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Cardinals focus on the gaps; Wilks remains confident in young WRs

Arizona Cardinals coach Steve Wilks speaks during a news conference following the team's preseason NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

TEMPE, Ariz. — The first hints of the growing pains that come with working under a new coaching staff appeared in the Arizona Cardinals’ second preseason game against the New Orleans Saints.

Losing two starting tackles in the first half and entering that outing without their starting linebackers, Arizona struggled with runs fits.

The problem reared its head three weeks later in the regular season opener, a 24-6 loss Sunday to the Washington Redskins in which the Cardinals allowed 182 rushing yards, a yard short of what they allowed in that preseason game.

This time, Arizona had starting tackles Corey Peters and Robert Nkemdiche, plus linebackers Deone Bucannon and Josh Bynes. But once again, it came down to players getting out of position.

“Lot of us were out of our gaps and the next thing you know the running back is in that gap gashing us for 10-plus yards,” said defensive back Budda Baker, who often played up in the box with those linebackers. “Just those type of things we’re definitely going to get better at.”

Head coach Steve Wilks said after reviewing the tape on Monday that it was about players trying to do too much.

“That’s what we talked about this morning, being one of 11, just trying to go out and do your job and trust in the man beside you,” Wilks said. “Guys trying to make plays that’s not their play, they’re getting out of their gaps. Again, some of it is just using our hands, technique, those things as well.”

On opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of defensive performances Sunday were Nkemdiche and Bucannon.

Nkemdiche, a third-year pro, recorded his first career sack and finished with three tackles, often disrupting run plays up the middle.

“I thought he had a pretty good game,” Wilks said. “There was one play he got out of his gap in trying to do too much and tried to spin back inside, but for the most part he did a great job penetrating, getting off the ball, creating havoc — getting on their side of the line of scrimmage. It was good to see him do that particularly with the time (due to injury).”

Bucannon showed up in the box with seven tackles and a quarterback hurry that led to Washington’s Alex Smith earning an intentional grounding call, but he struggled especially in covering speedy changeup back Chris Thompson in coverage.

“I thought he played OK. He would tell you the same thing,” Wilks said. “We got to clean up some stuff in coverage, particularly on the back and make sure we take away the space that we need to close down that separation. I thought we gave them too much space on those underneath passes.”

Wilks stands up for his receivers

Wilks didn’t sleep well after his NFL coaching debut.

After taking much of the blame himself after Sunday’s loss and struggling to sleep, he returned to the team facilities overnight to watch the tape. As much as he watched and as frustrating as that was, he didn’t reveal much about what he learned in watching the film.

Offensively, that meant he didn’t put any blame on the players who produced the least: second-year pro Chad Williams and rookie Christian Kirk, who combined for one catch for four yards.

“Larry was one of the featured targets this week in the game plan,” Wilks said of Larry Fitzgerald, who caught seven passes for 76 yards. “I think we’re going to be able to spread the ball around, but I just think this past week, Larry stepped up, he made some great plays. And I don’t think this is just a situation to where you’re going to try to say that’s all you have on offense.

“I think those other guys are proven, I think they can step up and make plays as well.”

Asked if he was still confident in his wide receiver room, Wilks said he was “very happy with the five we have.”

EXTRA POINTS

– Wilks on Bradford’s inaccuracy by completing 20-of-34 passes for 153 yards: “I think he’s going to be fine moving forward. Very surprising, because he’s normally pretty accurate with his throws and putting it where it needs to be. Why was that (not the case Sunday)? I couldn’t tell you. But again, it’s his first game, we got a lot of football left.”

– Wilks did not have an update on the elbow injury suffered by right tackle Andre Smith, who left in the second half against the Redskins. Smith underwent an MRI on Monday.

– Wilks on the booing from the Cardinals fans he heard during the game: “It was well-deserved, well-deserved. I’m not going to sit here and say I’m disappointed in the mere fact that we couldn’t put together a more productive game for our fans.”

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