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Trio of TE troubles: Panthers expose Cardinals 1-on-1 coverage issues

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) runs as Arizona Cardinals free safety D.J. Swearinger (36) pursues during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Two of the Arizona Cardinals’ first three games have included too many obvious busted coverages to feel good about.

During a 38-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers at State Farm Stadium on Sunday, there were plenty of mistakes for Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph to lose sleep over.

Carolina averaged 7.0 yards per play.

The run worked and so did the pass. But on top of communication or mental breakdowns, the Cardinals also lost straight up one-on-one battles, against tight end Greg Olsen especially. He had two touchdown catches while leading the Panthers with six catches for 76 yards.

This, after the Cardinals had allowed tight ends T.J. Hockenson of the Lions and Mark Andrew of the Ravens each surpass 100 yards in the first two weeks of the season.

“It’s personal. It’s us. We have to tighten up our coverage,” Arizona linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “We have to tighten up our basics — you look at the film, a lot of it is man-to-man.

“We just got to win one-on-one matchups.”

To that point, there was this: Olsen caught a wide open touchdown midway through the third quarter after what appeared to be both miscommunication and a pick play. A single Panther ate up both Arizona defensive backs Byron Murphy and D.J. Swearinger.

That put Carolina up 21-17.

After an Arizona field goal and a 76-yard touchdown run by Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey with 1:53 left in the third quarter, an interception thrown by Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray gave the Panthers a short field as they led 28-20.

This time Olsen straight up beat Swearinger in coverage on an out route along the back of the end zone.

The tight end called both plays “easy” after the game.

“Got man (coverage) so I was able to get a clean release and keep running,” Olsen said. “… I was just able to outrun that guy to the back corner, so that was relatively easy.”

Kingsbury acknowledged after the game the trend of allowing big games to tight ends requires a fix.

“I think once again I’ll have to see the film, but when that’s happened three weeks in a row, we have to have an answer and we didn’t have one today,” Kingsbury said.

“And that’s something as coaches we’ve got to do a better job of evaluating and playing coverages and different things that can help that.”

ILB Reddick stands out

On a dismal day for the Cardinals defense, two players stood out.

The first is obvious: outside linebacker Chandler Jones recorded two strip-sacks of Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen, one of which was recovered.

The second was nearly reeled in mid-air by inside linebacker Haason Reddick. Alas, it fell right back into Allen’s lap.

Reddick, however, had an impressive day.

For the first time this year, he did not split sacks with Joe Walker alongside Hicks. Reddick led the Cardinals with 12 tackles, one for loss, and two passes defensed.

One pass breakup came in one of the aforementioned one-on-one matchups, against McCaffrey no less — and in a key third down.

“Big play by Haason out there,” Hicks said. “That’s winning a one-on-one matchup. We got to do that more often.”

More 1-on-1 losses

The one-on-one coverage issues went beyond shadowing Olsen.

— After the Cardinals got on the board with an impressive touchdown drive to begin the game, Curtis Samuel made Murphy slip in the back of the end zone as the receiver faked inside and went outside to catch a five-yard touchdown at the back right pylon.

— To put Carolina ahead 14-10 with 49 seconds left in the first half, Allen found receiver D.J. Moore streaking across the middle for a 52-yard touchdown as three Cardinals who were behind him got turned around in coverage. Moore went the other way and outran them.

— The backbreaker came in the third quarter, when McCaffrey burst up the middle and left rookie safety Deionte Thompson to make an open-field tackle. He couldn’t, and McCaffrey broke away for a 76-yard touchdown run.

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