The Arizona Cardinals were once the toast of the NFL, after unexpectedly beginning their season 4-0, but those days seem a world away, and heading into their bye week, the team now find themselves in the midst of a five game losing steak with the undefeated Atlanta Falcons waiting when they return.
At 4-5 their early success has waned, and most of the blame has rightly been placed on the teams sub-par offensive line.
Through eight games, the Cardinals offensive line had been directly responsible for injuries to both quarterbacks John Skelton and Kevin Kolb, giving up a league worst 39 sacks and innumerable hits and hurry ups.
The Cardinals tackles, left tackle D'Anthony Batiste and right tackle Bobby Massie were by far the worst offenders—though this is hardly surprising given that neither man had ever played at tackle at an NFL level coming into the season. But the Cardinals more experienced interior line of center Lyle Sendlein and guards Daryn Colledge, Adam Snyder and Rich Ohrnberger have also made more than their fair share of mistakes too.
Injuries of course, have taken their toll with both starting tackles going on IR before the start of the season, and Snyder recently missing time to injury. However the organization must also take responsibility for their failure to prepare for this seemingly inevitable occurrence, following years of failure to invest in improvement on their offensive line through either drafts, free agency or trading.
Coming into the game, the Green Bay Packers defense was tied for first in the NFL in sacks recorded—with the Arizona Cardinals—at 26. Understandably, Green Bay was positive that they could put some distance between themselves and the Cardinals in this particular metric. However, although the Packers were indeed able to increase their sack total, they managed to add just two, against a Cardinals team which had given up an average 6.6 sacks per game coming into Week 9.
The teams offensive line simply seemed unrecognizable when compared to the unit which was almost solely responsible for most of the teams failures in recent weeks.
To be clear, they were far from perfect, making multiple bone-head moves which could, and perhaps should, have resulted in sacks or worse for the Packers pass rushers, if not for some great heads-up plays and sheer brute force and determination by quarterback John Skelton. And yet, for every mistake they made, there seemed to be multiple plays where they got it right, especially in pass protection.
Seventh-round pick Nate Potter made his NFL debut in the second quarter in relief of Batiste, and his first assignment was to contain Clay Matthews, one of the NFL's unquestionably elite pass rushers. Matthews attempted to bull rush the rookie—something the Cardinals have been particularly susceptible to in recent weeks—but Potter stood his ground, steering Matthews outside of the pocket, and allowing Skelton the time to complete an inch perfect 40-yard pass to Andre Roberts.
Potter's protection helped make a big play, which have been lacking from their offense recently, possible, and set up the Cardinals first touchdown. Potter was on the field for the lions share of offensive snaps throughout the game, and appears to have won the starters position from Batiste.
It's easy to see why. Potter is undoubtedly still raw, but is a natural left tackle, as opposed to Batiste, a converted guard.
Potter started 34 games at left tackle while at Boise State, and clearly has much better instincts and fundamentals at the position than anyone else on the Cardinals roster. Throughout the first nine weeks of his NFL career, Potter has obviously put a lot of time and effort into improving his fundamentals and technique on the practice field, and it showed against the Packers.
Massie too appears to be learning from his mistakes, after what can only be described as a baptism of fire, and also looked much improved against the Packers.
On top of all of that, Ohrnberger seems to have settled into his position at right guard, while playing in place of the injured Snyder, and seems to have cemented the line somewhat in recent weeks.
Ohrnberger may not yet have won the position outright, as his foolish penalties and inexplicable lapses in concentration have at times cost the Cardinals dearly. However, there is no question that Snyder has been a disappointment, and if he is not able to return from injury after the Cardinals Week 10 bye week, Ohrnberger may have a chance to solidify his position on the Cardinals offensive line.
It is of course altogether to early to make any final judgment on this young Cardinals offensive line. Observant fans will be very aware of the fact that commentators were saying many of these same things about Massie, Batiste and Snyder after the Cardinals early wins against New England and Philadelphia, so treat this summary with due warning. But if the Cardinals offensive line can keep improving like this, perhaps the Cardinals can turn around their season and prove that their early success was not just luck.