NFC West: Arizona Cardinals

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- It wasn't quite the same the injury as Carson Palmer's, but Denver quarterback Peyton Manning has experience dealing with nerves.

Manning
Palmer
Manning lost the 2011 season after surgery to relieve a pinched nerve in his neck. Palmer's nerve issue is in his right throwing shoulder. Different areas but similar situations. Manning struggled to grip a football and throw it during his recovery. Palmer had issues gripping and throwing after the nerve fell asleep, he said.

Palmer has missed the Cardinals' past two games because of a bruised nerve in his right throwing shoulder. Two weeks ago, he talked about the number of treatments he's gone through trying to awaken the nerve. He was excused from Wednesday's practice to see another specialist after the shoulder regressed last week.

Palmer has said he hasn't found anyone with the exact injury who he could consult with, which is likely why he hasn't reached out to Manning. But even though Manning's injury is different, he's open to discussing it with Palmer.

"I have become somewhat a resource for guys who have had those kinds of injuries," Manning said. "I am always willing to talk about it. I have had some other players from other sports that have reached out to me or ‘Greek' (Broncos trainer Steve Antonopulos), the trainer, and talked about what kind of rehab we have done.

"I have not had the chance to talk to Carson. Obviously, I hope he gets back soon, and I'd be more than willing to help anybody that has similar problems."
TEMPE, Ariz. -- When Alex Okafor wakes up in a Denver hotel Sunday, it will have been a year and 13 days since he last played in an NFL game.

That’s about 28 days too long.

[+] EnlargeArizona's Alex Okafor
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinArizona's Alex Okafor hasn't played in a regular-season game since Week 3 of last season.
Okafor tore his biceps in Week 3 last season, ending his rookie year prematurely while simultaneously beginning a recovery that was expected to culminate with “Monday Night Football” in Week 1. This season was supposed to be his breakout year. He showed up to organized team activities and minicamp stronger and trimmer, and it translated into an impressive offseason that had coaches excited. But during the final preseason game against San Diego he tore his quad after getting held by a Chargers’ offensive lineman.

His return was shelved for another month, but after last weekend’s bye, the second-year linebacker out of Texas is finally ready to return.

“It’s just been frustrating being hut since I’ve been here," Okafor said. “I was disappointed but we got the bye week at the perfect time.”

“You can’t sulk in it. You can’t get down on it. I look forward to having an opportunity to help the team out now. I only lost a fourth of the season. It’s not bad. It could be worse.

While coming early in the season, the bye week came at the right time for Arizona to get healthy.

On Monday, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said there would have been at least three players who would’ve missed a game had Arizona played last Sunday.

“I don’t know how many guys would have played last Sunday,” Arians said.

Cornerback Antonio Cromartie was able to heal his bruised knee during the off weekend, even though he insisted he could’ve practiced last week and would’ve played had there been a game. Nine Cardinals were on the last injury report before Arizona hosted San Francisco, including punter Dave Zastudil who hasn’t punted all season. Right guard Paul Fanaika didn’t practice Monday but was back on the field Wednesday.

If Fanaika can’t go, left guard Ted Larsen will shift to the right side and Jonathan Cooper will start at left.

“That’s what I’ve been preparing for,” Cooper said. “I came here to compete and I came here to play, you know what I mean? If he can’t go then I think I am ready. I’m ready to go.”

Sunday could see the return of Zastudil and Okafor, who feels like he’ll be ready to play in Denver. Arizona will need him to support its struggling pass rush. The Cardinals are ranked 18th in passing yards allowed per game and 30th in sacks per pass attempt, a product of just three sacks this season.

Even though he’s missed a month of the season, Okafor said the offseason and training camp was enough preparation so rust won’t be an issue this weekend.

“I’m just trying to pick up where this team’s going,” Okafor said. “Every game is another opportunity to keep getting better and keep improving ourselves. I’m just here trying to ride that train and help the team.”
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Peyton Manning won’t be the only one trying some trickery at the line of scrimmage Sunday in Denver.

