Things seemed new and fresh. Since then, however, the Titans are 11-18.
The Arizona Cardinals come to Nashville in a position not unlike those Titans from two years ago. Arizona’s on the playoff fringe, playing well and looking for its ninth win this season.
ESPN.com Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky discuss the two teams in advance of Sunday's game.
Paul Kuharsky: Bruce Arians did masterful work filling in for Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis last season. He has a legitimate case for a second consecutive coach-of-the-year award. What have been the main ingredients in his first-year success with the Cards?
Josh Weinfuss: There have been a few contributing factors as to why Arians has had success this season, but it starts with him changing the culture of the entire organization. He's not a micromanager around the building and he's open with the players, and they love it. Like past regimes, he doesn't sugarcoat his feelings or his perceptions of a player. He'll tell them how it is, and they've responded well to the criticism. One obvious difference is the quarterback situation, and Arians handled it differently here than in the past, naming Carson Palmer the starter early and sticking with him. That gave players a chance to spend all of minicamp and the offseason knowing that Palmer was in charge, and they were able to get to know him and his rhythm. Even though it took about seven months for them to pick up the offense, it would've been longer had there been any wavering with the QB decision. Lastly, Arians is simply a great offensive coach and his ability to adapt his scheme to the personnel is showing.
How much credence is there to Munchak being on the hot seat and what kind of impact has this prospect had on the team?
Kuharsky: Oh, he’s on the hot seat. How can he not be when his team is in the worst division in the league and is 0-4 against that division (1-9 if we look at 2012 and 2013)? Players remain behind Munchak and I think they respect him immensely based on his Hall of Fame playing career. There is a certain chemistry that comes out of playing for a guy who has played at the highest level. But the standard is winning, and Munchak’s team has regularly lost to winning teams and to AFC South teams. An offseason revamp was supposed to brand the Titans as a team with a dominant offensive line and run game, and things haven’t panned out along those lines at all. The $10 million back, Chris Johnson, is averaging 3.8 yards a carry, and the offensive line hasn’t jelled.
How has the offensive line in Arizona come along, and how much has running back Rashard Mendenhall (3.1 yards a carry) yielded to rookie Andre Ellington (5.8)?
Weinfuss: It sounds cliché, but the proverbial light switch was flipped in Week 8 against Atlanta. Since then, the Cardinals' linemen been corralling pass rushes, creating holes for the running backs and, maybe most important, keeping Palmer upright. The tackles were still struggling with fast and powerful edge rushers, but left tackle Bradley Sowell did a good job of slowing St. Louis' Robert Quinn last Sunday. As for the guys for whom the line is blocking, Mendenhall and Ellington have two very distinct roles on this team. Mendenhall is the workhorse, the every-down back who will pound in between the tackles until he breaks free. He suffered from a turf-toe injury for most of the season but has been healthy for a few weeks. Ellington, on the other hand, has been more of the outside back. He has an extra gear Mendenhall doesn't, where he can hit the corner and take off. And Arians likes to use Ellington out wide more. So the two are quite different and each has accepted his role.
Is it just the Titans offensive line to blame for Johnson's decline in yards per carry or is there something else in play? Backs like that can only last so long in this league. In Year 6, how much longer do you think he has?
Kuharsky: It’s definitely not just the line. That group’s been slow to jell. Right tackle David Stewart is banged up and doesn’t move well. Rookie right guard Chance Warmack is too inconsistent. Rookie center Brian Schwenke started late because of a camp injury and now has a bad ankle. Left tackle Andy Levitre, the big free-agent prize, has admitted he needs an offseason to get right and get to playing up to his standard. I give the line a third of the blame, Johnson a third and the play calling a third. Johnson is just too tentative and doesn’t make anybody miss. And offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains can’t get CJ or Shonn Greene into a rhythm when one of them starts to get something going. They don’t seem to know how to solve a 3-4 defense, so advantage Cardinals there.
Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby is having a big year and could be in the Defensive Player of the Year mix. How does defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ scheme set him up for success?
