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It's Groundhog Day again for Arizona Cardinals

Howard Balzer Avatar
December 25, 2023
Arizona Cardinals

“Every week.”

That was the response by coach Jonathan Gannon following his opening statement after the Arizona Cardinals Christmas Eve 27-16 loss to the Bears in Chicago Sunday.

There was no Christmas miracle (save for the 52-degree temperatures at game time). Nope. Just more of what we’ve seen all season from a team that is simply undermanned and unable to play consistent ball against more talented rosters.

For the record, Gannon first said, “Battled through some things. You start the game down 21-0; it’s tough to dig back. But I do think that we fought back and got playing better. I thought special teams made a lot of impactful plays. Defense started to get some stops. Offense got some points there. Cut it to a one-score game. Just didn’t have enough in the tank. But appreciate their fight.”

When the first question stated the obvious (“Been a lot of the same kind of story, you play hard, but you’re saying the same thing every week.”), Gannon said, “Every week.”

Is that getting old for you?

“Not at all,” he said. “Because it’s the truth. I know they fight, I know they battle, I know they prepare the right way. You get down 21-0, we didn’t stop them really. The play extension I thought killed us. We’ve just got to start a little bit faster on offense, generate some first downs and score some points. Come out like that, I didn’t think we were flat, but I just thought we didn’t execute at a high enough level.”

Quarterback Kyler Murray agreed with the Groundhog Day feel to the season (actor Bill Murray from that movie is a Chicago guy) when he said, “Just lack of execution. We’ve just got to be better, and you know, it’s kind of like a theme this whole season.”

It sure is. But that shouldn’t be a surprise considering the overall talent on the field. It was thin entering the season and has gotten worse with injury attrition, especially on defense.

As Murray added, “I felt like we made plays here and there, whether it was me or any of us out there on the offense.”

That’s also true on defense. Lack of consistency is usually traced to what coaches often privately say, “There’s are just better than ours.”

Overall, the Cardinals have had 75 players participate in games and 52 have started at least one. Only 13 have played all 15 games and two are kicker Matt Prater and long snapper Aaron Brewer.

On defense, the opening-week starters were defensive linemen L.J. Collier, Leki Fotu and Jonathan Ledbetter; linebackers Kyzir White, Josh Woods, Zaven Collins and Victor Dimukeje; cornerbacks Marco Wilson and Kei’Trel Clark; and safeties Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson.

Collier, Fotu, White and Woods are on reserve/injured, while Wilson and Clark were benched. Ledbetter suffered a knee injury Sunday and Dimukeje was inactive because of a foot injury.

With White and Woods missing, Krys Barnes, who relayed the defensive calls, missed one snap because of an injury, while rookie Owen Pappoe started and played 35 (50 percent) and Tyreek-Maddox Williams played five (seven percent).

Cornerbacks Antonio Hamilton Sr. and Star Thomas V each played all 70 snaps.

The outside linebackers like Dimukeje share snaps and several have started games: Collins 15 (the only defensive player to start every game); Dimukeje and Dennis Gardeck six; and Cameron Thomas three.

However, the production has been solid at best and no pass rusher has defensive coordinators losing sleep in game preparation.

Gardeck had one sack Sunday, which was credited on a play where quarterback Justin Fields had no gain, but that counts as a sack. The group has a season total of 18.5 and against the Bears they combined for nine tackles (seven unassisted).

Dec 24, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) dances along the sideline to stay in bounds and pick up a first down in the second half against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

Fields rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown on nine attempts and had a 32-yard third-quarter run negated by a holding penalty. That infraction was something Fields said he warned his linemen about.

Asked the key to his production, Fields said, “Just extending plays. Last week they (the Browns) did a lot of drop-eight stuff, so we were kind of expecting some of that stuff. But they don’t have as fast of (pass rushers), so I knew I would be able to extend plays and stuff like that. I think that’s really it.

“I told the O-linemen, like, we don’t have to hold. If I break free, they are not as fast as Myles (Garrett) and the guys we played last week.”

