Bryan Robinson (Getty)
The Cardinals didn't get to 4-2 in a conventional manner this season, but coach Ken Whisenhunt has been pleased with the journey so far. That's mainly because he's seen improvement over the last month. Since having a bye in the fourth week, the Cardinals have played smarter and more consistent. And Whisenhunt thinks that's because coaches and players loosened up a bit during the off week.
Ken Whisenhunt believes the pressure and expectations from winning the NFC title last year dragged his team down in the first three games, two of which they lost. He thought the Cardinals were too tight, too afraid of making mistakes.
So he spent the bye week trying to get them to loosen up and to have fun.
"I think we had that specter of being the NFC champs and having people say, 'Can you live up to it?'" Whisenhunt said. "I think the biggest difference in us now and maybe after the Indy game is that we have let that go a little bit. We are focused on just playing our game; being loose, having fun."
The results have been positive. The Cardinals have won three consecutive games, and they've had dominant defensive performances in the last two: at Seattle and at the Giants.
At 4-2, the Cardinals have a one-game lead in the NFC West, and of their next 10 opponents, only two have winning records.
Whisenhunt's encouraged that his team is 4-2, just as it was last season. But the coach is cautious, too.
"We were sitting there at the same point, 4-2 last year, when we played Carolina and lost in that game to them," Whisenhunt said. "We certainly have a healthy respect for Carolina. We know what we have to do to prepare to play them."
SERIES HISTORY: 9th regular-season meeting. Panthers lead, 6-2. They had won five straight before the Cardinals upset them in the divisional round of the playoffs last season. That game started the demise of Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme. The Cardinals intercepted five of his passes. Arizona was able to move the ball through the air, too, as the Panthers tried to cover Larry Fitzgerald one-on-one. Fitzgerald finished with 8 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown.
--The Cardinals tried a gadget play against the Giants last week but it failed. Safety Antrel Rolle took a direct snap from the Wildcat formation then threw long to Larry Fitzgerald. He dropped the pass and the play was called back for a hold. But Whisenhunt thinks the play paid dividends in practice. "It's an important part of our team chemistry," Whisenhunt said. "I think it's guys pulling for each other. We saw Antrel throw it 75 yards in practice last week. Guys respect his ability to do that. That brings a lot to our practices. Certainly when you have those things in the game, it's a lot of fun."
Whisenhunt does have to deal with players lobbying to play on the other side of the ball.
"Whether it's some of our offensive guys wanting to blitz or some of our defensive guys wanting to be offensive players. As long as we don't go overboard with it and we are sound with what we are trying to do, I'm all for it."
--DL Alan Branch has developed into a solid backup at both nose tackle and defensive end. Branch is playing mostly at defensive end and had the first two sacks of his career last week.
--Whisenhunt thinks a goal-line stand against the Texans in Week 5 was the turning point for his defense.
"They made the plays to win it," Whisenhunt said. "For (the Texans) to have the ball at the one for three snaps and for us to keep them out with the game on the line certainly builds your confidence. I think that maybe that was the pivotal point where we started to take that next step or that move to be a good defense."
--Strong safety Adrian Wilson was named NFC defensive player of the week with five tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery against the Giants. More importantly, Wilson caused Eli Manning much confusion by disguising his blitzes well.
"I know from an offensive perspective how difficult that is when there is a player that you have to account for especially from a standpoint of matchups," Whisenhunt said. "It is confusing. That is one of the reasons we have had success more in the recent history is because of Adrian's ability to do that."
BY THE NUMBERS: 28.6 -- That's the percentage of times opponents are converting on third downs against the Cardinals. Last season, the Cardinals opponents converted 44.4 percent of the time on third down.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'll say it again. When you play the Cardinals, bring your lunch pail. It's not an easy win. It's not where you see us on your schedule and you chalk us up as an easy win. Those days are done. Those are done." - Cardinals NT Bryan Robinson.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Running back Beanie Wells is coming off his best game - 67 yards on 14 carries, including a touchdown - but he's not ready to move into the starting lineup, coach Ken Whisenhunt said. Wells still needs to improve ball security, plus he's still learning protection schemes.
Strong safety Adrian Wilson has had a bigger impact since Matt Ware returned three games ago. Ware plays in nickel and dime situations, allowing Wilson to move closer to scrimmage. Wilson makes a bigger impact there and does a good job of disguising his intents. He's done a good job of moving back into coverage at the last minute.
The Cardinals aren't afraid to blitz in any situation. Last week, the Giants had the ball at their own 1 late in the game and the Cardinals still came after quarterback Eli Manning with seven rushers.
--TE Stephen Spach might be able to return this week from an ankle injury, which will force coaches to make an interesting decision. The Cardinals have had success lately using tight ends Anthony Becht and Ben Patrick, so it might be hard to fit Spach into the active roster on game day.
--DE Calais Campbell continues to make a big play in almost every game. He's had sacks in the last two games and also has blocked two field goals this year. Campbell plays right end in the base defense, but moves to tackle and left end in passing situations.
--CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has played well in the three games he's played with a fractured finger. Now he's dealing with a sprained left ankle that kept him out of the fourth quarter last week.
--C Lyle Sendlein played one of his best games against the Giants. He was good at getting to the middle linebacker and his blocks allowed Beanie Wells to break off some decent runs.
GAME PLAN: The Cardinals rank No. 1 in the NFL against the run, and that's Carolina's strength. The Cardinals will do what is necessary to stop the run, including committing strong safety Adrian Wilson to the line of scrimmage. They will try to force Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme to make plays. Delhomme leads the league with 13 interceptions. On offense, the Cardinals like the matchup of their receivers against the Panthers' secondary. They hurt the Panthers through the air last year in the playoffs, and that's the Cardinals' strength.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. Panthers secondary.
Fitzgerald caught 8 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown against the Panthers in the playoffs. The Panthers had no one who could cover Fitzgerald, even though they tried single coverage at times.
Cardinals RT Levi Brown vs. Panthers LE Julius Peppers.
Peppers hasn't played especially well this season, but he's still a talented player. Brown has played better in recent weeks.
Cardinals LB Karlos Dansby vs. Carolina RB DeAngelo Williams.
The Cardinals defense is designed to free Dansby to run sideline to sideline and make plays against the run. He must be a sure tackler because Williams can break long runs at any time.
WR Anquan Boldin will continue to struggle through a right ankle sprain. Boldin played well in the first half last week but the ankle became stiff and sore in the second half and was limited. He is expected to play on Sunday. ...
CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has a fractured right index finger and a sprained left ankle. The ankle is the biggest problem, and it prevented Rodgers-Cromartie from playing in the fourth quarter. He is expected to play against Carolina. ...
FS Antrel Rolle has an injury to an arch in his foot and could be questionable for Sunday's game. If he can't play, Matt Ware will start and Ralph Brown will play in nickel packages. ...
DE Kenny Iwebema has a sprained knee but is expected to play Sunday. ...
TE Stephen Spach remains out with a sprained ankle, which has caused him to miss the last two games. Spach's absence hasn't created problems because Ben Patrick and Anthony Becht have played decently.