GLENDALE, Ariz. — That’s how they wanted to start the second half of the season.
Yes, the Arizona Cardinals lost the turnover battle Sunday, but they had just enough to beat the Houston Texans 27-24 to push their record to 5-4 and announce themselves as true second-half players in the NFC Playoff picture.
The Cardinals struck early — on Houston’s first play from scrimmage, in fact — as John Abraham strip-sacked Texans QB Case Keenum. Matt Shaughnessy scooped it up and took it into the end zone from six yards out to give Arizona an early lead. That play set the tone for a strong defensive performance for the Cards.
Here are six things that stood out to me from Sunday’s win.
1. Defense, defense, defense
It shouldn’t come as any real surprise that Arizona’s defense excelled again on Sunday — that’s been a common plot line all season long.
But once again, the Cardinals’ ‘D’ elevated its level of play, limiting the Texans to just 41 yards after halftime and none in the the third quarter. The Texans’ lone second-half points came after a turnover deep in Arizona territory (more on that later.)
Just another dominating defensive performance.
2. There’s a reason they’re not on offense
Another common refrain for the Cardinals’ defense has been a large number of dropped interceptions. Sunday, there were a couple more. One by Karlos Dansby and one by Daryl Washington that very well could have resulted in two more defensive scores.
“We played a strong game in all phases, from the defensive line to the linebackers,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said, then pausing to look in Dansby’s direction. “Of course, ‘Los could have helped us more, but I just think we put together a strong performance.”
Washington knows he missed an opportunity as well. “Oh man, don’t talk about that. That was just to the house right there,” he said. “I should have had two hands on it and I should have caught it. But unfortunately I didn’t, but we got the win.”
I know this falls under the nit-picking column as Dansby and Washington have been arguably the team’s most valuable players through nine games this season.
3. John Abraham
Admit it — through the first six games of the season, you had the 14-year veteran pegged as one of those guys who came to Arizona “to retire.”
The NFL’s active leading sack artist failed to get to the quarterback until getting two in a Thursday night loss to Seattle in Week 7 — his longest sackless streak since a six-gamer in 2006 when he was with the Atlanta Falcons. But since he got a taste, he’s been a frequent visitor to the opposing signal caller ever since.
The former South Carolina Gamecock had two more Sunday, with the big one coming on the game’s first offensive snap. He’s got five sacks in his last three games, and has been way more visible in all facets of the defense recently. If Abraham can continue his upward trend, the Cardinals will be a much more difficult team to attack via the passing game down the stretch.
4. Justin Bethel with the play of the game?
After J.J. Watt strip-sacked Carson Palmer inside the Cardinals’ 25-yard line with just :37 left in the first half, the Texans failed to advance the football. Case Keenum threw two incomplete passes followed by a third down run by Dennis Johnson that gained zero yardage.
But the Texans were still in field goal range, and a make on a 40-yard attempt by Randy Bullock would have stretched Houston’s lead to 20-14 going into halftime.
Enter Cardinals special teams player extraordinaire Justin Bethel.
The second-year pro from Presbyterian blew around the right side of Houston’s line, right past tight end Ryan Griffin, and blocked Bullock’s attempt to keep the Texans’ lead at three — which turned out to be the Cardinals’ winning margin.
Head coach Bruce Arians summed it up rather succinctly in his postgame press conference. “Justin Bethel is just outstanding at blocking field goals. There are very few guys that can do that.”
5. Mendenhall’s performance
Facing a third down and one from the Houston 16-yard line and trailing 17-14 midway through the third quarter, Arians called Rashard Mendenhall’s number. Despite a pretty good push by guard Paul Fanaika and tackle Eric Winston on the right side, Mendenhall hesitated and was stopped for no gain by Houston’s Brooks Reed.
The Cardinals had to settle for a field goal from Jay Feely which tied the score.
Mendenhall actually responded well immediately afterward, even gaining 12 yards on a second down carry — his longest run of the year.
The Cardinals built their lead to 10 points in the fourth quarter, and surely this would be a time for the veteran runner to carry the load and help Arizona run out the clock. But on the first play of a possession that started with under five minutes to play, Mendenhall was stripped by J.J. Watt, who also recovered at the Cardinals’ 5-yard line. The Texans scored three plays later to pull to within a field goal and Mendenhall wouldn’t see the field for the rest of the game.
With Mendenhall’s struggles — he’s averaged 3.1 yards per carry and has lost two fumbles — you’d think maybe his head coach would lose a little faith in him. Nope.
“Oh yeah. There’s no doubt,” he said when asked if his faith in Mendenhall was the same. So if you were looking for more carries for Ellington or fellow rookie Stepfan Taylor, or (God forbid) Ryan Williams, you’ll just have to keep waiting, Cardinal fans.
6. Tight end production
It certainly wasn’t a huge day, but it was nice to see the Cardinals get some production from the tight end position.
Rob Housler had five catches for 57 yards and scored his first NFL touchdown, while Jim Dray (1 catch, 9 yards) and newcomer Jake Ballard (1 catch, 15 yards) also got into the act. With Michael Floyd exiting the game with a shoulder injury, production from the tight ends was a welcome addition.