NFL Preview - Houston (2-2) at Arizona (1-2)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The surprise team of the 2008 season, the Arizona Cardinals, have been surprisingly slow out of the gate in 2009. The team that some had pegged as the surprise team of 2009, the Houston Texans, have looked much more like the inconsistent group that posted an 8-8 mark in 2008.
One of these teams will pick up a measure of momentum on Sunday, when the pair meet at University of Phoenix Stadium.
The homestanding Cardinals have looked little like the team that blazed its way to the NFC title during an impressive postseason run a year ago, looking listless in a pair of home losses to the 49ers (20-16) and Colts (31-10), sandwiched around a formulaic road victory in Jacksonville (31-17) in Week 2.
Ken Whisenhunt's team used a Week 4 bye to help diagnose their problems, which include a supposedly improved running game that has yet to get untracked, the turnover struggles of Kurt Warner, who has thrown four interceptions and been sacked seven times through three weeks, and a lack of highlight-reel moments for the Pro Bowl duo of Larry Fitzgerald (17 receptions, 181 yards, 2 TD) and Anquan Boldin (16 receptions, 171 yards, 1 TD), neither of whom has contributed a catch of longer than 25 yards.
Arizona enters play on Sunday two full games behind emerging San Francisco (3-1) in the NFC West win column, and one back in the loss column. Even at this early stage, the Cardinals seem to be in danger of falling victim to the fabled Super Bowl "runner-up jinx," which has seen seven of the past eight ultimate- stage losers fail to make the postseason the following year.
The Texans, meanwhile, remain a long way from talking about what would be their own first postseason appearance, though a struggling defense gained a huge measure of confidence in last week's 29-7 beat-down of JaMarcus Russell and the Oakland Raiders.
Gary Kubiak's squad headed into its Week 4 showdown with the Silver and Black allowing 28.7 points per game and ranking last in the league in rushing defense (204.7 yards per game), yards allowed per rush (6.3) and rushes allowed of 20 yards or longer (7).
Those numbers might have been scary going into a contest against Oakland's three-headed rushing monster of Justin Fargas, Michael Bush, and Darren McFadden, but the struggles of Russell and the Raider passing attack allowed Houston to focus almost solely on stopping the run.
And stop the run the Texans did, limiting the three aforementioned Oakland rushers to a combined 31 yards on 19 carries in a game that saw Russell complete 12-of-33 passes (including a reported nine drops) for 128 yards and a lost fumble in a 29-6 Houston runaway.
Among the biggest positive for the Texans was the play of the front four, which saw end Mario Williams and tackle Amobi Okoye both notch sacks and free agent acquisition Antonio Smith recover one of Oakland's three fumbles on the afternoon.
On the back end, a defense that was without safety Eugene Wilson (illness) saw new faces likes Bernard Pollard (5 tackles), Glover Quin (5 tackles) and Domonique Barber (3 tackles) contribute to the cause.
Houston (2-2) sits two games back of the division-leading Indianapolis Colts as Week 5 commences.
The Cardinals and Texans have met just one other time, a 30-19 Houston win at Reliant Stadium during the 2005 season.
A Houston-based NFL franchise will be playing in Arizona for the first time.
The Cardinals' Whisenhunt and Texans' Kubiak will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
It was perhaps a good sign of progress for the Texans offense last week that a group built on its ability to throw the football was a 23-point winner on a day when it completed just 11 passes, including no more than two to any one player. Playing with a lead for most of the day, Houston went to running backs Steve Slaton (192 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 2 TD) and Ryan Moats a total of 36 times, with Slaton managing just 65 yards on 21 carries including another fumble, but scoring touchdowns via both the air and ground, and Moats making his season-high 15 totes count for 56 yards. With Moats questionable due a toe injury for Sunday, Chris Brown (59 rushing yards) has a good chance of stepping back into the understudy role. Despite last week's sub-standard showing, the passing attack continues to rank ninth in the league (249.2 yards per game), with Matt Schaub (1047 passing yards, 8 TD, 3 INT) and his main targets of Andre Johnson (20 receptions, 2 TD), Kevin Walter (8 receptions, 1 TD), and tight end Owen Daniels (17 receptions, 2 TD) still serving as the primary strength of the unit. Schaub was 11-of-22 for 224 yards with a touchdown and a pick, making big plays down the field to Johnson (62 yards), Walter (41 yards), and Daniels (44 yards) to account for more than 65 percent of his passing yards. Somewhat troubling was the four sacks allowed against the Raiders, after the Houston o-line surrendered only four sacks through the first three games.
