How the Cardinals went from having the best record in the NFL to becoming a free-falling squad
After starting the season with a 7-0 record, the Cardinals have gone 3-4 in their last seven games, morphing from the league's only two-way juggernaut to a collection of components masquerading as a team.
You could practically feel the shudders of concern seeping through the screen on Sunday against the Lions in Detroit. All of Kliff Kingsbury's early-career worries were present and accounted for: sloppy time management, a lack of faith in a (admittedly shaky) offensive line clouding offensive play-calling, and the boom-or-bust defensive philosophy striking out more than it hit – yet again.
Kingsbury's club had the appearance of a team that had come undone at the wrong time. The Colts, Cowboys, and Broncos are their final three opponents. Drop one – or two – and the Cardinals might find themselves in a wild-card berth, despite starting the season as the league's final undefeated team.
“I thought they played better, coached better, and had a better sense of urgency from the start,” Kingsbury said of the Lions post-game.
The Cardinals weren't just defeated. They had been beaten. It didn't matter if you were on offence, defence, or special teams. While the outcome may be interpreted as just another example of football in general – and this season in particular – being strange, it would be a disservice to the Lions and obscure some of the Cardinals' long-term difficulties.
Don't look now, but the Fighting Dan Campbells have been cooking for a while. The Lions are as excellent as it gets when it comes to 2-11-1 teams. They have a frantic energy while they play. They're smart, stay in their own skin, and have a lot of fun. That last part is frequently relegated to the category of vacuous coach-ism. But it's visceral with the Lions. Detroit makes you earn every game, every possession. Campbell, Ted Lasso in the body of Hulk Hogan, has constructed a squad that is clever, battles hard, and is coached by a staff that does imaginative things on both sides of the ball. This isn't your usual two-win squad, and few are as knowledgeable on the subject as Detroit.
Still, this isn't a game that a serious contender should lose this late in the season, let alone in the midst of a playoff race. Only three teams in Super Bowl history have entered a game with fewer than two wins and defeated a 10-win opponent.
It was a loss that revealed faults in the Cardinals' strategy. Except for certain isolated moments of Kyler Murray wizardry, the offence seems impotent when it matters most without Deandre Hopkins, who is out until the playoffs due to injury. They got to the 10-yard line four times against the Lions on Sunday, but only managed to score six points.
When Arizona's offence is clicking – when the aggressive plays, quick weapons, and fast-paced pace all come together – the offensive is more about psychological warfare than it is about making football plays. Murray, Hopkins, Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore, AJ Green, and a free-flowing run game are impossible to stop with any defence. They know they're better than you, so they keep repeating the same plays and counting on their stars' brilliance to make it work.
However, if one of the vital bricks in the facade is removed, the entire structure is in risk of collapsing. The offence has stalled since losing Hopkins and the threat of the run game, reverting to Save Us Kyler territory, which has been a feature since his drafting.
On defence, there are more pressing challenges. The Cardinals' defence has been ranked 12th in EPA per play since Week 9, a measure of a team's down-to-down performance. Worse, they've dropped to 28th in EPA per play on first downs, a number by which the league's best defences evaluate themselves.
The first down has replaced the third down. It's when a defence goes on the attack, especially if the offence is prone to predictable looks. On third downs, getting off the field is a mainstay of shouty-man-on-TV analysis, but first-down success is more predictive of long-term success. Stopping a team on third down is important, but what difference does it make if they've already racked up a string of first downs?
In the era of the pace-and-space, chunk play offence, winning the first down — forcing a negative play or creating a second-and-10 – is how defenders can keep up.
Attack as soon as possible. Toss in a loss. Then take a seat and wait for the ball to come to you. That's the message being broadcast at all levels of the game. When a defence does this, it increases its chances of stopping a drive before it starts. As coaches like to point out, winning on first down is the cornerstone to an effective third-down defence.
The Cardinals have been the most enthusiastic about it. Blitzes and pressures are virtually often used on early downs in Arizona. It was booming early in the season. It's beginning to fall apart as rival offences adjust. Injury to JJ Watt has exacerbated the problem.
Life was simple for the league's most porous offence against the league's best defence. Jared Goff (Jared Goff!) was almost never bothered. He anticipated what would happen, was prepared, and was able to get rid of the ball in double-quick time. He shredded the all-out-attack style, completing 21 of 26 throws for 216 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions.
“We have got to figure it out,” Kingsbury said post-game. There is no one answer; there are debilitating problems in all three phases. With three games left against tricky opponents, Kingsbury is running out of time to find any solutions.