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Elijhaa Penny makes his case, Cardinals offense falls flat vs. Broncos

Arizona Cardinals Elijhaa Penny (35) is hit by Denver Broncos cornerback Brendan Langley (27) during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

A day short of a year ago and against the very same team, Cardinals running back Elijhaa Penny put himself on the map.

Destined for the practice squad, the undrafted rookie went off against the Denver Broncos on Sept. 1, 2016, rushing for 113 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.

The final preseason game of 2017 went similarly. Penny earned 17 touches for 77 yards, but there were a few differences from a year ago.

“I got to get in my groove, read my keys and just get an opportunity to run downhill,” Penny said on the Cardinals’ postgame radio show on 98.7 FM, Arizona’s Sports Station. “Just knowing that tonight, I just told myself that I can be David or Chris Johnson tonight. I wouldn’t say it was a desperate moment, but I looked at it as a moment of opportunity.”

A year more experienced after spending 2016 on the practice squad, this time he has a good chance at making Arizona’s 53-man roster.

“I feel like I’ve improved a lot just learning a lot on the practice squad, and really just learning a lot from the guys that is in front of me or that was in front of me,” Penny said. “This year, I’ve really studied on really just pressing the holes instead of just being impatient — when I see that first little hole, I just learned to be patient, reading the linebackers and seeing if I can press the hole and get them going a certain way and I go a certain way.

“I got better at pass-pro, recognizing defenses. I give a lot of credit to the older guys in the room who helped me a lot with that.”

The Cardinals will need to cut down the running back room before the season begins, and even after Penny had rolled for 62 yards on 15 carries in the first half, head coach Bruce Arians told sideline reporters after halftime he would be keeping an eye on the second-year running back.

The 6-foot-2, 234-pound Penny returned to the field for two more carries for another 12 yards before Arians pulled him for good.

Now it’s a wonder if the Cardinals had seen enough from Penny, who potentially has a leg-up on veterans Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson in making the roster because of his special teams abilities.

Neither Ellington nor Johnson played Thursday.

Which direction the Cardinals go will have to wait, but it’s hard to imagine Penny could have done much more to help his cause.

After the game, Arians wasn’t letting on his thoughts.

“He’s been outstanding the whole preseason,” the coach said of Penny. “He’s trimmed down this year. It’s really helped him.”

Odds and ends

— In the punter battle, Richie Leone averaged 39.3 yards per punt on four attempts with two pins inside the 20-yard line. Matt Wile, who Arians had said after last week’s preseason game had been more consistent, punted five times with a 45.8-yard average. He had one touchback and four pins inside the 20 to go with a long of 58. Leone’s longest punt was 51 yards. Arians said he would watch tape to judge the punting competition as well.

— Third-string quarterback Blaine Gabbert went 5-of-10 for 51 yards without a touchdown or an interception. Of course, two of his passes were dropped.

— Quarterback Trevor Knight, who won’t make the 53-man roster, went 1-for-8 with a nine-yard completion and an interception.

— A deep group of receivers also entered the preseason finale looking to make an impression. It didn’t go perfectly for anyone, though the quarterbacks playing had to do with it. Both Aaron Dobson and Jeremy Ross dropped passes in the first quarter – Ross flubbed a catch on a spot-on, lofting pass from Gabbert . Ross made up for it with a 26-yard catch and finished leading the team with 38 rushing yards on two catches (he was targeted five times). Carlton Agudosi also had a false start.

— OLB Alex Bazzie recorded a first-half safety to break open the scoring and giving Arizona a 2-0 lead.

— OLB Cap Capi continued his pursuit of the fourth OLB role, registering two tackles for loss and a pass deflection. He was not credited with a sack with eight minutes to go in the first half — at the 2-yard line, teammate Philip Wheeler made it to the Broncos quarterback Kyle Sloter just before Capi. Capi, however, nearly blocked the ensuing punt with Denver’s punter kicking against the back of the end zone.

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