Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is a dangerous threat in the passing game for Arizona.
The Texans look for their first win of the 2007 preseason as they make their maiden voyage to the Grand Canyon State this Saturday afternoon against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium.
In their only other meeting back on Dec. 18, 2005, the Texans beat the Cardinals 30-19 at Reliant Stadium. Since that game, however, both teams have undergone so many changes to their rosters and coaching staffs that only the logos on the helmets seem to be the same.
Both the Texans and Cardinals dropped their preseason openers and unfortunately suffered some major injuries in the process.
Texans starting safety Glenn Earl was lost for the season with a broken foot, while Arizona lost two starters of their own, both of whom will miss significant time this season. Offensive tackle Oliver Ross suffered a torn left triceps, while linebacker Chike Okeafor tore a left biceps.
The Cardinals now must shuffle their roster even more under first-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt. The former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator took over for Dennis Green, who was fired after three lackluster seasons and a 16-32 record.
Whisenhunt was very busy this offseason, rebuilding the offensive and defensive lines, the linebacker corps and the secondary. To top it off, the Cardinals also will make the switch to the 3-4 defensive scheme.
The Cardinals can contend in the NFC West if they find a way to harness all their young talent and stay away from the mistakes that plague inexperienced teams.
If Whisenhunt had in Pittsburgh the offense that he has now, there is no telling how many points the Steelers would have scored along the way to their Super Bowl XL victory. This unit is led by three big, physical wide receivers who catch passes in bunches and know how to get in the end zone.
Anquan Boldin (6-1, 223) and Larry Fitzgerald (6-3, 226) form what may be the most dangerous pair of wide receivers in the NFL. Boldin is coming off his second Pro Bowl selection in his first four seasons, catching 83 passes for 1,203 yards and four touchdowns. Fitzgerald was able to tally 69 receptions for 946 yards and six touchdowns, even though he missed three games. Bryant Johnson (6-3, 216) completes the trio of receivers and provides an excellent target when Boldin and Fitzgerald are covered.
The man with the enviable task of delivering passes to this talented group of receivers is second-year quarterback Matt Leinart. The former USC standout hopes to improve on his rookie campaign where he completed almost 57 percent of his passes and tossed 11 touchdown passes. He has the prototypical size for a quarterback that scouts love (6-5, 230) as well as the intuitive decision-making ability necessary to succeed in the NFL. Experts say the biggest improvement for NFL players comes between their first and second seasons, so look for big things from Leinart this year.
The offense will need much more production from its running game this year if the Cardinals hope to make noise in the NFC West. Last season, Arizona ranked 30th in rushing offense behind an erratic offensive line that failed to open many holes. To improve production, Whisenhunt hired former Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon to coach the group.
In his first season in Arizona, running back Edgerrin James set a franchise record with 337 carries and became the first Cardinals player to rush for more than 1,000 yards since Adrian Murrell in 1998. James, 19th all time among NFL rushing leaders, has rushed for 10,385 yards in his career and is widely regarded as one of the best all-purpose backs in the league.
Backing up James is Marcel Shipp, who figures to play a more prominent role in the running game this season. Last year, Shipp carried the ball only 17 times, but did account for four touchdowns, including three at St. Louis in a 34-20 victory over the Rams.
Clearing the way for the running game is an overhauled offensive line. Replacing former left tackle Leonard Davis is Mike Gandy. Gandy was a big reason why Willis McGahee posted a career year last season in Buffalo. With Oliver Ross injured, 2007 fifth overall pick Levi Brown will take over at right tackle. The two-time All American from Penn State will inherit the most important task on the Cardinals' offensive line: protecting Leinart's blind side.
The interior portion of the line features the only returning starter from last year's unit, Reggie Wells. The former sixth-round pick makes the move from right tackle to left guard. Wells' counterpart at right guard is Deuce Lutui. The 2007 second-round pick blocked for Leinart when the two were teammates at USC. Anchoring the line at center is Al Johnson, an import from Dallas who already is familiar with offensive coordinator Todd Haley from their days together with the Cowboys.
At tight end, matchup nightmare Leonard Pope looks to solidify his position as starter. An imposing target (6-8, 265), the second-year player from the University of Georgia must improve his run-blocking skills if he is to remain with the first team. If Pope falters, free agent pickup Troy Bienemann is right on his heels to compete for the starting position.
