Cardinals rewind: Despite loss, not everything’s lost

TEMPE, Ariz. – Cardinals coach Bruce Arians reiterated a common postgame theme at his Monday news conference at the team’s practice facility.
“You never accept losing, but there are some very, very good things and some very correctable things,” he said of Sunday’s 27-24 loss to the Rams in St. Louis. “Disappointed? Yes. Discouraged? Not at all.
“We wanted that win desperately. It’s a big win on the road, and we had it in our grasp. But it would have been (worse) if we couldn’t get ourselves in that position.”
Here’s a look back at the season opener:
The broken wheel route: One of the biggest plays of the game came on a third-and-2 at the Cards’ 41-yard line just after the two-minute warning with the score tied 24-24. Instead of opting for Andre Roberts or Larry Fitzgerald (both had big days), coach Bruce Arians called a wheel route to rookie running back Andre Ellington. The play looked like it could have gone for miles, but Ellington was looking over one shoulder while Palmer threw over another, causing an incompletion. The Cards punted; the Rams then drove for Greg Zuerlein’s game-winning, 48-yard field goal. 
Receiver Andre Roberts: Fitzgerald had a renaissance day with eight catches for 80 yards and two touchdowns. So did Palmer, who threw for 327 yards and two TDs and finished with a 96.6 passer rating. But Roberts’ eight catches for 97 yards were mostly of the difficult and punishing variety, and four of them converted third downs into first downs, extending drives.
When asked if he got full-body treatment after the beating he took, Roberts grinned: “Yeah, I did get good treatment today, but I’m not going to talk about that.”
Safety/nickel corner Tyrann Mathieu: Mathieu was third on the team in tackles with seven and made what Arians called one of the best plays he’s ever seen at the NFL level when he stripped Rams tight end Jared Cook of the ball just before he entered the end zone for a long touchdown, giving the Cardinals the ball and momentum after Karlos Dansby (who was beaten on the play and beaten often Sunday) recovered. Mathieu made a lot of plays in the preseason, but those didn’t count. This one did. He still takes some ill-advised risks, but there is no shortage of playmaking ability or confidence in the third-round pick. 
— All that talk about Arians’ passing attack wasn’t just hype. Three receivers topped 80 yards (Roberts, Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd), Palmer topped 300 yards and the Cards were confident enough to attack late in the first half rather than taking a knee deep in their own territory. When the chemistry and reps build, this could be a fun offense to watch.
— Arians said the Levi Brown situation isn’t as dire as some might suggest, noting that his left tackle was extremely effective in the run game and came away unscathed on most passing plays, including the two-minute drill before the half, when the Cards drove within field-goal range with empty backfield sets and no help for Brown on the edge. But it’s clear the Cards will need to give Brown help in certain situations. He seems to struggle against speed rushers, and Robert Quinn (three sacks) is certainly one of those. Arians acknowledged that three sacks is a concern “but not the end of the world.” He said the issues were technique-related.  
“Using your hands properly instead of getting your hand batted down and giving up the soft edge,” he said, citing one example.
Brown missed all of last season but wouldn’t use rust as an excuse.
“Whether there was or wasn’t, it’s not the result I wanted to get,” he said, shrugging off the latest critique of his play “Whatever. The spotlight’s always on me. I can handle it. I’ll get back to work Wednesday, do what I’ve got to do.”
After Brown allowed Quinn two early sacks, the Cards gave him help on some obvious passing plays. In fact, he was supposed to have help on some other plays, but twice backs released into routes too early, and Alfonso Smith admitted he blew another blocking assignment. 
On a third-and-9 early in the fourth quarter, they had an empty backfield, so there was no help when Quinn beat Brown with a speed rush around the end, sacked Palmer and caused a fumble that the Rams recovered, leading to the game-tying field goal. 
Arians is hesitant to give Brown consistent help because it limits what the Cards can do with their offense, but it’s is clear there are instances in which it might be required. 
— The Cards are going to miss inside linebacker Daryl Washington. Cook had seven catches for 141 yards and two TDs and was largely a mismatch for Dansby. The Rams went right at that mismatch, and other teams are likely to view the game tape and do likewise. 
Arians said tight end Rob Housler (high ankle sprain) will likely miss another week. There were no significant injuries in Sunday’s game. 
— The offense was reasonably well balanced, finishing with 40 pass attempts and 26 rushes. The Cards weren’t great on the ground (86 yards), but they were good enough – and that’s a good sign in the absence of top pick Jonathan Cooper (broken leg). Until his final three carries, Rashard Mendenhall was averaging better than four yards a pop. Smith, the newly appointed backup, didn’t fare as well, rushing 10 times for just 26 yards, but Arians felt the blocking was the biggest issue preventing both backs from having a bigger day.
— Jay Feely’s missed 50-yard field goal at the end of the first half isn’t sitting well with his coach, who also took issue with Feely’s kickoffs, which he called “poor.” The Cardinals executed their two-minute offense well in about half a minute to give themselves a chance at a halftime lead, but Feely couldn’t connect, even indoors and on turf. Feely fended off competition from Dan Carpenter in camp, and Arians said there will be no competition for Feely this week. But he likely won’t be patient. Past performances mean nothing to a new coaching staff. It’s all about the here and now.
— Arians said the team’s lack of pressure during the preseason was due to a lack of game-planning and a desire to see how well the secondary could cover. There were no such excuses on Sunday. The Cards did not sack Bradford and rarely pressured him. Free-agent acquisition and pass-rushing specialist John Abraham barely played, and Washington’s inside rush ability was missed. Pro Football Focus graded Darnell Dockett (one tackle) as the worst 3-4 defensive end this weekend — not a good start for a guy who’s trying to prove that his three-year statistical decline was a matter of scheme, not skills. 
Pressure will be an important component to watch as the season progresses. Arians liked the push that Calais Campbell and nose tackle Dan Williams got inside, but he was not happy with the lack of pressure from the edges. Like many coaches, he doesn’t want to rely on blitzing to pressure the QB because that exposes the Cardinals on the back end. We’re only one game in so it’s far too early to push the panic button. The Cards were, after all, a play or two away from winning in a difficult road environment.
— Abraham played just 20 snaps. Arians said that while game situations dictated that, he’d like to get Abraham up into the 30-snap range in the Cardinals’ two nickel packages and one additional blitz package.
— Few preseason trends are meaningful, but one that continued into the season was the defense’s ability to force turnovers. Aside from Mathieu’s strip, Matt Shaughnessy tipped a Sam Bradford pass near the Rams goal line that Williams hauled in before plodding two yards for a touchdown. Turnovers and points allowed are the only two defensive stats Arians really cares about. “One saved a touchdown, one scored a touchdown,” Arians said. “Any time you do that defensively, very seldom do you lose.”
— Punter Dave Zastudil continues to amaze. He had four punts for an average of 46.8 yards. That’s not an overwhelming average, but who cares when he pins the opponent inside the 20-yard line three times and allows just one punt return yard in the game?
— It sure was nice to see Fitzgerald a part of the offense again, wasn’t it? There was a child-like excitement in Fitz when he caught his touchdown passes. It’s nice to have a legitimate NFL quarterback behind center again. Palmer looked poised, for the most part, and capable of making all the throws.
The Cardinals host the Lions, who made the playoffs two seasons ago but slipped to 4-12 last year. The Lions made a good first impression on Sunday in Minnesota, beating the Vikings 34-24 behind 357 passing yards from QB Matthew Stafford, 101 receiving yards from free-agent acquisition Reggie Bush and four forced turnovers from the defense.