GLENDALE, Ariz. — Two days before the Cardinals faced the Chargers on Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium, the biggest storyline of training camp was how healthy the team had managed to stay.
It didn’t last.
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In the capstone to a nightmarish 24-7 preseason loss, left guard and first-round draft pick Jonathan Cooper suffered a broken leg (left fibula) and is likely done for the season. It’s a devastating blow to an offensive line that the franchise had finally addressed and tried to improve through the draft and free agency after years of neglect.
“He was picking up the offense, starting to not think as much and just let his athleticism go to work,” said left tackle Levi Brown, who missed all of last season with a torn triceps. “It just sucks that this has to happen. Seems like the past two preseasons, there have been a lot of these season-ending-type injuries.”
And you wonder why players dread the preseason. It’s enough to make you consider flag football until the real action starts.
Center Lyle Sendlein said he knew the injury was serious pretty quickly because Cooper stayed on the ground.
“A lot of times, a lineman will just get up and shake it off,” Sendlein said. “I thought he handled it like a champ. He wasn’t crying or anything. When you get hurt like that, it’s fear more than pain.”
Coach Bruce Arians is still holding out hope that Cooper can return this season, but he will miss significant time. The leading candidate to replace him right now appears to be Chilo Rachal, with former Arizona State lineman Paul Fanaika also a possibility. Daryn Colledge, who played the position last year, could also move back from right guard.
“I’m not taking anything off the table yet, but right now, I’m the right guard,” Colledge said. “Chilo stepped in and played and we scored a touchdown. I would assume tomorrow he’s the left guard but I’d also assume that it’s an open competition between him and every other guard available.”
Cooper was the key to a rebuilt offensive line that also saw the addition of right tackle Eric Winston and the return of Brown. Without him, much of the personnel that has struggled the past few years is the same, which is certainly cause for concern on offense, whether it comes to keeping quarterback Carson Palmer upright or opening holes in what has been a moribund running game the past few seasons.
“It’s hard. That’s the one thing you really hope to avoid,” coach Bruce Arians said. “Key player in an offensive line that was really starting to jell a little bit. The next man’s got to step up.”
Cooper wasn’t the only Cardinals player to sustain an injury Saturday night. On the first-team defense’s second-to-last drive, which came late in the first half, the Cards lost nose tackle Dan Williams to a right ankle injury that forced trainers to help him to the locker room.
They also lost tight end Rob Housler to a right ankle injury on the first-team offense’s final drive. Housler was wearing a walking boot in the locker room after the game but said that he did not believe the injury was serious.
Besides those injuries, defensive end Matt Shaughnessy (ankle), running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee), tight end D.C. Jefferson (knee) and receiver Andre Roberts (quad) also went down. Arians said the other injured players will all have MRIs.
“It was an ugly night in a lot of ways,” said Housler, who dropped an easy first-half touchdown in the back of the end zone that precipitated a comedy of errors for the Cards.
The first-team offense looked out of sync in the passing game, and the tackles struggled mightily in protection, with both Brown and Winston getting beat a couple times. Brown was also called for holding on Cardinal killer Dwight Freeney, who doesn’t appear to have lost a step.
The first-team defense, which hadn’t allowed a point in two prior preseason games, was gashed on the ground for 74 first-half yards and surrendered 14 points, the last seven of which came after safety Rashad Johnson recovered a fumble near his own goal line and tried to lateral the ball to linebacker Sam Acho, who was hit and fumbled, allowing San Diego tight end John Phillips to snag the ball out of the air at the 3-yard line and walk into the end zone.
Arians called the play “absolutely asinine.”
Even the special teams, which Arians had praised the two prior weeks, struggled. Dave Zastudil had a punt blocked, Dan Carpenter had a field-goal attempt blocked and Keenan Allen had a long punt return, making former special teams coach Kevin Spencer’s return to Arizona a successful one in the same post with the Chargers.
About the only bright spots were a Michael Floyd touchdown catch early in the third quarter, a play on which he made an impressive grab while managing to drag his second foot in bounds, and the rushing offense, which ground out 120 yards. The run game was spearheaded by Mendenhall (six carries, 47 yards) and Alfonso Smith (five carries, 44 yards), who made a strong case as the team’s No. 2 back, while Ryan Williams (knee) was relegated to just two carries for 10 yards in his first preseason action.