The Cardinals defense believes it’s found the key to slowing down Manning and the Broncos’ 10th-ranked passing attack. All it will take is a hat, a fake mustache and a pair of glasses.

“You can disguise some and you can try to disguise as much as you want,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Cromartie
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriAntonio Cromartie has picked off Peyton Manning four times in his career.
“He’s going to find them out sooner or later.”

The arduous task of disguising the coverages, blitzes and schemes well enough to fool Manning will be left up to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who has coached against the quarterback five times, beating him just once.

But Bowles-coached secondaries have figured out something about Manning. They’ve intercepted him seven times while allowing just eight touchdown passes -- never more than two in a game. Bowles’ defenses have allowed Manning to throw for more than 300 yards just twice -- the first time he faced Manning in 2000, which also happened to be Arians’ last season as Manning’s quarterback coach in Indianapolis, and the last time in 2009.

This week, Bowles will have some help.

Arians and assistant head coach Tom Moore might know Manning better than any coaching tandem in the league. Arians spent the first three years of Manning’s career as his position coach and Moore was Manning's offensive coordinator in Indianapolis.

Add in cornerback Antonio Cromartie's experience against Manning, which includes four career interceptions -- three of which came in one game -- cornerback Jerraud Powers' three seasons as Manning’s teammate, and linebacker Larry Foote's four games against Manning, and the Cardinals have a deep well of institutional knowledge to draw from this week.

Cromartie and Foote both said the best way to keep Manning guessing is to line up in the same defensive formation on every play.

Just “holding your disguise, holding it,” Foote said with some emphasis. “You ain’t got to show other stuff but just holding it, that helps. A lot of the time he gets the ball out of his hands so fast. He sees something and he goes.”

For the last week-and-a-half, Cromartie has been instilling in the secondary the importance of not tipping their hands to Manning, who’s nine touchdown passes away from tying Brett Favre’s all-time record of 508. On Monday, fourth-year cornerback Patrick Peterson sounded like a young, eager defensive back that’s never faced Manning.

He was 8-years old when Manning took his first NFL snap, but Peterson has been listening intently to Cromartie and Powers, who was Manning’s teammate with the Colts from 2009-2011.

“Make sure every single coverage is the same so we can make sure that we can get into his head versus him getting into ours,” Peterson said.

But, as many defensive backs have learned over Manning’s 16 seasons, that’s a lot easier said than done.

Holding the disguise in blitzes could be the difference between Manning picking apart the Cardinals’ secondary and Arizona leaving Denver 4-0.

Manning has been blitzed 34 times this season and has thrown on 31 of them, according to ESPN Stats & Information. All three of his sacks have come courtesy of a blitz, but he hasn’t thrown an interception when the rush comes full force. His yards per attempt drops from 8.18 to 5.42 when he’s blitzed, however.

The Cardinals have blitzed on 31.2 percent of their snaps, recording two sacks and two interceptions. Considering how much Arizona relies on bringing five or more rushers, not giving Manning time to adjust his progressions or even the presnap call is critical.

“What he likes to do, he will hold that ball until you got to show it and a lot of times what we did in Pittsburgh was we just, during the week, worked on disguises,” Foote said.

With an extra week to study Arizona’s defense, especially the Cards’ blitzes, Manning needs just one hint to burn the Cardinals.

“You’ll hit him with some new blitzes and then he’ll figure out how to protect them,” Arians said. “That’s what his greatness is, is his cerebralness in the game.”
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Hang out at home and still move up in this week's ESPN NFL Power Rankings?

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Are the Cardinals a top-four team in the NFL?

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    29%
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Discuss (Total votes: 1,482)

The Arizona Cardinals will take it.

Thanks to loss by the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cardinals moved up one spot to fourth, behind No. 1 Seattle, No. 2 Cincinnati and No. 3 Denver -- this week's opponent. It's tough to argue that Arizona belongs among the league's elite teams based on its record but are the Cardinals one of the top four teams in the NFL?

