Arizona Cardinals defense needs to finish what it starts

Sep 29, 2017, 8:37 AM
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) trees to elude Arizona Cardinals defensive end Frostee ...
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) trees to elude Arizona Cardinals defensive end Frostee Rucker (92) during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. — If games were three quarters, then the Arizona Cardinals would have a better record, one with one less loss. But this isn’t hockey, it’s football and it takes a full four quarters to get the job done.

Defensively, the Cardinals are still waiting for that four-quarter effort.

Oh, they’ve come close. For three-and-a-half quarters in the season opener at Detroit, they slowed down Matthew Stafford and company only to allow back-to-back touchdown passes in a 35-23 loss. A slow start in Indianapolis required a fourth-quarter comeback and overtime to win, 16-13. And then last week against Dallas, the defense played a near perfect first half only to watch Dak Prescott make big play after big play in the second half and hand the Cardinals their second loss of the season, 28-17.

“I don’t think there’s any secret at all, period, it’s we’re not finishing games,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said Thursday.

Finish. That’s been the buzzword this week.

“We’ve just got to learn how to finish,” defensive lineman Frostee Rucker said. “We play pretty dominant for three quarters, three-and-a-half quarters and then we give up a couple of plays here and there. When you watch the film, obviously, on those plays it’s always easier to point out when you did things wrong than the good things. Our coaches are honest in that aspect of correcting our stuff, but we’re also grown enough to understand where we messed up and our mistakes.”

It’s the explosive plays — plays of 20 or more yards — that is most concerning, according to Bettcher. The Cowboys had two such plays, both in the fourth quarter, while the Lions had one. Two of the three resulted in touchdowns.

Bettcher pointed to the Cardinals failing to win the jump balls, or 50-50 balls, down field and letting the quarterback escape the pocket, thus forcing the secondary to work that much harder and longer in coverage.

“Those are small details,” he said, going out of his way to praise his unit’s effort and passion. “I stood here and talked with you guys last week and one of the things I said was, us playing well on defense will come down to something small, something small like tackling is the example I used. And that’s right now what it is…it is small details right now that late in games we need to do better execution-wise of fundamentals. That’s been a point of emphasis.”

Another area of concern is the red zone. Cardinals’ opponents have scored touchdowns on seven of their eight trips inside the 20-yard line. Both the Lions and Cowboys went 3-for-3 in the red zone.

Last season, the Cardinals allowed touchdowns on 55.5 percent (23-of-45) of opponents’ red-zone visits.

“No matter where the ball is rolled out at, we have to be able to have that mindset of giving up the bare minimum — I’m not saying that we don’t have that mindset, we just have to do a better job of defending every blade of glass, everybody on the same page at all times,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said.

“Like I always say, I wish we can pick out the four or five plays that decide the game but we can’t, we just have to make sure that we’re dialed in for 60 minutes,” he added about the big plays allowed.

Overall, the Cardinals once again have a top-10 defense, but that’s in terms of yards per game. Their scoring defense (25.3) ranks fifth-worst, tied with Cleveland, and they’ve given up the sixth-most points (76), tied with Cleveland and San Francisco.

A similar discrepancy existed a year ago — No. 2 total defense and No. 19 scoring defense — and helped explain why the Cardinals finished with a losing record, the first under head coach Bruce Arians.

“We have a good defense, but we have the capability to be great there. Those great defenses, those two to three plays can’t happen,” safety Antoine Bethea. “So, we have a high expectation for the defense and everybody in the room expectation is the same. It’s still early in the season. We’re still in the first quarter of the season, but we’ve seen glimpses of how good we can be and then we’ve had some lapses late in the game. Like I said, those great defenses have to play 60 minutes and maybe it could be 60-plus.”

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