For the Cardinals, their preseason opener Saturday night against the Chargers was sort of like taking the family to a fantastic new vacation spot you’ve never been before. There was so much to see, so much to do and it was over before they knew it.
The only difference was they didn’t have to leave town to enjoy the experience.
The Cardinals kicked off their exhibition schedule at University of Phoenix Stadium by not only officially ushering in the Steve Wilks era, but welcoming the Arizona debuts of quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen and the return of running back David Johnson. Just like a family getaway, they’ll now have plenty of time to sit back and review how it all went.
For the record, the Cardinals won 24-17 after staving off a furious Chargers’ rally at the end. Arizona leaned on its defense after taking the lead on a 14-yard touchdown pass from undrafted rookie free agent Charles Kanoff to tight end Bryce Williams with 10:06 left to play. The go-ahead touchdown was set up by a 48-yard pass play from Kanoff, the team’s No. 4 quarterback, to rookie wide receiver Jason Tolliver.
The Cardinals were out-gained, 387 yards to 174, but what they allowed they also got back in the form of a penalty parade by the Chargers, who were flagged 15 times for 155 yards. Los Angeles also turned the ball over four times and had a touchdown called back because of clipping.
Overall, Saturday’s game featured about what you would expect. There were some good moments, some awkward ones, and enough other points of interest that surely left Wilks and the rest of his coaching staff wanting to see more.
There was all of that and more the very first time a Cardinals player got to handle the football. Rookie wide receiver Christian Kirk showed his speed and elusiveness by fielding a punt after the Chargers went three and out on the game’s opening series and the former Scottsdale Saguaro standout was in position to return it for a touchdown.
A couple of jukes brought him to the outside with only the punter, Drew Kaser, standing between him and the end zone. The sight must have been too much for Kirk to bear because he stumbled and tripped and went down near the 50-yard line with no one around him.
“It happens,” veteran wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “I mean, I’ve tripped before. It happens.”
Still, it was an impressive 38-yard return and it was a preview of what was to come during the one and only series the Cardinals would see out of Bradford, Johnson and the rest of the first-team offense. It started with back-to-back convincing runs of 14 yards by Johnson, the NFL’s leader in yards from scrimmage two years ago.
That was all Wilks needed to see out of Johnson, who came out and was replaced by rookie Chase Edmonds. The fourth-round pick out of Fordham ran five times for 11 yards, including a tough, 2-yard plunge into the end zone on a fourth-down call for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead for the Cardinals.
“It’s always good to win, even in preseason. Most importantly, it’s good to win at home in front of your fans,” Wilks said. “I thought we came out tonight and had a very explosive play on special teams, which set up a nice drive with the offense on the opening drive. I wanted to come out and establish the run, which we did, and as I said earlier in the week if we had an opportunity to be aggressive, we would, and we did on fourth down.”
Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks, quarterback Josh Rosen, and wide receiver Christian Kirk talk about their preseason win against the Chargers.
Bradford only completed one pass during the drive, a 6-yarder to tight end Ricky Seals-Jones, but he looked confident and well protected by Arizona’s rebuilt offensive line, which also features a rookie in starting center Mason Cole. The Michigan product held up well, seeming to call out all the right protections and handling his blocks and double teams.
The eight-play, 45-yard drive was all the crowd of 61,328 would get to see out of Arizona’s first-team offense, however. Although Wilks had hinted that he wanted to get a bit of an extended look at parts of the unit, specifically the offensive line, he took them all out right after the touchdown.
Unlike Cole, Kirk and Edmonds, Rosen didn’t get to see any work with the first-team offense when he entered the game to a rousing applause with 1:52 remaining in the first quarter. Rosen played the rest of the first half but wasn’t able to generate any scoring drives.
He completed 6 of 13 passes for 41 yards, including a 21-yarder to tight end Gabe Holmes.
“I did some good things, some bad things,” Rosen said, adding when asked if he was surprised he didn’t get to run with the first-team unit at all, “I don’t know, I just when in when they told me to go and I went.”
Wilks said Rosen will get his chance to work with the starters moving forward.
The first-team defense stood its ground during the two series it was allowed to play, allowed only a 45-yard field goal by Caleb Sturgis toward the end of the first quarter. It helped, of course, that the Chargers didn’t play veteran quarterback Philip Rivers or No. 1 wide receiver Keenan Allen. Still, an Arizona defense playing without two injured starting linebackers held its own.
With backups Jeremy Cash and Edmond Robinson filling in for Deone Bucannon (knee) and Josh Bynes (neck), the Cardinals didn’t look depleted. Cash played into the second half and picked up a third-quarter fumble caused by backup cornerback Bene’ Benwikere and returned it for a 12-yard touchdown and a 14-3 lead.
Cash, however, injured his right knee with 5:30 remaining in the third and was carted off the field. Wilks said he wasn’t immediately aware of the severity of the injury.
Meanwhile, there were a handful of players who stood out among the second-team defense, particularly defensive end Cap Capi, who registered three second-half sacks and forced a fumble, and defensive tackle Olsen Pierre, who recorded a sack and recovered a fumble.
Rookie cornerback Chris Campbell was active around the ball and on special teams, his dive toward Sturgis’ feet is likely what made the Chargers’ kicker miss a 41-yard field goal try. Campbell, however, was beat along the sideline on a 47-yard touchdown pass from Geno Smith to Geremy David.
Second-string cornerback Brandon Williams, hoping to challenge Jamar Taylor for the starting role opposite Patrick Peterson, failed to make a tackle that resulted in a 25-yard splash play for the Chargers. He also was flagged twice for pass interference. However, second-year safety Rudy Ford looked impressive with six first-half tackles and rookie safety A.J. Howard had an interception
There are a few things the Cardinals certainly have to clean up before their second preseason game next Friday night in New Orleans against the Saints. One of them is the play of backup center Daniel Munyer, who got the first crack at the No. 2 spot behind Cole. Munyer will need to spend extra time in practice working on his snaps in shotgun situations. He was off target on too many of them while working with Rosen, which didn’t help the rookie QB.
“It always throws you off a little bit because you’re trying to keep your eyes down the field and see the defense,” Wilks said. “So we’ve got to do a much better job there, whoever is at the center position and getting the ball back to him.”
Penalties were also a problem for the Cardinals, who were flagged 11 times for 110 yards. It wasn’t just the new helmet rule that got them in trouble. They were penalized for different infractions on both sides of the ball. Wilks put the blame on himself and the coaching staff, saying they all need to do a better job instructing their players. He also said the team will ask for clarity from the league regarding the helmet rule.
Reach McManaman at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac and listen to him live every Tuesday afternoon between 3-6 on 1580-AM The Fanatic with Roc and Manuch and every Wednesday afternoon between 1-3 on Fox Sports 910-AM on The Freaks with Kenny and Crash.