They have a defense that says so but the offense, once believed to be the foundation of the team, has gotten by with a backup quarterback in two of Arizona's three games. If the Cards are winning with Drew Stanton at quarterback and a decimated front seven, imagine how good this team could be when it gets Carson Palmer back, and Frostee Rucker is fully healthy and Alex Okafor back on defense.

Sunday's game against third-ranked Denver will tell Arizona how close it is to being an elite team on the field, not just in the rankings.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- This week would be different for the Arizona Cardinals if almost any other team was next up on the schedule.

But they’re preparing to take their undefeated record to the Rocky Mountains to face the Denver Broncos, the defending AFC champions who are quarterbacked by a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

Foote
If that won’t keep a team’s focus and avoid a hangover after a bye week, nothing will.

“It’s a good thing that we’re playing against Denver because if you’re playing against a team that ain’t doing so well, you’ll be lollygagging into the week,” linebacker Larry Foote said. “But since we’re playing a high opponent at their place, that juice is already going. Guys know it.”

So does Arians, who was Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning’s position coach from 1998-2000 with the Indianapolis Colts. He, along with the rest of football, hasn’t lost track of his former pupil and has watched Manning develop into one of the best ever at the position -- especially at home.

Since 2001, Manning is 76-22 at home -- which includes a 16-2 record in Denver, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“It’s much different playing him at home than on the road,” Arians said.

Foote noticed there was better communication during Monday’s practice, which was Arizona’s first contact since beating San Francisco on Sept. 21.

The Cardinals returned to the field for the first time since Wednesday wearing pads. About midway through practice, Arians had his charges take them off. But that was all the Cardinals needed to get back into the swing.

“Just hit each other,” Arians said. “That’s why we had pads on today. We didn’t have them on last week because we didn’t need to but we’ll have them on twice this week to make sure we’re game ready.”

Some Cardinals took preparations into their own hands.

With the extra week to prepare, Foote began watching film on Denver last week. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie began Monday. The Broncos were also off last weekend so Arizona didn’t have a game to study during the weekend, but it didn’t matter. Arizona’s coaching staff began breaking down film of the Broncos last spring because they didn’t change coordinators and Arians knew Manning wasn’t going to alter the offense much.

It isn’t often that Arizona has been part of a game with hype and build-up, at least this early in the season. The Cardinals weren't going to let a bye week derail what's already been started.

“I’m excited,” Foote said. “We’re geeked up. It’s no secret people are starting to talk about us. We got to keep going.”
Carson Palmer won’t be spending his bye week on a couch.

He has too much throwing to catch up on. He’ll be spending the Arizona Cardinals’ off weekend on a field throwing as part of his rehabilitation from a bruised nerve in his right shoulder, coach Bruce Arians said. Palmer said this week he wants to be ready to return by Wednesday, giving him three days of practice before Arizona heads to Denver. Arians hopes he’s back “firing on all cylinders” by Monday.

Palmer
Palmer hasn’t played since Week 1, but he believes he can play against the Broncos on Oct. 5. If he can’t, backup quarterback Drew Stanton will start his third straight game.

Palmer reportedly began throwing during Tuesday’s practice, but his passing intensified on Wednesday, two days after the nerves in his shoulder began to fire again.

Palmer woke up Monday morning and noticed his shoulder was moving better. There wasn’t a sharp pain or a soothing feeling that indicated the shoulder had improved, he said. It just started working.

"I’ve been told over and over again this is something that just turns back on when the nerve is ready and the swelling is down around the nerve, then all of a sudden the nerve starts to fire,” Palmer said. “I was hoping it’d be sooner rather than later.”

Palmer said his arm felt “great” after Wednesday’s practice, and Arians thought it was getting “better and better.” But Palmer said returning to the point he was at before Week 1 will be a slow process.

“Every day I’m going to throw a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more,” he said.

But Palmer’s return should wait a week. By the time he begins practicing on Monday, three weeks will have passed since Palmer last threw to his teammates during a game.

With Denver coming up next Sunday, his arm and the Cardinals would benefit from an extra week to rest. Playing the Broncos will be the type of measuring stick Arizona needs this early in the season.

