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Cardinals loss to rams exposes their flaws while showing how much work there is to be done

Howard Balzer Avatar
November 26, 2023

The Cardinals surely knew what was coming as they prepared to play the Rams Sunday at State Farm Stadium.

Six weeks ago, trailing 9-3 at halftime, running back Kyren Williams thrashed the Cardinals run defense in the second half, gaining 154 yards on 18 carries as the Rams coasted to a 26-9 victory.

Sunday was more of the same as Williams returned from reserve/injured and totaled 204 yards from scrimmage in a 37-14 win.

Playing the 100th game of his career, safety Budda Baker would like to forget this one. And he didn’t hesitate when asked what was disappointing about the loss.

“Stopping the run,” Baker said, “because that’s how it all starts. They don’t do those play-action passes and stuff like that without doing a good job on the run game. That was the emphasis this week, stopping the run, and we just didn’t do that.”

Said coach Jonathan Gannon of the run defense, “Not good enough, obviously. I think they had over 100 yards in explosive runs. Not just the total run game, but just explosive runs. So, misfit here, bad technique here, bad call here. It’s all of us together. It’s never one thing. Run defense is all 11, but we have to play better in the run game.”

Williams, who rushed for 143 yards on 16 attempts to give him 298 yards on 34 attempts in the last six quarters against the Cardinals, had runs of 56 and 24 yards, while Royce Freeman had a 23-yard touchdown dash. There’s your 103 yards of explosives, but that wasn’t all.

Williams also had seven runs of five yards or more and three of eight or nine yards. Freeman, who rushed for 77 yards on 13 carries, also had a 14-yard run and four of five or more.

For good measure, Williams had six receptions for 61 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown and another 24-yard catch. The Rams totaled 457 yards in the game and 190 came on runs or receptions by Williams and Freeman.

Williams credited the offensive line for the job they did against a compromised Cardinals defense.

“Especially on the gap-scheme runs and the blocks up to the linebackers, they were staying tight and staying thick on the D-linemen and the three-technique and allowing me to do what I do best,” Williams said. “That’s making decisive decisions based off of the linebackers and that’s what I was doing today. I was really just trying to manipulate the linebackers and follow the blocks of my O-line.”

Quarterback Matthew Stafford also sent kudos to the line and coach Sean McVay.

“Obviously it starts up front,” Stafford said. “Those guys up front did a great job moving the front and the guys on the outside competed too. Anytime you have chunk runs like we were getting, guys on the outside have to compete too. They did a great job of that. I thought Sean had a great plan coming into the game. Our coaches did a great job at putting us in position to keep them guessing.

“Is it inside, is it outside, is it mid-zone, is it whatever? Just trying to give them a bunch of different things to look at. They do a good job on defense of giving you a million different looks and it’s difficult to game-plan for it and I thought our guys did a great job of that.”

The reality, of course, is that a thin defense entering the season isn’t the same as it was in Week 1 and Sunday it got little help from the offense.

Missing from Week 1 were L.J. Collier, Carlos Watkins, Leki Fotu and Kevin Strong on the defensive line, along with inside linebacker Kyzir White and cornerback Antonio Hamilton Sr. In the defensive line rotation Sunday were Jonathan Ledbetter, playing with an injured shoulder, Dante Stills, Roy Lopez, Ben Stille and Phil Hoskins.

At cornerback, Marco Wilson was benched while Kei’Trel Clark and Starling Thomas V started. Thomas suffered an ankle injury, so practice-squad elevation Divaad Wilson was pressed into action.

Meanwhile, the defense was on the field for 34:52 and 18:56 in the first half largely because after scoring a touchdown on their first possession, the offense followed that with three three-and-outs and one four-and-out. Those 13 plays gained 15 yards and took a total of 4:21 off the clock with possessions that lasted 39 seconds, 1:34, 1:41 and 27 seconds.

The Rams had four possessions of 4:17 or more in the game, including one for 7:22, while the Cardinals had only three in the three-minute range after the 6:28 possession in the first quarter.

As Gannon said, “We have to get in rhythm and get some first downs so we can sustain drives and we can get plays off that are good, that accentuate our guys. It’s hard when you’re going three-and-out and then the scoreboard’s ticking on the other side. That’s deflating.

“We just have to find a better balance of getting in rhythm with the run and pass game and making sure that we’re staying on the field a little bit to give ourselves a chance to score points.”

That was certainly the case with the workload for running back James Conner. He had six touches on the opening touchdown drive with four rushes and two receptions totaling 28 yards. There were two third-down conversions, including a 17-yard pass to wide receiver Hollywood Brown on third-and-7, and completions to wide receiver Greg Dortch for 14 and tight end Trey McBride for 12.

However, Conner had only one touch for the rest of the half and ended the game with 27 yards on six carries and five yards on four receptions.

“Flow of the game, flow of the game,” Gannon said when asked about Conner disappearing. “He wants the ball. But that’s what I mean about getting off plays. We have to stay on the field longer and get off plays, so guys get touches.”

