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DEFENSE LEADS CARDS & HALL TO UPSET SAINTS.

The Setup
Since we were about to play the world champs, coming off our second of two 40-burger drubbings (most recently by SD), could just as easily been 0 & 4 as our  current 2 & 2 and were going with an undrafted rookie QB starting his first NFL game, we billed this contest as more like a preseason game where you attempt to define "who you are." Our expectations were low. Our prime concerns were (a) going into Bye Week with some shred of dignity intact, (b) avoiding major injuries and (c) getting past the transition-period all rookie QB's go through before they become good (or at least not tragically bad).

The Bottom Line:
The impossible happened. Cards upset the Saints 30 - 20. If you're a stat person, roaming the post-game numbers, you'd have to come away believing the Saints had predictably trounced the Cardinals. In every single key category, the Saints held a decided edge. Every category but one: The final score. None of our 30 points came from a traditionally-executed offensive play. Two TD's came from fumble recoveries (one ours/one theirs). Another came via a game-sealing Pick 6 by DRC with less than  20-seconds to play. I haven't checked yet, but I'm willing to bet that at least one or two of our FG's came off turnovers as well. How did Max Hall do? Nothing spectacular, but after a shaky start, he hung in there and got the job done - he wasn't perfect, but he managed the offensive side of the win.

Actually, we won this one with the old school combination of (a) safe offense, (b) strong special teams and (c) opportunistic defense that made more big plays than they gave up. (And don't underestimate pinpoint punting of Mr. Inside (the 20) Ben Graham. This team is 3 & 2 (& probably feeling deservedly good about itself) going into Bye Week. 

Game Recap

1st Quarter

  • Cards received. LSH returned the KO to the Saints 45 and almost broke it for a TD. But on the 3rd play from scrimmage (right after a penalty - what's with that?) Hall through into heavy coverage and got picked off. (Uh Oh!). Brees moved NO from the Cardinal 49 to our 13, where the defense stiffened and Carney had to kick a 31-yard FG. Saints 3 - Cardinals 0.

  • On the next Cardinal series, Hall started on his 20 & managed to pick up one first down before the Cards were forced to punt from their own 35. Starting from his own 24, Brees led his team on one of those patented long TD drives (this one using up 11 plays and 5:32). Final play was a TD pass to a wide open Jeremy Schockey (Who had him? Why have we have so much trouble covering TE's). Is this going to be another blow-out? At this rate, we're going to lose by at least 40 - 0. Saints 10 - Cardinals 0.

  • Stephens-Howling to the rescue - this time with a 48 yard KO return which put us at midfield. We ran off two plays to end the quarter.  First Quarter Score: Saints 10 - Cardinals 0.

2nd Quarter

  • The Cards moved to the Saints 9-yard line (mostly due to a 25-yard Hall-to Fitz connection) before a minus-10 sack of Hall moved us back to the NO 19 and we settled for a 37-yard Feely FG.. Four of the final 8 plays of the series.were runs by Beanie. (You had to hope that, despite not punching it in for 6, putting 3 points on the board would serve bolster Hall's confidence a little.  Saints 10 - Cardinals 3.

  • Don't ask me how they did it, but the Saints managed to use up 7 plays and almost 4-minutes to move from their own 20 to their own 27. (A couple of penalties had a lot to do with it). The Cards started their next possession from n their own 24. They used 10 plays to go 17 yards (key derailer was a minus-11 yard sack by Vilma). Saints were kind of cocky during the Cardinal drive, calling a couple of time outs. One of Graham's patented punts out the ball on the NO 1-yard line.  On the first play from scrimmage, Brees was picked off by Paris Lenon at the 4. He returned it to the NO 2.  After a one-yard Beanie run and an incompletion, Hall faded back, scrambled to his left and then headed for the end zone (unfortunately leading with his head). He got lit up by Hargrove and fumbled at the two. Fortunately, he was bailed out by "Levi on the Spot." The Cardinal LT scooped up the ball at the 2 and stumbled into the end zone for a game-tying touchdown. (Who woulda thunk)? Saints 10 - Cardinals 10.

  • 2:19 left til halftime. Starting from his own 28, Brees worked his magic. A 39-yard pass (over Toler) to Devery Henderson put the ball on the Arizona 14, but the Card pass defense held him to 3-straight incompletions, and Carney had to kick another FG. (So OK, we weren't able to go into the lockerroom with a tie, but at least we're not getting blown out either. And you never know). Saints 13 - Cardinals 10.

  • Anderson in for a groggy Hall. Completed a couple of short passes before time ran out. Halftime Score: Saints 13 - Cardinals 10.

3rd Quarter

  • NO received the 2H kickoff (a natural advantage given Brees ability to score at will when he's on his game).  A sack by Haggans was key to holding Saints to 3 & out. Cards started from their own 40 (after a somewhat anemic Morstead punt). Despite a sack/fumble (this time it was Faneca who saved Hall's bacon), a couple of completions to Ben Patrick (one for +11; one for +8) set up a 44-yard Feely FG. (Tied again)! Saints 13 - Cardinals 13.

