Arizona Cardinals vs. Minnesota Vikings: Grades for Each Cardinals Unit
When the Arizona Cardinals traveled to play the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2 of the 2014 preseason, a lot was at stake for many players. It’s still early enough in the process that one good or bad play could sway head coach Bruce Arians into keeping or cutting a player, so this was a very important scrimmage.
The 30-28 loss on Saturday hurts a little bit, but Arians should be happy with most of what he saw from his team.
The offensive line held up better than last week, allowing only one sack. That lone sack was reminiscent of the one allowed by left guard Jonathan Cooper last week. Starting in place of Cooper, Earl Watford was manhandled on a play by rookie outside linebacker Anthony Barr.
Young receiver Jaron Brown stood out, accounting for the two longest plays of the night. His two receptions covered 85 yards and helped set up both touchdown drives in the first half.
The starting offense scored on its initial drive of the game for the second week in a row. Though Carson Palmer wasn’t as sharp as he was a week ago, he did lead a scoring drive to open the game—a nine-play, 93-yard drive that consumed only three minutes, 26 seconds of the first-quarter clock.
And despite missing starting inside linebacker Kevin Minter, who sat out with a pectoral injury, the starting defense looked strong in its quarter of play.
But there was some bad, too. Like kicker Jay Feely repeatedly sending line-drive kickoffs to the Vikings. And overall, the tackling was not up to snuff. A handful of plays that should have gained very little turned into big gains because defenders were not wrapping up properly.
A lot must be done before the season begins to get this team where it needs to be. The Cardinals have all the pieces they need to compete for an NFC West title, but between now and then, they have some growing to do.
Let’s grade Arizona's positional units for the Vikings game.
As mentioned, Palmer led a touchdown drive against Minnesota’s starting defense. But during the first-team offense’s second drive, the team gained one first down, which came by penalty on the first play. After that, it was three-and-out and a Dave Zastudil punt, which ended Palmer’s night.
Next up was Drew Stanton. Last week, he started hot, completing his first four passes en route to a touchdown drive. He ended up missing some receivers down the stretch, which overshadowed his fast start.
This week, Stanton looked a bit better. He completed six of eight passes for 81 yards and a touchdown pass to tight end Darren Fells for a 146.4 rating. He benefited from great athleticism multiple times, mind you. Brown made a nice leaping grab on an underthrown pass just before the touchdown, and on said touchdown, Stanton threw into heavy traffic and was bailed out by Fells—the 6’7” former basketball player—making a great play on the ball.
Finally, it was Ryan Lindley’s turn to show what he could do.
He was inaccurate most of the evening, throwing high, wide and short numerous times. Compared to Lindley this week, rookie Logan Thomas was Aaron Rodgers last week. That’s how bad the third-year signal-caller looked. He did lead two touchdown drives. So if you stop reading there, Lindley’s day wasn’t so bad.
But keep reading. His first drive was 19 plays and took 10:06 off the third-quarter clock. The Cardinals ran the ball 14 times on the drive, including two fourth-down conversions from the running backs. The score came from back Robert Hughes from two yards out.
Lindley’s fourth-quarter touchdown was beyond wacky. On fourth down from the 6-yard line, Lindley took a bad snap from center John Estes and, well, just watch it for yourself.
Again, the running backs struggled to gain positive yards. Yes, as a group they scored twice. But again, they averaged only 2.2 yards per carry. Starter Andre Ellington did not play much and rushed just twice for five yards, but he did have a nice 16-yard reception on Arizona’s first-quarter touchdown drive.
Hughes, who is technically a fullback, led the team with nine carries for 26 yards (2.9 yards per carry) and a touchdown. He should make the roster for his blocking and short-yardage potential, which includes the short-passing game.
Second-year back Stepfan Taylor is slow and can’t juke tacklers the way Ellington can—to his defense, not many can juke defenders the way Ellington does. Taylor carried eight times for 17 yards (2.1 yards per carry) and struggled to hit lanes before they closed.
Free-agent signee Jonathan Dwyer scored from two yards out on the opening drive and appeared to have some burst at times, though he carried five times for just 10 yards (2.0 yards per carry).
As a group, the running backs disappointed again. It’s not a good sign moving forward, but considering Ellington, the starter, has not been truly involved in these games so far, the running game we’re seeing right now is not the running game we will see when Week 1 is upon us.
Wide Receiver and Tight End
Just like last week, a Brown at receiver stood out. Only this week, it was a different Brown. As mentioned, Jaron Brown showed up to play. His two receptions led to two scoring drives, and if his roster spot was ever in doubt (it wasn’t), it’s not now.
A week after leading the team with 10 targets, rookie John Brown was targeted only twice, recording one 22-yard reception and a bad drop he’d like to have back. The good thing for him is free agent Ted Ginn Jr. had only one reception for seven yards and did not do much to gain the ground he lost after missing last week’s game.
Larry Fitzgerald did what he does and made a nice leaping grab early on over the middle. He looks healthy this season, and he could be on his way to regaining his elite status.
As for the tight ends, it went something like this: Darren Fells (unofficially) made the roster when he leapt to snag a touchdown pass from Stanton. While Arians has yet to make that official, you can bet Fells will be on the sidelines come Week 1.
