It's hard to imagine that the Cardinals shut out an opponent for just the second time since 1992 (one regular season, one preseason) and the defensive performance wasn't the story of the game. The defense held the Raiders' quarterbacks to less than 50% completion percentage and allowed just 2.9 yards per rush but this game will be remembered for what Matt Leinart couldn't do instead of what the defense did. Here's a quick recap of the highs and lows of the Cardinals' second preseason win:
Defensive Dominance: Those two words aren't normally thrown around in Arizona but that's exactly what the defense did on Saturday. The Raiders had several opportunities to put points on the board but two failed fourth down conversions and a missed field goal preserved the 'goose-egg.' The defense was equally dominant against the run and pass and forced the Raiders offense to six 'three and out' series. They held the Raider passing offense to just 3.0 yards per passing play and pressured the quarterbacks all night finishing with four sacks. Equally dominant was the rushing defense, who allowed just 2.9 yards per rush and not a single run over eight yards. In total they allowed just 165 yards to the Raiders and showed why they expect to be a much better defense in 2008.
Running Game Gaining Ground: The Cardinals finished with over 200 yards on the ground (215 to be exact) and that's quite an accomplishment for a team that finished the 2007 season as one of the worst running teams in the league. They got solid contributions from top to bottom and finished with a 5.5 yards per carry average. They scored two touchdowns on the ground (they only scored 9 in all of 2007) and ripped off several long gains. The longest run of the night was a 67 yarder by J.J. Arrington and Hightower and Chris Vincent each chipped in with a carry over 20 yards. The strong running game also allowed the Cardinals to dominate the time of possession (34:25 to 25:35) for the first time this preseason and it was never more evident than on their first drive of the fourth quarter when they used up over nine minutes of the fifteen minute quarter. It's too early to say that the running game is fixed but it's pretty clear that they should be much improved from last season.
Penalties Just Won't Go Away: After a one game absence the penatly problem re-emerged and it's obvious that Coach Whisenhunt is growing tired of the bone-head penalties. They finished with nine penalties for 65 yards and included everything from encroachment/offsides (4 times), holding (twice), delay of game (twice) and an unnecessary roughness. They also had another penalty that was declined. The tipping point for Whiz came early in the game when Darnell Dockett picked up an unnecessary roughness during the return of Karlos Dansby's interception. Whiz immediately pulled Dockett aside and he watched from the sidelines for the next two defensive series. Sitting guys down on the bench might be the only way to get through to these guys that stupid, selfish penalties will not be tolerated.
Special Teams Still Not Special: Other than Neil Rackers having a good game (one field goal and three extra points) the special teams struggled again this week. Dirk Johnson couldn't duplicate his performance last week (47.7 avg, 41.3 net avg) and his three punts only averaged just 43 yards and ended up with a 37 net yard average. An even bigger problem at the moment seems to be the kickoff coverage which allowed 110 yards on just four returns (27.5 yard avg). Through the first three games of the preseason the coverage units have allowed a 27.7 yard average on kickoff returns and at that rate they'll have to depend on Rackers booting every kickoff into the endzone.
Matt's performance or lack thereof (four completions, three interceptions) will be the storyline of the game but the Cardinals did some things that are very encouraging. If the Cardinals defense and running game perform like this during the regular season (and no I'm not saying that the defense will or can pitch 16 shutouts) this team will be successful regardless of who is lined up under center. So what did you think? Encouraged or is the QB cloud to big to think about anything else?