GLENDALE, Ariz. — It’s only Week 2 of the NFL season, and the Cardinals defense was already tasked with a little bit of déjà vu Sunday: holding a lead in the game’s final two minutes.
A week earlier, the defense had failed, surrendering a field goal in the Rams’ 27-24 win. Not this week.
“We didn’t want to make that same mistake again,” Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said.
The defense stopped the Lions on four downs near midfield to secure a 25-21 win, the first of coach Bruce Arians’ tenure in Arizona, capping a shutout second half.
“We’re starting to learn how to finish halves and finish games,” Arians said. “Our defense was lights out in the second half.”
The Lions went to the locker room with a 14-10 lead on 232 total yards. They would score again only on DeAndre Levy’s 66-yard interception return in the third quarter. The Cardinals defense held the Lions to 90 yards and stopped them on all five third-down attempts in the second half. Detroit had to punt three times in the second half as quarterback Matthew Stafford went just 8 for 16.
“That’s a good defense that we’re playing against,” Stafford said. “We didn’t execute as well as we could have in the second half.”
Perhaps most impressive of the second half was the defense shutting down Lions receiver Calvin Johnson.
After scoring two touchdowns on four catches for 96 yards in the first half, Johnson appeared on track for a career day. But the Cardinals limited him to two receptions and 20 yards after halftime.
“We put our best corner (Patrick Peterson) on him, and (Johnson) made some plays and our best corner made some plays,” Dockett said. “He broke a long one, but at the end of the day, we said that wasn’t going to beat us. We had our mind set on that.”
Added Peterson: “My game plan was coming in here and continuing being physical with him, continuing playing my game no matter what goes on in the game and to stay calm and stay patient and let the game come to me. I didn’t want to overdo it or overforce myself or overexaggerate my technique, so I believe I played pretty well overall besides that big (72)-yard play.”
The final drive — which ended when Lions receiver Nate Burleson was tackled just short of the sticks by defensive back Tyrann Mathieu on a fourth-and-4 completion — was the cherry on top of an outstanding half of defense. Arians praised defensive coordinator Todd Bowles for pulling all the right strings.
The effort came down to a point coaches have been hammering home since taking over: finishing.
“We knew at the beginning of the game the majority of games in the NFL come down to the last two or three minutes of the game,” Dockett said. “Something big this year our coaches are emphasizing is finishing football games. No matter how the beginning looks, no matter how the middle looks, you always finish ’em.”
To that end, the Cardinals made their porous first half a moot point, and they made good on the point coaches have made paramount.
“That’s all we talk about: finishing games,” Arians said. “Eighty-some percent of games are decided in two minutes at the end of the half or two minutes at the end of the game. We practice two-minute a ton, we talk two-minute a ton.