Still, the Bears jumped to that 21-0 lead without explosives from Fields. He did score the team’s first touchdown on a 3-yard run, but the damage on those possessions came courtesy of running back Khalil Herbert and tight end Cole Kmet.

Herbert had three runs of 10 yards or more, including an 11-yard touchdown, while Kmet had 102 yards on three receptions. He didn’t play in the second half because of a knee injury.

Chicago’s first six third downs averaged 2.5 yards to go, while two Cardinals possessions were stymied by third-down plays needing 14 and 15 yards. Later in the game, there were third downs with 18 yards needed and two with 10.

Chicago’s three touchdown drives totaled 215 yards on 25 plays, while the Cardinals’ had 15 plays on their first three possessions for 36 yards.

On first down, which has been an issue all season, the Cardinals had minus-5 yards on their first four plays while the Bears were 9-for-95. Herbert had 62 yards rushing in the first half on eight attempts (7.8 average).

Fields said, “In the first quarter, we were dominating the run game. I felt like after I toss the ball or hand the ball out, Khalil had a lot of space to run. There were like highways out there. I think the Cardinals; they adjusted well in the second half, and there weren’t as many big gaps as there were in the first half.”

However, while the Bears had 168 yards in the second half after totaling 252 in the first two quarters, Fields rushed for 65 yards on five runs in the final two quarters.

Said Gannon, “The play extension hurt us in pass downs with him. And we know he’s a good player. He’s a mobile quarterback. Makes a lot of plays with his legs, but the run game we have to do a better job. That’s all 11. That’s coaching and playing. We have to play blocks a little bit better, tackle a little bit better. A couple misfits I saw. It’s on the details of each call.”

They also need a better and faster front seven.

Murray bemoaned a late first-half play when the Cardinals had trimmed the lead to 21-7 and would also be opening the second half with the ball.

On third-and-3 from their own 41-yard line with 1:14 to play, Murray threw a backwards pass that wasn’t handled by running back Emari Demercado and it went out of bounds. With two Bears players close by, even had he corralled it, it’s questionable whether it would have resulted in a first down.

Murray said, “Before the half, the third down, that was one that probably wish we had back to go try to score right before the half, make it 14-21 and then get the ball back to double up, tie the game. We didn’t execute.”

There’s that persistent theme again to go with another rough outing for the wide-receiver corps, except for a pass in space to wide receiver Greg Dortch, who zigged and zagged for a 38-touchdown that cut the lead to 24-16 with 6:37 to play in the game.

Dortch also had a 40-yard kickoff return that led to a 55-yard field goal by Matt Prater and another return for 29 yards.

The receiver group was without Hollywood Brown, who was inactive, while Michael Wilson had four targets with no receptions after having no catches against the 49ers the week before on three targets in his first game back after missing time with shoulder and neck injuries.

Gannon dodged a question about the unit when he said, “I don’t know if it’s a concern. I would say what’s a concern for me is we have to start faster and score some points, and that’s on all 11, not just the wide receivers.”

Surely, it can be argued that the issues at the position contribute to slow starts and overall offensive inconsistency.

Murray completed 24 of his 37 targets for 230 yards, but for an average of only 9.6 yards per catch.

By position group, here is the breakdown of wide receivers, tight ends and running backs in targets/receptions/yards/average:

–WRs: 12/4/75/18.8

–TEs: 11/8/48/6.0

–RBs: 14/12/107/8.9

The receiver numbers are skewed by Dortch’s touchdown and a 22-yard pass to Rondale Moore with 17 seconds remaining in the first half on a play that started at the 20-yard line. Without those, Dortch and Moore, both 5-foot-7, combined for two receptions for 15 yards.

Look around the NFL and there are taller receivers making plays. For example, in a Seven from Sunday release that the NFL puts out each week, yesterday they featured five wide receivers that had big days. Here are their heights:

Mike Evans, Tampa Bay, 6-foot-5; Puka Nacua, L.A. Rams, 6-foot-2, Amari Cooper, Cleveland and Justin Jefferson, Minnesota, 6-foot-1; Amon-Ra St. Brown, Detroit, 6-foot. Coincidence?

