Linebacker Karlos Dansby and the Cardinals stuffed the 49ers most of the game Sunday, but ultimately, they couldn't stop the game-winning drive.
Calais Campbell looked beat.
He slumped in his locker after Sunday's 20-16 loss to the 49ers, towels covering his crucial parts after coming out of the shower while he talked to reporters. On another day, he would have been one of the big stories, the new defensive end who played well and made a big third-down tackle on a crucial late defensive stand to give the Cards a final chance to pull out a win.
That would have been a big story. The defense was still a story, following through on the promise it wasn't that unit that seemed to show holes in the preseason. The Cardinals stonewalled Frank Gore, mostly locked up Shaun Hill (save for one 50-yard bomb) and managed to stop the Niners a couple of times on a short field to force field goals.
But it couldn't be the story, not after a loss. Not after the 49ers collected 80 of their 203 yards on one game-winning touchdown drive while eating up half the fourth quarter.
"Can't take nothing from them," Campbell said, exhausted after battling a 101-degree fever Saturday. "That was a good drive."
Ask the defense, and they would have said the goal was to give up 15 points – because the Cards scored 16. Realistically, though, if Arizona gives up 20 points they should be able to be a playoff team. It should have been enough Sunday, because the Cards did manage 16 and should have had more despite frequent offensive misfires and a gimpy Anquan Boldin.
Hill was sacked four times. Linebackers Gerald Hayes and Chike Okeafor, along with defensive end/tackle Darnell Dockett (I don't know if anyone is really sure what Dockett is these days) seemingly were all over the field. Campbell made big plays. And like coach Ken Whisenhunt said when talking about Campbell, it was hard to single out any one player.
"(The defense) rose to the challenge," Whisenhunt said.
Here's the issue, though. The Cardinals aren't built to be a defense-first team. They are built to score, and have their defense play well enough to win. When the offense is off, it goes deeper than a lack of points on the scoreboard. It leaves an uneasiness that seemed to hover around University of Phoenix Stadium the whole afternoon.
Maybe that was crystallized by quarterback Kurt Warner, who noted everyone is "taking our turn" in making mistakes. Perhaps it will be different when Boldin is healthy again, and Steve Breaston too. Perhaps Warner will slide back into the groove he found in 2008.
It seems clear that the answers aren't easily found though.
"You can't really be surprised," said running back Tim Hightower, who had almost as many catches (12) as he did rushing yards (15) against the 49ers. "I mean, you play how you practice. We've got to get better.
"Every time we took two steps forward, it was like we took one step back. In this league, you can't do that."
So where do the Cardinals stand, now one game down in the standings one game into defending their NFC crown? Safety Adrian Wilson was talking about having a meeting with the team leaders in order to come up with an idea how to regroup. They will play the Jaguars next week, a team similar to the 49ers – about smashmouth offense and physical defense – although they will have to do it across the country in Jacksonville with one of those dreaded East coast road trips.
In a league where an 0-2 start often translates into staying home for the postseason, that's a daunting thought.
But the Cards move on. They have to. There are 15 games left, and any professional worthy of being called a pro better find a way to forget about the failures.
So that's what Dockett was doing shortly after Campbell spoke, pulling on some tennis shoes and talking about the Cards' rematch with the 49ers on "Monday Night Football" and the opportunities that still await his defense and his team.
"This ain't the end of the road," Dockett said. "Even a trash can gets a steak in it every now and then."
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