Dealing Cards: Looking for a defense that can finish off games
TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals have done a lot of things well defensively this season, but one area in which they have struggled is closing out games.
In Week 1, the Cardinals took a one-point lead over the Patriots halfway through the fourth quarter but watched it disappear after allowing a 13-play, 61-yard field goal drive. Arizona went on to lose the game.
In Week 7, after getting a field goal on their initial drive in overtime and needing just one stop to win the game, the Cardinals seemed helpless as the Seahawks marched into field goal range with a nine-play, 57-yard drive. That game ended in a tie.
Then just last week, holding a seven-point lead with just more than three minutes remaining, a Carson Palmer interception near midfield set the stage for a seven-play, 57-yard touchdown drive that the 49ers used to tie the game. The Cardinals managed to win the game when Chandler Catanzaro made a 34-yard field goal as time expired.
The point is, there have been a few times this season where the Cardinals had their defense on the field with a chance to finish off a win. Thus far, the group has been unable to do so.
“You’ve got to relish, defensively, opportunities with sudden change,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said, pointing to the drive given up to San Francisco. “Those are opportunities, when things happen — because they happen in the course of every game, every week throughout the whole National Football League — you’ve got to love the opportunity to go out, have a chance to win the game, and not have to have our offense come out and have a great two-minute drive and the kick to win the game for us.
“You’ve got to relish those opportunities, and we’ve got to play better in those moments. That’s something we talked about when we came back in on defense, is we need to be a defense that wins the game in that situation, period.”
The Cardinals would seem to have the pieces in place to be a defense that excels at closing out games. They have two players — Chandler Jones and Markus Golden — who are among the league leaders in sacks, and they boast a ballhawking secondary led by All-Pro Patrick Peterson.
So, how do they close games out?
“Everyone being in the right spot,” Jones said. “Everyone doing their job. When mistakes are being made is when people are trying to do other guys’ job, and you get caught out of position. Just being in position and doing your job.”
Those moments, Jones said, require crossing all Ts and dotting all Is, making sure to focus on what the coaches told them all week.
Would that prevent plays like the 24-yard pass from 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick to Jeremy Kerley that got their game-tying drive started? How about the plays of 10, 13, eight, six and 14 yards that got the Seahawks into field goal range? It certainly would help guard against plays like the 32-yard pass from Jimmy Garoppolo to Danny Amendola that happened on a 3rd-and-15 just after the Cardinals took the lead against the Pats.
At any rate, the Cardinals will likely have more chances to get the job done.
“I’d say first, just the opportunity to get the chances to be a closing defense,” Golden said. “I feel like we have to be more consistent with just getting out there and dominating and just winning the game for the team instead of putting us in a position to win.
“I think we’ve got enough pieces on the defense to be able to win games for our team.”
That the Cardinals have not been successful doing that, Golden said, is something they need to get past. They will watch film and fix what went wrong, and the next time out, look for a different result.
The way Bettcher sees it, though, the mentality of a closer comes first from being excited about the opportunity.
“To me, that’s what it comes down to,” he said. “Then it’s one play at a time; just like you played the other 45 minutes of the game, what did they (49ers) have, 213 yards or a little over 200 yards, and they convert, really, three third downs when you count the fourth down, in the last quarter. Those are opportunities we have to play better to finish games and win games.”
A look at the official injury report reveals three players not participating for the Cardinals Thursday, as dollar linebacker Deone Bucannon, defensive lineman Corey Peters and cornerback Tharold Simon were all held out. For Simon, it was a step back after he was “limited” Wednesday. Receiver Larry Fitzgerald, linebacker Chandler Jones and QB Carson Palmer all got on the practice field for the first time this week.
It’s a bit of a sports cliche, the need for every team to start fast.
So, read as much, or as little, into the Cardinals believing it is imperative they do so Sunday in Minnesota.
“Big road game versus a quality opponent, very good on defense in the front end and the back end,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin began his press conference. “Got to do a great job of getting off to a fast start and trying to quiet down the crowd and just make sure we’re doing everything we need to do.”
There has been plenty of talk this week about the crowd noise at U.S. Bank Stadium, a brand new venue that holds more than 66,000 people. Head coach Bruce Arians said it might even be louder than Seattle, and the concept of taking that crowd out of the game early is certainly music to Arizona’s ears.
“I think we have the ability to play in the loudest stadium in the National Football League in Seattle, I don’t think any place can be as loud as that,” Fitzgerald said. “In years past, the best way to take a crowd out of it is to get going early, to get the offense going early, get the fans sitting down in their seats and not as enthusiastic.
“I think we’ve got to really come out of the gate, we’ve got to come out fast and just play good, sound football.”
The Cardinals have struggled to get off to fast starts this season, scoring a total of 14 first-quarter points. And in both Eastern Time Zone road games, against the Bills and Panthers, it took them nearly all of the first half to finally get on the scoreboard.
Some believe teams from out west traveling east for early start times is a disadvantage, but Goodwin doesn’t buy it.
“I don’t think it’s a factor,” he said of the time zone change. “When the lights come on and they put the ball out there, we’ve got to play, so we’ll be ready. We’ll be ready.”
Mr. Jones and me (if ‘me’ is a long-term contract with the Cardinals)
Monday morning, Cardinals GM Steve Keim told Doug and Wolf on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM that he was hopeful the team would come to an agreement on a long-term contract with linebacker Chandler Jones.
Jones had picked up two sacks in Sunday’s win, bringing his season total to seven, and has been everything the Cardinals were hoping he would be after they acquired him in an offseason trade with the Patriots.
The 26-year-old Jones figures to be in line for a nice big contract this offseason, though he said that — and the idea of staying in Arizona long term — is not something he concerns himself with these days.
“My biggest thing is just being the best football player that I can be,” he said. “Going out there and improving on the field and I feel like all that stuff will take care of itself.”