Whisenhunt retained the services of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergrast this offseason, but chose to make the switch to a 3-4 scheme, which is the same defense that the Steelers run. In order to make this switch, several players will play in new positions this season.
Along the defensive line, Darnell Dockett will move from defensive tackle to left defensive end. In the middle, space-eaters Gabe Watson (6-3, 340) and rookie Alan Branch (6-6, 331) look to cover both gaps at nose tackle. On the left side, Antonio Smith will reprise his role as starter. Smith filled in admirably in the injury-depleted position last season, notching a career-best 29 tackles, 2.5 sacks and making two fumble recoveries.
Making the move from defensive end to outside linebacker is Bertrand Berry. The former Pro Bowler is a tenacious pass rusher, having notched 51.5 career sacks in his first nine seasons, and should excel in his new role. Berry, a Houston native, also will see some time at defensive end. Joining Berry on the outside was to be the now-injured Okeafor. The likely candidate to replace Okeafor is third-year veteran Derrick Blaylock, who has one career sack.
Manning the interior linebacker positions are Karlos Dansby and Gerald Hayes. Hayes was the unquestioned leader of the corps in 2006. Coming off a serious knee injury in 2005, the Cards' third-round pick in 2003 led the team with 111 tackles, while picking off three passes and recovering two fumbles. In the offseason, Hayes was rewarded with a five-year extension that will keep him in Arizona through the 2011 season.
Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson headlines the secondary. The seven-year veteran turned in a remarkable 2006 season with 87 tackles, five quarterback sacks, four interceptions, nine pass deflections, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. As if that wasn't enough, Wilson put his name in the record books with a 99-yard interception return and a 99-yard fumble return—the first player in league history with two 99-yard touchdown returns in the same season without a kickoff return for a touchdown.
Competing for the free safety spot alongside Wilson is third-year player Aaron Francisco and free agent pickup Terrance Holt, a former teammate of Wilson's at North Carolina State.
At cornerback, last year's first-round pick, Antrel Rolle, looks to improve on a disappointing rookie season. Rolle possesses blistering speed, but struggles in coverage at times.
Battling for the starting spot opposite Rolle is the incumbent starter Eric Green, and free agent acquisition Roderick Hood from Philadelphia.
An area of concern for Arizona in 2006 was the kickoff return game. The Cardinals ranked 26th overall in average starting position, with 20 of those drives starting inside the 20-yard line, most in the NFL.
To address this concern, Whisenhunt hired 17-year veteran special teams coach Kevin Spencer, a former staffmate in Pittsburgh. Spencer is well known as one of the best special teams coaches in the business, being named "Special Teams Coach of the Year" in 2003.
Handling the kickoff return duties will be Marcel Shipp and J.J. Arrington. A second-round pick in 2005, Arrington returned 67 kicks for 1,520 yards last season, including a 99-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff at Minnesota on Nov. 26.
Rookie speedster Steve Breaston, selected in the fifth round of the 2007 draft, will return punts. Breaston rewrote the University of Michigan record books for punt and kickoff returns over his career. During his tenure in Ann Arbor, Breaston amassed 1,993 kickoff return yards and 1,599 punt return yards, both school records.
Returning for his fifth year with Arizona is former Pro Bowler Neil Rackers. Rackers had a disappointing 2006 season, where he struggled with kicks from distance. Of his seven attempts from beyond 50 yards, Rackers converted only one. Inside 40 yards, however, Rackers nailed all 20 of his attempts.
Scott Player, the longest tenured Cardinals player, returns for his 10th season as punter. Player posted a career-best 44.9-yard average on 66 punts in 2006, pinning 18 kicks inside the 20-yard line with only three touchbacks, best in the NFC.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR ON ARIZONA:
- New fullback Terrelle Smith leads the way for Edgerrin James this season. The Cards plan to use more two back sets this season, so this will be the first time in James' career that he has a blocking back in front of him.
- Linebacker Buster Davis, a third-round selection in 2007, may be too talented to keep off the field for very long. The all-ACC selection from Florida State may be only 5-9, but he is quick to the ball and is a ferocious hitter. Look for him to start off on special teams and work his way up the depth chart in the linebacker corps.