When looking for holes in the Cardinals defense, Schaub and the Texans should take a long look at the job that Peyton Manning and the Colts did in Arizona in Week 3. The Cardinals had no clue, from a pass-rushing or secondary standpoint, against Manning, who completed 24-of-35 passes for 379 yards and four touchdowns. The lone highlight for the secondary on the night was an interception by safety Antrel Rolle (13 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT). Arizona is 30th in NFL passing defense (280.3 yards per game), and could be working without top corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (12 tackles, 1 INT), who is questionable with a finger injury, on Sunday. The pass rush generated eight sacks through its first two games, led by outside linebacker Bertrand Berry's two. The strength of the Cardinals defense has been a run-stopping group that ranks sixth in NFL rushing defense (79.7 yards per game), though the team has faced the second-fewest ground attempts in the league (76). Darnell Dockett (8 tackles, 1 sack) and Calais Campbell (11 tackles) have done a nice job at the point of attack, with Karlos Dansby (21 tackles) and Gerald Hayes (22 tackles) working behind them. Dockett is listed as questionable on the injury report with an ankle problem.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
To the surprise of no one, Warner (863 passing yards, 4 TD, 4 INT) and the passing attack have been the focal point of the Cardinals offense, though as mentioned, the team has not looked as crisp as usual in that regard through three games. Against a questionable Houston secondary on Sunday, look for Warner to take more shots down the field to the likes of Fitzgerald and Boldin. Third receiver Steve Breaston (12 receptions) is considered questionable with a knee injury for Sunday, and Jerheme Urban (9 receptions) would have to slide into that role if Breaston is unavailable. Whisenhunt would also like to see some progress from a running game that ranks 31st in the league (60.7 yards per game) and has carried the ball an NFL-low 57 times. Rookie first-rounder Beanie Wells (71 rushing yards) is still awaiting a breakout performance, and incumbent Tim Hightower (109 rushing yards, 1 TD, 20 receptions) has done most of his damage as a pass-catcher.
Though the effort against the Raiders may have been a confidence-builder for the Houston defense, the step-up in challenge this week will be great. Making matters worse is the questionable status of two of the team's top defenders - Mario Williams (shoulder) and rookie linebacker Brian Cushing (illness). Both Williams (18 tackles, 2 sacks) and Cushing (33 tackles) are considered questionable, as are safeties John Busing (groin) and Nick Ferguson (knee). The young secondary will need a yeoman's effort out of top cornerback Dunta Robinson (11 tackles), and safety Eugene Wilson's (5 tackles, 1 INT) probable return to the lineup will help as well. There's little reason why the team's run-stopping numbers shouldn't get better against the pass-first Cardinals, with tackles Amobi Okoye (12 tackles, 1 sack) and Jeff Zgonina (11 tackles, 1 sack) active in the trenches and linebackers DeMeco Ryans (28 tackles) and Zac Diles (16 tackles) among those cleaning up the mess behind them. Ryans had five tackles and forced a fumble against Oakland. The Texans enter Week 5 ranked 29th in the league against the run (165 yards per game).
Look for this to be a good day for passing attacks, as neither the Texans nor the Cardinals would seem to have the pass rush or the secondary talent to hold the opposite prolific passing attack in check. For Houston, Schaub is a worthy start, Andre Johnson and Daniels should be in your lineup as well, and despite his inconsistency, Slaton is getting the number of offensive touches you like to see out of a starting running back. On the Arizona side, you should feel more than comfortable rolling with Warner, Fitzgerald, and Boldin, and it's worth noting that Breaston's and Hightower's receiving yards numbers are to this point both roughly equivalent to those displayed by the two Pro Bowl targets.
In the preseason, Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson discussed his team's apparent lethargy, commenting that Arizona seemed to lack the fire that had carried then through the 2008 postseason. It would appear through three games that Wilson's comments were dead-on, though there is ample reason for the Cardinals to awake from their slumber, beginning with this week. With a home loss to the 49ers already hanging around their necks, Arizona can ill-afford to fall yet another game behind San Francisco in the NFC West standings, and should be focused in trying to avoid an 0-3 home start on Sunday. Their opponent, the Texans, looked good in their only road appearance of the year, in Week 2 against Tennessee, but this patchwork defense is going to have a very difficult time withstanding the aerial assault coming from Warner and company on the other side of the ball. In the end, look for big plays to be the difference in this one, as the Cardinals simply make more of them than their visiting counterpart.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 35, Texans 20
10/08 16:09:07 ET