GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 11: Steve Smith #89 of the Carolina Panthers runs away from Daryl Washington #58 of the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL season opening game at the University of Phoenix Stadium on September 11, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. Arizona won 28-21. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
The Arizona Cardinals defense got lit up by rookie QB Cam Newton. How they react will say a lot about how this season goes.
The Arizona Cardinals defense has a lot of room for improvement. They made Cam Newton look like a passing savant instead of the raw and running "athlete" that many predicted he would be. They gave up the third most total yards of any NFL team in Week 1. They made mistakes. They want to get better. But will they?
The first thing we need to do here is put this all in perspective. Yes, the Cardinals gave up 477 total yards to a team that had two wins last season and was led by a rookie quarterback. It's worth noting that the Packers also gave up 477 yards and the two teams worse were the Dolphins and Patriots.
Around the NFL defense was an issue in Week 1. The Steelers gave up 385 yards. The Jets 390. These are the (supposedly) best defensive teams in the league. There was an average of 368 total yards allowed in Week 1. That's up from 336 per game for last season.
Head coach Ken Whisenhunt talked about how few reps the defensive unit has had together with the lockout stealing over 1,000 practice plays. It's an excuse we heard in more places than Arizona.
If you are looking for positives in the numbers, the Cardinals did only allow 21 points which was better than the 23.5 league average. Run defense was 10th best in the NFL as well and the schemes did a good job containing Newton and preventing him from breaking plays with his feet.
You can look at game like this and take it two ways. If you have low expectations for your season, you are happy with the win. If you expect to be competitive team, you are happy to get away with the win and are focused on what went wrong.
The second is how the Cardinals are looking at things.
"Obviously, happy to get out of that game with a win yesterday," Whisenhunt said before spending most of his press conference time focused on what went wrong. "We gave up too much yardage (Sunday)...That was not so much about effort, it was about mistakes, not playing it the right way."
Whisenhunt called out the the 77-yard touch down play from Newton to Steve Smith early in the game. On that play the Cardinals brought a corner blitz leaving coverage for Smith to the two safeties who were supposed to bracket him with Kerry Rhodes underneath and Adrian Wilson over the top. As you can see here, that didn't happen. Wilson blew the assignment and should have at least been in position to prevent a touchdown on the play.
Part of that is Wilson having not played in any preseason games, but his coach wouldn't put all the blame on him.
"I'm not pointing the finger at Adrian, but he was definitely part of that. There were a lot of those guys, especially in the back end, that weren't playing our coverages the right way or not making the correct adjustments."
There were a couple of other big plays the Panthers made where the coverage was solid but their receivers just jumped up and grabbed the ball over the defender. It's painful, but you almost have to live with that. Other teams are going to make plays too.
But according to Whisenhunt the devil's in the details, "We had too many plays like that down the field where we made mistakes. We're playing on the wrong side. We're playing on the outside of guy and we're supposed to be playing inside."
The Cardinals are relying on two young cornerbacks in Patrick Peterson and A.J. Jefferson to pick up a lot of the load with the various blitz packages. Both did well at times but both also have work to do on their technique and getting their "eyes right".
Jefferson acknowledges the added pressure the system puts on him and Peterson but sees it as a positive.
"It also puts pressure on the quarterback to get the ball out faster so it's easier for us, a shorter amount of time to cover. Cam Newton running around making the play longer, that puts pressure on us. It's good as far as the (secondary) goes if the front seven is putting pressure on the quarterback."
The Cardinals had four sacks, four pressures and two interceptions (one reversed) in the game. Time will tell if Newton is as good as he looked against the Cardinals, but he certainly showed he could make passes down the field with touch and he read the blitz well and avoided pressure.
How well Newton plays in the coming weeks will say a lot about the Cardinals defense, but in the mean time the focus in Arizona is on getting better.
"We've got to a better job sticking with our guys or playing smart in our zones or in our man coverage techniques in order not to allow some of the easy plays they made," Whisenhunt stated...again.