It wasn’t the prettiest or the most convincing, but a win is a win.
The Arizona Cardinals won their home opener and gave Bruce Arians his first win as a non-interim head coach as they defeated the Detroit Lions 25-21 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale Sunday.
Here’s six things that stood out to me from Sunday’s win.
1. The Defense – For the first six quarters of the season, I wasn’t all that impressed with the Cardinals’ defense. That may be a harsh criticism considering the unit is making the transition to new coordinator Todd Bowles’ system and six of Sunday’s starters on the D weren’t with the team last season.
The Lions amassed 232 yards of offense in the first half while building a 14-10 halftime lead, but Bowles’ unit buckled down after halftime, allowing only 90 yards and four first downs after the break. The tackling, which had been shoddy previously, was much more reliable, including Tyrann Mathieu’s game-clinching stop of Nate Burleson a yard shy of a first down on a fourth down.
After getting torched by St. Louis tight end Jared Cook in Week 1, the Cardinals allowed only 32 yards by Detroit tight ends Sunday.
2. Protecting Carson Palmer – One of the big questions heading into Sunday’s game was whether the Arizona offensive line could keep their quarterback upright. The St. Louis Rams, namely Robert Quinn, made life miserable for Palmer in the season opener last week, sacking the veteran four times on their way to a win.
The microscope was on left tackle Levi Brown, who struggled in protection against the Rams, but he held up pretty well Sunday. The Lions got only one sack on the day, by defensive end Willie Young who was matched up against right tackle Eric Winston. Another sack, by rookie Ziggy Ansah in a matchup against Brown, was nullified by a penalty late in the third quarter. But even on that play, Brown’s initial protection was good and Ansah got to Palmer after the quarterback stepped up in the pocket and pump faked.
In all, Palmer dropped to throw 40 times and was sacked just the once. Detroit did manage six other hits on him, but I’d say the Cardinals’ offensive line won their matchup against the Lions’ defensive front.
3. Welcome, John Abraham – The Cardinals’ splashiest free agent signing in the offseason didn’t make much of an impact in the season opener, as Abraham played only 20 snaps against the Rams. But Sunday, Abraham made his presence felt immediately, tackling Nate Burleson for an eight-yard loss on the Detroit’s first play from scrimmage.
Late last week, Abraham admitted adjusting to his new role with the Cardinals wasn’t easy, but he looked much more comfortable in it Sunday while playing 33 snaps.
4. Third down woes – There’s no way sugarcoat this one…the Cardinals were atrocious on third down opportunities, finishing 1-for-11 in that department. A second was converted, by only because of an illegal hands to the face penalty on Young nullified an Ansah sack in the third quarter. DeAndre Levy’s 66-yard interception return for a touchdown happened after a receiver cut off his route — on third down! And Detroit’s only sack of the game occurred on third down.
It wasn’t like the Cardinals found themselves in daunting third down situations. The average distance needed on third down was 7.6 yards. Eight of the 12 total third down plays happened in Detroit territory, but there was just a nearly total breakdown in that area.
Carson Palmer’s third-down QB rating? 2.8. With two road games on the horizon, this is an area where the Cardinals simply need to get better.
5. Rashard Mendenhall is the real deal – It’s early, but it appears that the free agent pickup from Pittsburgh is the best running back the Cardinals have had since Edgerrin James.
Mendenhall ran for 66 yads on 15 carries and scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:59 to play in the game. He’s known as being a power back, but has showed good burst through the first two weeks of the season, despite not being 100 percent after tweaking a knee injury in the third preseason game last month.
6. Cardinals solid in the kicking game – Dave Zastudil (whose last name still sounds like a prescription drug to me — “Consult your doctor before using Zastudil”) continues to do what he does. The veteran left-footer punted five times on Sunday, planting four within the opponent’s 20-yard line. And Jay Feely had his fingerprints (or shoe prints?) all over this Cardinals’ win, booting four field goals. Outside of one kick, the distance on Feely’s kickoffs was much better as well — only one of his seven kicks was returned.