TEMPE, Ariz. — Often times a game comes to down to a play here or a play there.
Yet for the Arizona Cardinals, the same can’t really be said for their last two defeats to the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.
Sure, if Larry Fitzgerald and Alfonso Smith don’t put the ball on the ground in the second half, the outcome of Arizona’s 32-20 loss at Candlestick Park might have looked slightly different in Week 6.
And yes, if the Cardinals’ defense was able to take down Russell Wilson before he completed two improbable passes — one for a 31-yard touchdown and one for 16 yards to extend a Seahawks’ scoring drive — to Sidney Rice, the 12-point margin of defeat Thursday night might have slipped into single digits.
But through seven games, Arizona’s shortcomings — at least as it relates to competing on the same level with the likes of the 49ers and Seahawks — are much bigger than a fumble, a missed sack or a blown coverage.
There’s the turnover-prone quarterback, the offensive line’s inability to hold up in pass protection and a receiving corps that collectively still hasn’t mastered Bruce Arians’ scheme.
But Thursday’s loss also brought about new concerns, particularly, the backfield’s struggles to run the football with any semblance of consistency.
Although the final totals were partially distorted by the fact that the offense closed the game with 32 straight passing plays in an effort to make the contest competitive, Arizona finished with a season-low 30 yards on the ground.
“Running the football, we struggled,” Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said. “First down was a bad down for us. It had been a good down for us all year, but they did a very good job on us. I think we turned the ball over on the one pass down the sideline [in the first quarter], and we just didn’t run the football effectively on first and 10.
“Then when we threw the ball, we weren’t as effective as we normally are. All of our shots plays, I think it was the first time in 20 years of the NFL that we came away with no explosive plays — running or passing the ball.”
Explosive has rarely been a word used to describe starting tailback Rashard Mendenhall this season, and Thursday’s performance was no exception.
The first-year Cardinal amassed only 21 yards on 13 carries, marking just the second time in his career that he’s averaged less than two yards per carry when getting at least 10 touches. Both occurrences have taken place over the past four games.
“We’ve got to look at the tape and get better,” Mendenhall said after the 34-22 loss. “As a whole in the running game, it takes all 11 men on the field. We’ve got to look at the film and get it corrected.”
When the 26-year-old back does take a look at the film, he won’t like what he sees.
Mendenhall’s woes on the ground Thursday night began long before his team found itself in an 18-point hole. After two runs for five and six yards apiece to start the contest, the six-year pro couldn’t muster so much as a whimper with his veteran legs.
On his final seven carries of the first half, the former Illinois standout rushed for a combined two yards on seven carries. Of those seven carries, four went for no gain or negative yardage.
Here’s a play-by-play breakdown:
1st and 10 at ARI 17-yard line – Mendenhall up the middle to ARZ 18 for 1 yard (M.Smith; B.Mebane).
1st and 10 at ARI 29-yard line – Mendenhall up the middle to ARZ 30 for 1 yard (R.Bryant).
1st and 10 at ARI 43-yard line – Mendenhall up the middle to ARZ 43 for no gain (B.Irvin).
1st and 10 at SEA 40-yard line – Mendenhall up the middle to SEA 40 for no gain (B.Irvin).
3rd and 1 at SEA 31-yard line – Mendenhall up the middle to SEA 31 for no gain (K.Wright).
4th and 1 at SEA 31-yard line – Mendenhall up the middle to SEA 29 for 2 yards (K.Chancellor).
1st and 10 at SEA 29-yard line – Mendenhall up the middle to SEA 31 for -2 yards (C.McDonald).
Arians, who served as Mendenhall’s offensive coordinator from 2008-11 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, came to his running back’s defense Friday, explaining that the lack of production was in a large part due to the fact that he was trying too hard to make a big play.
“Early on, [Rashard] was where he was supposed to be,” said Arians. “As things [went on] like most backs, they’re going to try and create something. And he tried to go to the outside instead of sticking it for two.”
Rookie Andre Ellington, however, rarely was given the chance to even try and stick it for two in the team’s second consecutive double-digit loss. Ellington, who had at least one run of 14 yards in each of his last five contests, was held to a measly three yards on three carries.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Ellington said on his lack of touches. “I mean it’s Coach [Arians’] decision to make those calls. He gave it to Rashard. He was the hot hand at the time.”
Arians’ assessment was slightly different, as he noted that the game plan was altered in the second half in an effort to feature the sixth-round pick in passing situations.
Ellington finished with two catches for a season-low 10 receiving yards.
So what’s the solution to improving the run game going forward? A little more Ellington, a little less Mendenhall?
According to Arians, there are no plans to shuffle personnel ahead of Arizona’s game against the Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 27.
“We’ve just got to keep working on it and keep hammering it,” Arians said. “Hopefully it gets better.”