Quarterback Matt Leinart tries to escape a sack during Saturday night's 24-0 victory over the Raiders in Oakland. (For a Sunday update, click here).
OAKLAND, Calif. – Saturday morning, hours before the Cardinals played the Raiders in the team's third preseason game, Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said the game wasn't any more important in determining his starting quarterback than other factors.
A few hours later, Matt Leinart struggled mightily, throwing three interceptions in 12 pass attempts and completed just four passes for 24 yards.
In the middle of a sloppy game dominated by the Cardinals' defense, Leinart's ills were the ones in the spotlight of a 24-0 victory against the Raiders at McAfee Coliseum, especially with Kurt Warner waiting to take the No. 1 job himself.
"This is a process and an evaluation over time," Whisenhunt said afterward. "Part of the process is how (Leinart) handles it.
"A big part of it will come from watching the tape. It wasn't all Matt's fault."
It was not a memorable performance, however. Leinart was not available for comment afterward, having left the locker room prior to the media arriving.
"He wasn't feeling it tonight," Warner said. "We've all had those nights when you just don't have it."
Warner downplayed the idea he will benefit from Leinart's poor game and said it was difficult to get a feel for Whisenhunt's process because "I don't know if any of us know what the process is."
"We have to be ready for the season no matter whose number is called," Warner added.
Warner had his own issues on his first drive. He completed a 15-yard pass to Anquan Boldin but then misfired on a couple of attempts to Larry Fitzgerald and Boldin and then fumbled when defensive end Kalimba Edwards knocked the ball loose (the Cardinals recovered).
Warner followed by opening the second half with a touchdown drive, although he needed just one pass -- a picture-perfect strike to Boldin down the sideline for 25 yards – because rookie running back Tim Hightower gained 40 yards rushing, including a 13-yard touchdown run.
It was the third TD in three preseason games for Hightower, who was officially moved to Edgerrin James' backup on the depth chart earlier in the week.
Warner also presided over a touchdown drive on the next possession, although that came simply – two runs by J.J. Arrington, one for four yards, one for 67 and the score. That came with mostly backups in the game, including a freeing block by rookie right tackle Brandon Keith.
That ended Warner's night – he was 2-for-4 for 40 yards -- and began the natural debate.
"I know Matt is down but I'm not worried about Matt's confidence," Whisenhunt said. "I expect Matt … to respond."
Whomever is quarterback will benefit from a running game that could repeat Saturday's showing. The Cardinals piled up 215 yards rushing on 39 carries with four players gaining at least 4.3 yards a tote.
Hightower had 52 yards on 10 carries to go along with Arrington's short-but-productive two-carry stat line.
It was the defense that kept the Cards above water with a 3-0 halftime lead, harassing quarterback JaMarcus Russell all night.
Raiders coach Lane Kiffin had told reporters before the game he wanted his offense to pass often, after Oakland had proven it could run the ball by averaging 236 yards in the first two games. So Russell ran pass plays on each of the eight plays on the Raiders' first drive.
Linebacker Clark Haggans sacked Russell on one play and fellow linebacker Karlos Dansby broke up a fourth-and-8 throw to stall what had been a march to the Arizona 36-yard line.
That was just the beginning of a night in which the defense held the Raiders to 16-of-33 passing for 157 yards and a mere 54 yards rushing on 19 carries. The Cards also had four sacks, countless quarterback pressures and a Karlos Dansby interception.
"It was just a preseason game," safety Adrian Wilson said. "But we showed a lot of character."
Now the Cards wait to see what Leinart shows in light of his difficult evening – and what it means for the team going forward.
It wasn't pretty. But Whisenhunt continued to emphasize it is Leinart's body of work, and the improvements the coaches say Leinart has made over the past year, that will be the ultimate factor.
"Tonight," Whisenhunt said, "doesn't negate any of that."
Contact Darren Urban at firstname.lastname@example.org. Posted 8/23/08.