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Howard Balzer Avatar
September 26, 2023

They are only three games into their careers, but the Cardinals draft choices are having a huge impact on the way the team is playing and competing in the early stage of the season.

Right tackle Paris Johnson Jr. and cornerback Kei’Trel Clark each played every snap in Sunday’s game against Dallas, while wide receiver Michael Wilson played 67 percent.

Defensive lineman Dante Stills played 41 percent and added 16 on special teams. Outside linebacker BJ Ojulari, who missed the offseason program and part of training camp because of a knee injury, played 19 defensive snaps and 16 on special teams. Linebacker Owen Pappoe was in on 52 percent of the special-teams snaps.

Quarterback Clayton Tune was active, but did not play as the backup to Joshua Dobbs.

After Johnson was drafted sixth overall in April, there was speculation that he might begin his career at left guard with Kelvin Beachum holding down right tackle for another season.

Asked whether that was discussed, line coach Klayton Adams said,I think we wanted to get on the field and see what the best thing was going to be for the group and also what the best thing was going to be for his future as a player. He was pretty natural at tackle immediately and so we wanted to get him in a position where he could grow and develop and that seems to be the best spot for the group.”

After Wilson’s big play late in Sunday’s game, coach Jonathan Gannon said Monday, “His point of attack is really good through the first three weeks. What I love about Mike is when his number is called, he wins. He’s made some big catches for us. The thing that people don’t see is the effort, the blocking, and the different ways we deploy him. He knows three or four positions, which is a lot for a rookie especially in an offense like ours where we’re kind of multiple with different formations, shifts and motions.

“You saw the one block on the explosive. That was a huge play, but he’s done a good job. He’ll continue to do a good job and when his number is called, that’s what I expect from him.”

Asked about Wilson’s growing confidence, Gannon said, “What I see is he knows exactly what to do and he plays faster than the opponent. There’s two parts about playing fast. It’s how fast can you do something and how fast you get to your technique, but your brain has to work before your legs do. He’s a very intelligent person. (That’s) one of the reasons that we loved him when we picked him, and you see that showing up now.”

Wilson explained how his own confidence has multiplied.

He said, “I think from Week 1 or even the preseason games, you can just feel it on tape when a player’s playing more confident. I think that comes with experience. I’m always confident in my game, but it’s just being more comfortable out there and being able to play more faster and more free, because you’re not thinking as much about the playbook, about the speed of the game, about just all the different variables that come in as a rookie.

“That’s the biggest thing I’ve taken strides in is just being more comfortable, playing more free and getting adjusted to the NFL game.”

Clark was on wide receiver CeeDee Lamb a lot Sunday, and Gannon said, “He hung in there. He’s psychologically prepped for being a corner in the NFL. The ball’s going to come to you and when they make plays, because they’re going to make plays, you’ve got to come back, fight and battle. I thought he did a good job of battling. It’ll be a good learning experience for him being one-on-one all day long because we were doing some things with the coverage, but he did a good job.”

General manager Monti Ossenfort and Gannon have stressed since April that the goal was to add quality players, but also those with high character.

“It speaks mountains about the rookie class and to the front office for bringing in like-minded individuals,” Wilson said. Monti and JG said they wanted to build a culture of high-character guys who love football and do things the right way outside of the building, too.

“I think myself — I can name all the guys that are playing right now — but I think we all embody that. I got a lot of love for my rookie class and I think we got some special people and some special personalities in our class and it’s only going to get better from here, because we got the right people in the building who accept nothing but their best and winning.”

More on Monti

Much has been said about Ossenfort’s post-game enthusiasm and coaches have commented about it this week.

Gannon said Monday, “I’ve seen him get fired up a couple of times. You guys probably haven’t seen it, but yeah, he gets mad at me a couple of times. I’ve seen the emotion from him, but that was cool. It was his first win too. He’s directly responsible for everyone in that locker room.”

Asked if he got a shoulder slap or a hug, offensive coordinator Drew Petzing said Tuesday, “I think I got all of the above. It was just kind of a whirlwind. It was awesome to see him excited like that. Obviously, he’s put so much time and effort into everything we do as an organization and was really excited for him and it was fun to be a part of.”

