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Howard Balzer Avatar
October 8, 2023

Only once this season has the script been different for the Arizona Cardinals. That came in a 28-16 victory over the Dallas Cowboys two weeks ago.

The other four games, including Sunday’s 34-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, were, well, like déjà vu:

Enter the fourth quarter with either a lead or within one score and then be outmanned on defense because of better players, while also failing to find consistency on offense with quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who had started two games before this season in a career that began in 2017.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Coach Jonathan Gannon has his team playing as good as they can, but it’s a team that didn’t enter the season loaded with talent, has experienced numerous injuries on defense and simply gets outplayed in the final 15 minutes.

In their four losses, the Cardinals have been outscored 51-0 in the fourth quarter and have been unable to find an answer for two of the best playmakers in the NFL at any time in the game: San Francisco running back Christian McCaffrey and Cincinnati wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase.

The 49ers and Bengals scored eight offensive touchdowns in the last two weeks and four were by McCaffrey and three by Chase.

Gannon fell on the sword after Sunday’s game, which coaches usually do publicly, but he got especially adamant when he said, “It seemed like he caught a lot of balls today for a lot of yards and a lot of touchdowns. Obviously, as a defensive staff, myself being the leader of that, we didn’t do enough on that side. You can’t let their best player beat you and that’s what we just did.

“That falls solely on me, and we can’t let that happen again. Point blank, there’s the game on defense. You let their best player beat you. I’m pissed off about it. It’s my fault and we’ve got to get that cleaned up.”

Antonio Hamilton Sr. started at cornerback instead of rookie Kei’Trel Clark, which Gannon said was a combination of matchups and scheme, but nothing the coaches could have done would have likely mattered. Chase is capable of doing it against anyone. Hamilton, who had played a total of 10 defensive snaps in the first four games, played 66 (80 percent) against the Bengals.

Joe Burrow, finally looking like the quarterback that led the Bengals to the last two AFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl, played pitch and catch with Chase all over the field.

He was targeted 19 times and caught 15 for 192 yards, accounting for 50.5 percent of the Bengals’ 380 yards. Chase embarrassed the defense with a 63-yard touchdown, while also scoring on 2- and 3-yard plays.

That came a week after McCaffrey totaled 177 yards from scrimmage, which was 44.8 percent of San Francisco’s 395 yards.

Last Tuesday, defensive coordinator Nick Rallis said of McCaffrey, “The ball happened to find him.”

Here’s hoping he doesn’t say that about Chase this week.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of Chase, Nothing really surprises you. You just keep finding ways to get him the ball. It can come in so many different ways because of how flexible he is as a football player and his football IQ. I say it all the time: You can put him in at slot, you can put him in at Z, you can put him in at X, you can put him in the backfield. Just keep getting the ball in his hands and good things are going to happen.”

Describing the long touchdown, Taylor said, “They started to cloud Ja’Marr a lot, so the only way to get him away from that cloud really was to get him across the field to the quarter side. The protection, again, was outstanding right there. Joe did a great job with his landmark in the pocket. It was a great throw, a perfect throw. Not many guys can get that last burst to be able to track it the way Ja’Marr did. That’s a great connection between those two. That’s a play you get one full-speed rep up every week and you want to hit it when it’s there.”

Which they did.

Cardinals safety K’Von Wallace, who has been playing more than expected because of the absence of Budda Baker and now Jalen Thompson, who suffered a hamstring injury against the Bengals, accepted responsibility, saying, “I’m very intentional about being accountable about my play. I know personally, for my play, the standard wasn’t set. We played below the standard, but for me personally I played below the standard. I personally have to do better. If I do better a lot of those plays that he had wouldn’t have happened. Put it on me.

“I just have to go back to the drawing board and look at the mistakes we made. I put a lot on me. If I’m in the position that I’m supposed to be in every single time, a lot of those plays that he had wouldn’t have happened. Shout out to him though. He’s a great, phenomenal player. He did his thing. They were the better team tonight.”

Wallace has played every defensive snap in the last four games after being on the field for 70 perfent in Week 1. Safety Andre Chachere, who was chasing Chase at the of the 63-yard score, was back to 96 percent Sunday after playing 4 percent, 93, 60 and 49 the previous four games. Thompson has missed only two snaps in the first four games, but missed 47 against the Bengals and played 43 percent.

The reality is they and others will continue being the better team until the Cardinals talent level improves significantly. And that won’t happen overnight on a team that has allowed 100 points in three of their four losses.

