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The 5: Key observations from Arizona Cardinals’ win over Saints

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald laughs with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) in the second half of an NFL preseason football game in New Orleans, Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. The Cardinals won 20-15. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

The usual caveats apply to everything that follows. It’s preseason football. Defenses are basic. Offenses are vanilla. Veterans are just trying to stay healthy.

That said, there was plenty to like (and some to dislike) about the Cardinals’ 20-15 win over the New Orleans Saints in preseason Game No. 2 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Friday, most notably the guys competing for the No. 2 spots on the depth chart at key positions.

Quarterback play

Starter Sam Bradford didn’t have much going on during the Cardinals’ first two drives, but he completed all six of his passes for 61 yards and was 4-for-4 on the third drive. Running back David Johnson capped that drive with an impressive and physical nine-yard touchdown run that was aided by the relentless push of the offensive line. That was it for Bradford, but it wasn’t it for the offense.

Presumed backup Josh Rosen got his first chance to work with the first-team offensive line when he entered the game in the second quarter. Rosen had a couple of rookie moments when he tried to reload a pass and had it knocked away on a play that was negated by a Saints penalty.

He also had another delay of game, but he threw a perfect deep ball to J.J. Nelson that drew a pass interference, he hooked up with longtime friend Christian Kirk on a patient 13-yard completion and he completed 10 of 16 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown in the first half. Overall, Rosen led the Cardinals to 10 points and it should have been 13, but for a missed 46-yard field goal by Phil Dawson as the half expired.

“What stands out to me is just the way we protected up front from a standpoint of giving the quarterback time,” coach Steve Wilks said on the 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station postgame show. “I thought all guys, while they were in there, did a great job of going through their progressions, stepping up and really connecting with the receivers.”

Defense forces turnovers

(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Turnovers were a hallmark of Wilks’ defenses in Carolina and through two preseason games, he has brought that same ingredient to the Cardinals. Defensive end Vontarrius Dora had a pair of fumble recoveries (one forced by Olsen Pierre) and linebacker Haason Reddick and safety A.J. Howard had interceptions as the Cardinals forced four turnovers for a second straight preseason game.

Anything close to that sort of production would make up for a lot of deficiencies.

No. 2 cornerback competition

For the second straight game, presumed starter Jamar Taylor had a quiet night in limited duty, but the Cardinals may have found a No. 3 man who can challenge Taylor for the spot opposite Patrick Peterson. Playing outside, Bene Benwikere made a terrific downfield interception by getting inside position on Ted Ginn Jr. then did a receiver-esque toe-tap along the sideline to keep both feet inbounds.

Benwikere also played well in the first preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers. In two games, he has the pick, a forced fumble and a deflection that caused an interception. Put simply, he is making plays.

“They know me from Carolina and they know what I can do and I just wanted to make sure I was able to bring that to here,” said Benwikere, who admitted on the postgame show that he likes playing outside. “I’m actually more comfortable out there, I like being out there, but I know I have a unique skill set that allows me to be inside, allows me to play safety a little bit – wherever they need me.”

No. 2 wide receiver competition

(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

We’re still waiting to see what injured receiver Brice Butler (foot) can bring to the mix, but Kirk had a second straight strong game with four catches for 49 yards and a touchdown. There was also a Williams sighting. He had three catches for 44 yards and broke a tackle on a nice catch in the second quarter.

“Just really coming out, being really focused, having a few great grabs (and) just trying to finish downfield,” Williams said on the postgame show. “[It] felt real good tonight to get out there with my guys and execute.”

Williams struggled in his rookie season and was called out by Wilks on Wednesday for his performance in practice.

“To be honest, I don’t even remember Wednesday,” he said, joking. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Just gotta keep your head up and keep progressing.”

With Butler still sidelined, Kirk and Williams are doing the sort of separating from the pack that Wilks was hoping to see from a couple receivers.

Nelson chipped in with two catches for 10 yards. Larry Fitzgerald made a cameo with one catch for six yards. That’s all he should be making this time of year.

Defensive problems

Not everything went smoothly for the Cardinals defense despite those four turnovers. The Cardinals’ front seven was pushed off the ball in the first quarter when the Saints rushed for 62 yards. It started right away when Robert Nkemdiche got blown off the ball on a 15-yard run by Mark Ingram.

Allowances should be made for the fact that the Cardinals were missing injured linebackers Deone Bucannon and Josh Bynes, but the defensive line, in particular, didn’t look strong despite a 4-3 alignment that allows it to focus on one gap.

“It was guys being undisciplined, not trusting in the defense, jumping out of their gaps, trying to do too much,” Wilks said.

Things got worse for Nkemdiche when he engaged with Saints right guard Larry Warford on New Orleans’ second drive and came up limping despite no apparent contact to his legs. He left the game with a foot injury whose full extent is not yet known, but does not appear to be serious.

“We just wanted to pull Robert (Nkemdiche),” Wilks said. “We didn’t want to press it. It’s something that he had earlier in the week. (A) little nagging injury there with his right foot.”

The 2016 first-round pick had earned some praise from Wilks in OTAs and camp, but it is clear in his third season that he has to show something. He’s been a nonfactor the past two seasons and Pierre has looked better than him to this stage of the preseason.

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