GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Washington Redskins and Arizona Cardinals were division rivals for more than three decades, but the history of the series is not bursting with memorable results or moments. Redskins-Cowboys, this is not.
Still, the Redskins did not need a sexy Week 1 matchup to leave the desert wearing smiles.
For starters, their 24-6 win over Arizona on Sunday reversed the trend of four straight losses in season openers under Jay Gruden’s tenure. And quarterback Alex Smith and running back Adrian Peterson put successful team debuts in the books — crucial for both the short-term goal of winning the game and the long-term intention of having a competitive season.
Smith completed 85 percent of his passes in the first half and finished 21-for-30, 255 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Peterson ran for 96 yards and a score and led the team in receiving with 70 yards.
The Redskins out-gained the Cardinals 429 yards to 213, including 182 rushing yards. Washington had possession for 38:08, shut Arizona out for more than three quarters and held star running back David Johnson to 42 total yards.
By halftime, boos rained down from a disappointed crowd at the newly-renamed State Farm Stadium. But the game did not turn out to be a beatdown, as the Redskins got sloppy toward the end when trying to put the game away.
The result wasn’t in doubt at that point, but players believe they have even better football in them.
“It was a good day for defense, but I know guys aren’t satisfied with this,” said linebacker and defensive captain Mason Foster. “I felt like we played good, but we wanted definitely to not give them anything. We felt we had a chance to do it (shut out the Cardinals), so we’re going to go watch (film) and try to get better.”
Still, the Redskins secured a rare Week 1 victory, a good feeling for Gruden — if only because members of the media “kept reminding me all week about the thing, the 0-4 start” in season openers in his Washington career.
“I think any coach has that vision,” he said. “Offensive line, defensive line. That’s what pro football is all about. Your ability to run the ball and stop the run. We’re getting there. We’ve got a long way to go. But I’m happy the way this game ended.”
Washington opened with a steady rushing attack. Peterson passed Marshall Faulk on the career rushing yards list on his first touch and also leapfrogged Jim Brown later in the quarter, moving to 10th all-time. Chris Thompson gained 13 and 14 yards on his first two carries. Even Smith showed off his mobility, earning two first downs with a sneak and a scramble.
After setting that tone on a first drive that didn’t result in points, they found the end zone on their next three. Thompson caught a 13-yard pass in the flat to score on the first play of the second quarter. As the defense caused consecutive three-and-outs, the offense kept chugging. Arizona looked unprepared when the Redskins switched from a run-heavy attack to three straight screen passes for gains of 23, 7 and 18 yards.
Peterson plunged in from one yard out for his first touchdown as a Redskin, with linebacker Ryan Anderson playing the role of fullback. And after a 92-yard drive that lasted just 3:11 — aided by three straight defensive penalties — Smith connected with Jordan Reed on a 4-yard touchdown. Reed twisted and stretched to get the ball past the front-right pylon.
Smith commended Reed — one of several new teammates with whom he shared no preseason game experience — after he said he missed the throw low and away.
“For him to not only make the catch but to have the wherewithal to reach out and get in before he got touched, it was a big-time play there at the end of the half,” Smith said.
Washington’s offense slowed down but chewed up clock in the third quarter, while the defense kept the game in firm control, thanks to Ryan Anderson’s first career sack and a Quinton Dunbar interception. Dunbar had a standout day in the defensive backfield, his first game in the new role as a full-time starting corner. He flew in to break up two passes — including a would-be huge gain for Larry Fitzgerald — before his pick.
“It was a great start for him. Good starting form,” Gruden said. “And I think Fabian (Moreau) did a great job at nickel.”
After three fruitless quarters, the Cardinals strung together a competent drive on offense on the back of backup running back Chase Edmonds. Johnson, who signed a lucrative three-year contract extension Saturday night, punched in Arizona’s first score from the 2-yard line, but Bradford couldn’t complete a fade to the corner for a two-point conversion.
Rookie Christian Kirk broke a 44-yard punt return to set the Cardinals up in scoring range, and they got close to sparking a comeback. But consecutive drops by Johnson and Ricky Seals-Jones on third and fourth downs halted their last real chance.
They did get the ball back, though, on a bizarre play. Peterson gained 52 yards off a quick catch in the flat, but lost the ball in Arizona territory. The Cardinals had time for a few more meek attempts at offense, but Matt Ioannidis put them to bed with a strip-sack in the final seconds.
Arizona’s Steve Wilks, taking the loss in his debut as a head coach, called the Cardinals‘ performance “very disappointing.”
“We had opportunities early and it started with missed tackles and that was just a snowball effect,” Wilks said.
Entering Week 2, the Redskins‘ home opener against the Indianapolis Colts, Washington is 1-0 for the first time since 2012, the middle of the Mike Shanahan era. Maybe 1-0 doesn’t mean much, but fans likely feel as happy as if they’d beaten the Cowboys.
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