Trailing 21-8 at halftime (the second consecutive week the opponent scored 21 in the first half), the Cardinals had 102 yards to the Rams’ 287, which was only 46 less than the 333 Houston had after two quarters last Sunday. The Rams’ 39 plays averaged 7.4 yards, while the Cardinals 28 averaged 3.6 and a meager 1.2 in four of the possessions.

As Murray said,We moved it down (the field) seamlessly and executed well at a high level. Punched it in and then yeah, it just kind of went downhill from there.”

Perhaps everyone had an unrealistic false sense of everything’s great and seamless, a tease if you will, after the first-game-back victory over the Falcons two weeks ago.

After Sunday’s game, Murray sat at his locker for a long time talking with running back James Conner and after Conner went to his locker, there was more soul-searching with quarterbacks coach Israel Woolfork. Murray didn’t enter the media room for his press conference until 50 minutes after the game ended.

However, he said he isn’t discouraged and accepts that this is a work in progress.

Asked if he’s at a point where he might believe things aren’t working, he said, “No, not at all. Not at all. I’m staying positive. This is my third game and seventh week of practice. There’s obviously growing pains with this. Like I said, it’s my third game (in) a new scheme, a new everything for me, so I’m not discouraged at all by it. I know we’ll be better because of it, but these are some of the things that we’ve got to go through as part of it.”

Let’s be real here. Much of the discussion as we grow closer to the 2024 offseason is how much help this team needs throughout the roster. The offensive line has to improve and Murray’s wide-receiver corps the last two weeks without 6-foot-2 Michael Wilson doesn’t have anyone taller than him.

Some point fingers at the play-calling on offense, but every coach puts together a game plan based on the talent at hand.

Gannon acknowledged that when he said,When you’re playing left-handed, it’s hard to play any position out there.”

Asked what he meant by playing left-handed, he said, “When you’re not getting in rhythm on offense. Then you get down and they can play a certain way with the lead there, especially in the second half. It’s hard. It’s a tough way to go. We have to make sure that we put pressure on the defense and stay in the game a little bit better. That opens up play-calling, it opens up play-making, it opens up runs and passes. We just never got to any of it because we’re down and didn’t have a lot of plays and a lot of possessions there in the first half where we got things rolling.”

Gannon also mentioned not matching the Rams’ “level of effort and enthusiasm” and added,That falls solely on me. When you get beat like that, we have to take a good, hard look at how we’re setting up the week because it really wasn’t competitive in my mind and that’s on me first and the coaches next.”

Pressed on that comment about effort, Gannon amended his words by saying, “The effort was there. When I say effort, I just felt like our enthusiasm and our energy levels – probably wasn’t effort. That’s probably the wrong statement by me because these guys come out and they battle and they tee it up. It was the emotion and enthusiasm of the game. I felt like we were just a little deflated and that’s on me. I have to look at it with a critical eye on how we set up this last week and it wasn’t good enough.”

Those largely sound like the quick reactions after a game that ended poorly. After all, when it was still a two-score game late in the third quarter, the Cardinals did get some rhythm going on lays of 16 and 17 yards to McBride and Brown, respectively, which was followed by a 12-yard pass to Dortch to the Rams’ 30-yard line. However, right guard Carter O’Donnell was illegally downfield. He was later replaced by Trystan Colon. A 9-yard pass to McBride made it third-and-6 from the Rams’ 38-yard line.

Murray’s pass for Brown was incomplete and a 56-yard field-goal attempt by Matt Prater was pushed way right.

Last week, early in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals went for a first down on fourth-and-3 from the Texans’ 23-yard line rather than pull within two points with a 41-yard field goal. When it was suggested to offensive coordinator Drew Petzing that even if the play worked there was no guaranteed a touchdown would later result, he said there was also no guarantee the offense would later get in position for a possible winning field goal.

That thinking wasn’t used Sunday. A field goal would have kept it a two-score game although two touchdowns could have won the game. But, there was no guarantee they would get there two more times in the game, especially with the way the Rams were moving the ball.

As it turned out, the field-goal miss gave the Rams the ball at their own 46-yard line and 13 plays and 7:22 later, they scored a touchdown for a 31-8 lead with 12:41 remaining.

When Gannon’s words about energy and being deflated were relayed to left tackle D.J Humphries, he said, “I don’t really think that enthusiasm and energy is something that should be coached. We’re professional football players, so that’s something that shouldn’t even have to be addressed. At the end of the day this is the NFL, your last name is on the back of your jersey and you have to go out there and represent that. I think that’s just kind of the mentality that needs to be had.”

When asked about possible changes he mentioned, Gannon said, “Everything. All aspects, that’s a good question. What Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday look like with the periods, the practice plan, the meeting time, all that. Because you can make little tweaks. I trust our process and so do the players, but I have to do a little bit more on that end to make sure that we’re ready to go emotionally to play a football game.”

Little tweaks. Really? That would result in being better on third down to keep possessions going? Or protecting Murray? Or stopping very good NFL offenses? Or not having a holding penalty on tight end Geoff Swaim wipe out a 57-yard field goal to end the first half? I could go on, but you get the picture.

No, the Cardinals need better players and everyone knows it. That work won’t begin until the calendar turns to 2024. For now, we have to persevere for the final five games of a season we all knew would likely be extremely rough.

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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