TEMPE - A short while after his Arizona Cardinals finished off their first victory of the season Sunday, coach Dennis Green compared it with another of his passions — fishing.
Watching a bass fishing tournament recently, he noticed the fish were easy to see and plentiful for the fisherman, except they wouldn’t bite. His team was like that angler for the first three weeks of the season, close to their goal but unable to reel one in.
“Today we caught our first one,” Green said with a smile, basking in the 34-10 pounding of New Orleans in front of an announced crowd of 28,109 at Sun Devil Stadium. “And it feels pretty good.”
There was little to not feel good about for the Cards (1-3), who posted their largest margin of victory since beating up the Rams, 38-10, Dec. 5, 1993 in Tempe. The struggling offense rushed for 211 yards, and the Cardinals scored nine more points than their first three games combined.
The defense continued its remarkable transformation from a year ago, forcing two more turnovers, allowing just three points and letting the Saints (2-2) past the 50-yard line just twice.
And then there was Emmitt Smith, the 35-year-old running back who had his most memorable game as a Cardinal. Smith ran for 127 yards — the 77th 100-yard game of his career, tying Walter Payton’s all-time mark — and added his first pass attempt in his 15 NFL years. It went for a 21-yard touchdown to fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo.
“He’s got more touchdowns (passing) than I do,” quarterback Josh McCown said. “But I don’t care. As long as we win.”
McCown was better Sunday taking care of the ball, even if he only completed 12 passes for 157 yards. He has now played four games without a TD pass. Not much was needed with Smith and backup Troy Hambrick (79 yards rushing and a touchdown) rolling over the Saints.
The Cardinals also might have found a new right side of their offensive line. In what Green called a pre-planned move, he took out guard Cameron Spikes and tackle Anthony Clement after two series and put Jeremy Bridges and L.J. Shelton at those spots, respectively.
At the time — one quarter into the game — the Saints had outgained the Cardinals, 132 yards to 4. After that, the Cardinals gained 209 yards rushing and outgained New Orleans, 369 to 147.
“We had a good rhythm,” Green said, “so we left them in.”
But Green wouldn’t commit starting jobs to Shelton or Bridges, saying he hadn’t yet thought about it.
But if such changes can help the offense catch up to the Cardinals’ defense, Green might just yet make that push at a .500 season. Arizona was last in the league in rushing defense, giving up more than 180 yards a game. The Saints got just 41.
And the Cardinals seemed to gain control by the end of the first drive, when linebacker James Darling drilled quarterback Aaron Brooks at the Arizona 1 on third-and-goal. The next play, Brooks lost the ball on the snap, the Cardinals recovered the fumble, and the Saints were stunned.
“Every time someone gets in the red zone,” cornerback Duane Starks said, “we expect to stop them now.”
The defense also scored the Cards’ first points, a 35-yard Adrian Wilson fumble return for a touchdown. That was the unit’s first TD, and since New Orleans only got a touchdown on a blocked punt, the Cards’ defense only needs two more scores to match the touchdowns it has surrendered.
“We’ve got to get better,” defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “We can’t get big-headed.”
The Cardinals buried the Saints early in the fourth quarter. Neil Rackers increased the lead to 20-10 when he booted a 33-yard field goal, and after the defense forced a three-and-out on New Orleans, Smith put his exclamation point on the game. His 18-yard reception put the ball in New Orleans territory, and then he burst out for a 29-yard touchdown run to crack the 100-yard mark with a little more than five minutes left.
“To be able to win today,” Smith said, “that’s what really means a lot to me.”
It meant a lot to the Cardinals, who were tired of just being close.
“To be honest, we should have had it already,” Ayanbadejo said. “It felt like a culmination of us grinding and grinding and grinding.
“I can’t see us regressing from here.”