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Patriots, Cardinals have cause for concern

Charles Robinson
Yahoo Sports

You can follow Charles Robinson on Twitter at @YahooSportsNFL.

Shortly after Jay Cutler's(notes) barrage of interceptions began in Sunday night's loss to the Green Bay Packers, the irate text messages began rolling in. A friend in Chicago – a quintessential Bears fan if ever one existed – was raging.

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Cutler (middle) was not on solid grounding against the Packers.
(Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire)

"Worse than Rex [Grossman]."

"He'll be out of Chi in two years. What an immature [expletive]."

"What a [expletive]."

"This guy is the biggest [expletive] of all time."

"I'm seriously not going to be able to take him whining."

"I'm drunk. Of course I'm overreacting."

I took heart in that last message. You know, "The first step to solving a problem is recognizing you have one … blah, blah, blah." But we really should heed that last text (about overreacting … not being drunk). We all go overboard in Week 1. Rather than recognizing things aren't as good or as bad as they seem, we rush to judgment, project the entire season and generally make sweeping statements that are way off come January.

Just imagine what we were absolutely sure of after last season's opening week:

Dallas pummeled the Cleveland Browns 28-10 and the Cowboys were finally going to win that January playoff game … on PlayStation.

The New York Jets beat the Miami Dolphins 20-14. One was clearly a playoff team while the other was destined to be a mess … we just got it backward.

New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress(notes) caught 10 passes for 133 yards and was headed toward a new contract … making license plates for the state of New York.

The Detroit Lions lost to the Atlanta Falcons 34-21, but they'd bounce back next week … er, season. Maybe.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb(notes) threw for 361 yards and three touchdowns … and had yet to realize that games can end in a tie.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady(notes) suffered a season-ending injury and was replaced by Matt Cassel(notes) … who would be making more money than Tom Brady less than a year later.

You get the idea. So what better way to start a weekly column about inconvenient truths than to recognize the one that consumes us all: We read too much into the NFL's first week. It's a classic staple of our season – like our own little single-serving Oakland Raiders meltdown.

With that in mind, here are a few more (possibly premature) inconvenient truths from Week 1. And for the record, I'm not drunk.

• New England's defense has lost its place among the NFL elite

For the better part of this decade, the Patriots' defensive dominance was a virtual certainty: consistent as Bill Belichick's scowl, dependable as Brady's black book. But the faces have changed over the last several seasons. Soon there will be no denying the unit's slippage in 2009.

In reality we've been seeing the signs of decline since 2006, when New England finished second in the league in points allowed (the true measure of a defense's worth). That ranking fell to fourth in 2007 and eighth in '08 – erosion that seemed to go hand in hand with the ascending age and growing ineffectiveness of some of the Patriots' cornerstone players.

But not until this season has the defense shown signs of a dramatic tumble. And that slide isn't even about the preseason, when the Patriots' backups surrendered yardage seemingly by the acre. It's more about the signs of dramatic transition. First, Belichick is vacillating back and forth between the 4-3 and 3-4 alignment more than ever. And while some assume it's because he favors versatility, it actually looks more like a coach who has yet to sort out the best use of his personnel.

That leads to the second point: the massive leadership void. Say what you want about the talent, but one of New England's finest qualities on defense was that it had some of the most physically and mentally tough players in football. Walk into the locker room now, and you see a room devoid of Richard Seymour(notes), Rodney Harrison(notes), Tedy Bruschi(notes), Mike Vrabel(notes) and Larry Izzo(notes). Forget skill level – you can't measure the amount of smarts and discipline those five players delivered.

The truth is, New England has suddenly gotten caught in an awkward state in the middle of shedding some of the old guard. Take a longer view of the situation. The team's best defensive player, Seymour, essentially had to be dealt because of future contract concerns and a need to re-stock the roster with young talent. Its second-best defensive player, linebacker Jerod Mayo(notes), is reportedly out for at least a month (and perhaps more) with a knee sprain. Those realities only compound the loss of the aforementioned veterans.

Now New England is depending on defensive stars (Vince Wilfork(notes), Adalius Thomas(notes) and James Sanders(notes)) that have never had to be a focal point of leadership, a defensive scheme that isn't entirely sorted out and a lack of playmakers in the secondary that makes the loss of Asante Samuel(notes) look like a major personnel misstep. Add it up, and you have a defense in a state of flux rather than a state of dominance.

