TEMPE, Ariz. — If once is a fluke, twice is a trend and three times is a habit, what does six times make?
That’s the question the Arizona Cardinals are trying to answer on a short week following another lackluster defensive performance against an opposing team’s tight end.
Sunday’s culprit in the team’s 32-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers was Pro Bowler Vernon Davis.
Davis, who came into the contest with 14 catches for 244 yards on the season, torched Todd Bowles’ unit — in particular the secondary — en route to a career day. The former first-round pick caught seven balls in the first half for 171 yards — the most receiving yards amassed by any player in a half this season. In fact, it marked the first time a tight end reached the 171-yard mark in a half since Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe recorded the feat back in Oct. 2002.
Of those seven first half catches, two of them went for touchdowns of 35 and 61 yards. On the first score, Davis breezed into the second level of the Cardinals’ secondary and was never touched by safety Yeremiah Bell or cornerback Jerraud Powers. On the second score, the 6-foot-3 Davis simply outran and out-jumped Bell.
“Vernon’s a tough matchup,” Bell said. “There’s no doubt about it. There are good tight ends around the league and they’re tough matchups. But like every week, you win some you lose.”
The problem for Arizona so far in 2013 is that every week they seem to be losing the matchup against tight ends, turning Davis, Jared Cook and Jimmy Graham into the next three Canton-bound candidates to join Sharpe.
Week 1: Jared Cook – seven catches, 141 yards and two touchdowns
Week 2: Brandon Pettigrew – three catches, 32 yards
Week 3: Jimmy Graham – nine catches, 134 yards and two touchdowns
Week 4: Timothy Wright – five catches for 41 yards
Week 5: Greg Olsen – five catches, 79 yards
Week 6: Vernon Davis – eight catches, 180 yards and two touchdowns
The tight end output against the Cardinals this season hasn’t been prolific every week, but it’s been a consistent theme opposing teams have tried to exploit in the passing game.
Head coach Bruce Arians, however, believes it’s a sign of the times in the league and not a problem exclusive to Arizona’s defense.
“I think that’s a pattern throughout the NFL,” Arians said. “It’s not just us. The tight ends are becoming more athletic and more teams are targeting them.”
Maybe so, but the fact of the matter is Cook and Davis will each make another appearance at University of Phoenix Stadium this year, as will Atlanta’s future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez.
So how do the Cardinals plan to crack the seemingly unbreakable code?
“We’ve just got to start recognizing [opposing tight ends’] strong points,” Powers said. “Obviously, Vernon was their go-to guy along with Anquan [Boldin], and we didn’t do a good job stopping them. That’s definitely going to be a key factor for us down the stretch, figuring out how to stop tight ends and whoever else their weapons are.”
Powers noted that it’s as much about a mindset as anything else when it comes to game planning against tight ends.
“I think we’ve got to start taking it more seriously,” said Powers. “Sometimes when we line up on tight ends we start to think that it is what is.”
Bell was in agreement with Powers on that front and added that collectively the unit ‘has to play sound defense.’
“Your eyes have to be in the right place at the right time snap after snap. And you just have to stay focused.”
Through six games, Arizona has allowed starting tight ends to catch 37 passes for 607 yards and six touchdowns. Thursday’s trio – Seattle’s Zach Miller, Luke Willson and Kellen Davis — has 18 receptions for 228 yards and two touchdowns on the season.