At 3-0, the Cardinals are one of the surprises of the early season, but a win over Peyton Manning would establish them as a contender for the foreseeable future. It'll also go far for Arizona’s confidence.

But how effective will Palmer be after the next 11 days of throwing? Will his arm be at full strength? Will he get fatigued easily while working to get his arm back? Too many questions in such a big game, even if it is an interconference battle.

Palmer’s competitive edge won’t back down, that much has been established this season.

While he’ll follow the trainer’s guidelines, Palmer can’t afford to push his arm harder during the next week-and-a-half. There's too much at stake for this team in the long run.

There’s also the results that Stanton has produced. He’s had the Cardinals playing winning football, which is all every quarterback is asked to do. While he’s the established backup on this team, he’s also been productive.

Palmer will have just a few practices next week to get back on the same page with his receivers, running backs and tight ends.

But Arizona needs to look toward December and January. After Denver, the Cardinals play Washington and Oakland in consecutive weeks. Both teams sit in last place in their respective divisions.

And both teams would give Palmer the perfect opportunities to work his arm back into shape after missing three weeks.
No team, especially one that’s on a three-game winning streak, wants to curtail momentum this early in the season, but Arizona doesn't have a choice. And while the Arizona Cardinals hope to continue their winning ways in October, their bye this weekend may be coming at the right time.

The Cardinals will be able to rest a slew of injured players while letting others recover from minor bumps and bruises.

The extra week may be most important for quarterback Carson Palmer, who will have two more weeks without a game to wait for his bruised nerve to fully recover. Running back Andre Ellington will also benefit from the time off, as he continues to recover from a tendon tear in his left foot.

Other Cardinals who could use the extra time to heal from injuries also include defensive tackle Frostee Rucker (calf), tight end Rob Housler (hip), punter Dave Zastudil (groin) and linebacker Larry Foote (shoulder).

“I don’t like them early but this comes at a good time for us because some of the guys are beat up,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.

“We’ll look at our practice. I’m sure we’re not going to go as hard as last year and have a blood-letting practice this week but we’ll wait and see.”

The bye will also give cornerback Antonio Cromartie more time to recover from his bruised knee.

“Bye week is always going to help,” he said. “Bye weeks always help, no matter what kind of injuries you have but bye weeks always help.”

Following the bye week, Arizona has 13 straight weeks of games with just one long weekend included -- a Thursday night game at St. Louis on Dec. 11. The extra time will rejuvenate Arizona for the final two games, against Seattle and San Francisco, but until then, Arizona has a grinding stretch of 11 straight weeks.

With a run like that coming up, quarterback Drew Stanton said there’s more emphasis on getting healthy this weekend.

“These early byes can be a blessing or they can hurt you down the road,” he said. “This is a veteran team and this is a mature team that can take care of their bodies over the break and can really utilize it to help us fine tune some things and get ready for what we hope to be a good season.”

All week leading up to the 49ers game Sunday, Foote kept repeating the same message, according to receiver Michael Floyd: “It’s a lot better to go into a bye week winning than losing,” Foote said.

The repetition worked.

“That all ingrained in our minds and we wanted to make sure we went into the bye with a ‘W,’” Floyd said.

Stanton said neither he nor Palmer had ever been 3-0 heading into a bye week before. But veteran defensive lineman Tommy Kelly said Arizona has to play at the same level next week in order for the first three games to mean something.

“We have to come out of the bye just playing the same way we’re playing going into it,” Kelly said. “And that will really matter.”
TEMPE, Ariz. -- It’s easy to laugh now at the film of Tommy Kelly's blocked field goal.

At the time, however, the Arizona Cardinals weren’t aware of the situation they had just avoided by having nine men on the field for a fourth-quarter field goal attempt by San Francisco kicker Phil Dawson.

Kelly
“When they showed us in the special-teams meeting, I was like, ‘Damn,’” Kelly said. “They could’ve just raised up and ran the ball over there where Pat (Peterson) was at. So, we got lucky. It was our day.”