  • Next NO possession can best be described as "another long drive to nowhere." Starting from their own 28, they used up over 7-minutes of clocktime and 14 plays to get as far as the Cardinal 4-yard line (before a penalty and a Mike Adams minus-2 yard wipeout of Betts in the left flat pushed them back to the Cardinal 11). Carney missed the 29-yard chip shot (wide left - what's with the missed FG's? Is it the garlic on our breath)? Cards took over at our own 20, and Hall completed a couple of nice throws (to Roberts for +14 and Fitz for +8) to end the quarter. We go into the 4Q tied with the unbeatable Saints. Is this for real???  3rd Quarter Score: Saints 13 - Cardinals 13.

4th Quarter

  • A  pretty 17-yard completion to Fitz with a face-mask penalty tacked on moved the ball inside the 20, but we were unable to punch it past the 11. We settled for a Feely 29-yarder to gain the lead (are you kidding me?)  for the first time.  Cardinals 16 - Saints 13.

  • Plenty of time (11:39) Saints starting out on their own 22..  After Washington ate up Betts around LE for minus-one,  Dockett blew up another Betts running play. Fumble! Kerry Rhodes picked it up and rambled in for a 27-yard score that left us tongue-tied. Second Pickup-6 by Rhodes in 2-straight games. (Take that, Antrel!) Ommigosh!  Cards up by 10.  Cardinals 23 - Saints 13.

  • But there's still 10:39 left to play, and we're talking Mr. Magic (Drew Brees) here. But on the fourth play of the series, a Brees pass intended for Shockey was picked off by Greg Toler (Both Toler and nickel-corner Michael Adams had been uncharacteristically aggressive to the ball all afternoon). Cards ball on their own 39: Run...Run...Incomplete Pass on 3rd & 1...Punt (once again pinning the Saints down near their own 10-yard line). 1:30 worth of clock-time used up. 7:24 to play. On 3rd & 1, Joey P and Calais stopped Ivory (on his way to circling left end) for a one-yard loss. 3 & Outsville. Cards got the ball back on their own 28 with 5:09 left. Wiz played it close to his vest with safe runs and short stuff. Three & Out.

  • This time NO got the ball back at their own 20 with 3:25 left to play. Brees was at his most dangerous - A couple of short passes for +8 and +18. An incompletion followed by a short pass for +12 followed by another incompletion followed by a short completion for +7. An incompletion accompanied by a roughness call on Colston put the ball at midfield. What transpired is the kind of thing that gives us bad dreams at night about Drew Brees. 1:55 to go. 3rd & 18 at midfield. Brees fades back to pass. Kerry Rhodes comes flying in on a blitz and someone bounces off of him. Brees lofts a desperation pass to Robert Meacham (who has somehow gotten three whisker-lengths past Michael Adams. Meacham makes a spectacular catch in the end zone. (Here we go again)!  Cardinals 23 - Saints 20.

  • Onside Kicksville. 1:49 on the clock. Carney's pooch comes down in the big soft hands of Larry Fitzgerald.An offsides penalty on NO puts the ball on the Cards' 35.  Two runs by Wells followed by another one of those weird plays. On 3rd & 8 at the NO 33, Hall hits Patrick for a 3-yard pickup, but Patrick fumbles. The ball bounces toward the left sideline but not quite out of bounds. It is then kicked downfield to the NO 25 where Fitz recovers it.

  • But the refs rule the ball down on the 30, and the Cards decide to pooch-punt it instead of risking a blocked FG. Saints take over on their own 9-yard line with 0:24 left (I'm worried - there is still time for Brees to do something spectacular). But on the first play from scrimmage, his pass targeted for Lance Moore was picked off near the right sideline at the 28-yard line by DRC who wove a somewhat dramatic serpentine course en route to a touchdown. (Whew)! Cardinals 30 - Saints 20.

  • Believe it or not (even with just 0:10, I'm still nervous. But the kickoff is retrurned to the NO 39 and Brees concedes defeat by taking a final knee to end the game. Final Score: Cardinals 30 - Saints 20.

"The Problem With Stats"
Check these out and guess who won the game:

  • First Downs: Saints 19 - Cards 12

  • Total Net Offensive Yards: Saints 373 - Cards 194

  • Average Gain Per Offensive Play: Saints 6.0 - Cards 3.4

  • Net Yards Rushing: Saints 85 - Cards 41

  • Average Gain Per Rushing Play: Saints 3.9 - Cards 1.7

  • Average Gain Per Pass Play: Saints 7.2 - Cards 4.6

  • Net Punting Average: Saints 44.7 Cards 36.8

  • Fumbles: NO 1 - Cards 4 (but the Saints lost 1; the Cards lost zero).

