The Arizona Cardinals insisted last week's 23-21 loss to the New England Patriots was behind them, and on Sunday, they backed up their word.
The Cardinals jumped out to a 24-0 halftime advantage and never looked back in a 40-7 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to improve to 1-1 on the season.
Quarterback Carson Palmer led an offense that played mostly mistake-free football and never turned the ball over while recent acquisition Marcus Cooper was the surprise of the day as he notched a pair of interceptions including one he returned for a touchdown.
A week after leaning on running back David Johnson and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald for the bulk of the team's offensive production, the Cardinals once again called on their stars and they rose to the occasion throughout the contest.
Johnson amassed 45 rushing yards and added 98 yards through the air while Fitzgerald paced all Cardinals receivers with a six-catch, 81-yard and one touchdown effort.
1. Marcus Cooper earned a starting spot Sunday
The Cardinals were plagued by cornerback issues throughout the preseason and into week one against New England, and general manager Steve Keim was forced to make a desperation move to acquire Cooper as a depth piece immediately following the preseason. Cooper wasn't a likely candidate to make the Kansas City Chiefs squad, so Keim only needed to part with a conditional draft choice in 2018 to ensure the Cardinals added Cooper.
Though the transaction was hardly celebrated, Cooper's play against Tampa Bay helped Keim look like a genius and should push Cooper into a starting role for the foreseeable future.
Rookie cornerback Brandon Williams earned the start on Sunday opposite of Patrick Peterson, but Cooper came in to replace Williams on the Cardinals' second defensive series. Cooper's impact was felt immediately, as he secured an interception against Jameis Winston that set the Cardinals up with a short field.
In the second half, Tampa Bay incorporated more screen passes into the team's offense, and Cooper interrupted the Buccaneers' game plan by snatching a tipped screen pass out of the air and sprinting 60 yards to the end zone for a touchdown.
Cooper ran stride for stride with Buccaneers' receivers throughout the day, and looked like a far superior option to Williams, who struggled against New England and never looked comfortable during the preseason. The Cardinals believe Williams will eventually develop into a top-flight corner, but he has a long way to go to reach his potential. In the short term, Cooper looks like a capable option who can thrive in a scheme that uses more man coverage than most NFL defenses, and the Cardinals should continue to line him up with the first team defense.
2. David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald are elite
The Cardinals' top two skill position players were unstoppable at various points of Sunday's contest, and it's increasingly difficult to account for both players when Arians utilizes 11-personnel sets, which the Cardinals did throughout the game.
With an extra skill position player like John Brown on the field instead of a second tight end, defenses have to respect Arizona's perimeter speed and can't load the box. While the Buccaneers still did a decent job stopping Johnson's rushing attack, he had no trouble getting open out of the backfield as the Cardinals clearly attempted to isolate him in the passing game against Tampa Bay's linebackers.
Johnson is a weapon in space, and even though some of his routes weren't as crisp as those of a wide receiver, his ability to make plays after the catch troubled Tampa Bay and figures to create problems for opponents in the future.
Fitzgerald, meanwhile, was the obvious No. 1 target for Palmer after serving as the quarterback's go-to option against New England. His second quarter touchdown catch was a textbook example of proper fundamentals and the fluidity with which he plays in the final stages of his career is reminiscent of Tim Duncan.
Fitzgerald has some of the best hands in the history of the league, and his ability to catch anything thrown in his vicinity becomes more impressive with each passing year. The Cardinals love the potential of Brown, fellow wide receiver Jaron Brown and Michael Floyd, but none of them can give Arizona the type of lift Fitzgerald can with his consistency.
3. Carson Palmer was much-improved
Palmer struggled against New England in week one and though he didn't throw any interceptions, he put three balls in jeopardy and hardly took any down the field shots.
Against the Buccaneers, Palmer was comfortable in the pocket, only put one ball in jeopardy, and did an outstanding job working through his progressions and throwing his receivers open. One of the more underrated aspects of playing quarterback is the ability to throw a receiver open with ball placement, and Palmer did that on a number of occasions Sunday, especially with Johnson.
