Bill Belichick out-coached Bruce Arians, and the Patriots surprised the Arizona Cardinals in a 23-21 victory at University of Phoenix Stadium in the first week of the NFL season.
The Cardinals were thoroughly outplayed on special teams throughout Sunday evening's contest, and when kicker Chandler Catanzaro had an opportunity to kick a go-ahead field goal with less than 40 seconds remaining, a bad snap from rookie long snapper Kameron Canaday cost Arizona a game that on paper, it almost certainly should have won.
Special teams woes doom Arizona
A low snap from Canaday was the defining moment of Arizona's special teams struggles on Sunday night, but the Cardinals played poorly in every special teams phase against New England.
Kickoff returner Andre Ellington looked tentative running the ball out of the end zone, and Arizona had no answer for New England's kickoff coverage unit throughout the night. Even though Ellington consistently caught the ball in the end zone and could have taken a knee for a touchback, he brought the ball out time and time again and finished with an average of 15.3 yards per kick return and a long of 21 yards.
Because of Arizona's lineman-heavy roster, the Cardinals were forced to use rookie center Evan Boehm as a wedge-setter on kick returns where a player like Stepfan Taylor or practice squad signee Ifeanyi Momah could have helped Arizona's blocking scheme. Regardless, Boehm wasn't the only Cardinal who struggled on kickoff return blocks, as Ellington was swarmed inside the 20 on just about every opportunity.
Punter Drew Butler was among the worst in the league last year, and Butler did little to raise his profile on Sunday night. He had a number of first half opportunities where he could have pinned the Patriots inside their own 10-yard line, and came up short on just about every kick as he finished with an average of 36.0 yards per punt. Butler was reportedly visiting with the training staff early in the game, so an injury may have impacted his abilities against New England.
Ultimately, Arizona was fortunate to be in a position to win the game in the end, and it was only fitting that a special teams miscue derailed what would have been considered an important opening week victory.
Mathieu's new role
When CardinalsSource was out at Cardinals' training camp practices this fall, safety Tyrann Mathieu was easing his way back from an ACL injury and playing mostly as a single-high free safety in Arizona's coverage shells. This is a stark contrast to the roles he's filled throughout his career, as he's made a living as an in-the-box assassin who can play nickel corner and mix it up close to the line of scrimmage.
Mathieu insisted his role as a nickel corner wouldn't change this season, but on Sunday, free agent acquisition Tyvon Branch took nearly every snap of the game at nickel corner. The role of a nickel corner is extraordinarily demanding, especially against New England, because receivers have leverage and can run routes in any direction, and it's a role that Mathieu has excelled at in the past.
On Sunday, Mathieu was used in a much more conservative capacity by defensive coordinator James Bettcher, which suggests that either Bettcher is reluctant to lose Mathieu to another injury by having the 5-foot-8 defensive back play up in the box, or that Mathieu still isn't 100 percent and isn't ready to handle the rigors of playing nickel corner.
Either way, Mathieu was effective as a free safety against New England, but he wasn't the dominant, game-changing player teams are accustomed to facing. It was his first game back from his injury, so there's a certain adjustment period we expect, but if the Cardinals plan to use him as a deep safety throughout the season, then Mathieu's role is likely going to be different than even he probably perceived.
Branch draws the hardest assignment
Few roles in football are as challenging as playing nickel corner against a Bill Belichick-coached team, even if Brady isn't playing quarterback. First-time starter Jimmy Garoppolo was outstanding in his execution of the Patriots' game plan, which included quite a few quick slants and quick outs designed to put Branch in a bind.
The Patriots are among the best teams in the league at spatial awareness, and Belichick's attention to detail comes across in just about every facet of the game. To go up against an NFC title game participant in your first career start is no easy task, and because Belichick knew how to target Arizona's defense, Garoppolo enjoyed great success throughout the night.