The Cardinals got away with one.

It would’ve been almost too easy for Niners holder Andy Lee to take the snap and just run left with it. The Cardinals had lined up six of their nine players either in line with or to the right of San Francisco long snapper Kyle Nelson. But the Niners had overloaded the left side of the line, sending five blockers to the left of Nelson, who ended up being responsible for three Cardinals.

“We could’ve done nothing about it,” Kelly said.

“They would’ve trampled Pat P., that’s all that would’ve happened.”

It was Arizona’s 17th blocked field goal since 2008, which leads the NFL.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians wasn’t surprised the Niners didn’t run a fake field goal down 20-14 on fourth-and-17 with 13:40 left in the game -- even though they had the manpower to bulldoze their way for a first down.

“Those points are too critical, especially at that point,” Arians said. “That was going to get it back to a three-point game. We did have our corners out there, but our outside 'backers came off the field.”

Rookie Kareem Martin said he was one of the 'backers Arians was talking about.

It was either impressive or lucky that Kelly was able to get his hand on Dawson’s kick with just nine players on the field. Dan Williams, who was on the field, said he didn’t know the Cardinals were short-handed but said the momentum swing carried Arizona through the rest of its 23-14 win.

Next time, however, the Cardinals will stick to blocking kicks with everyone on the field.

“We’re going to try that with 11 guys next time instead of just nine,” Arians quipped. “We had the right guys in the right spots, we just didn’t have anybody on the outside of it.”

Cardinals offensive snaps: Week 3

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- A look at the Arizona Cardinals' offensive snap counts from Sunday’s 23-14 win over the San Francisco 49ers at University of Phoenix Stadium.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Larry Fitzgerald: 62 of 67
Michael Floyd: 61 of 67
John Brown: 35 of 67
Ted Ginn Jr.: 13 of 67
Jaron Brown: 6 of 67

Recap: John Brown got a couple more snaps this game than he did last week, and that will continue to increase every game as Arizona figures out more ways to utilize his speed. Ginn only played 13 snaps but he was targeted on three of them, two of which were deep passes, so his role is starting to develop.

RUNNING BACKS:

Andre Ellington: 49 of 67
Stepfan Taylor: 14 of 67
Robert Hughes: 9 of 67
Jalen Parmele: 1 of 67

Recap: It looked like Ellington and Taylor teamed up to shoulder the load left over by Jonathan Dwyer's absence. Taylor saw a dramatic increase from his workload in Week 2 and Ellington picked up a few more plays. Parmele, who was signed Thursday, had his only carry come on third down.

TIGHT ENDS:

John Carlson: 51 of 67
Troy Niklas: 27 of 67
Darren Fells: 7 of 67

Recap: Without Rob Housler, who was out with a hip injury, Niklas was called on more. Fells got the start, but he’s still acclimating to the NFL game.

The Film Don't Lie: Cardinals

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
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A weekly look at what the Arizona Cardinals must fix:

Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald has been targeted more in the last two weeks after a firestorm erupted in Week 1, but it hasn’t been enough, especially early in games. The Cardinals are off this week before they travel to Denver in Week 5 to face a Broncos secondary that’s allowed the second-most passing yards per game. Arizona can spend that time working on getting Fitzgerald involved in the game plan earlier. If there was a game to get Fitzgerald involved again, this would be it.

When Fitzgerald is involved in the first-half offense, the Cardinals can move the ball more efficiently and score at a higher clip -- as was evident again in Week 3, when Arizona scored just six points in the first two quarters, when Fitzgerald was targeted just twice. It’s easy to say Fitzgerald is involved in the offense, but when you compare Weeks 2 and 3, the lack of his presence is obvious. Against New York in Week 2, the Cardinals scored 10 points in the first half after targeting Fitzgerald seven times.

