NFL teams often treat the third preseason game on the calendar like a regular-season dress rehearsal, so naturally Logan Thomas, Marion Grice and Ifeanyi Momah played the role of heroes during the Arizona Cardinals' 30-23 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
Thomas led Arizona 91 yards down the field in the final few minutes for the game-winning touchdown. The drive lasted nine plays, but it was highlighted by a 38-yard pass across the middle to Momah (who tallied a team-high 61 receiving yards) and an 11-yard scoring run from Grice.
While the Cardinals won the game, Oakland's defense dominated the first 30 minutes on the way to a 15-3 halftime lead. The first half took on more importance than usual since the majority of the starters remained in the contest until at least intermission.
That is concerning for Arizona fans, considering quarterback Carson Palmer finished 8-of-22 passing for 103 yards with two interceptions. While the final stat line was not encouraging, the offensive line deserved plenty of blame as well. Palmer was sacked three times and consistently pressured almost every time he dropped back to throw.
Kent Somers of AZCentral.com noted pass protection was an issue entering Sunday's contest:
The Cardinals quarterback was sacked twice and hit another time on nine called pass plays last week. He won’t last two games, much less an entire season, under that kind of pressure. It wasn’t all the fault of the offensive line, although each tackle was beaten for a sack. Running backs have to do a better job reading the blitz and blocking the right person.
The lackluster blocking led to plays like this, per the NFL on Twitter:
Derek Carr received better protection than his quarterback counterpart and took advantage to the tune of 18-of-34 passing for 213 yards. Rookie Amari Cooper was Carr's favorite weapon (four catches for 62 yards on nine targets) during the five early scoring drives, which is what the Raiders front office envisioned when it made the former Alabama wide receiver the fourth overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.
Chris B. Brown of Smart Football and Grantland pointed out one Cooper play, in particular, that stood out:
The receiver wasn't the only Oakland youngster who impressed Sunday.
Linebacker Khalil Mack tallied two sacks and consistently pressured Palmer. Albert Breer of NFL Network and ESPN's Skip Bayless acknowledged Mack's play:
The first-half momentum quickly disappeared for Oakland, though, when Carr remained in the game in the third quarter and threw an inexcusable pick-six after driving into the red zone. It trimmed the lead to 15-10 and drastically shifted the momentum. The Cardinals passed along the highlight of Cariel Brooks' interception and ensuing touchdown return:
It was Carr's final throw of the game.
Drew Stanton took over for the Cardinals in the second half and promptly marched them all the way down the field for the go-ahead touchdown. His pass to David Johnson put Arizona up 16-15, but the team failed on the two-point conversion. Asher Mathews of TFDS Sports pointed out the Raiders had more to worry about than the one score:
It was a positive sign for Stanton, who is bouncing back from last season's knee injury. He commented on his progression during the offseason, per Ed Cole of NBCSports1060.com:
The game’s slowing down for me, so it’s exciting for me from that standpoint. You’re selfish in the offseason getting ready, and now it comes full circle with you doing whatever you can to try and help this team prepare for the season. With that being said, these young guys, getting guys up to speed, and getting everybody on the same page is the main focus of this camp.
Phillip Sims kept the quarterback momentum rolling into the final quarter with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Kerwynn Williams to stretch the lead to 23-15. The Cardinals shared Williams' burst of speed around the edge:
It appeared as if Arizona would control the second half, but Matt McGloin took Oakland 83 yards and capped off the drive with a four-yard touchdown pass to Kris Durham. The Raiders succeeded on the two-point conversion to tie the game at 23. Steve Corkan of RaiderBeat.com believes McGloin showed enough to win the backup quarterback job:
McGloin's moment was fleeting because Thomas answered with a 91-yard scoring drive of his own to clinch the game. While Grice punched the ball in with an 11-yard touchdown run, Thomas' 38-yard pass to Momah ultimately put the Cardinals in position to capitalize.
The Raiders couldn't answer in 25 seconds, and Arizona walked away with the 30-23 win.
The victorious Cardinals travel to Denver on Thursday for their final preseason contest. Fans likely won't see much action from the regulars with important games around the corner, but it would be reassuring from Arizona's perspective to see improvement along the offensive line.
The starters failed to protect Palmer throughout the first half or open any holes for a rushing attack that totaled a meager 73 yards on 24 carries. It is difficult to envision another playoff appearance for the Cardinals (or a healthy season for Palmer) if their offensive line struggles as mightily as it did Sunday.
As for Oakland, it travels to Seattle on Thursday for its last preseason game. That would be a tall task during the regular season, but the Raiders probably won't see much of the Legion of Boom secondary or Marshawn Lynch.
One more solid showing from young players such as Carr, Cooper and Mack would be more important for the long-term future of the franchise than a single preseason win or loss against the Seahawks.