• The Cardinals' offense is in trouble

Yes, Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt is already urging calm. No need to panic, he says. If it sounds familiar, it's because that's the same message he has been delivering since the Arizona offense went through a woeful preseason. Make no mistake – the loss to the San Francisco 49ers isn't a one-week blip. We saw signs of the struggles in the preseason, then tried to convince ourselves, "It's just the preseason. It doesn't really matter."

As it turns out, some of it did matter. Like the fact that quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) never looked remotely comfortable in the loss to San Francisco. And I don't mean the he's-under-a-lot-of-pressure-from-the-pass-rush discomfort. He looked physically uncomfortable. There were times he looked like he was in pain just walking to the sidelines. Maybe that's a residual effect of the arthroscopic surgery on his hip in the offseason, or maybe it's a 38-year-old quarterback reacting unfavorably to the in-game pounding he took. Whatever it was, Warner's pained looks were cause for concern.

And none of this takes into account what is going on mentally within the offense. Like it or not, the disciplinary void left by former offensive coordinator Todd Haley is lingering. As late as last week, wideout Anquan Boldin(notes) was talking to associates about the preseason problems and wondering if it was because of Haley's departure. It's never a good sign when a star receiver is still talking about his former coordinator almost eight months after he left.

But how could the players not wonder about Haley? Unlike Whisenhunt, it was Haley who was the heavy – nitpicking every little mistake on the unit. He had the knack for keeping players uptight and focused. He was the one who stayed on top of Boldin and wideout Larry Fitzgerald(notes), and constantly tinkered with schematic aspects in hopes of maximizing Warner's arm. Then comes the opener against San Francisco, and the unit suddenly displayed a mere shade of last year's timing, while also committing multiple penalties and mistakes at the worst moments.

It rarely looked detail-oriented. It hardly looked disciplined or focused. And once again, there was something familiar about all of it. Indeed, the only thing that had changed since a bumbling August was that onlookers no longer had the luxury of brushing it off as "only the preseason."

• The Wildcat has lost its effectiveness as a central scheme

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Ronnie Brown(notes) and the Wildcat went nowhere against Atlanta.
(Marvin Gentry/US Presswire)

Hand it to St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson. He called the demise of the Wildcat's impact in August, predicting defenses would make up all the ground on the scheme in one offseason. Jackson's argument was that when defenses know they'll be facing the scheme, preparation takes away the Wildcat's best asset: total surprise.

Atlanta was clearly ready for it in the season-opening win over Miami. In fact, by the time I spoke to Falcons head coach Mike Smith in late August about the principals for stopping the scheme, Atlanta had already established a basic design to combat it. By the time the opener rolled around, there was little chance Atlanta was going to be shocked or unfamiliar with anything Miami had to offer.

The result? The Dolphins ran three Wildcat plays for a grand total of four yards. And now that Miami's opponents have had an entire offseason to prep for the scheme, you can bet the scheme will produce far fewer explosive plays, and become more of a gimmick than a consistent base set.

That's not to say some teams can't use the offense effectively. But success will almost certainly be a product of unfamiliarity rather than superiority. As Jackson put it, "It can work if you only do it once in a while and catch a defense not expecting it. But you can't run it over and over anymore. Not now that defenses know it exists."

• The New York Jets are going to be this year's AFC darling

If you spent any time seriously dissecting the Jets in the preseason, you saw this coming. However, we were too distracted with talking about rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes) to delve into it. Here's the reality though: Even if Sanchez is no better than average, this team is playoff caliber right now.

Don't believe it? Consider the unit that shut out the Houston Texans' offense in the opener, and you'll see coach Rex Ryan has all the tenets of a dominant 3-4 defense. And yes, we're talking about the same class as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. He has one of the top five cornerbacks in the NFL (watch Darrelle Revis(notes) against Andre Johnson(notes) … Revis has arrived). He has a space-devouring nose tackle that requires consistent double-teaming (Kris Jenkins(notes)). He has two physical middle linebackers who also stoke an emotional fire (Bart Scott(notes) and David Harris(notes)). He has a playmaking safety (Kerry Rhodes(notes)). And when Calvin Pace(notes) returns from suspension in Week 5, he'll have a long, rangy, pass-rushing linebacker capable of double-digit sacks.

What's more, the Jets' offensive line is the best in the AFC, and the 1-2 tandem of Thomas Jones(notes) and Leon Washington(notes) is at the very least as good or better than any other rotation in the conference. Even tight end Dustin Keller(notes) has ascended into one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the AFC. Indeed, the only thing this team lacks is experience at quarterback, and a consistent deep threat at wideout. If that doesn't sound like a team that made it to last year's AFC championship game (hint: Ryan was their defensive coordinator), I don't know what does.


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