During his progressions, Drew Stanton looked Fitzgerald’s way more often than Carson Palmer did in Week 1, but even those were few and far between, a review of the game film proved. Fitzgerald, whose first catch didn’t come until the fourth quarter, when the game was already decided, often drew single coverage underneath in the first half. With deep help over the top, the short routes to Fitzgerald were open in the first half. A few passes to him could’ve opened up the rest of the passing game in the first two quarters.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Throughout Monday, a video of a fight between Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco fans in the upper deck of University of Phoenix Stadium during Sunday’s game went viral.

When Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett saw it, the first thing he did was offer tickets to a man in the video wearing his No. 90 jersey.

The tweet said in part: "Who was the guy in the Dockett jersey in the brawl at the cardinals game??? Contact me I have some tickets for you."

The initial reaction throughout the twittersphere was outrage.

Tweeters thought Dockett was rewarding a man with tickets for fighting. But what they didn’t realize was that the man in the Dockett jersey was trying to break up the fight.

When the brawl, which started in seats about five rows up, ended going down the stairs leading to the concourse, the man in the Dockett jersey can be seen trying to pull brawlers away from each other and then he stops a fan from choking a security guard by throwing a punch or two.

That’s why Dockett was rewarding him.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was asked about Dockett wanting to give the tickets away but without the context that the fan was helping break up the fight, not instigate it. "Beautiful," Arians said with a smirk. "I love it."
TEMPE, Ariz. -- A day after Arizona Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton was rocked while he attempted to slide in the third quarter against the San Francisco 49ers, coach Bruce Arians felt the hit could’ve been worse than it was.

“There’s no doubt he was sliding and that could have ended his career, that hit,” Arians said. “But he’s extremely tough.

Stanton
“Some players don’t wear a mouthpiece and it should be mandatory. That mouthpiece probably saved a concussion.”

It also saved the Cardinals from having to go to third-string quarterback Logan Thomas. After the hit by 49ers linebacker Dan Skuta, Arians asked Stanton how he was feeling. At the time, Arians was trying to determine if he needed to take Stanton out of the game. Thomas began warming up at one point.

“I kept asking him on the headset, ‘You OK? You faking?'” Arians said. “He said, ‘I’m OK.’ He wasn’t faking though. That was a vicious hit that he took.”

Skuta, who was flagged 15 yards for unnecessary roughness after the hit, said he tried to stay as low as he could on the hit.

“I talked to him after the game,” Skuta said of Stanton. “I said, ‘You know I wouldn’t hit you if you were down,’ He said, ‘I know, that’s why I didn’t say anything. I knew it was a bad call.’ That’s what he said.”

The he said-he said debate can rage on. Skuta’s quotes were not available to the Arizona media until after Stanton spoke Sunday afternoon and Stanton wasn’t in the Cardinals’ locker room during availability on Monday.

Regardless of what either player said, the 49ers' penalties cost them. Those 15 yards and another 15 on the ensuing play after a roughing-the-passer penalty on Niners linebacker Patrick Willis put Arizona at the San Francisco 25. Three plays later, Arizona scored the go-ahead touchdown.

“I thought both were really, really good calls,” Arians said. “The second one was on the tape last year sent out by the referees. You can’t lead with the crown of your helmet on a quarterback, so that was a very good call.

“The first one I thought was a cheap shot.”
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton dropped back on second down with just less than seven minutes left in the third quarter Sunday, and with his heels touching the Cardinals 30-yard line, Stanton saw an open running lane ahead of him.

The 30-year-old backup quarterback, who was starting his second straight game, scrambled up the middle. Around the 42, Stanton began his slide with enough time for a defender to avoid making “imminent” contact, which protected him according to NFL rules.

Stanton
When San Francisco linebacker Dan Skuta hit Stanton, who had almost completed his slide, in the neck and head area, it drew a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. The video replay looked like Skuta hit Stanton in the shoulder, but it was close enough to earn a flag.

“I was just like, ‘Really?’” Stanton said after the game. “I saw this guy and this other guy hit me from behind. I went up to Dan and asked him, ‘You’re from Michigan, bro. What’s going on?’ I was talking to him earlier and he was trying to make fun of Michigan State.

“But he went to Grand Valley.”

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians praised Stanton for the slide but wasn’t happy with Skuta’s hit.

