Cardinals aiming for Super Bowl with talented team
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Cardinals have made it as clear as the desert sky. Anything short of a Super Bowl will be disappointment.
"Everybody truly believes that we can be champions," defensive tackle Calais Campbell said.
The starters barely played a half combined in the preseason, and this is a team that knows it's good as long as Carson Palmer stays healthy and Tyrann Mathieu returns strong from a torn ACL.
"I'm pretty sure I know what they can do," coach Bruce Arians said, explaining why the starters played so little this preseason. "It's just a matter of getting them all there to that first game."
Every player who scored a point or gained a yard on an offense that led the NFL with 408.3 yards per game is back. The right side of the offensive line is new, with veteran Evan Mathis at right guard and young D.J. Humphries.
The Cardinals are 34-14 in Arians' three years in Arizona. Last season's 13-3 mark was second best in the NFC. But it ended badly, a blowout loss at Carolina in the NFC championship game, a performance that left open the question whether Palmer can win the big game.
Here are some things to look for before the Cardinals open their season Sunday night at home against the Patriots.
DEFENSIVE BOOST: The Cardinals' biggest problem a year ago was generating a pass rush without blitzing. That has been addressed with the acquisition of outside linebacker Chandler Jones.
Jones had a career-high 12 1-2 sacks for the Patriots last season, earning his first appearance in the Pro Bowl. With second-year pro Marcus Golden, who came on strong through last season, at the other linebacker spot, with Alex Okafor as a backup, the Cardinals are confident they can finally mount a pass rush off the edge.
They should be better on the defensive front, too. Arizona kept nine defensive linemen, featuring Campbell, Rodney Gunter, Corey Peter, Xavier Williams, Frostee Rucker and first-round draft pick Robert Nkemdiche.
PLAYMAKER HEAVEN: The Cardinals are loaded with people who can make the big plays Arians' offense features. Larry Fitzgerald is back for his 13th NFL season. Fitzgerald, who just turned 33, caught 109 passes last year for 1,215 yards, breaking the franchise record he set a decade earlier. John Brown topped 1,000 yards receiving, too, and after being sidelined with a concussion most of the preseason, he is expected to be ready for the opener. Michael Floyd returns in a contract year, another big receiver adept at coming down with those 50-50 balls. Jaron Brown, the forgotten player in this talented group, may have had the best training camp of any Cardinal. And J.J. Nelson adds even more speed.
CORNERBACK QUESTIONS: The only unsettled position is at cornerback opposite All-Pro Patrick Peterson. Free agent signee Mike Jenkins had a chance to win the job but broke a bone in his hand in training camp, then went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Rookie Brandon Williams has the raw talent, but played the position only one season in college and struggled in the preseason. Justin Bethel is coming off foot surgery and Arians says Bethel, a three-time Pro Bowl player on special teams, will have to play with pain all season.
Arizona added some veteran depth at the position by acquiring Marcus Cooper from Kanas City last week.
RUNNING WILD: Second-year pro David Johnson exhibited a rare combination of power, evasiveness and speed as a rookie. He was dominant when he started the final five games of the season after Chris Johnson went down with a knee injury.
The hype for David Johnson this year is sky high.
"I'm definitely ready," he said, "being smarter, getting in the training room, getting smarter in my nutrition and staying healthy. I feel like I'm ready to take on the load."
Chris Johnson is back and says he's in far better shape than a year ago, when he got a late start after recovering from a gunshot wound. Andre Ellington is finally healthy, too, and provides another big-play threat.
BADGER'S BACK: Do-everything defensive back Mathieu, with a big new contract, has returned from his second knee surgery in three seasons. He didn't play in any preseason games and will play with a brace on his knee, albeit a much smaller one than he had to wear two years ago.
Mathieu is the fiery heart of the defense, not just for his playing ability but for his emotional "edge" that rubs off on teammates. Asked how much the Badger will be able to play in the opener, Arians said, "every down."