Peterson’s Resurgence Helps Cardinals Fly Past Bucs
The Arizona Cardinals found themselves in unfamiliar territory on Sunday. With less than five minutes elapsed from the start of the third quarter, the Cardinals led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by 31 points. The offense had been rolling and the defense had been suffocating. By the end of the game the starters were in victory formation, taking a deep sigh of relief, after surviving a furious Tampa Bay comeback. The win put the Cardinals back in the conversation for a division title and ultimately a playoff spot. Here is a breakdown of what happened and how the Cardinals weathered the storm.
The Adrian Peterson Show
In the preview for Sunday’s game a major point of emphasis was getting newcomer Adrian Peterson on track. Peterson’s acquisition earlier in the week seemed to energize the team and fans ahead of Sunday’s clash. The days leading up to the game, talk focused less on what was broken with the offense or defense, and more about how exciting it would be to see Peterson in an Arizona uniform. To be fair, Peterson did not disappoint on Sunday, running rampant against the Buccaneers defense. The Cardinals offense found balance for the first time all season on Sunday. Peterson carried the football 26 times and finished with 134 yards and two touchdowns. The running back needed just one game in a Cardinals uniform to become the team’s leading rusher this season in addition to becoming the team leader in rushing touchdowns and longest run. Keep in mind that this was the sixth game for the Cardinals.
Peterson broke out quickly against a normally tough Tampa Bay defense. Peterson ran hard and ran angry, often requiring multiple defenders to bring him to the ground. The Cardinals utilized multiple tight end sets, often motioning a tight end to overload one side of the line. One play the Cardinals used multiple times was the “Power O” with a guard and tight end pulling over to the other end to create a hole and seal off the second level of the defense. The return of left tackle D.J. Humphries and left guard Alex Boone provided enough bulk on the left side to do some damage. On both of Peterson’s touchdowns, the Cardinals chose to run behind the left side of the line, with Peterson often going untouched the initial few yards after the hand off. The Cardinals have something interesting moving forward with Peterson. It will be important to replicate the success to keep winning.
Carson Palmer Nearly Flawless
One thing that a dominating run game can do is take away pressure from the quarterback to make big plays. Carson Palmer has been begging for some help on offense and Peterson’s fantastic debut allowed the quarterback to have a clean pocket and clearer throwing lanes downfield. Palmer was perfect in the first quarter, completing his first 14 passes, and finishing the day with an 81.8 percent completion rate. The Cardinals passing game benefitted from Tampa’s inability to stop the run. The defense was forced to add an extra defender into the box, often leaving single coverage on the outside and a run-focused linebacker on an athletic tight end. As a result, Palmer threw three touchdowns, all to open receivers.
The offensive line allowed less pressure on Sunday, giving up two sacks, buoyed by play action and multiple blocker sets. That protection gave Palmer the time needed to pick out his receivers, as exhibited by his completion percentage. This is the Palmer who made the Cardinals title contenders in 2015. This is the Palmer that the Bengals saw coming out of USC as the first overall pick. The main benefactor of a clean Palmer was Larry Fitzgerald. The veteran receiver found single coverage for most of the game and took advantage to a tune of ten receptions for 138 yards and a touchdown. Fitzgerald had a long of 29 yards and ran wild on the Tampa secondary. On Sunday, the passing game was crisp and dangerous, with Palmer leading the way and Larry Fitzgerald playing the star.
Defense Raises Concerns
The early dominance by the offense seemed to fuel the Cardinals defense on Sunday. The defense knocked quarterback Jameis Winston out of the game early in the first quarter. They shut down the Buccaneers’ run game and put the pressure on Winston to deliver. Linebacker Chandler Jones terrorized Winston and later Ryan Fitzpatrick. The lack of time led to errant throws. In his short time on the field, Winston completed five attempts, finishing with a 50 percent completion percentage. Winston left the game due to a shoulder injury and in stepped Fitzpatrick. The Harvard graduate completed 22 of 32 passes for a 68.8 percent completion mark. Fitzpatrick finished with 290 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Fitzpatrick took over with the Bucs already trailing Arizona towards the end of the first quarter. By halftime it was a 24 point deficit and Tampa Bay looked terrible on offense. The second half started and Fitzpatrick threw an interception into double coverage. Then suddenly he looked like a starting caliber quarterback. Fitzpatrick took the ball on the next drive and hit a few big plays before connecting with DeSean Jackson for a four yard touchdown, the first score on the day for Tampa Bay. A few drives later there was a 41 yard completion to Mike Evans which set up a touchdown catch by tight end Cameron Brate. A defensive touchdown and a Doug Martin scoring run put the Buccaneers within 12 points of Arizona. Fitzpatrick then drove Tampa Bay down the field and found Evans again on a deep pass for a score. It was a five point game at that point but the Buccaneers were unable to get possession of the ensuing onside kick.
The Cardinals defense gave up over 400 yards of total offense on Sunday, 346 of those yards through the air. The near collapse by the defense can be traced to the loss of Patrick Peterson at cornerback. Peterson came out of the game midway through the third quarter. From that point on, the Buccaneers scored 27 points, including two of those a result of a long pass or set up by a long pass. With Peterson out of the lineup, the secondary looked lost and struggled against Evans and Jackson. Replacement Tramon Williams got an interception, but that was more due to a poor throw than superb coverage. Justin Bethel became the top corner and was easily beat deep by Evans on a pair of 30-plus yard completions. The loss of Peterson highlighted the weaknesses of the defense.
The second half performance by the defense is a wake up call to James Bettcher and the coaching staff. There is no reason to believe Peterson’s quad injury will keep him out long term. The good news is the offense has found their footing even if just for a game. Next week brings a new challenge and a long flight. And yes, this will be Adrian Peterson’s second visit to London.