  • What the above statistics fail to clearly reveal are (a) Total Turnovers - Saints surrended 3 picks and a fumble/the Cards gave up only one interception. (b) Missed Turnover Opportunities: Saints went 0 for 4 in recovering Cardinal fumbles. (c) Timeliness of plays - Levi Brown turning a fumble into a TD. The Rhodes fumble recovery for a TD. DRC's Pick 6 & the impact of  Toler's pick on field position. Finally,. (d) Field Position in General: 6 of the Saints' 13 drive started from no further than the 20 compared to 2 of the Cardinals' 11 drives. Cards' average starting point was from their own 42 yard line. The average NO starting point ws from their own 23.

Bright Spots

  • The Cards proved that they have enough weapons - if used properly - to beat the best.

  • The win has to do a lot for team confidence and also validates what the coaches and veteran leadership have been telling the players (i.e. as a learning tool, nothing succeeds like success).

  • Max Hall took his learning lumps, but played well enough to help lead his team to victory over the world champs. And don't think for a minute that his return to play after getting dinged right before halftime hasn't helped win the respect of his teammates. True, he got picked off early and was rescued from two costly fumbles, but in the end, he executed a few nifty throws and did little to put his team in a hole.

  • Ben Patrick caught all 5 passes directed to him (sign of a trend with Hall throwing the ball)? - Finally, we're seeing the TE become more a part of our passing offense.

  • Fitz and Hall are finally connecting.  (Fitz caught 7 of 9 for 97 yards). Roberts caught 2 and looked comfortable as our punt returner.

  • It's become pretty clear that LSH is for real.

  • Watching Daryl Washington fly to the ball and eat up RB's in pursuit brought a smile to my face.

  • Card pass defense held Brees to a 69.8 passer rating.

  • Toler is coming along fast - when he and DRC are at their top game, they represent a very formidable corner tandem.

  • Aside from the late freaky TD by Meacham (whom you have to tip your cap to), Michael Adams was an animal out there yesterday - blowing up people on special teams, breaking up passes, blitzing the QB and lighting up ball carriers solo in the enemy backfield.

  • Kerry Rhodes (2 pickup sixes in 2 straight games) is every bit as impactful as was Antrel Rolle (and much smarter too).

  • A-Dub played thru pain during final part of the game - gritty leadership wins games.

  • Our ballhawks picked off 3 passes and pounced on 5 fumbles (4 ours/one theirs'). In the past, our guys have been a half-step late to the ball.

  • Defensively, Rhodes and Washington led the team in total tackles with 6, but more impressive was that 6 other defenders (Adams - 5, J Porter 5 and DRC, Lenon, A Wilson and Rashad Johnson with 4 apiece) had 4 or more tackles.

  • Speaking of Rashad Johnson, #49 is finally emerging as a solid-citizen.

  • Also, it was nice to see Joey Porter more involved in the action.

  • Ben Graham is flat out the best punter in football.

The Dark Side

  • No offensive touchdowns.

  • A big gain for us in the run game yesterday was...like... +5 yards.

  • How much more pounding can a little guy like Hall aborb? Our pass blockers (especially inside) have to do a better job of protecting him . And Hall has to become more adept reading blitzes at presnap, moving his feet, checking down and getting rid of the ball before he gets killed.

  • Why do tight ends get so freakin' wide open against us?

  • The sack-whiff by Kerry Rhodes (that allowed Drew Brees to complete that ridiculous TD pass to a diving Meacham & brought NO to within 3 late in the game) should be cause for concern. If there are any special sack-drills designed to make sure a pass rusher doesn't bounce off the QB, Kerry, Calais and other Cardinal defenders should be required to make them part of their daily regimen.

  • We were fortunate that the Saints didn't have a big physical RB like Snelling pounding us up the middle. This will remain a bone of contention until we prove we can stop those kinds of guys.

Last Word:
You could argue that this is the first game in seven where the Cards performed like a playoff contender. What still remains to be seen is whether the defense can sustain the intensity, discipline and high standard of play each and every week or whether they'll be inclined to relax occasionally and revert to their old ugly ways. If they can play at the same high level (& not rely on some magical "switch" to be turned off or on), you've got to assume that, the more time Max Hall has to get acclimated to his teammates as a starter, the better this team will get from game to game. (Remember, Hall is operating without Breaston and Doucet to go with Fitzgerald. When they return, the Cards figure to be that much better). Not only that, but consider this - the amount of NFL game footage Hall will have to learn from is now at least double what it was just 2 days ago.

Much of the success you see in the pros is a function of the players believing in what the coaches are telling them, and nothing will make them believers faster than success on the field. (Coach Mac used to make a very big deal about how a key win serves to validate all the hard work and discipline put out by the players during preseason, the offseason and between regular season games.  Bye Week has to be a whole lot more enjoyable when you win than when you lose - especially when it's against the Champs. Especially when no one gave you and your rookie QB a chance. Enjoy the win, guys.Savor the moment. Remember what it feels like. And, most important...don't let go!
 
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