When it was wondered how he celebrated, low-key defensive coordinator Nick Rallis said, “I turned the page pretty quickly because I know this opponent we have coming up (49ers) is a really good opponent. So, obviously celebrated in the locker room, enjoyed that moment and was happy for JG and Monti getting their first win. Happy for the players. It’s good to get that win under our belt, but I showered pretty quickly and I got in the car and I went home and I was ready to start pressing on to the next week.”

It was noted that Ossenfort began his celebration before getting to the locker room and Rallis said he got “a hug, a big hug. Like a dap-up hug (and growled) arrrr, arrrr. He was into it. I love that he was there dappin’ up everybody. You could see he was excited about it. JG probably hid his excitement a little bit more than Monti did, but I was happy to see people in the locker room enthused and juiced up about it.”

Red zone reality

Many NFL games are decided in the red zone and that was surely the case Sunday.

The Cardinals got there two times and scored touchdowns on each for 13 total points. The Cowboys made five trips inside the 20, including four in the second half, but scored one touchdown, two field goals and also 13 points. The difference was keeping them out of the end zone on the second-half field goals, plus stopping Dallas on downs and the late fourth-quarter interception by linebacker Kyzir White.

On that play, quarterback Dak Prescott was throwing to wide receiver Brandin Cooks, but Clark and safety Andre Chachere were also in close proximity to Cooks, even if White hadn’t been there.

The Cowboys ran 20 plays in the red zone for only 57 yards. There were 11 runs for 32 yards, while Prescott was a dreadful 2-for-9 for 25 yards with one touchdown and the interception.

The Cardinals had only six plays in the red zone for 23 yards, but running back James Conner scored on a 5-yard run and Dobbs connected with wide receiver Hollywood Brown on a 2-yard touchdown on third down, three plays after the 69-yard catch and run by Wilson. Dobbs completed all three of his red-zone passes for 17 yards plus the touchdown.

Asked after the game how he felt after that play, Dobbs joked, “Iwas mic’d up, so I’m interested to see what I said on the mic. Hopefully, they cut some stuff out, so my mom doesn’t get mad at me. But, I was pretty fired up. Talk about finish, that was huge. You get all the way down there, you want to make it a two-possession game. You get it that close to the end zone.

“They (Cowboys) did a great job selling out a zero (blitz), but Hollywood did a better job beating his defender across the field. And for me, Hollywood, we know the speed that he has is a foot race, and so just got to make sure he doesn’t outrun the ball. It was a great moment, great moment of finishing, got the momentum back and let our defense go out and be able to play and finish off the game with a two-possession lead.”

Meanwhile, Rallis said, “After one more week of preparation and our preparation going into Dallas, we executed better in the red zone and that was huge from the first two weeks. It wasn’t what you want to be in the red zone.”

The Commanders scored 10 fourth-quarter points in the red zone and then the Giants scored all 31 of their second-half points from there.

Concluded Rallis, “I was pleased with the players and us coaches maybe coached it a little bit better, had a little bit better plan, but the red-zone defense was obviously improved from Week 1 and Week 2.”

A wild ride

Sunday’s game was the one-month anniversary of the Aug. 24 trade that brought Dobbs here from Cleveland and he reflected on his first win in five starts in the NFL while noting the irony that his first start last season was also against the Cowboys.

When asked if he thought late in the game about it being his first victory, he said, “Taking a knee, I did. I just thought about the last 12 months, how crazy they’ve been. Just my NFL football career, right? Like being in Cleveland thinking you’re there for the year, then having to bet on yourself to hope something happens where you get an opportunity to play. Then going to Tennessee, going and playing, not getting the victories, but playing solid enough to get another opportunity. So, it was a tremendous full-circle moment because it feels like yesterday I was getting ready for my first start on a Thursday night against the Dallas Cowboys.

“It was good to take a moment to enjoy it, right? But as we say, tomorrow is a new day. Next Sunday is a new opportunity. The same thing I said when I stood up here last Sunday and said, ‘Each Sunday is independent of each other’ is going to happen next week. We got another tough opponent, so we’ll enjoy it for the night. I’ll enjoy the moment, but tomorrow, get back to work, see how we can improve and get ready for next week.”

