With quarterback Carson Palmer sidelined with a concussion Thursday night, the Arizona Cardinals were forced to call on backup Drew Stanton to make his 13th career NFL start, and his first since 2014.
While Stanton's 11-for-28 stat line suggests Arizona did little to trouble the San Francisco 49ers through the air, the 10th year NFL veteran played turnover-free football and capitalized on short field situations set up by the Cardinals' defense and special teams unit.
"Yeah we got the momentum going and unfortunately it's one of those things that as an offense, you're waiting to make a play or doing stuff and we got that spark from the defense," Stanton said. "To come out in the second half and get the ball right there was huge and what we were able to do on the ground was phenomenal."
Stanton played extended action during the preseason this year and saw limited time at the end of the Cardinals' blowout win over Tampa Bay and in the fourth quarter of the team's loss to Los Angeles, but Thursday night's game represented an important opportunity for the career backup.
Palmer wasn't cleared to travel with the Cardinals because of his concussion, so Stanton was on his own Thursday night and he said it took time to adjust and play with a comfort level he hasn't been afforded since the eight starts he made after Palmer tore his ACL in 2014.
"I think just throughout the course of that time, you really have to be able to find that rhythm," Stanton said. "I haven't been out there for awhile in a game of this magnitude and at the same time, it's been a two-year break since I was out there and also, like I said, in my mind, seeing the game unfold, it just took a little bit of time to do that because I didn't have the luxury of a full week of practice."
More than half of Stanton's completed passes ended up in the hands of veteran wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who finished the night with six receptions for 81 yards and two touchdowns. Stanton never found a rhythm with any of the Cardinals' secondary options, but his connection with Fitzgerald was a considerable factor in Arizona's success against San Francisco.
"Drew did a great job today of getting us in the right place, of being an inspiration, a real spark plug in the huddle for guys," Fitzgerald said. "Really fed off his energy, he made some great throws and got out of duress a couple of times when things broke down and he was able to extend some plays so he really did a great job of managing the game."
For the fifth straight week, the Cardinals failed to score in the first quarter, remaining the only NFL team that has been held without points in the first quarter of a game this season. The team's offensive struggles carried over into the second quarter, but a key play from Arizona's defense set up Stanton's first scoring drive.
A tipped pass deep in 49ers' territory was snagged out of the air by defensive lineman Calais Campbell, and on the very next play, Stanton hit Fitzgerald on a wide open post corner route to knot the score at 7-7 and give Arizona the life it needed heading into halftime.
"Drew just did a great job of waiting for me to get open, we got the look that we were anticipating," Fitzgerald said. "It was a post-corner route and I did a good job of getting a little separation over the top and Drew put it right on the money for me. He was pinpoint accurate with that throw."
Aside from leaning on Fitzgerald, the Cardinals offense rode the explosive legs of second-year back David Johnson, whose 157 rushing yards on 27 carries represented the most yards by a back in an NFL game this year.
It's challenging for an NFL team to rely on a back to carry the ball so frequently on short rest, but Johnson was up to the occasion Thursday and his two-touchdown effort helped lead the Cardinals to an important 33-21 win.
"Dave (Johnson) is, he's the catalyst, he makes things go offensively," Fitzgerald said. "When he starts getting his groove, teams start coming down in the box, it gives us opportunities to make some plays behind the defense in the passing game. Some of the cuts and some of the things that he's able to do on the field, you just don't see that too often. He's truly a special player and person for that matter."
Even though Stanton completed just 39 percent of his passes, he made sure the Cardinals capitalized on all three situations in which the offense was set up with a short field. Arizona netted a total of 17 points off of three San Francisco turnovers, and that made all the difference in the end.
"I really liked the game plan, it's tough going through walkthrough because you're trying to visualize everything that's going on," Stanton said. "But at the same time, I really liked it and I was on the same page with BA. Once I got the chance to settle down, I was very comfortable."