The Arizona Cardinals talked a good game and said all the right things during their bye week leading up to Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There were emotional team meetings. There was the fact that NFL teams with home games after the bye had won with great regularity over the last two seasons.
None of it mattered as the Cardinals dug a hole they couldn't climb out of in a 32-20 loss to Pittsburgh that sinks Arizona to 1-5 on the season.
Unlike their last loss to Minnesota, there were bright spots in this game. There just wasn't enough of them.
Here are six things that stood out to me from Sunday's loss to the Steelers...
At 1-5, there's no coming back - I admit, I held out hope longer than most. I know the Cardinals were 1-4 heading into week 7. I refuse to believe that the San Francisco 49ers are as good as their 5-1 start indicates, and with two head-to-head matchups remaining with the Niners, the Cardinals still had chances. I don't think that's the case anymore. San Francisco can go 3-7 or 2-8 the rest of the way and win this division. That won't happen because it'll be Jim Harbaugh's team feasting on the weak NFC West the rest of the way with 5 in-division games.
There was a lot of talk from several members of the Cardinals, including head coach Ken Whisenhunt and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, that was centered around the "we'll keep fighting" theme. That smacks of a team that knows they're finished. How else are we supposed to take it when the members of the team are talking about just persevering?
Whiz's comments - Many believed that Ken Whisenhunt was in danger of losing his job heading into this week, so imagine the number of fans climbing on that bandwagon after the Cardinals' 5th straight defeat. I'm not one of them yet.
But the constant talk about not making plays is getting hard to listen to.
"It's tough. It's not any fun," Whisenhunt said after the game. "I'm really upset we can't make enough plays to change an outcome of the game, but we are going to continue to work. We are not going to give up. We are going to get it turned around and move forward."
I know a coach can't come in to face the media following a loss and say, "Forget this season, we're terrible." Whisenhunt, to his credit, has been incredibly even-keeled in his time as head coach with the Cardinals, but there seems to be a deep frustration deep within the coach that just hasn't fully surfaced (though it started to bubble following the loss at Minnesota). I wonder how much longer it will take for it to rear its ugly head. Perhaps a loss in Baltimore would unleash the monster.
Behind Kolb's struggles - The bashing of Kevin Kolb is prevalent among both media and fans during the Cardinals' lackluster 1-5 start to 2011. Again, I was late to that party. Has Kolb been great? Absolutely not. But I've also watched enough Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals football since 1988 to recognize truly bad quarterback play when I see it. Do the names Tom Tupa, Stan Gelbaugh, Gary Hogeboom, Dave Krieg and Derek Anderson mean anything to you?
Kolb has been, in a word, average. He'll get blamed for a lot of what happened on the field Sunday in Glendale, and in true Kevin Kolb fashion, he shouldered most of that blame. "Obviously there were a couple throws that I would like to have back," Kolb said. "Those plays need to be made. That's me too."
Kolb wasn't sharp against Pittsburgh, but two of the more damaging plays on Sunday weren't solely on him. On the Cardinals' first possession, Kolb threw a hurried pass which bounced off the helmet of Rob Housler and into the hands of Ryan Clark. The Steelers scored five plays later. But what you may not remember is that the pass was hurried because right outside linebacker Lawrence Timmons was completely unblocked on his path to Kolb. The other play that stood out was in the third quarter, when Kolb was flagged for intentional grounding in his own end zone leading to a safety that stretched Pittsburgh's lead to 26-14. Once again, a linebacker coming off the edge was completely unblocked-- this time it was LaMarr Woodley coming from the left side. Kolb had no time to react, and just like that, the game was pretty much lost.
Kolb is doing the right thing by shouldering the blame publicly for the failures in assignment or scheme, but I'd hope that he's chewing some ears on the sidelines and in team meetings after those two colossal failures.
The depth (or lack thereof) at RB - Beanie Wells has been very good this season for Arizona--when he's been on the field. This well-covered issue popped up again on Sunday when Beanie left the game late in the first half with a knee injury and was replaced by Alfonso Smith. Smith was o.k.--running for 14 yards and a touchdown on five carries, but there needs to be better options as insurance for Wells if (or more accurately, when) he gets nicked up. To the Cardinals' defense, they did try with Chester Taylor, but apparently that's been a total whiff. Taylor was inactive for the Steelers game, and hasn't played since Week 3 when he started against Seattle.
The good and the bad of LaRod Stephens-Howling - It was great to see the big-play ability of "The Hyphen" return to the Cardinals offense when LSH took a short pass over the middle from Kolb, busted it to the outside, relied on some great downfield blocking and scored on a 73-yard touchdown that brought the Cardinals to within 3 at 17-14 early in the third quarter. That was the good.
The bad happened on kickoff returns. Stephens-Howling averaged 21.6 yards per return on Sunday, but it was his longest return of the game that was his most costly. After the Steelers had pushed their lead to 24-14, Shaun Suisham deposited the kickoff eight yards deep into the Cardinals' end zone. Stephens-Howling opted to bring it out, and returned it to the Arizona 24-yard line, a respectable return of 32 yards.
But, on the play, Nick Eason was called for a holding penalty at the 14-yard line. The half-the-distance penalty that was marched off gave the Cardinals a first and ten at their own seven-yard line. The very next play turned into the safety that completely changed the complexion of the ball game.
If LSH would have just downed the ball, even if everything else unfolded identically (meaning Woodley sacking Kolb), the Cardinals would still have been faced with a 2nd down and long inside their own 20. Stephens- Howling's decision to bring the ball out set off a chain of events that sunk the Cardinals.
I know he's got great play-making ability, but when the kick is eight yards deep in the end zone, LSH is better off taking a knee.
Pittsburgh West - We'll never know an official breakdown of who was rooting for whom on Sunday, but it seemed to me that the majority of fans in attendance in Glendale was wearing black and yellow and waving Terrible Towels.
The Steelers have a rabid nationwide fan base and the Cardinals have a less-than-rabid local fan base. Couple that with a 1-4 start, and the recipe was set for a "home" game for Big Ben and the Steelers on Sunday.
It's disappointing as a longtime Phoenician and Cardinals fan, but I guess four decades of success and six Super Bowl rings are pretty good reasons why there's so many Steelers fans every time they come to town.