventh straight home win. That would be the franchise's longest home victory streak since 1925 when the Chicago Cardinals won nine straight.
--Tim Hightower's 30-yard touchdown run against the Rams last week was the Cardinals' longest run since 2005. It was the team's longest touchdown run since Jake Plummer scored from 34 yards in 2002.
--Hightower has seven rushing touchdowns, the most by a Cardinals rookie since Ronald Moore had nine in 1994.
--WR Anquan Boldin has eight touchdowns this year, tied for second in the NFL. He is one short of a career high for touchdown receptions (9), despite missing two games with a head/facial injury.
--The retractable roof at University of Phoenix Stadium is scheduled to be open for Monday night's game. It would be the first time this season the roof has been open for a game and the eighth time since the stadium opened in 2006.
--The special teams are missing two key players. Tim Hightower, now the starting running back, is no longer playing special teams. And linebacker Ali Highsmith is out of the season after suffering a torn knee ligament last week in St. Louis.
BY THE NUMBERS: No. 1 -- That's where the Cardinals' offense ranks in scoring and first downs per game. It's in the top five in five other categories.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "That's one game. We've got to see it over time in order to say Tim has arrived. I'm excited about the way he played, but let's be very clear about this: The reason he played is because he worked hard and earned (it)."-- Coach Ken Whisenhunt on RB Tim Hightower's impressive debut as a starter.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Running back Tim Hightower, a rookie, will remain as the starter, but veteran Edgerrin James could get some carries. James didn't play last week, even though he was healthy and active for the game.
--TE Steven Spach took part in at least half of the offensive snaps last week, despite joining the team just five days before the game. He blocked very well and was a big reason the run game was productive.
--CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie could start this week over Eric Green. Green has been inconsistent this season, and while Rodgers-Cromartie has give up three touchdown passes, he has a large upside and is probably is a better option than Green at this point.
--DE Calais Campbell, the club's second round pick, is playing well in a limited backup role. Campbell has made a standout play in almost every game in which he's received significant time.
GAME PLAN: The Cardinals ran the ball with success in the first half of their victory over the 49ers in the season opener, but the offense really took off when coaches opened up the playbook in the second half. Since then, the Cardinals have used a considerable amount of four and five-receiver packages, so look for them to do the same against the Rams.
Defensively, the Cardinals played better in the second half at the 49ers. The whole key to the defense is tackling and mental concentration. When the Cardinals don't blow coverages and miss tackles, they are a solid defensive team.