From the Dallas perspective

Cowboys All-Pro defender Micah Parsons had one sack in the game, but wasn’t the game-wrecker he can often be.

He first negated the Cardinals contribution to their loss when he said, “The last two weeks we were on fire, and today, we came out, and we got lit. That’s the reality of football. You look across the league, it happened to a couple teams. We got to treat every team like it’s the Super Bowl, and we’ve got to play up to our standard. We can’t play down to a team. I feel like that what’s we did today.”


However, when asked how the Cardinals went after him, Parsons got more real when he said, “A lot of slide protection. If you look at the game, and true drop-back rushes, I think I was doing what I usually do. The ball was coming out fast as you expect. But it’s just a game where it never came into our favor and it never came to where (Dobbs) had to drop back and think he had to make the big throw or things like that. It was always he could do whatever he wanted to, the playbook was open. It’s hard to play against when you’re playing from behind with a slow start and that’s just the reality of football.”

Then, there was the huge decision by the officials to pick up a potential pass interference penalty on Cardinals cornerback Marco Wilson near the back of the end zone in the fourth quarter. The score was 28-16 with 5:25 to play when quarterback Dak Prescott threw to wide receiver Michael Gallup on second-and-1 from the Arizona 18-yard line.

Wilson had his back to the ball when he plowed into Gallup before the pass arrived and a penalty flag flew. A conference ensued and officials determined it wasn’t interference. Had the flag stood, the Cowboys would have had a first down at the 1-yard line. Six plays later, linebacker Kyzir White intercepted Prescott in the end zone with 3:00 remaining to essentially preserve the victory.

Gallup said, “When you come into somebody else’s house, you know you’re going to play against the refs and the other team regardless. Of course, we’re the Dallas Cowboys, so you ain’t going to get those calls. That was a tough one. He didn’t play the ball. He never turned around. It is what is. Like I said, you’re playing against both of them. You just got to overcome.”

He was probably right about the decision, but not that somehow the Cardinals get calls at home. After all, a Cowboys defensive player appeared to be in the neutral zone on Parsons’ sack and outside linebacker Zaven Collins had to leave the game after being poked in the eye (hands to the face?) by Cowboys left tackle Chuma Edoga, who was playing instead of the injured Tyron Smith.

Snap chats

Collins left the game on the first possession of the second half with an eye injury and inside linebacker Krys Barnes suffered a hand injury in the fourth quarter. Barnes has started the last two games after Josh Woods injured an ankle in Week 1. At the end of last week, Gannon said Woods is trending in a good direction.

Collins played only 30 percent of the snaps, while Barnes played 72 percent and had seven tackles (six unassisted) and two passes defensed. Ezekiel Turner replaced him and played 15 percent of the defensive snaps and added 76 percent on special teams.

Gannon said Collins got poked in the eye and added, “Just like on the D-Line, you know you’re down a guy in the rotation. Some other guys stepped up. I thought that the entire room played pretty well, but he’s doing OK right now. It was kind of a fluke; he gets jabbed in the eye. I walked out there, and it didn’t look great honestly. I think he’s checking out OK.”

At left guard, Elijah Wilkinson was replaced by waiver claim Trystan Colon on two of the team’s nine possessions despite speculation that Wilkinson was benched. Wilkinson played 47 snaps (77 percent) and Colon 14 (23 percent).

Gannon said Monday, “We just wanted to get Colon in the game a little bit. I thought Elijah played really well. When Colon came in, he did a good job. We’re always looking to tinker with different groups and people and trying to help our guys out (while) also playing guys that are going to need to be up and playing. That’s a part of it too, but I thought they both did a good job.”

The quotebook

Gannon on whether players buying in is more validation for the Dallas win: “Honestly, I don’t think wins and losses validate what you’re doing on a daily basis. Obviously, it’s a production business so you’ve got to win games, but that team has been bought in with their heads held high in losing on the road in Week 1. Week 2, a game we felt we should have won. They kept their chins up and went back to work. That’s what we’ve got to do this week because we’ve got a good football team going to San Francisco.”

Former Patriots safety Devin McCourty, an analyst on NBC’s Football Night America, on the Cardinals: “Arizona’s buying in. Jonathan Gannonis coming in here, guys are thinking, ‘You’re telling us a lot of things. You’re trading players, getting rid of guys, who’s our quarterback? We don’t know. And look at us here; now we’re dancing at the back of the end zone.’”

