Cardinals OLB John Abraham (No. 55) had two sacks on Sunday.
Carson Palmer threw another interception, bringing his season total to 15. It did not cost the team, however, and he played well when needed.
The offense also received a surprise breakout performance and had different leading receivers than what we are used to seeing. Tight end Rob Housler hauled in his first career NFL touchdown in the second quarter and had four receptions for 57 yards (14.3 yards per catch), while Andre Roberts led the team with five receptions for 72 yards (14.4 YPC).
The defense was a bit porous in the first half, allowing Texans quarterback Case Keenum to complete 15 of 26 (57.7%) for 159 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 101.3 passer rating by the break. But it clamped down in the second half, allowing Keenum just seven of 17 (41.2%) for 42 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions and a 68.5 rating.
Here are some takeaways from the big win.
Since Week 5, Palmer has shown an ability to wipe away poor first-half performances and put together good second halves. As a result, the offense is coming around and the defense is getting some much-needed rest down the stretch.
From Week 5 to Week 8, Palmer completed 67.9 percent of his passes in the second half with three touchdowns and two interceptions for an 83.8 passer rating.
Sunday, he completed 70.5 percent with a touchdown and no picks for a 114.3 rating. He led a great scoring drive in the fourth quarter that ended up being a game-clincher. It was a nine-play, 67-yard drive that ended when Palmer found a wide-open Roberts in the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown.
Bruce Arians later called it the best drive of the season:
The NFL uses yards totals to determine which units are the best in the league. Coming into Sunday’s game, Houston had the No. 1 defense in terms of yardage allowed.
But it had allowed 221 points (27.6 points per game), the 10th most in the league. Is allowing over 27 points per game worthy of being called the best defense in the NFL?
With 27 points scored on Sunday, the Cardinals have scored at least 20 points in five straight and seven of nine this season. Granted, only 20 points came from Palmer and the offense—remember, Matt Shaughnessy scored on a John Abraham sack/strip on the first play of the game.
But it’s a step in the right direction for a team that was 31st in scoring in 2012 (it was 26th as of Week 9, at 20.0 PPG).
There truly is no reason for Rashard Mendenhall to play anymore for the Cardinals. It’s time to see what Andre Ellington can do as the full-time starter, because he outplayed Mendenhall once again en route to leading the team in rushing despite the veteran receiving more carries.
Mendenhall carried 13 times for 42 yards (3.2 yards per carry) and caught a screen pass for nine yards. He also fumbled late in the game deep in Arizona territory that allowed the Texans to score and bring themselves right back into the game.
The validity of the fumble is somewhat in question. It appeared live as though his progress had been stopped, but rather than giving himself up, Mendenhall stood with his back against defenders in a pile, allowing the fumble to occur. It’s a touchy subject, but he could have prevented the controversy.
Ellington carried 11 times for 55 yards (5.0 YPC) and caught two passes for 18 yards. His one-handed reception caused some controversy as well, as it appeared he reached out to gain a game-clinching first down. Instead, he was marked a full yard back, and after head coach Bruce Arians challenged, the play was “confirmed” and stood as called.
Darren Urban offered this take after the game:
There will be much talk—again—about Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington. But guess what? [Head coach Bruce] Arians wasn’t down on Mendenhall at all afterward, so there are going to be no changes. He said he thought Mendenhall was down before he fumbled, so the fumble isn’t going to be a black mark. He said he thought Ellington’s work was just fine, and that was after 13 touches (although two more passes were thrown incomplete to Ellington.) Mendenhall had 14 touches for the game.
It's unfortunate Arians feels that way, because Mendenhall handcuffs the offense more often than not.
Stepfan Taylor can play the part of Mendenhall while providing something Mendenhall cannot: ball security in key moments.
Even Ryan Williams deserves a chance over Mendenhall at this point.
It wasn't a stat-sheet-filling performance for Housler. As mentioned, he had four receptions for 52 yards and his first career touchdown. But it wasn't just the touchdown that has this writer believing Housler has new life as a Cardinals tight end.
It was how he notched his receptions. One was a great diving catch he may not have made a few weeks ago because he seemed disinterested in being a target. Another was his actual touchdown.
A screen pass in the second quarter resulted in a nice 12-yard bobbing-and-weaving run into the end zone, giving Arizona a 14-7 lead.
Is it possible the addition of tight end Jake Ballard lit a fire under Housler? Perhaps it has given him new motivation to be the threat everyone thinks he can be. Hopefully that's the case, because Ballard and Housler together playing at a high level gives the offense a new dimension it did not have early in the season and could propel them to greater things down the stretch.
For what it's worth, Ballard recorded a 15-yard reception in his Cardinals debut.
Palmer was sacked only once, but he had to do a lot of moving around on Sunday to avoid pressure, and he was hit as he threw on a handful of dropbacks.
Right tackle Eric Winston struggled, which made not seeing Bobby Massie curious. He was active for the game but did not play.
Left tackle Bradley Sowell was abused by defensive end J.J. Watt on the sack/strip of Palmer. He was beaten quickly, but it appeared Palmer held onto the ball too long. The quarterback failed to recognize No. 99 in a one-on-one with the young tackle and paid the price for it.
Arizona did a nice job overall of providing running lanes for Mendenhall and Ellington, though Mendenhall did his best to avoid them at times—that’s becoming a bad habit for the six-year vet.
These guys are one of the best second-half units in the NFL. In its five wins, Arizona has allowed a total of 14 points in the second half—a single touchdown to Atlanta and Houston in the fourth quarter is it.
The pass defense has especially stood out. Including Sunday’s second half, opposing quarterbacks have completed 88 of 164 (53.7%) for 859 yards (5.2 yards per attempt), six touchdowns and 10 interceptions for a 55.4 passer rating.
As mentioned in the intro, Keenum did nothing in the final two frames after having success in the first half. The only reason Houston scored was because of Mendenhall’s fumble, leaving it with a goal-to-go situation.
Part of that is the offense’s success after the break as well, so it has been a team effort in the second half this season.
One area the Todd Bowles’ defense struggles this season is in getting off the field on third down. Through Week 9, the Cardinals ranked 24th, allowing a 40.5 percent conversion rate.
They allowed Keenum and Co. 37.5 percent (6-of-16) on Sunday, including 44.4 percent (4-of-9) in the first half. Overall, it was a minor improvement compared to the season average, but it’s still not very good.
One positive is Sunday’s second-half performance on third downs (just 28.6 percent, or 2-of-7). If Arizona wants to start beating the good teams on its schedule, it must get off the field on third downs earlier in the game. Not every team will lie down in the second half—especially not Seattle or San Francisco, the two teams the Cardinals must beat at the end of the season if they want a shot at the playoffs.
He hasn’t been great this season, but he has shown up of late. With two more sacks against Houston, he now has five sacks on the season—all in the past three games.
It’s a good sign for a defense that was in desperate need of edge-rushers this season. Sam Acho is out for the season with a broken leg, but he has struggled at getting to the quarterback since last season.
Now that Abraham is the starter in place of Acho, he has gotten into a rhythm of sorts that he was unable to find in coming off the bench.
He was a disruptive force on Sunday, forcing a fumble on the first play of the game that resulted in a Matt Shaughnessy scoop-and-score. He also notched a tackle for loss and nearly had a third sack that was ultimately given to defensive end Frostee Rucker.