Welcome to another installment of Enemy on the Ship, a series of articles where I am graciously given the time and effort of a writer or blogger for the teams the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face in 2013, and they share their thoughts on the team they cover, and how they’ll do against the Bucs in 2013.
For this installment, I was joined by Shaun Church, who writes for Bleacher Report and Yahoo! Sports about the Arizona Cardinals. You can find Shaun on Twitter here. I asked him a few questions about the “Bird Gang” and this is what he had to say:
Leo Howell – The Cardinals have obviously made a coaching change this offseason, installing Bruce Arians to run the team from the sidelines. But there have been changes on the field, as well. Tell us how the 2013 Cardinals will be different from the 2012 version.
Shaun Church – They certainly made some changes this offseason. And it was needed, I think. Ken Whisenhunt‘s welcome ran out about the time he removed John Skelton at Atlanta with a two-possession lead. With Bruce Arians now running the show, the offense will have a more vertical look to it, much like the one we saw in Pittsburgh for so many years with Arians coaching Ben Roethlisberger. In Arians’ final year as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator, Roethlisberger was in the top 10 in the NFL in percentage of passes beyond 20 yards, at 13.3 percent. Last season, he dropped all the way to No. 26, at just 10.5 percent—and he still had Mike Wallace.
Defensively, they are moving from Ray Horton (now Cleveland’s defensive coordinator) to Todd Bowles. Bowles brings with him a 3-4 defense similar in ways to Horton’s, but there is one major difference: the focus of the pass-rush will be the defensive line, not the linebackers.
In Horton’s system, the line was in what they call a 2-gap scheme, meaning they essentially are on the field to occupy multiple offensive linemen in order to free up the linebackers behind them, creating pressure on the quarterback. Defensive end Darnell Dockett was not pleased with this role.
LH – Bringing Carson Palmer represents an automatic upgrade over the rotation of subpar QBs who played for the Cards last year. How much of an impact will Palmer have, and how does his addition impact Larry Fitzgerald?
SC – “Subpar” is probably too nice, Leo. No need to sugarcoat it—the Cardinals’ quarterbacks were the worst bunch of losers in the league a year ago. Kevin Kolb started out decently enough, but the pressure he faced on a weekly basis was too much for him to handle, and he became the coward in the pocket that Oakland Raiders defensive end Tommy Kelly said he was.
Carson Palmer is definitely an upgrade over Kolb, John Skelton et al. I believe he will make a huge difference to the unit as a whole. I predicted in June that Palmer would lead the team from dead last in total offense to the top 10, something only four franchises have ever done (check out that piece to learn a bit of NFL history).
While putting up yards is nice, scoring is obviously the ultimate goal. I’ll take it beyond Larry Fitzgerald. I do believe Fitzgerald will return to his usual Fitz ways, but Palmer distributes the offensive wealth very well. The league could start to see why Michael Floyd was the team’s No. 1 pick in 2012. Floyd is a physical clone of Fitzgerald, and I think he has every bit of athleticism as No. 11 has. He could break out this year and prove to be a great No. 2 receiver for the team
LH – Arizona has had a fairly formidable defense over the past couple of seasons, but it’s not been dominant enough to carry the team on its shoulders. Tell us how the 2013 Cardinals’ defense will look, and what players the Buccaneers should worry about most.
SC -I do believe the defense was good enough to carry even an average NFL offense the last couple seasons. The problem being, of course, that Arizona’s offense wouldn’t have moved the ball against a Big East defense the last couple years, let alone the NFL defenses that shut them down week in and week out.
As mentioned above, Dockett and Campbell will be players to keep an eye on this season. They will be doing much more pass-rushing, and that makes Dockett a very happy man. A happy and motivated Darnell Dockett is a very dangerous person on the gridiron.
Another player to watch is rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu. He has impressed coaches with his work ethic to this point in the offseason, and if he truly is beyond his drug problems and is focused on being the best NFL free safety he can be, he can be a terror in the defensive backfield—even early on. He could end up starting Week 1 because of his natural playmaking ability and instincts. By the time the Cardinals’ trip to Tampa rolls around in Week 4, Mathieu could be settled in to his role as the starter and really cause problems for the deep passing game.
That’s something I know Josh Freeman likes to do, and with Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams (who could have a nice contract extension to sign soon) pressing the issue deep, Mathieu could be the guy charged with taking those deep routes away.
LH – Will the Cardinals have a running game in 2013? And if so, who is going to be the leading rusher that the Bucs will be keyed in on stopping?
SC – You know, a lot of the talk here in Arizona has been about free-agent running back Rashard Mendenhall reuniting with Arians and having a career-resurrecting year. I really don’t see it that way. He is on a one-year deal, and though he’s just 25 years old, I don’t see him as “the guy” this year.
I believe Ryan Williams—the second-round pick out of Virginia Tech in 2011 who has played in five career games due to injury—will emerge as the No. 1 because of his elusiveness. He is a perfect fit for the zone-blocking scheme Arians and Co. are bringing, and he should flourish if healthy.
I also see rookie fifth-round pick Stepfan Taylor (Stanford) as a threat to Mendenhall on the roster. He is a prototypical old-school three-down NFL back, and his pass-blocking ability will be a big reason.
As for actually having a running game, my philosophy is that you don’t have to pound the ball down a team’s throat to win games. You just have to do it well when you do it. The Cardinals averaged a league-worst 3.42 yards per carry last year. If they do that again, there will be problems on offense. I think they will be better, and though they won’t finish in the top 10 in team carries, they will be effective enough when they do run so that they will make a difference.
LH – Finally, tell us how you believe the matchup between the Buccaneers and Cardinals will go when the teams meet in 2013.
SC- I really like this matchup. I think it will be a great game, and it’s one that should come down to a final possession and potential game-winning drive for one of these two quarterbacks.
I like what the Bucs have done on defense, adding Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson and drafting Johnthan Banks. Though Banks is listed as a backup to Eric Wright opposite Revis, I believe the rookie will end up starting—maybe as early as Week 1. He is a good matchup versus Floyd, and the two could be locked in an epic battle all game long.
The difference in this game will come down to the pass-rush and the running game.
I give the edge in pass-rushing to the Cards, with Dockett, Campbell and the mix of outside linebackers that includes veterans Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield as well as rookie Alex Okafor out of Texas.
The edge in the run game goes to the Bucs, and I believe this could be a big day for Doug Martin. Week 4 will be the last of Cards inside linebacker Daryl Washington’s four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, and his absence in the middle could create a hole no ‘backer can fill—even Karlos Dansby and the talented rookie, Kevin Minter (LSU).
Tampa Bay holds on to win a close one.