GLENDALE, Ariz. – The third preseason game is supposed to come closest to representing the real thing.
If so, the San Diego Chargers feel a lot better than they did before, and the Arizona Cardinals have plenty of cause for concern.
After two difficult outings in their first two preseason games, the Chargers put together a solid effort in all three phases in Saturday night's 24-7 victory over the Cardinals.
Arizona, meanwhile, stumbled through a series of mistakes, especially in the first half, and — more significantly — experienced at least one severe injury, maybe more.
"The injuries to me are a little more concerning than the way we played," coach Bruce Arians said. "We can correct the way we played. We can't correct injuries. That's the price you pay in preseason games sometimes."
The biggest injury was to first-round draft pick Jonathan Cooper, the starting left guard who broke his left leg. Arians said that while it's not certain Cooper won't be able to come back at some point this season, it appeared likely he would be lost for the season.
Meanwhile, Chargers new coach Mike McCoy said his team played the way he wants to see it perform week in and week out.
"I think we are headed in the right direction," he said, "but we have a long way to go."
Here are five things we learned from the Chargers-Cardinals game.
1. ARIZONA IS HURTING: The Cardinals have a long list of players injured in the game. Several will need MRIs, Arians said.
The loss of Cooper was particularly devastating. The seventh overall pick in the draft, he had moved almost immediately into the starting line. Now he's gone most of the season, if not all of it.
Daryn Colledge, who moved from left tackle to right to make room for Cooper, could move back to the left side and Paul Fanaika, a surprise in camp, taking over at right guard.
Another worrisome injury is to running back Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall looked good, gaining 47 yards in six attempts, before having to leave the game with an injury to the knee that he had surgery on last year.
"He feels some looseness on his knee, in the operative knee," Arians said. "And he was having a great game, so we'll have to wait and see what the MRI says."
Also injured for Arizona were nose tackle Dan Williams (ankle), tight end D.C. Jefferson (knee), TE Rob Housler (knee), LB Matt Shaughnessy (ankle) and WR Andre Roberts (quadriceps).
2. CHARGERS SPECIAL TEAMS WERE SPECIAL: Kevin Spencer, the highly successful special teams coach for Arizona under Ken Whisenhunt, had a triumphant return to the desert.
The Chargers blocked a punt and a field goal and reeled off a 44-yard punt return.
Darrell Stuckey came through to block Dave Zastudil's punt after the Chargers held Arizona to three-and-out on its first possession.
"Nobody came out to block me down the seam there," Stuckey said, "and I just kind of went through and made the play."
When Arizona was threatening to tie the game at 7-7, Housler dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone and Dan Carpenter set up for a 26-yard field goal. But it was blocked by Kwame Geathers.
3. MATHEWS IS HEALTHY: Ryan Mathews gained over 1,000 yards and made the Pro Bowl two seasons ago. Last year, he was slowed by two broken collarbones and the Chargers ranked near the bottom of the NFL in rushing.
So far in the preseason, Mathews has looked strong.
Against Arizona, he carried 14 times for 57 yards, with a long gain of 18. He scored on a 1-yard touchdown dive at the end of a 92-yard drive that consumed almost seven minutes of the first quarter.
Rookie tackle D.J. Fluker helped clear the way for Mathews.
"The main thing I try to tell everybody is let's be an efficient offense," Fluker said. "Let's beat that team early. We're under the radar right now, so when we come out they're like 'Oh, wow, we didn't expect this from this team.' Hopefully with that mindset we can beat each opponent every play.
Mathews did fumble at the Arizona goal line, but even that play led to a San Diego touchdown.
Which leads us to...
4. A LATERAL CAN BE A BAD IDEA: When Mathews fumbled as he dove toward the goal line, the ball popped far from the line of scrimmage.
Arizona safety Rashad Johnson was the only one close to it, and he rolled on it, but decided to get up and run. So far, so good.
But as he was about to be tackled, he inexplicably decided to lateral back to linebacker Sam Acho, who was just a few steps outside the end zone. Acho caught the ball just as tight end Antonio Gates was zeroing in on him. Gates hit Acho, the ball popped free, and John Phillips grabbed it out of the air and jogged three yards for the San Diego touchdown.
5. CHALLENGES CAN BACKFIRE: McCoy thought he would get a turnover when he challenged an incomplete pass ruling.
Carson Palmer had thrown to Andre Roberts and the ball fell to the ground. But it appeared on replays that Roberts had taken a step or two with the ball before it came loose.
Sure enough, that was the case. But the officials ruled that Roberts, not the Chargers, had recovered at the San Diego 16. Palmer threw a touchdown pass to Michael Floyd on the next play.
AP NFL site: http://pro32.ap.org
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