The quarterbacks were Baker Mayfield, Matthew Stafford, Joe Flacco, Nick Mullens and Jared Goff.

Whether it’s Marvin Harrison Jr. early in the 2024 draft or someone else in a talented group of draft-eligible players or unrestricted free agents that will be available, it’s imperative that more consistent difference-making talent is added in the offseason.

And, no one should question if Murray would be more productive with a better corps, especially considering what he did accomplish with DeAndre Hopkins (6-foot-1), Christian Kirk (5-foot-11) and even A.J. Green (6-foot-4) in the first half of the 2021 season.

Dec 24, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) and Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) meet at midfield after their game at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

What can be questioned are two perplexing decisions by Gannon following the touchdown that cut Chicago’s lead to 24-16.

Despite being the worst team in the NFL on 2-point conversion attempts (3-for-11) entering the game, the Cardinals went for the two and a pass attempt weas incomplete.

For context, the remainder of the league was 53-for-90 (58.9 percent) through Week 15 and the teams with the next most attempts were Cleveland and Houston with six.

With no fear of the all-in analytics crowd pushing back, the question is simply: Why?

Aside from any analytics not being able to factor in team situations (like, you know, being bad at it), and game circumstances, a 2-point conversion should only be attempted when it’s absolutely necessary.

In this case, obviously, an extra point makes it a 7-point game. Another touchdown makes it a 1-point game. Want to try for the win there with momentum on your side and likely late in the game even with failed history? Go for it. But not on the first touchdown, where a fail required a 2-point play to tie.

As it turned out, the Cardinals forced a three-and-out on the next possession with Thompson and defensive lineman Naquan Jones stoning running back Roschon Johnson on a direct snap on third-and-1.

Unfortunately, punter Trenton Gill followed with a 57-yard punt that was downed at the 9-yard line with 4:21 to play. After one first down, a third-and-6 pass for Wilson was incomplete and surely the Cardinals would punt from their own 27 with 3:03 remaining in the game and all their timeouts, right?

Dec 24, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner (6) runs the ball against Chicago Bears defensive end DeMarcus Walker (95) during the first half at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Wrong. Not only was the choice to go for the first down, but the play was a pass to Dortch, who went to the ground at midfield (uncalled pass interference on 6-foot cornerback Terell Smith?) with the ball landing at the Bears’ 41.

Gannon cut off a question about the play, which might have included his decision to go for the first down, and said only, “He (Murray) took the one-on-one, which is the right read.”

The Bears then clinched the game with 1:02 on the clock on a 29-yard field goal.

The Cardinals have a poor history this season on fourth down. They entered the game next to last in the NFL with a 37.9 percentage (11-for-29). The only team worse was Seattle (6-for-16, 37.5 percent). The Cardinals are now at 36.7 percent after Sunday’s miss. There were only three teams after Week 15 with as many or more fourth-down tries: N.Y. Giants, 14-for-29, 48.3 percent; Detroit, 15-for-33, 45.5 percent; and Carolina, 17-for-38, 44.7 percent.

It’s not a pretty picture.

At 3-12 and with the Patriots having defeated the Broncos Sunday night, the Cardinals are now alone with the second pick in the 2024 draft with two games to play. The Panthers are 2-13, but the Bears own their choice.

Remaining to play are the Eagles and Seahawks for a team that, while battling, has lost eight games by at least 10 points with the average of those losses by 17.1 points. They have been outscored 120-53 in the fourth quarter.

Still, with as much frustration as there is, Murray remains optimistic. Asked whether the team has a sense of urgency, he said, “Everyone knows the situation we’re in as far as our record and stuff like that. But I’ve seen no quit as far as the urgency goes. Everybody; team full of grinders.

“Work hard throughout the week. Understand what we’re about, what we’re trying to be about around here. Moving forward, I think the mindset is right.”

In two weeks, the work will begin with hopefully adding numerous better players that have that same mindset.

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com. Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD

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