“That was a legitimate cheap shot,” Arians said.

Rule 7, section 2, article 1 (d) (1-2) reads: “A defender must pull up when a runner begins a feet-first slide. This does not mean that all contact by a defender is illegal. If a defender has already committed himself, and the contact is unavoidable, it is not a foul unless the defender commits some other act, such as helmet-to-helmet contact or by driving his forearm or shoulder into the head or neck area of the runner.”

Skuta appeared to have already committed his momentum, but he looked far enough away to be able to contort his body in a fashion that would've avoided hitting Stanton above the shoulders.

After the hit, referee Gene Steratore asked Stanton if he was feeling OK.

Sunday was only Stanton’s sixth career start, but Steratore is one of the few referees to officiate one of Stanton’s previous starts, so the two had a prior rapport.

“He’s an awesome guy and he said, ‘Don’t lie to me if you’re not feeling good,’” Stanton recalled. “I said, ‘Gene, I’d never lie to you.’ I knew I was good. I didn’t see him coming, obviously.

“Sometimes it’s better when you don’t see him coming.”

On the next play, Stanton was rocked again when Niners linebacker Patrick Willis hit him as he threw. Willis was flagged for a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty for leading with his helmet, and Stanton was visibly shaken up following the play.

After the game, Stanton joked that’s why he wears pads and a mouth guard.

“I’m lucky I’ve got a really good guy back in Michigan who I get my mouthpieces from,” Stanton said. “They definitely worked today.”

Arians was upset with Stanton for diving headfirst after a 13-yard run with 21 seconds left in the first half. As he was diving, Stanton was hit on the side of the head by Niners defensive back Jimmie Ward. No flag was thrown, but Arians would’ve rather seen Stanton slide. Carson Palmer injured his right shoulder after he took on a safety shoulder first in Week 1.

“He’s tough as nails,” Arians said of Stanton. “I told him I wish he hadn’t gone down headfirst. That one scared me.”
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When a team isn't expecting something from an offense -- which is rare in the NFL -- the first half of Sunday's Arizona Cardinals game is the result.

The San Francisco 49ers came out five wide without two tight ends, spreading Arizona's defense and allowing Colin Kaepernick to run for 45 yards in the half.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Cromartie
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriFrank Gore had just one carry in the second half, allowing the Cardinals defense to capitalize on a 49ers offense that abandoned the run.
"It was a different game plan than we technically prepared for," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "Nobody thought they were going to come out and throw the ball like they did like that. We thought they were going to run the ball [more].

"They came out in five wide and hurry-up and threw the ball short. [Kaepernick] was precise. He was quick. I think that he just played great."

It was basketball on grass, veteran linebacker Larry Foote said, as San Francisco dinked and dunked their way to a 14-6 lead at halftime.

Of Kaepernick's 37 attempts Sunday, 30 were for within 10 yards or less of the line of scrimmage, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Arizona struggled to counter the hurry-up offense. Cornerback Patrick Peterson said the defensive calls came in wrong. At one point, the Cardinals were flagged for having 12 players on the field.

The 49ers' first two drives Sunday each went for 80 yards, ate up more than 8 minutes and resulted in touchdowns. They marched through Arizona's defense at will and while Kaepernick was able to find his lanes in the first half, running nine times for almost 50 yards, he threw 18 times for 116 yards.

That was Foote's introduction to Kaepernick, whom he had never played before then.

"He is that fast," Foote said. "Some guys take a minute to get going. Naw. He was slippery and fast."

At halftime, Arizona adjusted and regrouped.

"We talked about the first five minutes of the third quarter being huge," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "We were down again and we had to make a stop defensively, make some first downs and hopefully get some points offensively, and we were able to get a touchdown. From there, it snowballed."

The Cardinals held the 49ers on their opening drive of the third quarter and scored on the offense's first possession. Arizona began winning first and second down, Campbell said, and it helped that the 49ers went away from the run game. They gave Frank Gore one carry in the second half, abandoning the run just 37 seconds into the half, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Arizona held the 49ers to third-and-long four times in the second half. Two of them led to punts. Another one turned into third-and-23 on a penalty, which resulted in a blocked field goal on fourth down.

