Fourth-down decisions, execution continue to haunt Kingsbury, Cardinals

Dec 8, 2019, 7:29 PM | Updated: Dec 9, 2019, 11:10 am
Outside linebacker T.J. Watt #90 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates with teammates after an inte...
Outside linebacker T.J. Watt #90 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates with teammates after an interception in the second half of the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on December 08, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. The Pittsburgh Steelers won 23-17. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Remember earlier this season when Kliff Kingsbury, just getting his feet wet as an NFL head coach, was regularly chastised locally and nationally for for not going for it on fourth down deep in the opponent’s territory?

Well, that issue didn’t reoccur Sunday.

Kingsbury went the other way, and proved that fourth downs have been a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation for the rookie head coach. What happened loomed large in the Arizona Cardinals’ 23-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, err, I mean State Farm Stadium.

Trailing 20-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals had driven all the way from their own 25 to the Pittsburgh 6-yard line. Facing a 4th-and-2, Kingsbury opted to go for it despite the fact that a field goal would have made it a one-score game with more than 12 minutes to play. The Cardinals also have Zane Gonzalez, who’s been one of the most automatic field goal kickers in the league this season.

Kingsbury called a pass. Kyler Murray took the snap and actually had a pretty decent pocket to throw from for about three-and-a-half seconds. He rolled right and tried to squeeze the ball to tight end Maxx Williams in the back of the end zone. Murray didn’t see linebacker T.J. Watt who had dropped into coverage and easily stepped into the passing lane to nab his third career interception, killing the Arizona scoring threat.

“I was in coverage, so it was just a matter of if I wanted to step in and contain, but I knew that he wanted to throw,” Watt said. “He’s a throw-first quarterback and then a run-second, so I just didn’t want to bite the cheese and let him throw it right in behind me.”

Replays showed the fleet Murray could have easily tucked the ball and run for at least the first down, but chalk it up to a rookie mistake – he threw it.

“I was just trying to make a play,” Murray said. “Thinking back on it, I probably should have ran it. It was two yards, I could’ve got the first down or scored.

“(I was) trying to do too much.”

But should the rookie have even been put it the position to try and do too much? Hindsight is 20/20 and foresight is impossible, but on the ensuing drive, the Steelers stalled at their own 40 and then attempted one of the most feeble-looking fake punts in football history that led to a fumble by punter Jordan Berry that Dennis Gardeck recovered at the Pittsburgh 32.

The Cardinals scored three plays later on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Murray to David Johnson to pull them to within three points at 20-17.

“I liked the play call, I liked the situation,” Kingsbury said. “I knew we needed two scores and if we did turn it over on downs, hopefully it would be right there at the 6 or wherever it was and unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.”

It’s at least the second time that a fourth-down decision by Kingsbury has served as a major plot point in a loss. In Week 8, the Cardinals trailed on the road at New Orleans 10-6 midway through the third quarter and faced a 4th-and-1 at their own 30-yard line. Kingsbury opted to go for it and called a run play to Chase Edmonds that was stuffed for no gain.

The Saints scored five plays later and went on to outscore Arizona 21-3 from that point forward to secure a 31-9 win.

Play calls are judged largely by the result, but for the 2019 Cardinals, getting solid decision-making and execution on the same play has been a rare marriage, especially in crucial situations.

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Fourth-down decisions, execution continue to haunt Kingsbury, Cardinals