The Pro Bowl cornerback intercepted Panthers quarterback Cam Newton at the 1-yard-line and weaved his way 43 yards to give the Cards’ offense prime real estate to score before halftime. But within 16 seconds, the Cardinals managed to throw away another opportunity to score when Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer was picked off trying to squeeze a pass to Larry Fitzgerald.
The interception is not what bothered Peterson. The fact that Carolina turned the interception into three points and a 6-3 lead at the break after marching 47 yards in 30 seconds did.
In the locker room, the coaches didn’t need to yell or scream. The players did it themselves.
“I think we all cursed each other out so bad in here,” defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “It was bad. We should never have gave up that three points.”
Usually mild mannered, Peterson wasn’t pleased. He came into the locker room in a fit. That got everybody listening.
“I think that kind of woke everybody up and it was like, ‘OK, that’s it. They’re not going to score no more,’” Dockett said. “We just came out, made some adjustments and played well, man.”
If playing well means sacking Newton four times and intercepting him twice while outscoring the Panthers 19-0 in the second half of a 22-6 victory, then, yes, the Cardinals played well.
They didn’t let Newton run -- at all -- holding him to no rushing yards in the final two quarters. Arizona slowed Newton to just 93 passing yards in the second half, after he threw for 215 in the first. It wasn’t just Newton, however. Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams had just 18 yards in the second half. Fullback Mike Tolbert had three.
“I thought defensively we went out and dominated the second half, but offensively I thought we played good football,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “As a team it might have been our best 30 minutes in a long time. Those are the types of games we’re going to need to keep putting together.
“You can get all them ugly wins or any kind of wins you want, as long as they’re wins I love them. Best birthday present in a long time, that second half of football.”
Last year, the defense was the lifeblood of this team. This year, it’s the heartbeat, which only beat faster and harder this week with the return of linebacker Daryl Washington from a four-game suspension.
And like it has all season, the defense kept the Cardinals in the game. But Sunday was different. The defense wasn’t just holding the Panthers to give the offense a chance to score. The defense was putting the offense in a position to score and to win.
There were the three straight stops on second-, third- and fourth-and-1 from the Cardinals 15 late in the second quarter.
There were the seven sacks, two by Washington, linebacker Karlos Dansby and defensive end Calais Campbell and one by rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu. There were the three interceptions, one each by Peterson, Dansby and Washington.
There was the safety by Campbell in the third.
“That’s where we’re built and that’s the way we want to be,” Arians said. “We want to have a defense that’s dominating and a special teams that are dominating. I thought they both did that, and the offense is just going to continue to grow and learn and get better each week.”
This isn’t a defense that relies on one area. Sunday was the perfect example of that.
Campbell got to Newton twice for sacks, forcing a fumble once that was scooped up by cornerback Antoine Cason and returned to the 9-yard-line. Three players later, the Cardinals tight end Jim Dray scored with 2:28 left to put the game out of reach.
And the linebackers dominated early.
Dansby had two sacks within three plays midway through the first half, leading to a new wave of excitement because of the Dansby-Washington tandem.
“That combination can be scary for a long time to come,” Campbell said.
Then Mathieu came on a blitz and brought down the much larger Newton. The rushing defense was already ranked second in the NFL, but the entire defense proved it’s a one of the preeminent units in football. And it’s not just getting turnovers. Arizona held Carolina to 5-for-12 on third down and 95 yards rushing.
While the offense continues to struggle, the defense carries the team -- but with sturdier and stronger shoulders than it did a year ago. The energy the defense creates is contagious.
“When your defense is creating that momentum for you, creating that spark,” Palmer said, “it rubs off offensively.”
Campbell said: “I think our defense can be very special. But we still made too many mistakes. In the second half, we did what we had to do, made our corrections.
“We could still get better.”