Still, it is good to see the Cardinals scratch and claw to play competitive football. Against the 49ers, they fell behind 21-3, but fought back to make it a 21-16 game late in the third quarter. The 49ers answered with touchdown drives of 75 yards on eight plays and a 14-play, 77-yard drive that bled 7:14 off the clock in the fourth quarter.

It was more of the same Sunday, falling behind 10-0, but rebounding to take a 14-10 lead. However, trailing 24-20 with 1:49 remaining in the third quarter, a Cardinals fourth-and-1 play from the Cincinnati 16-yard line lost a yard when linebacker Germaine Pratt stoned Dobbs on a designed run to the right.

The Bengals answered with a mind-numbing 83-yard touchdown drive on 15 plays that lasted almost nine minutes (8:55).

That’s two fourth-quarter touchdown drives in two weeks that lasted more than a 15-minute quarter (16:09) and traversed 160 yards on 29 plays.

After Dobbs coughed up the ball on his second fourth-quarter sack/fumble of the season, the Bengals scored the final points of the game on a 40-yard field goal by Evan McPherson.

Gannon said he liked the play-call on the failed fourth-down run even though a field goal would have made it a one-point game. In the third quarter, a third-and-1 “push play” provided a first down on the first set of downs of an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that got the Cardinals within four points, where it stayed after kicker Matt Prater missed the extra point with new holder Blake Gillikin.

Asked if he considered a play that has now worked three times this season, Gannon said, “I thought it was too long for the push play. It looked like almost two (yards) to me. Probably a yard and a half; I don’t exactly know. I walked down there and looked. Yes we would, but we’ve got some other things on third-and fourth-and-1, too, but I thought it was too long for that there.”

It was a decision made quickly, although a look at the replay showed center Hjalte Froholdt with his hand on the ball right on the line one yard short of the first down. Who said sports is a game of inches?

Would the decision have been different had James Conner not exited the game with a knee injury after a 35-yard run on a second-quarter touchdown drive that gave the Cardinals a short-lived 14-10 lead?

Perhaps. But rookie free agent Emari Demercado rushed 10 times for 45 yards in the game and added 12 yards on a reception. On the possession before the ill-fated fourth down that made the score 24-20, Demercado carried six times for 35 yards including three consecutive runs for 28 yards that ended with an 11-yard touchdown.

While some questioned the play-call, the reality of sports is that had the situation been reversed, no Cardinals fans would have criticized the decision by the other team; they would championed the defensive player that made the stop.

As for Conner, Gannon said afterward, “He’s feeling OK. I think on that long run he might have got his foot stuck in the ground and might have twisted his knee up. We’ll see tomorrow.”

Gannon and others supported Demercado.

Gannon said, “I actually thought Emari came in and played well. He had a couple of runs in there, but obviously when you lose one of your best players that hurts. But we’ve got to carry the load for him.”

“Obviously, when you lose James, that is tough,” Dobbs said. “I thought the response by Emari to step in and take on a bigger role and not flinch was really good.”

Said Demercado of his first career touchdown, “Definitely a surreal moment. Something you work for your whole life and then you finally get there and finally get to experience that. It was a great moment, but like I said, win as a team, lose as a team. We obviously wanted to get the W.”

Demercado had played a total of 44 offensive snaps the previous four games (5 percent, 12, 18 and 35, but matched those 44 snaps (77 percent) against Cincinnati. Conner had six rushing attempts on his meager 12 snaps before being injured. He played 62, 64, 72 and 84 percent in Week 1-4.

Another turning point came late in the second quarter when the Cardinals defense stopped running back Joe Mixon on two runs from the 1-yard line. Leading 14-10, the Cardinals took over inside the 1-yard line. Dobbs advanced the ball slightly to make it second-and-10 from the 1.

Two Bengals playing close to the line dropped into coverage and Dobbs tried to connect with wide receiver Hollywood Brown on a slant. However, wide receiver Zach Pascal was in the vicinity and the ball might have been misdirected by Pascal, who was in front of Brown and reached up for the pass that ended up slightly behind Brown.

It sailed to cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, who came up with Dobbs’ first interception of the season and returned it 11 yards for a touchdown.

Dobbs said,Probably a tight window obviously, so I can’t make that decision with the ball. I have to keep the ball safe, especially need to have high awareness in that area of the field. We will fix it. We will take care of the football and we will be better.”

Brown said, “We had some miscommunication with the routes on that play. We made a mistake; gotta go back and fix it.”