The good news for Branch? He performed relatively well considering the challenge he faced, and he likely won't face a team that picks on a nickel corner as much as the Patriots do for the rest of the season.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman finished with seven catches for 66 yards, and to some degree, the Cardinals knew the Patriots would have at least mild success picking on Branch because that's what the Patriots do best. New England is as creative as any team in finding ways to put defensive players in a bind, and Branch was the player who drew the hardest assignment on Sunday.
Markus Golden out-performed Chandler Jones
Stats talk, and stat-heads are going to point out that pass rusher Chandler Jones finished with a key fourth quarter sack as well as a fumble recovery against his old team Sunday.
The stats will also say that Jones finished with five tackles, compared to just two for fellow outside linebacker Markus Golden. But part of the reason Jones finished with more tackles is that the Patriots attacked his side of the field more in the run game.
Jones is an elite-level pass rusher who flashed a brilliant spin move on his sack of Garoppolo, but Golden is a more stout run-stopper who consistently holds his ground as a contain defender. Golden earned the first sack of the game for the Cardinals when he raced around the left edge and stripped Garoppolo on the play that resulted in Jones' fumble recovery, but he did his best work as a run defender.
Golden demonstrates great footwork and a sound fundamental technique, whereas Jones is moved off the ball too easily on run plays because he tends to play with a higher pad level. The Patriots were more comfortable using their tackles and tight end to block Jones on stretch plays, and that shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
Fortunately for Arizona, the fact Golden out-performed Jones in our estimation isn't a concern. Both players are excellent outside linebackers who can help the Cardinals' defense improve its pressure statistics from a season ago, while still holding strong against opponents' rushing attacks.
Skill position standouts
Running back David Johnson put to rest any questions about the hype the Cardinals have generated around his skills Sunday with a 16-carry, 89-yard effort against New England.
Johnson is as slippery of a running back as you'll find, which is remarkable considering he has the build of a bruising back and checks in at 225 pounds. Johnson possesses great leg drive, which he showed off in a cutting, spinning and whirling 45-yard run that willed the Cardinals back into the game in the second half. Whenever Arizona needed a jolt on the ground, Johnson seemed to be able to provide it, and it's somewhat surprising he ended up with just 16 rushes.
When the Cardinals needed a lift through the air, they counted on the most dependable player in franchise history. Larry Fitzgerald finished with eight catches for 81 yards and two touchdowns, including a second half reception that should make his Hall of Fame highlight reel. Fitzgerald has some of the best hands and concentration skills of any receiver to ever play the game, and even in his 13th NFL season, there's no doubting the value of his presence in late-game situations.
The Cardinals nearly came from behind to win on Sunday, and if they did, much of the credit and praise would have been heaped on Fitzgerald.
While Johnson and Fitzgerald were outstanding, quarterback Carson Palmer finished a respectable 24-for-37 for 271 yards and two touchdowns. The main reason the Cardinals were still in the game at the end after a lackluster first half was because Palmer didn't turn the ball over. Still, he threw at least three passes that could have been intercepted, and the fact he put the ball in jeopardy so much in such a close game should concern the Cardinals.
Palmer has been interception-prone in his career, and after working with a quarterback guru in Arians for the past few seasons, he turned in the best season of his career in 2015. Not coincidentally, Palmer also tossed just 11 interceptions, which is the lowest total he's ever registered in a season in which he's enjoyed sustained health. If the Cardinals want to rebound from their season-opening loss, they'll need Palmer to be more cautious in his decision-making, especially when he's under pressure.
The trio of Palmer, Johnson and Fitzgerald will be able to win plenty of games for Arizona this season, but on Sunday night, it was too little too late. The Patriots came to town presenting the Cardinals with an opportunity for a marquee victory, and Arizona floundered.
The Cardinals' brass has made it widely known it wants to be taken seriously as a Super Bowl contender this season, and the team has been outspoken in saying it has the pieces in place for a title run. As such, Arizona should be evaluated on the level of championship teams, and Sunday's performance proved the Cardinals have a long way to go in that regard.