"We put pressure on them," Campbell said. "We got a little tighter in press coverage and took away the short throws and made him hold the ball a little longer. We tackled well in the run game and we got them in third and long."

The numbers of the second half told the story. Arizona held San Francisco to 16 rushing yards -- including Kaepernick to 9 -- in the final 30 minutes. The 49ers had to do everything by air but even that wasn't that effective, accounting for just six first of their seven first downs in the second half.

The Cardinals' defense limited the 49ers to one converted third down on 27 second-half plays.

"We [didn't] blink," Foote said. "We just knew on the sideline we need to get them on the ground and play basketball with them.

"Something's brewing in this locker room and hopefully we keep going."
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- John Brown wasn’t supposed to be the Arizona Cardinals receiver with whom Drew Stanton clicked.

That was supposed to be the other Brown.

Jaron Brown and Stanton were automatic during training camp and in the preseason. That’s why Arizona coach Bruce Arians dialed up a deep ball from Stanton to Jaron Brown early in the fourth quarter. Arians, like anyone who watched the two this summer, expected the play to work. Until the ball hit the turf, it looked like the countless other bombs Stanton launched to him during camp.

[+] EnlargeJohn Brown
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriThe chemistry that WR John Brown has built with QB Drew Stanton paid dividends for Arizona on Sunday.
“I know he wants that one back to Jaron because they never miss,” Arians said. “They haven’t missed the entire preseason, and he kind of got a little bit excited with that one.”

Stanton had to settle for rookie John Brown. As it turned out, there could have been worse options. The pair connected for two second-half touchdowns and propelled Arizona past the San Francisco 49ers 23-14 Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium. It was the Cardinals' first win over the 49ers since 2011.

On the first touchdown, Stanton hit Brown cutting through the middle of the Niners’ secondary, almost ignored.

“They just forgot me on [that] play because we had a route coming in, and the cornerback jumped it, and the safety flew all the way, and I was just open down the middle,” said Brown, whose mother, Cassandra, was in the stands from Florida on Sunday.

At that point, Arizona was down 14-13. In his second start since 2010 -- the first coming this past week -- Stanton had a chip on his shoulder. Stanton made his first career start with the Detroit Lions against San Francisco in Week 15 of 2009. He was benched almost seven minutes into the fourth quarter after he threw his third interception. He never forgot that feeling.

“I’ve never been a guy that’s been worried about my stats,” Stanton said. “I think I care much more about a team and about winning, but that one stung me. It’ll test you in this league, and you have to constantly go out there and prove yourself. I feel like a little bit of a weight came off my shoulders today, without a doubt.”

On the next drive Sunday, Stanton got pummeled on consecutive plays. On the first, linebacker Dan Skuta hit Stanton when he began his slide after scrambling. On the next play, Niners linebacker Patrick Willis knocked Stanton with the crown of his helmet. Both plays drew 15-yard penalties and set the Cardinals up for the winning touchdown.

The touchdown pass again went to Brown, this time on a pump fake, but almost to the exact same spot.

“The timing, it’s always perfect, even though I got a lot of work with Carson [Palmer],” Brown said. “I took time out with both of them because I run with the ones and the twos, so it helped me out big time.”

Stanton and Brown’s chemistry was built during camp, when Brown split his time working with the starters and the backups, but Brown has spent most of his time during the season working with Palmer. That helped Brown learn the wrinkles of the offense, from which Stanton reaped the benefits Sunday.

“You almost want to tell him to slow down at times because he runs through zones,” Stanton said. “You’re like, ‘If it’s man, run away from that guy. If it’s zone, then find that zone and stay there.’ He’s getting it, and he understands it, but sometimes he just needs to slow down because the game is fast.”

And it’s not like the two are strangers.

A lot was made earlier this season about Brown’s locker being right next to Palmer’s. But who’s on the other side of Brown? Stanton.

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