The Arizona Cardinals played their best game of the 2018 season in one of the toughest settings all year. On the road at Lambeau Field, in some terrible weather, the Cardinals showed a toughness lacking all season and pulled out a victory. For Arizona, it was a comeback win, and one which showed the promise of what this team could become. After a surprising road win, we take a look at the three factors which spurred the Cardinals on Sunday.
Functional Offensive Line
The Cardinals entered Sunday with Mason Cole as the only lineman left starting from opening day. The rookie center was joined by Will Holden at right tackle, Korey Cunningham at left tackle, Oday Aboushi at left guard, and Colby Gossett at right guard. Mike Iupati started the game at left guard but left with an injury. The Cardinals played the entire fourth quarter with a rookie tackle, guard, and center. Holden was signed to the roster earlier in the week. Aboushi has started in place of Justin Pugh.
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Even with a makeshift offensive line, the Cardinals were able to get the run game going and give quarterback Josh Rosen enough time to make some big plays. Part of the success came from offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich helping out with play-action and staying focused on the run. The Cardinals finished with 182 yards on the ground. The line surrendered just two sacks on the day and allowed the offense to gain more than 300 yards for just the second time all season. Ultimately, when it mattered most, the offensive line did the job and led the way down the field for the game winning field goal.
Redemption for Gonzales
Arizona’s kicking situation has been messy in 2018. The team went with Phil Dawson to start the season but the veteran has battled a hip injury all season. The Cardinals placed Dawson on injured reserve this week, possibly ending his career. In his place, Arizona signed former Sun Devil, Zane Gonzalez. The former Arizona State kicker was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 2017 but was released after 18 games. Cleveland cut Gonzalez after he missed two field goals and two extra point attempts in a 21-18 loss to the Saints.
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The Cardinals signed Gonzalez to their practice squad on November 20th. He was elevated to the 53-man roster earlier this week after Dawson was placed on injured reserve. On Sunday, the young kicker was perfect on both his field goal attempts from 44-yards and two extra point tries. Gonzalez looked calm and focused on his attempts on a cold day at Lambeau Field. After a failed third down pass, the Cardinals turned to Gonzales for his second attempt on the day. Gonzalez split the uprights as he gave Arizona the lead for good at 20-17 with just over 90 seconds left in the game. For the embattled kicker, a perfect day and the game-winning field goal was the perfect cherry on his Sunday.
Defense Does Enough
When playing the Packers, the key to a victory revolves around slowing down quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The future Hall of Fame quarterback has led his team to numerous late game comeback victories and has previously worked his magic against the Cardinals. The most notable of those came in the 2016 playoffs. On Sunday, the Cardinals defense held Rodgers to 233 yards while completing 31 of his 50 attempts. It was the third worst yardage total of the season for Rodgers.
Overall the Packers gained just 325 yards on offense, their second worst output this season. The Arizona defense swarmed to the football and the front seven cancelled out the Green Bay ground game for most of Sunday. A couple of big runs by the Packers padded the yardage total but the Cardinals defense consistently provided no openings for Green Bay runners. The pass rush led by Chandler Jones brought down Rodgers just once on the day but was effective in disrupting the timing of the offense by forcing the quarterback to get rid of the football early. In the end it was the Cardinals defense which bent but did not break and forced the field goal attempt that would sail wide to the right as time expired.
Saving the Season?
The Cardinals went into a tough place and punched the Packers in the mouth. Arizona played its most complete game and was able to finish for the first time all season. Both sides of the football made big plays when it counted and the kicking game came up clutch throughout. The Cardinals move to 3-9 and get further away from the top pick in next April’s draft. For the players and coaching staff the draft is the furthest thing from their minds. Sunday’s victory may have provided the spark needed to finish out what has been a tough 2018 and build towards next season and beyond. If the Cardinals find themselves contending in 2019, they can look back to a cold afternoon in Wisconsin as their rookie quarterback drove down the field behind a makeshift offensive line to set up the game-winning field goal by their much-maligned kicker.