Palmer was 18-for-31 for 308 yards and three touchdowns, all of which came in the first half. Palmer was sacked just once, and was much more decisive with his throws against Tampa Bay than he was against New England.
It's obviously a positive development for Arizona that Palmer looked better Sunday, especially considering he was mildly underwhelming during the preseason and demonstrated a propensity to throw untimely interceptions. Nevertheless, it's important to consider the factors that enabled a performance like this for Palmer.
The Cardinals controlled the game from the middle of the second quarter on, and Palmer had ample time to get rid of the ball on just about every dropback. Without pressure, Palmer had clear passing lanes and plenty of time to work through his progressions, which is going to to enable the success of just about every quarterback in the NFL. Furthermore, Tampa Bay's defense gave up 24 points to Atlanta last week, and the Cardinals' offense is a definite step up for the Buccaneers. Still, few teams will show more coverages and creative pressures than New England, so though Palmer isn't as average as he looked last week, he's probably not going to play as well as he did Sunday each week.
4. Arizona is still struggling to create pressure
The Cardinals only registered two sacks Sunday, and one of them came in garbage time with the game well in hand on a play the Buccaneers elected to take a needless downfield shot.
The team's premier offseason acquisition, Chandler Jones, struggled to generate pressure throughout the first half and only made his impact felt on Tampa Bay's final series. While Jones' late sack will look good in the stat column, it draws attention away from what was a largely underwhelming effort from him and the rest of the Cardinals' defensive front.
Arizona finished 20th in the NFL in sacks last season and the addition of Jones was geared toward amping up the team's pressure, as the Cardinals hoped to pair him on the same side of the defensive line as Calais Campbell to help create mismatches. Through two games, though, Campbell hasn't lived up to expectations as a pass-rusher while Jones hasn't demonstrated the type of consistency the Cardinals will need to make a drastic improvement to their pressure schemes.
One of Jones' biggest issues is his pad level, which is higher than it needs to be far too often. Jones stands up out of his stance at the line of scrimmage, and loses the leverage he can create with his athletic frame against wider-framed offensive tackles. Instead of looking to speed rush around the edge or use his feet to work inside of tackles, he's getting caught up trying to use his hands against players who are simply more efficient and stronger with their hands right now.
Jones has all the potential in the world at outside linebacker and possesses some of the best quick-twitch movements of any pass rushers, but he'll need to improve upon his technique and remain disciplined to maximize his value.
5. Arizona's special teams improved, but not enough
Arians said after last Sunday's game that it's hard to beat a team when you're thoroughly outplayed in one of the three phases of the game, and Arizona was out-classed on special teams by New England.
Against Tampa Bay, the Cardinals made mild improvements, but there weren't enough positive strides to suggest the team's week one errors were an isolated issue.
Punter Drew Butler was called upon six times, and finished with an average of 46.5 yards per punt which is a considerable improvement over last week's effort. Butler's performance was aided by better coverage from gunner Justin Bethel, who missed a pair of special teams tackles last week and drew the ire of Arians.
On a late punt, though, gunner Brandon Williams took a terrible angle toward the Tampa Bay returner and allowed him to break toward the edge and around a handful of other Cardinals players who also took bad routes to the ball carrier en route to a 25-yard return. In a closer game, that's the type of play that can crush a team's momentum, and short fields can be deadly.
A botched snap cost Arizona a clean opportunity at a game-winning field goal last week, and even though Chandler Catanzaro kicked a pair of field goals Sunday, he missed an extra point and his timing looked off throughout the day. That could be a result of rookie long snapper Kameron Canaday's struggles, as Canaday snapped the ball low on a handful of occasions for Butler, the holder.
It wouldn't come as a surprise if Arizona elected to bring in a veteran long snapper within the next few weeks, especially if Canaday's issues continue. The Cardinals can't afford to have meaningful games decided by failed snaps, and though it didn't impact Sunday's game, Arizona knows snapping can't be a lingering problem.