Cards fly in to Washington for battle of early unbeatens
Both the Washington Redskins and Arizona Cardinals finished rans will find itself in an excellent early position following Sunday's clash between the teams at FedEx Field.
These two participants combined for just 11 wins in thoroughly disappointing 2010 campaigns, but each kicked off this new season on very positive notes last Sunday, with the Redskins vanquishing the NFC East-rival New York Giants by a 28-14 count at home and the Cardinals holding off a young and determined Carolina squad in a 28-21 thriller at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Strong play under center was a key element in those two victories, not to mention a liability for both clubs during last year's downturn. Washington quarterback Rex Grossman, having emerged the winner in a closely-contested camp battle with John Beck, rewarded head coach Mike Shanahan's faith by shredding a depleted Giants defense for 305 yards and two touchdowns last week, while Kevin Kolb's highly-anticipated official Arizona debut turned out to be a smashing success after the ex-Philadelphia Eagle piled up 309 yards and a pair of scores on only 18 completions against the Panthers.
The Cardinals traded away well-regarded cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as well as a second-round choice in the 2012 draft to acquire Kolb's services and shore up a major problem area during last year's 5-11 finish. Arizona quarterbacks averaged a meager 182.6 yards per game through the air in 2010, the second-lowest figure in the NFL, and the group's 60.5 passer rating was also ranked 31st in the league.
Washington was also often ineffective at the position while winning just six times in Shanahan's first year in charge, with Grossman replacing an erratic Donovan McNabb for the final three games in one of the most controversial moves of a season filled with turbulent moments.
The atmosphere appears to be significantly more harmonious for this year's Redskins, who will be seeking the franchise's first 2-0 start since 2007, the same year the Burgundy and Gold last reached the playoffs.
Arizona, meanwhile, will be attempting to win its initial two outings for the first time since its memorable 2008 season, which culminated in the organization's first and only Super Bowl appearance. Reaching that goal will require the Cardinals to defy recent trends, however, as the team has traditionally struggled when visiting the East Coast for early kickoffs and hasn't fared well in trips to Washington over the years.
The Cardinals have left with a loss in each of their last six visits to Landover and haven't won at FedEx Field since a 45-42 decision on Nov. 22, 1998.
Arizona may need a shootout to come on top in this contest as well, as its young secondary was torched for an eye-opening 422 yards by Panthers' rookie Cam Newton last Sunday in the 2011 No. 1 overall pick's first career start.
Kolb was part of two noteworthy trades made by the Cardinals during the offseason, with the team also shipping running back Tim Hightower to the Redskins in late July in exchange for veteran defensive end Vonnie Holliday and a future sixth-round draft choice. The fourth-year pro has emerged as Washington's primary ball-carrier and is coming off a 72-yard, 25-attempt output against the Giants that included a touchdown.
The Redskins hold a 73-44-2 advantage over the Cardinals in a series that dates back to the 1932 season, when the then-Chicago Cardinals first faced the then- Boston Braves. Washington has had the upper hand as of late, winning seven straight times against Arizona that included a 24-17 decision at FedEx Field in 2008. As previously noted, the Cardinals have been dealt six consecutive losses on the road in this set, and last defeated Washington via a 16-15 verdict at Sun Devil Stadium on Nov. 5, 2000.
These two franchises faced one another biannually as members of the NFC East from 1970-2001, but have never met in the postseason despite their longtime history.
Shanahan owns a 4-0 lifetime record against Arizona, with all of those wins taking place during his 14-year tenure with the Denver Broncos from 1995-2008. Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt, a former tight end for the Redskins from 1989-90, is 0-2 against his former team and will be opposing Shanahan for the first time.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
While it may have come against a Carolina team that managed just two wins a year ago, the balance the Cardinals showed on offense in the opener was a very encouraging sight for Whisenhunt. The team got a solid performance from running back Beanie Wells, with the oft-injured third-year pro churning out 90 rushing yards and a touchdown on 18 attempts, while Kolb (309 passing yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) was able to connect on several big plays in a dazzling regular-season intro as a Cardinal. The offseason addition hooked up with slot receiver Early Doucet (3 receptions, 105 yards) for a 70-yard game-tying touchdown early in the fourth quarter, and found tight end Jeff King (2 receptions, 61 yards) for a 48-yard score earlier in the day. Those two are part of a suddenly-formidable Arizona receiving corps that's still headlined by perennial Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald (3 receptions, 62 yards), but brought in quality veteran depth with the over-the-summer signing of accomplished tight end Todd Heap (2 receptions, 40 yards). The Cardinals compiled 394 total yards against the Panthers, a nice upgrade over the lackluster 269.3 yards per game (31st overall) the offense averaged in 2010.
