Almost the reverse of their Week One disappointment against the St. Louis Rams, this time, the Cardinals were the team in the ascendancy, looking for a game-wining score late on. The defense bounced back from an unimpressive opening day performance to completely shut-down the explosive Detroit offense in the second half.
This win was really down to the quality play produce by the Cardinals' rookie contingent on the roster. We'll begin with running back Andre Ellington. Sixth round draft choice out of Clemson in the 2013 draft, a lot of 'draftnik's' thought Ellington would be a Day 2 pick in the draft, but he sled to the open arms of Steve Keim in the sixth, and the team haven't looked back.
Ellington showed his versatility on the day, playing a crucial role on third downs, and also was the teams leading receiver on the day with 42 yards. The young back recorded his first NFL touchdown in the first quarter with a 36-yard catch-and-run to give the Cardinals a 10-7 lead. The team have really lacked a versatile back who can make plays on the ground and through the air, earning great praise from Head Coach Bruce Arians, who see's the rookie 'as a back who can carry the load'. Ellington also gained 20 yards rushing at 5 yards a pop against a formidable Lions defensive line.
The running game is doing all we need it to do at this early stage. Rashard Mendenhall has come in and met the expectations of him, with 126 yards rushing and a touchdown in two games for the Cardinals, keeping the opposing defense's honest and respecting the run. Averaging around 4 YPC this season, Mendenhall is keeping the Cardinals' offense in manageable situations, a lot of third-and-short's which are easier to convert.
Larry Fitzgerald's hamstring injury reared up again in the second half, which saw him see no snaps in the fourth quarter, allowing for undrafted wide receiver Kerry Taylor to see a bigger role in the offense. Having been signed to the active roster the day before following the release of 2012 third round pick, cornerback Jamell Fleming, Taylor was brought in for this very scenario: insurance for Fitzgerald, and he delivered.
The teams leading WR on the day in terms of catches and yards (3 receptions, 40 yards) Taylor made impressive catches in traffic to secure a new set of downs, keeping drives alive. The offense can produce without Fitzgerald in the line-up if need be.
Now, Carson Palmer.
Sunday afternoon was such a typical 'Carson Palmer' performance. You can pretty much write it down every week that Palmer will have 250+ yards passing, 1/2 touchdowns and an interception, it's what he does. Despite the pick-six he threw to Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy, he had a pretty solid game. He spread the ball around well, with Michael Floyd, Andre Roberts, Kerry Taylor and Jim Dray sharing the majority of the work on offense, he did a good job of finding the open man, something Cardinals quarterbacks have struggled with since post-Warner.
Aided a lot by the improving play of the offensive line, especially Levi Brown, who has come under question this week, and bounced back well. With a fully-fit Fitzgerald, and the return of athletic tight end Rob Housler expected within the next two weeks, the potential for this offensive system is very high.
The headline of the game for me was the fact the defense managed to shut-out the Lions offense in the second half. Patrick Peterson hadn't been having the best of games covering Calvin Johnson (but who does?) after being torched for two touchdowns in the first half, he rallied in the second half and was able to contain him effectively. Without Calvin Johnson, the Lions offense couldn't operate efficiently.
A big factor in this win was the loss of Reggie Bush for the lions. A knee injury which wasn't serious enough to keep him out of the entire game, but a costly fumble deep in his own half saw him benched for the game. Whether this was the right call or not, I don't know, but they looked very one-dimensional without Bush in the backfield, who can be a factor in both facets on offense.
We saw an interesting new defensive line-up against the Lions. Safety Yeremiah Bell lined up at linebacker for a lot of snaps in the game, allowing for undrafted rookie safety Tony Jefferson to play 50 snaps on defense, and he held his own. He and third round pick Tyrann Mathieu were particularly impressive on defense. Mathieu made six tackles on the day, including a vital tackle on Lions receiver Nate Burleson on fourth down to stop their drive, effectively icing the game. Mathieu and Jefferson (3 tackles on the day) were both capable in coverage, which showed me they are beginning to make that transition to the NFL, and could be key players going forward.
As we saw in the 2011 season, when the team went 8-8, there were a lot of come-from-behind victories/overtime victories. This is a trait we were unable to continue going into 2012, but it appears to be back. Bruce Arians' Colts team last season were the masters of come-from-behind victories last season, and he appears to have instilled that same confidence on this crop of players.
We forgot how to close a game in Week One, conceding a fourth quarter lead of 11 points against the Rams, but this win should bring back the confidence on both sides of the ball. The Cardinals went 61-yards with under five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, using a mixture of different line ups, spreading the ball around to different receivers, making it tough on the defense. This is what we lacked last season, that desire to win, that offensive conviction. It was very pleasing to see Mendenhall pound it in on the goal-line; a tough run after being stifled on the first effort, the second push secured the win. The Cardinals can win through the air and on the ground.
A tough match-up in New Orleans awaits in Week Three, as the Saints are 2-0 and Drew Brees looking as good as ever. After seeing Jared Cook tear it up in Week One, it'll be interesting to see how Todd Bowles and the Cardinals defensive unit try to tackle the problem that is the best tight end in the league in Jimmy Graham. A tough road trip looms on the horizon, but I have every confidence we can grind out a win.