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If we each had a dollar for all the times that we’ve heard the words focus, execution or rhythm when it pertains to the Cardinals offense in the first three weeks of the season, we’d probably be able to retire.
That, of course, is overstating things, but NFL reality is that fast starts and rhythm don’t usually occur unless there’s success on third down.
Both the Cardinals and Panthers have had issues on that down, which makes Sunday’s game a great unknown.
The Cardinals rank 30th in the league with a 27.9 percent conversion rate on third down (12-for-43). In the first half of the three games, it’s 22.2 percent (4-for-18).
Carolina is slightly worse, ranking 31st at 27.0 percent (10-for-37).
Defensively, the Panthers have allowed 19-of-49 conversions on third down (38.8 percent), while the Cardinals are last at 51.9 percent (14 of 27).
“We haven’t executed very well on third down and that’s kept us from getting in any sort of rhythm sustaining drives a lot of times, especially early,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said Friday. “So just gotta call better plays, gotta have better execution and focus early in those games.”
Earlier in the week, Kingsbury mentioned players possibly trying too hard, noting that there are no “14-point plays.”
In response to that, Cardinals tight end Zach Ertz said, while referencing Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s mantra: “When you don’t start fast, you start to press. It’s not only to have huge plays, it’s trying to find ways to get in a rhythm and early in games we just gotta do a better job letting the game come to us. We just got to do our job. The plays are there to be made. Guys don’t have to do too much. But when you’re kinda in a rut, especially early on, you want things to start fast and sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way.
“So guys don’t need to press, guys just need to focus on the plays and do their job. I know it’s so cliché after Bill’s said it about a thousand times, but it’s so true. Guys need to focus on doing their jobs, being the best version of themselves each and every day and that will translate on Sunday.”
While some of the Cardinals’ third-down failures are linked to long yardage – 10 of the 43 attempts have been of 10 yards or more and only two have been converted – they have also come up empty too often on third-and-short. On third-and-3 or less, they have converted only six of 15 attempts. That includes covering three of eight on third-and-1, two of four on third-and-2 and one of three on third-and-3.
Overlooked in the wild comeback win over the Raiders was that they failed on six consecutive third downs, including two on third-and-1.
Fourth down success saved that game. Overall, the Cardinals rank third with a conversion rate of 71.9 percent (10-for-14). Only two teams were better entering Week 4 and they have far fewer attempts. Miami was 3-for-3 and Las Vegas was 4-for-5. The Lions are second in the NFL in both attempts (nine) and conversions (five).
The Cardinals’ total doesn’t include the two 2-point conversions against the Raiders because those plays don’t count in the official game statistics.
Asked if there is more focus or attention to detail on fourth down, Kingsbury said, “Shouldn’t be, but you don’t want to call as many as we’ve called. It’s just been situational and being forced into it at times getting behind like we have. But we gotta be able to stay on the field. We’re pretty good when we’re in a rhythm. We just haven’t found it yet on offense.”
Cardinals must score TDs
In last Sunday’s 20-12 loss, the Cardinals scored four times and the Rams also scored four. The difference was the Cardinals had only field goals while the Rams scored two touchdowns. The Cardinals failed to score touchdowns on two red-zone opportunities, including one where they had first-and-goal at the 5-yard line.
After three weeks, the Cardinals are 9-for-13 in the red zone (69.2 percent), which was tied for 23rd in the NFL. The Panthers have reached the red zone only eight times and scored three touchdowns (37.5) percent), which is 30th.
Ertz had a drop in the end zone on second-and-goal from the 5 in the second quarter last Sunday.
“It’s tough,” he said. “The red zone has been a point of emphasis all offseason. I take full responsibility for one of them. I just have to find a way to make a play. It’s not one guy, it’s not one play, but our best players have to be playing our best football and that’s something I’ve always taken a lot of pride in. We should pride ourselves in being a really good red-zone team.”
The Panthers have improved defensively in the red zone this season after ranking 29th in 2021, allowing touchdowns 67.3 percent of the time. This season, they are third at 35.4 percent (4 of 11).
“We’ve spent a lot of time on red zone the last six months,” defensive coordinator Phil Snow told media this week. “The players have invested a lot of time in it, and so have we as a coaching staff, so hopefully we continue to play decent down in that area. You know, if you hold people to field goals, you’ll play pretty good on defense, so we’ve got to continue to do that.
“What we’re doing is a little different; the execution is better by the players, the understanding of that area is getting better. I think the whole thing has gotten better.”
The red zone could be the difference on Sunday for the Cardinals and Panthers.
Kyler vs. Baker
The former Oklahoma quarterbacks and back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners don’t match up against each other, but their play will be a determining factor in the outcome of Sunday’s Cardinals-Panthers game.
Baker Mayfield, who was acquired by the Panthers in a July 12 trade, has completed a woeful 51.9 percent of his passes, and is one spot behind Murray in passer rating. Murray is 24th among eligible passers at 82.6 while Mayfield is 25th at 80.8.
On third down, Mayfield ranks 30th with a 45.6 passer rating and Murray is 24th at 62.9.
Panthers offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo believes Mayfield is improving after not joining the team until training camp.
“Baker’s definitely making progress in terms of his footwork and fundamentals,” he said. “Are we where we want to be right now? No. But we’re making progress. We’re working through it, and we want to take another step this week.”
Meanwhile, count Carolina coach Matt Rhule in the Murray admiration group.
“He can do it all, and he’s fearless,” Rhule said this week. “I think the key for us is, we’ve got to focus on ourselves. We understand the problems, we can’t go out there and be reckless, but we can’t go out there and play tentative. We have to rush Kyler the way we do everybody else. We have to trust our coverage, and everyone do their job, and understand that everybody on defense has to run to the ball.”
In 2018, when Rhule was at Baylor, Oklahoma won 66-33 with Murray passing for six touchdowns and running for one.
Calling Murray a “rare, rare, rare” talent, while saying it was “magical” what Murray did in Week 2 against the Raiders, Rhule offered, “I saw him do things in college that made me just want to walk off the field. We sacked him and knocked the ball out of his hands, it bounced on the ground three times; he picked it up and threw it for an 18-yard first down. He’s one of the most amazing players I’ve ever seen.”
Hollywood a concern?
It’s never a great thing when a team’s best receiver suddenly emerges on the injury report two days before a game.
That’s what happened Friday when Marquise (Hollywood) Brown was limited in practice with a foot injury and considered questionable for Sunday’s game.
Unknown is the seriousness of the injury and whether it occurred Thursday or during practice Friday. Even it’s not serious, a foot problem could obviously be cause for concern for a receiver.
Kingsbury is overly circumspect when it comes to discussing injuries and information is rarely, if ever, provided unless a question is asked. He wasn’t asked about Brown after practice Friday because no one knew there might be an issue.
The receiving corps is already compromised with A.J. Green out Sunday because of a knee injury, Antoine Wesley on reserve/injured and DeAndre Hopkins on reserve/suspended.
The possible return of Rondale Moore would help, but the only other receivers on the 53-man roster are Greg Dortch and Andy Isabella. Andre Baccellia was elevated from the practice squad last Sunday and is elevated again this week along with safety Chris Banjo. Other receivers currently on the practice squad are Stanley Berryhill, C.J. Board and Javon Wims. Berryhill and Board have been with the team since Sept. 21, while Wims was signed on Sept. 15.
A kicker was not signed to the practice squad and added to the roster, so kicker Matt Prater, who was listed as questionable with a right hip injury, will play.
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