That was about it for tight ends.
The big uglies played well Saturday night. All three quarterbacks had a clean pocket most of the evening, and despite the running backs’ low yards-per-carry average, the unit opened some running lanes that should have resulted in big yards gained.
We mentioned Watford losing a battle with Barr, and left tackle Jared Veldheer lost a couple of battles with pass-rushers. Right tackle Bobby Massie went unnoticed, which, for a lineman, is a good thing.
As a whole, Week 2 of the preseason was a positive showing for the offensive line. Hopefully, the linemen can build on their performance and extend their success into the Sunday night matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals.
I expected to see more of rookie Jerick McKinnon with Adrian Peterson sitting out, but Joe Banyard got the call for a majority of the first half instead. Though he carried six times for 64 yards (10.7 yards per carry), 56 of those yards came on one gallop in the third quarter where safety Anthony Walters should have made the stop near the line of scrimmage but whiffed.
The roundabout point of that paragraph is the Cardinals are great at stopping the run for one main reason: their defensive line.
It’s deep and talented, and these guys made some good plays early Saturday night. Stud defensive end Calais Campbell’s lone tackle was a three-yard loss for McKinnon, the back’s only carry of the game. His protege, rookie Kareem Martin, also made a couple of nice plays in the second half.
One area in which the defensive line struggled was in getting pressure on the quarterbacks. Third-string nose tackle Justin Renfrow sacked rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater once, and both Bridgewater and starter Matt Cassel were under pressure a few times combined, but the two went largely untouched all night.
The line did not produce much penetration.
With no Minter, second-year former undrafted free agent Kenny Demens got the start at inside linebacker. He was in on a couple of stops, but I did not notice him making plays against the starters as he did against backups last week. That’s perhaps to be expected.
On the outside, Sam Acho really stood out. He nearly had a sack on Cassel at one point, and he provided solid run defense, popping running back Matt Asiata as he crossed the line of scrimmage and halting Cassel a couple of times.
Newcomer Desmond Bishop also got into the action, making a tackle on his first snap with the team on a run play up the middle. He played well by all accounts.
All four linebacker positions have something to prove this season. Last week was a good start, and though they were not as dominant this week, the unit was solid once again as a whole.
The secondary was picked on a bit Saturday. No single performance blew anyone away, but there should be some raised eyebrows regarding the depth at cornerback, specifically after this game.
Justin Bethel, who had earned rave reviews as being a star pupil at camp early on, was picked on and missed a couple of tackles throughout the game. He did what he does on special teams and made some plays there, but if he’s trying to become a contributing member of the No Fly Zone, he did not do himself any favors Saturday.
On the other hand, cornerback Jerraud Powers played well against the Vikings. He was matched up against Cordarrelle Patterson on one target, and though he allowed a reception, he quickly brought the big, athletic receiver down with a physical tackle.
Powers displayed his physicality numerous times while in the game. He led the team with four solo tackles, and at least three of them had television color analyst Ron Wolfley raving about how physical he is. Wolf likes physical football players, in case you’re not aware.
Patrick Peterson gave his men too much of a cushion, it seems, as Cassel picked on him a bit on the first two drives. I don’t have the stats in front of me, but Peterson probably allowed three receptions in his roughly one quarter of play.
The safeties as a whole played really well. We mentioned Walters and his missed tackle that led to a long run, but other than, they played solid football. Rookie Deone Bucannon laid the wood on more than one occasion, but he also showed he’s learning to break down before getting to a ball-carrier simply to make a stop instead of always going for the decapitation, which risks a missed tackle.
Growth is what you want to see from the first-round pick. It’s a good start.
Special teams can be summed up in four words: “F” is for Feely.
As mentioned at the outset, Feely struggled with kickoffs. He could be on his way out the door in Arizona soon, because he had one job Saturday night and failed to do it.
Poor kickoffs led to poor kick coverage, which led to five returns for 141 yards (28.2 yards per kick return). That is horrible.
Most games, you’re going to see some good calls and some bad calls from the Cardinals coaching staff. Seldom will you see all good or all bad calls, but it does happen. There have been times in the past where literally nothing goes the team's way and everything is piled on coaching—*cough 58-0 cough*.
But during the preseason, coaches get a bit lax sometimes, and we saw that on one drive late in the game from defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
Just two days after Dan Bickley of AZCentral.com called Bowles Arizona’s “unsung hero,” the second-year leader of the defense brought the house against Bridgewater three or four times in a row and failed each time. That coaching misstep was made worse when the rookie found receiver Rodney Smith in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
That likely won’t happen in the regular season, so Bowles will get a lenient grade here. But that was not a good sequence of play calls.
Overall, the coaching staff did a good job of calling the game. On offense, there was a good balance of pure run plays mixed with passing plays and even a few gadget plays thrown in for good measure.
On defense, we saw more blitzing from Bowles than we did a week ago, and though it was not wildly successful and helped the team lose the game, he did it to test the rookie to see what he had.
You can do that kind of thing in a meaningless preseason game.
Special Teams: F
Team Grade: C