CARDINALS CORNER

New era notes: Red & White practice gives Cardinals 1st real dress rehearsal

Aug 5, 2023, 5:44 PM | Updated: Aug 7, 2023, 12:37 pm

GLENDALE — The preseason is considered the big dress rehearsal for all 32 teams ahead of when wins and losses actually count in the record book.

That’s not to say, however, that teams haven’t already gone through a game simulation in some form or another.

For the Arizona Cardinals, their annual Red & White practice is just that.

After more than a week of training camp, the feeling in State Farm Stadium on Saturday was noticeably different.

The energy was up, the pads were on, the field was completely moved in and Cardinals fans littered the stadium. Gameday vibes could be felt by the players, coaching staff and everyone else taking in the sights.

“I feel like it was the same kind of physicality,” rookie Paris Johnson Jr. said Saturday. “I think the mentality just as an offensive line, we just viewed it as a game as we start heading toward these preseason games. That was kind of the approach.”

“It was awesome to see the amount of people that came out to support us,” the lineman added. “You don’t get that in college. It’s just you and your team. … It was cool to have that environment just preparing for the season.”

For the players, the Red & White practice gives them the chance during pseudo-live action to see just how much they really understand the concepts, schemes and everything else the team is asking of them.

But while most eyeballs are glued to who’s starting, who’s sitting and who’s showing out, players are far from the only ones under the microscope.

Remember, there’s also a new-look coaching staff that is embarking on its first season together under head coach Jonathan Gannon.

Extra time nailing down the game communication side of things can go a long way for the first-year head coach and his staff.

“We’ll put on the headset, make sure our communication’s right, make sure our headset standard operating procedures are to my liking in a dress rehearsal before we get out there against Denver,” Gannon said ahead of practice. “Just start the process of learning how to communicate and all those things.

“Honestly, it’s probably harder today than a game just because of the clock operator and the refs, but it’s not real game. I’m kind of on a whim, ‘Hey, let’s change the situation and do this.’ Some guys might not know what’s going on. It’s actually more chaotic and that’s OK. If I was a coordinator, I probably wouldn’t like it.”

Play of the day

There were a handful of standout plays from Saturday’s action.

Tight end Noah Togiai kicking 11-on-11s off with a long catch down the middle and barreling his way through traffic, wide receiver Greg Dortch scoring the first touchdown of the afternoon and rookie Michael Wilson’s score(s) during red zone work come to mind.

But none equaled what starting running back James Conner did toward the end of practice.

Looking to cash in from inside the 10-yard line, Cardinals quarterback Colt McCoy saw a window and went for it, rolling out to the right before throwing up a pass near the back corner of the end zone.

Conner, draped with multiple defenders, did the rest.

Touchdown, Cardinals (offense).

A lot of laundry

It wouldn’t be a dress rehearsal without some laundry.

And during Saturday’s action, there was quite a lot of it.

It seemed like every 3-4 plays, flags were flying on the field, whether it was a delay of game, false start, holding or pass interference.

You better believe the miscues have been noted and will be brought up.

“What we’re looking for in our players and coaches when (the referees attend practice) is the education of how they officiate and understand there’s going to be some variance in that,” Gannon said pre-practice.

“That’s part of our game that we have to be educated in and we got to understand what is a foul and what isn’t, and you got to play within the rules. That’s very valuable for us.”

Mack attack

It didn’t take long for new Cardinals running back Marlon Mack to make his presence felt a day after signing on with the team.

Working mostly with the third team behind Conner and Corey Clement, Mack chewed off a big gain on the ground with his first touch as a Cardinal.

He followed it up with a catch and run to pick up a first down.

We all know Conner is the bell cow of the Cardinals. But behind him, questions remain.

Second-year pro Keaontay Ingram seemed to have head start on the No. 2 role heading into camp, but after missing most of the past week with what Gannon called a “nick,” his grasp could be slipping.

Clement on the other hand gives Arizona a veteran option that can serve as change-of-pace option to Conner. But with 69 rushing attempts since 2020, the RB has seen little run offensively in the past three years.

Mack, meanwhile, has a 1,000-yard, 9-touchdown season under his belt and spent a few seasons alongside Gannon during their tenures in Indianapolis.

For the free-agent addition, it’s all about staying healthy and proving he still has it from an offensive standpoint.

After going down with a torn Achilles during the first game of the 2020 regular season, Mack has struggled to find the field since, playing in just six games for the Colts in 2021 before stops in Houston (practice squad), Denver (six games) and San Francisco (two games) last season.

Nope!

Conner may have had the biggest play of the afternoon, but it was safety Isaiah Simmons that came away with the biggest hit of the practice.

Looking to cash in during 11-on-11 work in the red zone, McCoy found an open Rondale Moore in the middle of the field. With daylight in front of him, Moore turned up field with pay dirt in his sights.

That was until Simmons stepped up and made a play.

That’s going to leave a mark.

Gaines retains role

On Thursday, we saw Pat Elflein make his way into the second team offense for the first time at center, a position held mostly by rookie Jon Gaines II this camp. With Elflein in, Gaines moved over to left guard.

On Saturday, though, it was Gaines getting the backup center nod throughout practice.

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