DAN BICKLEY

Cardinals deliver early on promise to bring more physicality in 2021

Sep 14, 2021, 6:55 PM
Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt (99) celebrates after teammate Corey Peters, third from l...

Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt (99) celebrates after teammate Corey Peters, third from left, recovered a Tennessee Titans fumble in the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

(AP Photo/Wade Payne)

It’s only 1,600 miles to Nashville. But few NFL teams covered more ground than the Cardinals in a Week 1 victory.

They soared up power rankings. Kyler Murray became a popular choice to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award, trailing only Patrick Mahomes among odds-on favorites. Chandler Jones is on a rampage, resembling a new-age Lawrence Taylor. The curtain has been lifted, and real star power is on display in Arizona.

Granted, overreaction is the currency that fuels the NFL, and the Cardinals are no different. Their 25-point annihilation of the Titans is a tribute to the power of first impressions. It’s a nod to an evolving franchise quarterback, and how the diminutive Murray might lift this team above its weaknesses, its warts and all of the NFC West.

It contradicts the concerns that came with a preseason full of red flags, when there were trade requests from Jordan Hicks and Jones; unofficial retirements from Larry Fitzgerald and Malcolm Butler; insults from Patrick Peterson; big jobs handed to unproven rookies; three grotesque series against the Chiefs; nine captains appointed, or 17 percent of the roster; and a head coach in obvious and absolute peril.

So what changed?

Surely, Murray and Jones didn’t surprise the Titans in Week 1. Both are capable of great destruction. One is a quarterback that can’t be caught, the other is a beast quarterbacks can’t escape. One demoralizes, one disrupts. Both will ruin your day if you let them.

No, the real surprise wasn’t an individual player or a defining moment. It was a philosophy. It was the long-awaited physicality the Cardinals finally delivered on Sunday, and how it changed everything about the game and their ceiling in 2021.

The Cardinals won the coin toss and deferred to an offense led by Derrick Henry, even though lopsided time of possession was one of Arizona’s greatest fears. Arizona’s defense bet on themselves and hit the jackpot. They consistently pushed the Titans backward on first down, throwing their opponent off schedule and out of their comfort zone. That doesn’t happen without a healthy dose of malice. Without a team willing to punch first.

Jones was the freak unleashed. But J.J. Watt tossed around Titans in key situations. Isaiah Simmons played fast and physical. Byron Murphy Jr. and Budda Baker exhibited great swagger and attitude. Stunned Titans fans were soon booing with immense displeasure, and clearly, the hosts expected pretty boy football from Kliff Kingsbury’s crew, only to be stunned by the taste of their own blood.

On the other side of the ball, Arizona’s offensive line created comfortable pockets for Murray, even though the quarterback still needs time to trust and adjust. Running back James Conner stiff-armed three different defensive players to the ground, showing the kind of disdain that Henry usually brings to the Titans offense. It was powerful stuff.

Physicality is more than a weapon in the NFL. It’s a foundation. It’s a mindset that can intimidate opponents, wearing them down physically in the second half. It can also destroy them emotionally, beating them before they ever take the field. Physicality is eternal and consistent in football. And it travels extremely well, just like elite defense in the NBA.

In the end, the Cardinals are 1-0, just like 15 other NFL teams. They might be fool’s gold. Or they might have the star power to win the really big games on their schedule. They might have enough quarterback to survive a conference featuring Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Matthew Stafford. And the dirt under their nails might be the sign of gravediggers, a team tough enough to survive the NFC West, the most brutal division in football.

The Cardinals promised greater physicality in 2021. And in the NFL, promises kept can make all the difference in the world.

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