Charting the snaps (snaps/percentage; starters in bold)

*Indicates player that did not play from scrimmage, but participated on special teams

OFFENSE (61 snaps, 18 players)

Quarterbacks: Joshua Dobbs (61/100)

Did not play: Clayton Tune

Reserve/physically unable to perform: Kyler Murray (eligible to return after Week 4)

Running backs: James Conner (39/64), Emari Demercado (11/18), Keaontay Ingram (9/15), FB Jesse Luketa (2/3)

Wide receivers: Marquise Brown (58/95), Michael Wilson (41/67), Rondale Moore (33/54), Zach Pascal (14/23)

Did not play: *Greg Dortch

Tight ends: Zach Ertz (36/59, Geoff Swaim (32/52), Trey McBride (30/49)

Inactive: Elijah Higgins

Offensive linemen: LT D.J. Humphries (61/100), C Hjalte Froholdt (61/100), RG Will Hernandez (61/100), RT Paris Johnson Jr. (61/100), LG Elijah Wilkinson (47/77), LG Trystan Colon (14/23)

Did not play: C/G *Keith Ismael, T Kelvin Beachum

Inactive: T Carter O’Donnell, T/G Ilm Manning

Reserve/injured, eligible to return: G Dennis Daley (after Week 4)

DEFENSE (81 snaps, 20 players)

Defensive linemen: DE Jonathan Ledbetter (50/62), NT Kevin Strong Jr. (43/53), NT Leki Fotu (42/52), DE Dante Stills(33/41), DE Ben Stille (27/33)

Reserve/injured, eligible to return: DE L.J. Collier (after Week 5), DE Carlos Watkins (eligible to return after Week 6)

Linebackers: ILB Kyzir White (81/100), ILB Krys Barnes (58/72; injured), OLB Victor Dimukeje (45/56), OLB Dennis Gardeck (35/43),OLB Cameron Thomas (35/43), OLB Zaven Collins (24/30; injured), OLB Jesse Luketa (18/22), OLB BJ Ojulari (15/19), ILB Ezekiel Turner (12/15)

Did not play: *ILB Owen Pappoe

Inactive: ILB Josh Woods (injured)

Reserve/injured, eligible to return: OLB Myjai Sanders (eligible to return after Week 4)

Defensive backs: S K’Von Wallace (81/100), CB Marco Wilson (81/100), CB Kei’Trel Clark (81/100), S Jalen Thompson (80/99), S Andre Chachere (49/60), CB Antonio Hamilton Sr. (1/1)

Did not play: CB *Christian Matthew, CB *Kris Boyd, S *Qwuantrezz Knight

Inactive: CB Starling Thomas V

Reserve/injured: S Budda Baker (eligible to return after Week 6)

Reserve/non-football injury, eligible to return: CB Garrett Williams

SPECIAL TEAMS (25 snaps, 31 players)

LB Ezekiel Turner (19/76), CB Christian Matthew (19/76), LB Jesse Luketa (17/68), CB Antonio Hamilton Sr. (17/68), WR Zach Pascal (15/60), LB Victor Dimukeje (15/60), CB Kris Boyd (15/60), TE Geoff Swaim (13/52), LB Owen Pappoe (13/52), K Matt Prater (12/48), P Nolan Cooney (8/32), LS Aaron Brewer (8/32), TE Trey McBride (8/32), RS Greg Dortch (7/28), RB Emari Demercado (7/28), G Elijah Wilkinson (6/24), C Hjalte Froholdt (6/24), G Will Hernandez (6/24), T Paris Johnson Jr. (6/24), C/G Trystan Colon (6/24), C/G Keith Ismael (6/24), LB Dennis Gardeck (6/24), LB Cameron Thomas (6/24), S Andre Chachere (6/24), S Qwuantrezz Knight (6/24), LB Krys Barnes (5/20), DE Jonathan Ledbetter (4/16), DE Dante Stills (4/16), LB BJ Ojulari (4/16), CB Marco Wilson (4/16), LB Kyzir White (1/4)

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com. Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD

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