Weinfuss: Bowles made a tweak up front and it has had a ripple effect throughout the defense, helping Dansby flourish. Bowles stayed with a 3-4 scheme but changed the defensive line's responsibilities up front from a multi-gap system to single-gap. It freed up the down linemen to pin their ears back and attack, which has flushed quarterbacks out of the pocket more quickly and made runners bounce outside. That, in turn, has helped Dansby get in front of more passes and allows him to roam sideline to sideline. He leads the league with 100 solo tackles and, with the help of a new diet, is playing at the level of a linebacker five years younger.
Tight ends have raked the Cardinals' defense for most of the season, one of the few weak spots in an otherwise-talented unit. How do the Titans use Delanie Walker, and can they exploit Arizona's undersized secondary?
Kuharsky: I would think they like the matchup. Walker is a tough, physical tight end who can run. He’s particularly effective when he gets angry. He’s coming off a game missed due to a concussion, so he could be at some risk if he takes a big shot. But I would expect Kendall Wright gets the most targets and Walker is second. Maybe the Cards have some insight into Walker from seeing him twice a year when he was with the 49ers. The Titans surely hope that doesn’t matter at all.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- It's not quite like college, but rankings in the NFL do mean something.
On a weekly basis, Arizona's coaches can be heard rattling off their opponents' standings in a variety of categories. Here's a look at how Arizona and Tennessee rank within the NFL in some of the most important categories.
Rush yards/game: 25-15
Pass yards/game: 14-23
Interception rate: 30-20
Sacks/pass att.: 17-13
3rd down %: 22-6
Red zone %: 19-14
Rush yards/game: 3-20
Pass yards/game: 11-10
Interception rate: 7-21
3rd down %: 12-4
Red zone %: 15t-29
In other news ...
Kent Somers of AZCentral.com writes about the Cards' penchant for scoring on opening drives.
Bob McManaman of AZCentral.com writes about the nose tackle tandem of Dan Williams and Alameda Ta'amu.
Craig Morgan of FoxSportsArizona.com writes about Tyrann Mathieu's reaction to being injured.
Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com writes about the injuries that have plagued the Cardinals' rookie class.
Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com writes about Karlos Dansby not worrying about the future.
Arians doesn't even scoreboard watch.
"Somebody asked me once if I'm scoreboard watching," Arians said. "I said, ‘Yeah, first down, second down third down and how much time is left on the clock.' I'm calling plays. I'm not looking at who's winning and who's losing."
He leaves that to the so-called experts, the math wizards who have their own algorithms and formulas to figure out playoff percentages. Every site does it differently and eventually produces different odds. If anything, it stirs up a good conversation.
A look at three sites and their playoff percentages:
Since the Cardinals aren't yet in the wild card, ESPN.com hasn't dedicated an entire capsule to them, fairly so. But Arizona is still in the hunt for one of the two coveted wild-card spots and ESPN.com has the Cardinals' chances of overtaking either Carolina or San Francisco at 11.3 percent.
This analytical site breaks down the percentages in a large variety of ways, which makes for a fascinating look at how the Cardinals could finish and where they could end up in the postseason -- if they even do. One thing SportsClubStats.com does is that it breaks down the odds of Arizona finishing in specific seeds depending on its record over the next three games. Overall, SportsClubStats.com has the Cardinals' chances of making the playoffs at 6.9 percent.
If Arizona finishes ... their odds of making the playoffs are ... .
3-0: 49.6 percent
2-0-1: 40.5 percent
2-1-0: 10.9 percent
1-0-2: 13.9 percent
1-1-1: 2 percent
1-2-0: 0.2 percent
0-1-2: 0.2 percent
MakeNFLPlayoffs.com provides a probability of who the Cardinals would play if they make the playoffs. Under their own methodology, the site also breaks down Arizona's probability of making the playoffs based on their record in the final three games. Overall, MakeNFLPlayoffs.com predicts the Cards 28.7 percent chance of going to the postseason.
By record in final three games:
3-0: 91.7 percent
2-1: 41.5 percent
1-2: 4.4 percent
If the Cardinals make the playoffs, their seeding would be:
5th: 11.1 percent
6th: 17.5 percent
If the Cardinals make the playoffs, their wild-card opponent would be:
Philadelphia: 9.3 percent
Detroit: 5.9 percent
Chicago: 4.67 percent
Dallas: 4.66 percent
Green Bay: 2.8 percent
San Francisco: 0.2 percent
Carolina: 0.1 percent
Seattle: 0.08 percent
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Tyrann Mathieu is about to begin a long and tedious road to recovery.
