What Cardinals learned in Gannon's debut: Defense can carry still-developing offense

LANDOVER, Md. -- When Arizona Cardinals quarterback Joshua Dobbs trotted onto the turf at FedEx Field about four minutes into the season opener against the Washington Commanders, he had been a part of the team for just two weeks and three days.

He didn't know he was going to start until this past week.

Sunday wasn’t supposed to be perfect by any stretch for the Cardinals’ offense. And it wasn’t.

“This should be the worst performance we have as an offense,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “In the NFL, you’ve got to peak at the end of the season and peak at the right times, and that happens through practicing the right way.”

There are still 16 more games to determine whether Sunday's 20-16 loss was, indeed, the worst performance of the season. While Dobbs and the rest of the offense figured out who they were as a unit Sunday, the defense had their back.

When outside linebacker Cameron Thomas recovered a fumble and fell into the end zone in the second quarter, he gave the Cardinals the lead and the momentum. Both fizzled out during the fourth quarter of coach Jonathan Gannon’s debut.

For three quarters, though, the defense put the Cardinals on their shoulders -- in part because it had to. Arizona’s front seven was a force, finishing with six sacks of Commanders quarterback Sam Howell from five players, an interception, six quarterback hits, seven passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two recovered fumbles. Outside linebacker Dennis Gardeck had two sacks -- one of which led to Thomas’ touchdown -- and hit Howell three times and forced a fumble.

That type of game, Gannon said, is what he has come to expect from the captain and former undrafted free agent.

Defensive linemen Jonathan Ledbetter, Carlos Watkins and Leki Fotu and outside linebacker Victor Dimukeje each added a sack. The Cardinals knew Howell liked to hold the ball a bit longer than most quarterbacks, Watkins said, so if they could close off his reads and prevent him from scrambling, the front seven had a better chance of getting to him.

As the defense hushed the sellout home crowd in the first three quarters, the offense was slow to find its way.

It didn’t score a touchdown -- forced to settle for field goals the three times out of 11 possessions it crossed midfield. Arizona finished with 210 total yards.

“We left a lot of opportunities out there,” Dobbs said. “We moved the ball at spurts, but you just gotta do better situationally, in the red zone specifically. You work so hard to get down there, you gotta get seven points and that's what the game came down to.

“[The] defense did a phenomenal job of rallying to the ball all day, forcing turnovers, [scored a] big defensive touchdown. So, on offense, we have to finish drives, we gotta score touchdowns, and that starts with me.”

The defense was patient, knowing what the situation was with a new quarterback having never played a competitive game with his new teammates, said outside linebacker Zaven Collins. Dobbs said there weren’t any challenges resulting from Sunday being the first time he played a game with his new team. However, he fumbled twice on center-quarterback exchanges, which Dobbs said are fixable if he stays under center longer. A wet ball from a midgame downpour didn’t help, Dobbs said.

But no one was complaining afterward, said Collins, who had the Cardinals’ lone interception and a fumble recovery.

“You gotta think Josh just got here, what, two weeks ago?” Collins said. “So, I mean, you gotta know. Obviously, we've been working as a unit on defense for a while now, not really too many new faces.

“So, the thing is you just gotta go out there, support them, they're trying to do their best 24/7.”

While the offense tries to find its legs and its identity, the defense can carry the load.

“We're a team, man,” Ledbetter said. “So, we all work together. The defense falls short, then offense goes back and carries us, you know? Offense is making some mistakes, then defense comes to carry the team and it's scratch my back, I scratch yours. ... We're all in this together. We're family.”

When the defense is dominant like it was on Sunday -- holding Howell to just 202 passing yards and a touchdown -- the offense wants to protect the football and try to give the defense longer fields to defend, Dobbs said.

To do that, Arizona needs to keep the ball moving. The Cardinals were 4-of-14 on third downs. Dobbs passed for just 133 yards on 21-of-30.

Despite Dobbs’ struggles -- four of his completions were for negative yards and nine were for less than 10 yards -- he “100 percent” expects to be the quarterback next week when the New York Giants come to Arizona (4:05 p.m. ET, Fox), and beyond.

“I think a huge jump is in store,” Dobbs said. “Just getting out there, getting the flow of the game, right? Getting the flow with the guys, timing, rhythm in the games is always different than practice. Just getting there playing ball can definitely make a huge jump and I expect to make a huge jump, especially situationally.”