The Arizona Cardinals have wrapped up their first game of the season with a down-to-the-wire win, much to the relief of fans. It may be tempting to bask in the glory of the win after last year’s terrible season, but don’t read too much into it yet.
The fact is, this was a game full of sloppy play, and despite the Carolina Panthers’ terrible record last season and a rookie quarterback, they were able to keep pace with the Cardinals right up until the end.
Some of the poor play can be chalked up to the lockout and the lack of team building during the offseason. That excuse won’t hold water as we progress into the season, though.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t positives. This first game of the season really helped demonstrate the positives and the negatives of the Cardinals’ offseason and preseason activities. This slideshow will discuss four observations from the game that—for better or for worse—have the chance to become trends for the Cardinals over the course of the entire season.
Allowing 21 points isn’t necessarily a terrible defensive performance, but neither is it a great one. Consider that the Cardinals were up against the Carolina Panthers’ anemic offense, led by a rookie quarterback, and 21 points becomes unacceptable.
The defense played sloppy throughout the game, allowing QB Cam Newton to pick them apart through the air. They were able to get some pressure on Newton up front, accruing three sacks and several knockdowns. Despite that, Newton was able to shatter QB Peyton Manning’s record for the most yards by a rookie quarterback in his first NFL game.
Although the defense warmed up a bit at the end of the game, they still allowed the Panthers’ offense to stage a late-game comeback attempt. They also shot themselves in the foot with ridiculous penalties, notably the 15-yard roughing the passer penalty and the offsides penalty with under two minutes left in the game.
Only a strong goal-line stand at the end of the game gave Arizona the win. With a few more games under his belt, Newton would likely have been able to put the ball into the end zone to tie the game.
In 2010, the Cardinals had one of the most understated kickoff return men in the league in LaRod Stephens-Howling. They may have found an equally threatening punt returner in Patrick Peterson, who ran back an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown to take the lead for Arizona late in the fourth quarter.
Just as important, the Cardinals were generally able to contain the Panthers’ special teams. Punt returns were a particular strength for the unit, with a long return of just 10 yards.
Special teams are an oft-neglected area of the game, despite their potential to make or break a team’s success. It is encouraging to see the Cardinals continuing their dominance in this area.
Trading for QB Kevin Kolb was enough to secure WR Larry Fitzgerald’s presence in Arizona. It was also enough to give some legitimacy to the Cardinals’ flagging offense. Kolb had a good day: 18-for-27, 309 yards of passing offense and a pair of touchdowns.
Those numbers don’t adequately reflect Kolb’s mien on the field. He was sacked only twice, despite the sieve-like offensive line allowing pressure almost constantly throughout the game. More importantly, he handled the pressure without making decisions that would have led to turnovers for his team.
He still has room for plenty of improvement, but it is clear that he is clicking well with this offense. Long bombs down the field to Larry Fitzgerald, Early Doucet and Jeff King are a clear signal that the Cardinals won’t be afraid to threaten the deep ball during the 2011 season.
When rookie running back Ryan Williams went down with a season-ending knee injury, the Cardinals’ running game became a giant question. Beanie Wells has the potential to be an excellent running back when he’s healthy (and when he can hold on to the football), but his career has been plagued by injury. LaRod Stephens-Howling is not an every-down back who can pick up the slack if Wells went down.
Signing Chester Taylor was a brilliant move by the Cardinals, but for this week at least it wasn’t necessary. With Taylor as an inactive on the roster, Beanie Wells ran for 90 yards and a touchdown. When Taylor is able to join the roster and contribute to his new team, the ground threat will be that much more powerful.