The Arizona Cardinals rookie free safety will have surgery Friday to repair his left ACL and LCL, which he injured in the third quarter of Arizona's 30-10 win over St. Louis on Sunday. He plans on staying in Arizona for his rehabilitation, instead of going back to Florida or rehabbing at Louisiana State University.
There isn't an official timeline for his return, although rehab from a multi-ligament surgery has been estimated to take about nine months. Earlier this week, coach Bruce Arians said he doesn't expect Mathieu to be ready for training camp.
"Yeah, I heard that," Mathieu said. "Coach is just being generous. He doesn't want to rush me back. Hopefully everything goes well and goes fast."
The knee is still sore but isn't too painful, Mathieu said. He expects that to change after Friday's surgery. On Monday, he'll visit with team doctors and trainers to lay out a plan for his recovery, but Mathieu's already experienced the monotony of what's in store for the foreseeable future.
This week, he's come in early to begin preparing for surgery, sat in on the defensive back meetings and then got treatment. It's already become routine for the third-round draft pick.
"I haven't really been depressed but not having football, you don't know what to do with your time," he said. "Just sitting on your behind all day, it's kind of boring. That's the only frustrating thing I've come across in the last couple days."
Mathieu said he knew something was wrong when a Rams player jumped on his left knee during a return from a free kick. But he didn't know how serious the injury was until he tried jogging off the field and the knee buckled near the Cardinals' sideline.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The bait was set, almost like a defense trying to lure Ryan Fitzpatrick into an interception.
But the Tennessee Titans quarterback wouldn’t bite. He wouldn’t even sniff it. Nope, Fitzpatrick wasn’t going to share any Carson Palmer stories from their days together in Cincinnati.
“Where do I start?” Fitzpatrick said. “I’ve got plenty of embarrassing stories on him but I know that he’s got probably two times as many on me, so I’m not going to leak any out unless he leaks some on me.”
You could tell Fitzpatrick’s storytelling gun was locked and loaded. But so was Palmer’s.
“Did he tell you any stories?” Palmer asked. “He better be careful because I have a lot about him. I have a lot about him, but love playing with him.”
Palmer and the "Amish Rifle" -- yes, that’s Fitzpatrick’s nickname -- played for the Bengals in 2007 and ’08. Every day for two years the Amish Rifle saw what the Arizona media sees twice a week: Palmer’s funny side.
“Real dry sense of humor, very sarcastic. He relies on the pranks a lot,” Fitzpatrick said. He’s a real practical jokester. We had plenty of prank wars back in Cincinnati.
“It’s funny because he’ll come across as a serious guy at times but he likes a good practical joke.”
Don’t we all?
In other news…
Kent Somers of AZCentral.com writes about the Cardinals' playoff chances.
Craig Morgan of FoxSportsArizona.com writes about injuries plaguing Arizona’s draft class.
Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com writes about Palmer’s interceptions dropping.
They've been linked together throughout football history. One can’t operate without the other. A line would have no one to block for, and a quarterback would have no one to protect him. And when paired together, how the line goes, so usually goes the quarterback.
It’s true for every team in the NFL, but none more so than the Arizona Cardinals. Through the first seven games, Arizona gave up 20 sacks of quarterback Carson Palmer. In the last six the Cards’ offensive line has surrendered 16, but five of those came in their only loss during that stretch. Overall, something has changed. The Cardinals’ line has been blocking better and has been giving Palmer more time.
The difference isn't just in protection. It can be seen throughout the offense. In the last six games, Palmer has averaged 286 yards passing, compared with 248 in the first seven. Arizona averaged 77 yards per game on the ground in the first seven and 104 per game since.
Once the line started giving Palmer more time, the entire team’s production went up. Palmer’s thrown 12 touchdown passes in the past six games compared with eight in the first seven.
