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Facing Falcons, the mistake margin is key for Cardinals

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals speaks with his quarterback Kyler Murray #1 during the NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on October 06, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Bryan Woolston/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Nobody would accuse either the Arizona Cardinals or Atlanta Falcons of having strong defenses.

Per Football Outsiders’ Defensive-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) metric, they are bottom-six units. In points per game, they’re each bottom-five.

The game looks like it could be a shootout between the remnants of a Super Bowl team that includes receiver Julio Jones and Matt Ryan against an offense that, in the words of Cardinals GM Steve Keim, appears scary — minus the whole points-scoring thing.

Regardless, Arizona’s focus remains the same. Don’t. Mess. Up.

That means penalties, turnovers and flat out execution.

“I think every week we’ve been pushing in the right direction,” said Cardinals offensive tackle D.J. Humphries on Wednesday before lamenting two block-in-the-back penalties that went against him last game.

“It’s just those 50-50 plays …. a lot of that stuff is us shooting ourselves in the foot.”

It’s the simple theme that a struggling team through four weeks found to be successful. Arizona made strides in playing clean football last week in a 26-23 win against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Not shooting themselves in the foot remains the cliche again for the Cardinals this week because cutting out drive-burying sacks and penalties led to their first win, giving the locker room the confidence that what Kingsbury and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph are installing does work — if it’s done right.

“We cleaned things up,” Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray said. “We played better, but at the same time you can’t really dwell on it because we got another game this weekend.”

Arizona still committed 11 penalties against the Bengals.

The good news is that Murray took only one sack. Kingsbury raved about two throwaways that kept the Cardinals from taking on negative yardage. Murray also avoided turning the ball over for the second time in five games.

Overall this season, Arizona hasn’t been particularly penalized. It has a net turnover margin of -1.

Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, the defensive play-caller, would like to turn those numbers red this week, as he could be fighting for his job.

Kingsbury said the Atlanta defense will look like the Seattle Seahawks’ — they so far have the best defensive performance against Arizona this year by turning Murray over, sacking the rookie four times and keeping the Cardinals from even trying deep shots down the field.

“They’re mixing up coverages a little bit more, just like Seattle is,” Kingsbury added. “(Quinn is) a tremendous defensive mind. I first went against him when I was at Texas A&M and he was at Florida, and I’ve always been impressed by him since that game.”

Meanwhile, the Falcons have been more erratic when it comes to clean football.

An offense that features three receivers who could start for any other NFL team and a tight end in Austin Hooper leading them in receiving yards has been hot and cold.

Ryan has completed 70% of his passes and is tied for the second-most touchdowns (11) in the NFL, but he’s also thrown the second-most picks (seven).

Atlanta has a -5 turnover margin and has drawn more flags (49) than any other NFL team through five weeks of play.

Arizona could be using two young corners in Byron Murphy and Kevin Peterson, plus rookie safeties Deionte Thompson and Jalen Thompson. Four of their linebackers have appeared on the injury report this week, too.

Asking that group to turn the Falcons over is a risky thing.

Joseph doesn’t want them taking risks, because those can turn into game-changing mistakes.

“Interceptions come, they come in bunches,” Joseph said of the dry spell so far this season. “You can’t cheat, you can’t bust a scheme to make a play on the ball. Hopefully as we go along and we rush the passer better, we can have more chances at balls being tipped or being overthrow or throwing behind receivers.”

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