The Arizona Cardinals took a decidedly different strategy into their third preseason contest than the vast majority of NFL teams Sunday. While the third preseason game is typically viewed as an opportunity for starters to get into a rhythm and see their most extensive action before the regular season begins, head coach Bruce Arians wanted to limit the amount of time his first team unit was on the field.
With the Houston Texans playing their starters up to halftime Sunday, the Cardinals couldn't have expected a winning result, but the team would have liked to avoid the type of uncompetitive 34-24 loss it ended up suffering.
Despite sitting stars like Patrick Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald and Tyrann Mathieu against the Texans, the Cardinals still trotted out the majority of their first team offense and defense for the first three series of the contest and emphasized the importance of treating the preparation process for Sunday's game exactly how they would for a regular season game.
With three preseason games down and two weeks remaining until the Cardinals open their 2016 campaign against New England, Arizona still has a few unanswered questions lingering.
1. Arizona's preparations fell short
The Cardinals played their second preseason contest in San Diego last Friday night, which gave Arizona plenty of time to prepare for their third preseason game. Throughout the week, Arians said the Cardinals were treating their preparation process for the matchup with Houston like they would for a regular season contest, as he wanted the team to have at least one opportunity to treat a preseason game like a regular season affair.
Despite its best efforts, Arizona's performance Sunday didn't reflect a strong week of preparation, and created questions regarding some of the team's key personnel. The Cardinals were picked apart through the air by Brock Osweiler and the Texans' receivers, and even struggled with quarterback-running back exchanges in the backfield on handoffs.
Additionally, the Cardinals used an 11-personnel package on all 20 offensive plays the first team unit was in the game, which is surprising considering Arizona has the versatility to flip back and forth seamlessly between 11 and 12-personnel and does so frequently during regular season games. If Arizona is at all concerned about substitutions and keeping opponents off balance, Sunday's game would have been the ideal opportunity for swapping personnel in and out because it had a full week to prepare for various situations.
Instead of maximizing the opportunity, the Cardinals appeared overwhelmed by the Texans throughout the first half and Arians was decidedly upset on the sideline, as his team looked as if it was playing on a short week schedule.
2. The competition at cornerback remains wide open
With Peterson on the sidelines, Justin Bethel and Brandon Williams both had opportunities to seize the starting cornerback job with strong efforts against a deep Houston receiving corps. Unfortunately for both players, neither was particularly effective and the competition to start should continue through the fourth and final preseason game.
Prior to Bethel's return from injury, Williams struggled to demonstrate the necessary ball skills needed from starting cornerbacks in the NFL, and those issues persisted against Houston. Williams has the speed to run with any receiver in the league, but he doesn't consistently adjust to passes in the air and hasn't demonstrated an ability to use his hands in an effective manner.
In his first action of the preseason Sunday, Bethel was challenged by many of the same issues that have hurt Williams so far, as he couldn't get his head around on a Will Fuller V touchdown reception and didn't adjust to passes when he did have good positioning against receivers.
Arians acknowledged that whoever wins the job will be targeted regardless of their skills because of Peterson's ability to take an opposing receiver out of the game, but neither Bethel or Williams has done much to inspire confidence in their skills thus far.
3. Carson Palmer continues to struggle with screen passes
For the second straight week, the Cardinals' quarterback tossed an inexplicable interception that resulted in six points for Arizona's opponent. Against San Diego, Palmer didn't read a blitzing linebacker coming off the edge who tipped a bubble screen pass to himself and returned it for a touchdown, and on Sunday, Houston's John Simon snagged a Palmer screen pass and raced 59 yards to the end zone.
Palmer has never looked at ease throwing screen passes, perhaps because a quarterback isn't making a traditional read and going through extended progressions on these types of plays. Both of Palmer's preseason interceptions on screen passes have been completely avoidable, and Sunday's may have been worse than last Friday's because Simon stood directly in front of Palmer when he threw the pass.
It was essential for Palmer to put more air and touch on the pass intended for tight end Darren Fells on Sunday, and he left the ball short which is the worst thing a quarterback can do on a screen pass. Arians expressed clear frustration with Palmer on the sidelines after the interception, likely because the Cardinals had the screen blocked well and a completion could have resulted in an explosive play for the offense.
4. Brittan Golden puts his stamp on the receiver competition
Over the past three weeks, an injury to Brittan Golden opened up the competition for the Cardinals' sixth receiver competition and Jaxon Shipley and Chris Hubert did their best to upend Golden's stronghold on the sixth receiver spot.
Prior to his injury, Golden was the incumbent as the sixth receiver and the obvious leader in the clubhouse to nab the team's sixth receiver spot this season thanks to his play early in training camp. However, his absence allowed Shipley and Hubert to work with the second team offense during camp, and they made the most of their opportunities.
Hubert has been one of the pleasant surprises of camp for Arizona, but despite snagging an impressive touchdown reception on Sunday, doesn't possess the same ability to run sharp, crisp routes that Golden brings to the table.
Shipley has also made strides in the preseason, and hauled in one of the most acrobatic catches any receiver will make this preseason on a third quarter touchdown. Still, Golden out-shined Shipley on Sunday as well, and regained his status as the odds-on favorite to claim the team's sixth receiver spot on the 53-man roster.
Golden nabbed six receptions for 80 yards against the Texans, and though he didn't record a touchdown, he was the top target for both Drew Stanton and Matt Barkley. While Arizona has been impressed by Shipley and Hubert this preseason, Golden's performance against Houston should help him hang onto his roster spot.
5. The Cardinals need to revamp their special teams units
Whether it's replacing key players or finding new blocking schemes, Arizona needs a special teams shakeup, especially on its return units.
Primary kick and punt returner Andre Ellington is a serviceable return option, but Ellington won't have success if the Cardinals don't provide effective blocks. Houston exposed Arizona's upbacks on its kickoff return unit, as Ellington averaged fewer than 20 yards per return on four kickoff returns.
Thanks to new touchback rules, teams have begun to ask kickers to put more hang time on kickoffs to allow coverage units to pin opponents deep, and Arizona will need to find a solution before starting drives with poor field position becomes a consistent issue.
The special teams struggles extended to Arizona's punt return unit, where the Cardinals returners couldn't find any room to run because of blocking issues. Five of the team's punt returns went for seven yards or less, as Ellington and receiver J.J. Nelson were both swarmed within instants of catching the ball.
Arians and general manager Steve Keim talked openly in the offseason about improving their special teams units, and so far during the preseason, Arizona looks like it still has plenty of work to do.null