As one of right tackle Eric Winston’s college coaches said: Protection equals completions. They also mean scores. Winston has seen Palmer’s decisions improve once he’s given more time to go through his reads. Palmer isn’t the type of quarterback to look at one option and take off, Winston said, so the more time he gets, the better passes he’ll throw.
If doubters need more proof, Palmer’s 69.3 completion percentage since Week 8 is second-best in the NFL.
“The times we’ve protected him well, he’s performed really well,” Winston said. “The times we haven’t we’ve made life hard on him.”
To the outsider, it looked as if a light switch had been flipped with the offensive line. To them, their performance since Week 8 has been the result of gradual and steady progress. Right guard Paul Fanaika said the line wasn’t surprised it finally happened. It takes time, he said, for a group that was put together at the start of training camp to finally mesh.
And when it did, a 5-1 record in the past six games has been the result.
“Once you start that momentum going, it’s like, ‘All right, I think this is going in the right direction,’” Winston said. “And it seemed like there was so much more consistency. Instead of having those flashes, you got it for longer and longer spurts of time. Now, I think we’re at a good point where we’re expecting to make these drives and open up games with scores and do those things and convert third downs.
“Now it’s not, ‘Oh, yes, we did it. Let’s not try to mess it up again.’ It’s something where I think a lot of people have a lot of confidence around here.”
But the offensive line shouldn't be the goat or the hero all the time, said Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak, who was a Hall of Fame guard. The key, Munchak said, is to avoid "stressful situations" during a game and so that the confidence Winston mentioned can grow.
On film, he's seen the confidence improve in every game, which has led to Arizona's line getting better throughout the season.
"The offensive line gets too much credit and gets too much blame," Munchak said. "There are more pieces -- it's the line, it's the tight ends, the running back -- there are a lot more pieces to the puzzle.
"Ultimately, you have to keep the guy upright. The offensive line has to give the quarterback a chance to be successful and not to fumble the ball in the pocket and things like that, and they've done a good job with that."
Last week, he had three and didn’t like a single minute of it.
“[It’s] completely different, kind of eerie,” Palmer said of not throwing a pass in practice leading up to the St. Louis game because of a sore throwing elbow. “I didn’t enjoy it. It’s not enjoyable.
“When you are practicing, you are always looking at the guys that aren’t practicing and you are jealous. But then, when you are the guy standing on the sidelines, you want to actually be out there. You kind of get stuck in that, ‘Well, I wish I wasn’t, but I wish I was.”
It was the first time Palmer had missed a week of practice in his career and if he and Cardinals coach Bruce Arians had their way, it’ll be the last time. During the open portion of practice Wednesday, Palmer threw a few soft passes but was limited, despite him saying his arm is “better.”
Arians will "monitor” Palmer this week but wants the quarterback to start throwing again. As to what’s exactly wrong, Arians said Monday he wasn’t quite sure of the specific terminology and simply called it a “sore elbow.”
He admitted Monday he was skeptical when Palmer didn’t take any live reps, but the quarterback used mental reps to get ready.
“Having not been around a guy, yeah, I was very curious to see how it was going to affect him,” Arians said.
Clearly it didn't and not practicing may have actually had its benefits. Palmer finished Sunday’s 30-10 win over the Rams with the highest completion percentage of his career, 84.38 percent, narrowly topping his performance in Week 11 of the 2007 season, 84.21 percent.
Palmer doesn’t want to make a habit out of not practicing and then putting up gaudy numbers. He likes the everyday routine that only quarterbacks go through.
“Seven-on-seven, routes on air, all those things are enjoyable for a quarterback,” Palmer said. “It’s a lot different if you are the left guard and putting on a helmet and shoulder pads because you actually need to use them. I enjoy practice."
Arians believes rest this late in the season can help a quarterback -- and it apparently has -- but Palmer said he’s ready to get back under center again.
“Missing practice is a big deal for a quarterback,” Palmer said. “I enjoy practice. It’s fun. I don’t have to hit anybody. I don’t have to tackle anybody. Hand the ball off a couple times, throw the ball around. I don’t enjoy missing practice but I’m going to go out and do a little more than I did last week.”