Dobbs had his poorest game of the season. He entered the game having completed 70.7 percent of his passes, seventh-best in the league and a 99.4 passer rating (10th). However, interceptions are the death knell for a quarterback’s rating. After his second of the game Sunday, his rating dropped from 81.2 to 61.4.

For the game, he completed under 50 percent (15-for-32) with several high or overthrown balls and finished with a 57.6 rating. His 166 passing yards were the fewest since his 132 in the season opener.

Dobbs is confident he and the team can make the necessary changes, especially when it comes to the fourth-quarter problems.

“We are anxious to do that,” he said. “Games in the NFL come down to fourth-quarter execution. Obviously, first-, second-, third-quarter execution is important. Fourth-quarter execution is critical. When you have the ball in your hands, you want to go down and score, execute and play at a high level. It is frustrating, especially as the quarterback of the offense, for us not to do that.

“We had the ball in our hands in a two-possession game with an opportunity to make it a one-possession game and we didn’t execute. We are anxious to flip that script and we will flip the script. We are pointing out ways to improve and get better. In addition to protecting the football, crunch-time execution will be at the top of our list.”

With the division-rival Rams and Seahawks on the road the next two weeks, we’ll learn soon enough if the overall talent level is capable of doing that.

And whether Gannon won’t be pissed off anymore.

Simply noting

–Right guard Will Hernandez, who was added to the injury report as limited Thursday with a back problem and then was out of practice Friday, didn’t take kindly when asked after the game how he was feeling because of the back issue. “What back issue?” Hernandez said. “Did I not start and finish the game?” Then, asked how he was feeling after the game, he said, “Feeling good.” OK, then.

–Gillikin made his Cardinals debut and while he boomed a few punts, they also led to good returns. His four punts were for 55, 48, 62 and 54 yards for a 54.8 average. However, they resulted in 68 return yards and a net of 37.8. After four weeks, there was only one NFL punter with a lower net: Green Bay’s Daniel Whelan at 36.7.

–Brown had four receptions on 10 targets for 61 yards and a touchdown. Two were for first downs and both came on the team’s second-quarter touchdown drive for their first points of the game. They totaled 43 yards, one for 18 yards on third-and-5, and a 25-yard touchdown on third-and 9. Meanwhile, after scoring the first two touchdowns of his career against the 49ers, wide receiver Michael Wilson was targeted only twice and had one reception for 18 yards.

–Rookie defensive lineman Dante Stills had the first sack of his career and also had two tackles for loss in the run game to go with six tackles (four unassisted). The Cardinals had three sacks of Burrow, all in the first half, and they now have 15 as a team. Defensive lineman Kevin Strong and outside linebacker Zaven Collins also had sacks.

–The previously struggling Bengals had run 236 offensive plays in the first four games, but had 79 Sunday. Burrow was 36-for-46 (78.2 percent) for 317 yards and a passer rating of 108.1. He entered the game having completed only 57.6 percent of his passes for 728 yards and with a rating of 69.1. Chase’s 192 yards were 92 short of the 284 he had after four games.

The 79 plays resulted in some elevated tackle numbers, especially by defensive backs. Cornerback Marco Wilson and linebacker Kyzir White had 11 with eight unassisted for Wilson and six for White. Wallace had 10 (seven unassisted) and Hamilton had seven (six unassisted). Overall, the Cardinals totaled 84 tackles with 60 unassisted).

–We chronicled the Kwamie Lassiter II story Saturday and the Bengals were classy Sunday. He was named a captain and went to midfield for the pregame coin toss. Then, with the game in hand and the Bengals with the ball, Lassiter gained two yards on a pass from Burrow with 1:09 to play.

Taylor said, “Kwamie has been everything that we want to be around. He’s done a great job on our practice squad and did a great job when his number was called last year when he came in against Tennessee when we elevated him. He’s a guy that’s very dependable, we have a lot of trust in him. His dad was a tremendous player here in the late ‘90s, early 2000s and I think that’s a really special moment for a guy that is exactly what we want to be about, able to maybe have a moment for himself and his family to honor his late dad. It’s someone that (assistant head coach/special teams coordinator) Darrin (Simmons) knew. Darrin was with him at KU [Kansas University] and his dad went to my junior college Butler County, so there’s that fraternity.

“It’s special for Kwamie, it’s a bonus that he got a catch on red alert. Hopefully it was a good moment. When the right people are doing the right things, you want to find a way to draw attention to that and Kwamie is a great example. I met his mom in the elevator earlier in the preseason and what a great woman. It’s no surprise Kwamie has been raised the way that he has. Anytime you can give a player that kind of moment, you want to be able to do that.”

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

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