While Kolb's insertion has made Arizona an improved team on offense, a Washington defense that underwent a major offseason renovation displayed notable progress in its first outing of 2011. The Redskins were tough against the run last week, with inside linebackers London Fletcher (8 tackles) and Rocky McIntosh (7 tackles) leading a cast that held the Giants' backfield duo of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs to just 73 yards on 19 carries, while rookies Ryan Kerrigan (5 tackles, 1 INT) and Chris Neild (4 tackles) each made an immediate impact in their first pro games. Kerrigan, the Redskins' first- round selection in last April's draft, intercepted New York's Eli Manning and returned the pick for a tie-breaking touchdown early in the second half, while seventh-rounder Neild came up with two of Washington's four sacks. They're one of a host of newcomers to a unit that ranked 31st in both total defense (389.3 ypg) and against the pass (261.7 ypg), a list that also includes linemen Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen (2 tackles, 1 sack), safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (4 tackles) and cornerback Josh Wilson (5 tackles). The defense will be without one key member for a second straight week, with hard-hitting strong safety LaRon Landry still recovering from hamstring and Achilles' injuries.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
Though Grossman's nine-year career has been wrought with inconsistency, the "Good Rex" certainly showed up in last Sunday's big divisional win, with the veteran showing excellent accuracy and decision-making in completing 21-of-34 passes for 305 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. The Redskins appear to have also done a good job adding talent at the skill positions, with veteran Jabar Gaffney (3 receptions, 1 TD) acquired in a trade with Denver to provide a capable complement to leading receiver Santana Moss (6 receptions, 76 yards) and the versatile Hightower (72 rushing yards, 1 TD, 3 receptions) quickly proving to be a good fit as the new feature back in Shanahan's offense. Washington still has tight end Chris Cooley (2 receptions) around as well, though the two-time Pro Bowl selection has been slowed by a lingering knee injury and taken a back seat to the younger and more athletic Fred Davis in the game plan. The latter made his mark in this past week's victory, hauling in five of his six targets for a team and career-high 105 yards. The Redskins were also impressive in the red zone in the opener, scoring touchdowns on three of their four trips inside the Giants' 20-yard line.
Arizona's defense delivered mixed results in its first foray of 2011. The Cardinals were able to slow down a usually-strong Carolina ground attack, limiting the dangerous combo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to a harmless 56 yards on 19 attempts, while sacking Newton four times on the afternoon. A secondary that's starting a pair of neophytes, rookie Patrick Peterson (5 tackles) and former practice-squad member A.J. Jefferson (4 tackles), at the cornerback positions was burned for several long gainers, however, with the Panthers averaging nearly 18 yards per catch and veteran safety Kerry Rhodes (7 tackles, 1 sack) blowing a coverage that resulted in a 77-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Peterson, the fifth overall pick in this past year's draft, underwent a baptism by fire as well, though the promising youngster did come up huge with an 89-yard punt return midway through the fourth quarter that accounted for the winning points. Second-year linebacker Daryl Washington was the defensive star in the opener, amassing seven tackles, a sack and an interception of Newton, but injured his calf during the calf and is a question mark for Sunday's tilt.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Keep it up. Both Grossman and Kolb were outstanding in Week 1, routinely finding and hitting open receivers while keeping their mistakes to a minimum. Neither quarterback has a long track record of consistency, though, and if either reverts back to some of his old habits of the past, he'll be putting his team in a precarious position. Each appears to have an opportunity to perform well once again this week, however, as Arizona's defense was lit up by a raw rookie last Sunday and the Washington secondary showed some holes as well against the Giants.
Big plays. The Cardinals were able to prevail last week on the strength of three game-changing moments -- Kolb's long touchdown passes to Doucet and King and Peterson's critical punt return. With Arizona's defense still a work in progress, getting more explosion from the offense and special teams would be a big boost.
Wake up. Arizona's history in these conditions isn't good. In the team's two 1 p.m. (et) starts on the East Coast last season, it was dealt a 34-point loss by Atlanta and was bested by the lowly Panthers. Three years ago, when the Cardinals ultimately went to the Super Bowl, they lost five times in the Eastern Time Zone during the regular season by an average margin of 20 points.
The Redskins better passed the early eye test among these two teams, as their victory over a reasonably sound Giants group coming off a 10-win campaign was considerably more impressive than the Cardinals having to scratch and claw their way past a rebuilding Carolina squad that went 2-14 a year ago. Washington's defense also looked like the better of the two outfits, and when adding in Arizona's troubling trend of flopping in early kickoffs on cross- country excursions, the home team seems to be the safer choice here.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Redskins 31, Cardinals 20