Jonathan Stewart and the Panthers rushed for 270 yards against the Cardinals Sunday in a 34-21 win for Carolina.
The Cardinals came into Sunday's game with the No. 1-ranked run defense in the NFL and, according to defensive end Darnell Dockett, knew the Panthers would lean on the running game thanks to the struggles of the Carolina passing attack.
So when DeAngelo Williams busted out a 77-yard run early in the game – by itself topping the 67.5-yards rushing the Cards had been allowing per game – it was a surprise. The 270 rushing yards the Panthers totaled by the end of Carolina's 34-21 upset win just turned out to be painful.
"They had a great gameplan," defensive tackle Bryan Robinson said. "They executed and we didn't.
"I give them a lot of credit … (but) that's what makes it so disappointing. We knew what they were going to do and we couldn't stop it."
The Cardinals had also been one of the top defenses in the league in stopping third-down conversions, something the Panthers overcame by converting all five third downs on their first drive of the game. Carolina's passing game didn't make a big impact, although wide receiver Steve Smith caught cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on a stop-and-go move that led to an easy 50-yard touchdown catch-and-run. The Panthers only had 90 yards passing.
But it was the running game that haunted the Cardinals. Williams finished with 158 yards on 23 carries awhile Jonathan Stewart had 87 yards on 17 carries and two touchdowns.
"As I tell our local (reporters), stats don't really mean much," Panthers coach John Fox said. "I mean, we were number one against the pass and sometimes it just doesn't mean as much as those statistics say."
Dockett said he didn't think the Cardinals were exposed as much as outplayed.
"Just because you have the number-one ranked rushing defense doesn't mean you can just show up," Dockett said. "When you're ranked that high, there's a target on your back."
Quarterback Kurt Warner looked as good as ever on the Cards' first possession, completing all five of his passes in leading his team on an 81-yard touchdown drive.
After that, disaster.
The Cardinals' offense couldn't sustain anything for the rest of the first half, and then – after the Panthers had just scored on the Smith catch for a 21-7 lead – an attempted quick swing pass to Beanie Wells was intercepted by Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers for a 14-yard touchdown.
By the end of the game, Warner had thrown five interceptions and lost a fumble, making for a miserable day despite two touchdown passes. It was a flip-flop of the game Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme had against the Cardinals in the playoffs in January.
"It was one of those things today," Warner said. "A couple balls are tipped and instead of hitting the ground they are picked. The play by Julius Peppers … we went to cut him and it was just an athletic, good football play that he never got cut and he bounced back in the air and picked it for six. It was one of those games.
"They were making plays. I don't think it was necessarily us playing from behind as much as it was they made some plays."
Whisenhunt said it was hard to criticize Warner on a couple of the interceptions because they were tipped, and said he didn't really count the final pick because it came with six seconds left and the game long decided.
"You're not going to win very many games with six offensive turnovers," Whisenhunt said.
Said receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who was held to 66 yards on six catches, "We definitely made it a lot harder on ourselves than we needed to."
BOLDIN SETS MARK BUT RE-INJURES ANKLE
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin had three catches, the second of which giving him the 537th of his career and making him the franchise record-holder by topping the 536 of running back Larry Centers.
The third catch, however, sent Boldin to the sideline. His right ankle, which had already kept him limited in practice the past two weeks, was hit again and he came out of the game early in the third quarter.
"The one issue we had going into the game was if he took a shot to that ankle," Whisenhunt said. "As low of a probability of that happening, it did happen. It's hard when you lose him during the game because you only have so many receivers that are active."
THE HYPHEN GETS A TD
Rookie running back LaRod Stephens-Howling – called by some teammates "Hyphen" – got his first NFL touchdown when he caught a 14-yard swing pass early in the game to tie the game at 7-7.
"It's kind of drowned out by the loss," Stephens-Howling said. But getting in the end zone, it was a play we were practicing all week and we finally executed it."
Stephens-Howling, who also averaged 31.5 yards on four kickoff returns, has been mostly a special teams mainstay. He is often lost in the discussion at running back, where the Cards already have Beanie Wells, Tim Hightower and Jason Wright.
"When somebody says I got a touchdown, a lot of people are going to say it was a kickoff return, because they won't believe I was playing offense," Stephens-Howling said. "But it was good to have a spot in there."
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