On Wednesday, the ageless veteran linebacker was named NFC defensive player of the week with his third team after recording three sacks in the Cardinals’ 30-10 win over the St. Louis Rams. More importantly, those sacks helped Abraham leap Lawrence Taylor and Leslie O’Neil into ninth place on the all-time sack list.
This was Abraham’s fifth weekly honor, his most recent coming in 2011 with the Atlanta Falcons. He also won the award with Atlanta in 2006, and with the Jets in 2004 and 2001.
Abraham, in his 14th season, has 11 sacks and four forced fumbles this season, giving him 133 and 48 for his career.
He is the third Cardinal this season to earn the weekly honor. Cornerback Patrick Peterson won the defensive nod after Week 4 and quarterback Carson Palmer the offensive honor after Week 12.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona won its eighth game of the season Sunday, 30-10 win over St. Louis, and improved to 6-1 at University of Phoenix Stadium. This is the Cardinals' fifth season in the last seven with at least eight victories.
More of the Cardinals by the numbers:
27: Arizona has scored 27 or more points during their four-game home winning streak.
7: The Cardinals have scored 20 or more points in all seven home games this season, one of just three teams to do that through 14 weeks.
8: Bruce Arians’ eight wins are the second-most by a Cardinals coach in his first season.
11: Number of places the Cardinals’ defense has moved up the rankings since being 16th after Week 7.
84.5: Rushing yards Arizona has allowed per game, third-fewest in the league.
6: Games in which the Cards have allowed 15 or fewer points, second only to Carolina's eight. The Cards are 6-0 in those games.
17: Interceptions by the Cardinals, tying them for third in the NFL.
In other news…
A recap of my Tuesday stories: The Cardinals are losing rookies at a high rate to injuries. Dave Zastudil’s punting prowess deserves more praise. Wild Card Watch: Week 15. And the Cardinals are No. 10 in the latest ESPN.com Power Rankings.
Mathieu is Arizona's fourth drafted rookie to suffer a season-ending injury this season, following guard Jonathan Cooper in the preseason and linebacker Alex Okafor in Week 3. Wide receiver Ryan Swope was forced to retire after suffering a concussion during minicamp. Arizona only has four draft picks on its active roster after releasing tight end D.C. Jefferson, a seventh-round pick, in early November.
The Cardinals' four injured draft picks are tied for most in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans this season.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was concerned another rookie was about to be sidelined two weeks ago when rookie running back Andre Ellington, Arizona's second sixth-round pick, tweaked his left knee leading up to the Eagles game on Dec. 1. Arians thought Ellington, who was sidelined for the game, had hurt his ACL. But it turned out to be not nearly that bad as Ellington played Sunday against the Rams.
Arians doesn't expect Mathieu to return by training camp next year, but the other rookies, Cooper and Okafor, are slated to be healthy by July.
“It definitely has got us,” the coach said. “We got lucky with Andre Ellington.
“But, yeah, with Swope and Coop and the rest of them, it's a shame because we really needed them.”
In the Arizona Cardinals' game Sunday against St. Louis, Zastudil landed three of his four punts inside the 20-yard line, including one that was downed at the 1. The fourth punt was initially thought to be downed at the 1 as well, but it was ruled a touchback.
On average, Zastudil's punts inside the 20 have pinned opponents at their own 10-yard line and Arizona has not allowed a first down or touchdown on 51.5 percent of those drives. Thanks to Zastudil, Arizona’s defense is working with a large field and has been able to quash offenses quickly, with opponents having to punt 60.6 percent of the time.
The defense should be showering Zastudil with gifts the way quarterbacks do with their offensive linemen.
But this isn’t an anomaly.
Last season, Zastudil set the NFL record for punts inside the 20 with 46. After Sunday, he’s tied for the league lead in that category with 31, alongside Kansas City’s Dustin Colquitt. Yet, in the NFL’s annual popularity contest, Zastudil’s achievements seem to be forgotten.
In the most recent update on fan voting for the Pro Bowl, Zastudil wasn’t in the top 10 despite being among the 10 best in net punting average. However, he’s not completely being ignored: ESPN Stats & Info named him an honorable-mention punter this week for his performance against the Rams.