PHOENIX — Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington hated the last four weeks spent sitting out an NFL mandated suspension.
“Brutal” was the word he used.
He took it out on the Panthers, making the Cardinals’ lack of offensive continuity seem a minor inconvenience in their 22-6 victory.
“Definitely, “Washington said when asked if he wanted to make a statement on his return, although he tempered that by saying, “I didn’t want to be Superman.”
At that, he failed miserably.
Washington played the kind of relentless, sideline-to-sideline defense that got him to his first Pro Bowl last season. He had one of three Cardinals’ interceptions and two of their seven sacks. He had a team-high nine tackles and knocked a pass down. It was the kind of performance that might lead to another Pro Bowl, even if he has only 12 games to do it in.
He said he felt a little rusty, and there was a point in the first half when he had to change his mouthpiece because he could not catch his breath quick enough. That, too, passed.
With Washington’s inclusion, the Cardinals were able to do things schematically they had not done previously this season, as well as they had performed in limiting the Buccaneers to 10 points last Sunday. Washington often acted as a “spy” against the Panthers’ do-everything quarterback Cam Newton, tracking him everywhere, “Agent 58,” as it were.
“I love to take that responsibility,” Washington said.
In that role, Washington made the two biggest plays of the game on consecutive series in the fourth quarter. With the Cardinals leading, 12-6, Carolina pushed the ball to the Arizona 11-yard line following the third of three Carson Palmer interceptions. On third down, Washington read Newton’s eyes and stepped in front of a pass over the middle intended for Steve Smith. Washington tipped it, caught it one-handed and took it out to the 50. Threat averted.
The Cardinals stalled — their offense was out of sync for a third straight game — and the Panthers got the ball back quickly. Again, Washington stepped up. He sacked Newton on third-and-seven to force a punt, and the Cards got close enough for Jay Feely’s 50-yard field goal with 3:38 left for a 15-6 lead.
“Just know (it is) a totally different team” with Washington on the field, said fellow linebacker Karlos Dansby, who also had two sacks and an interception. “His athletic ability. His speed. His instincts. All of the above. It allowed us to play faster and make plays.”
Washington, suspended for a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, could not practice with the team during his absence, although he was a regular in the locker room. The first four games, he said, he could not watch live. He taped them and watched them later, thinking of the burden he had placed on his teammates.
“You feel like you are hurting them,” Washington said. “I was an indescribable feeling, trying to watch the game and knowing that you could be out there making plays and doing different things to set the defense up and doing other things to put the guys in position to make plays.
“Now that I’m back, it’s time to make a run.”
The Cardinals are 3-2, and they have done it without much offense the last three games, a 38-7 loss to the Saints followed by a 13-10 victory in Tampa Bay, between which they bivouced in Sarasota, Fla., rather than put on another 6,000 air miles and spend the better part of two days in the air.
Palmer was under some pressure Sunday but not an extraordinary amount, as first-time starter Bradley Sowell acquitted himself well at left tackle while replacing traded veteran Levi Brown. Palmer threw three interceptions before finding Jim Dray for the tight end’s first career touchdown with 2:23 remaining, the clinching points. That score was set up by another turnover, when Calais Campbell forced a fumble and Cardinals cornerback Antoine Cason returned it to the Panthers’ nine.
The Cards had 250 yards, 103 fewer than the Panthers, but got another nice game from rookie running back Andre Ellington. A sixth-round pick from Clemson, Ellington took another step toward more playing time with 83 yards of offense — a team-high 52 yards rushing and 31 receiving yards — on only 11 touches.
Palmer, brought in to invigorate the offense, was 19 for 28 Sunday and has nine interceptions and five touchdown passes on the season. Most disconcerting has been his inability to find Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald. The two connected on the first completion of the game, but Fitzgerald finished with just three catches for 43 yards. Two of Palmer’s interceptions came on balls forced toward Fitzgerald, one at the goal line with 32 seconds left in the first half.
“I think the win keeps you sane a little bit,” Fitzgerald said with a chuckle.
He was asked if he was surprised that points have been so hard to come by this year.
“I don’t want to answer that,” Fitzgerald said congenially.
There was a five-second pause.
“We have to do better. It’s as simple as that. We have to find a way to get it done.”
Darnell Dockett was not ready to call it a statement game for the defense, reserving that judgment until games against the 49ers, Seahawks and Falcons over the next three weeks that will provide a good measuring stick. The Cardinals play in San Francisco next Sunday.
“Next week will speak for itself,” Dockett said. “That’s when you are going to really find out really how good are you. Going on the road against the champs. That’s going to be a hell of a tough game, and we are going to be looking forward to that one.” Follow Jack Magruder on Twitter