DAN BICKLEY

Cardinals on the verge of ending 2019 on devastating losing streak

Dec 8, 2019, 7:27 PM | Updated: Dec 9, 2019, 11:10 am
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) is sacked by Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker V...
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) is sacked by Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Vince Williams (98) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — In the standings, it was just another loss. In the stands, it was a crushing defeat.

The Cardinals lost by only six points to the Steelers, re-emerging as a feisty team. But they have now lost six consecutive games. They are threatening to end the season with the same victory total that got Steve Wilks fired after just one year.

Off the field, this 23-17 loss to the Steelers was particularly nauseating because of Arizona’s home-field disadvantage, from those who showed up and those who sold their tickets.

It’s one thing to lose a football game. It’s another to lose your audience to the opposition, along with the raucous energy that was once so abundant in Glendale.

This game felt eerily similar to those deflating, bipartisan contests at Sun Devil Stadium. This was a blow to the organization’s ego, to their elusive vision of one city cheering for one football team. All that was missing was the aluminum bleachers.

“It was definitely loud in the Steelers’ (favor),” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “We’ve actually played our best football away. (But) at the end of the day, you can’t let that get to you.”

“We were still able to hear our cadence. We didn’t have to do any silent stuff. But it definitely makes it harder,” center A.Q. Shipley said.

Ugh.

Granted, it wasn’t all bad on Sunday. The game represents a small victory for David Johnson, who scored a touchdown, lowered his shoulder and actually showed signs of life. It was a victory for the spirit inside the locker room. Unlike their attempt to play dead against the Rams, the Cardinals cared enough to compete on Sunday.

Except when Patrick Peterson attempted to hug a Steeler rather than tackle him.

Except that every time the defense needs a stop, the defense somehow performs at their very worst. Against the Steelers, it was a 77-yard drive late in the fourth quarter that consumed more than five minutes. It was allowing “Duck” Hodges to post a quarterback rating of 117.5.

Except that every time Kyler Murray gets a chance to win a game, he ends up holding onto the ball and running for his life. His play has regressed since the bye week.

“It obviously sucks right now,” Murray said. “I feel like we should’ve won today. But it is what it is and you just have to move forward.”

Murray still seems surprised that he can’t beat NFL defenders with his speed. The pressure he’s under has made him skittish in the pocket. He threw three interceptions against the Steelers, and one of them came on a 4th-and-2 when he could’ve moon-walked for a first down.

He was disgusted in his performance against the Rams and didn’t feel much better after Sunday’s game.

“Once again it’s all a process and a lot of learning on the job for Kyler and myself,” Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “Guys are fighting, playing hard. We just didn’t get it done.”

In some ways, the Steelers were the perfect opponent for Arizona’s much-maligned defense. Their identity is built on smash-mouth football, with a commitment to the running game that never wanes. The Cardinals are far more susceptible to teams that pass the ball with reckless abandon, and the Steelers will never be that team. And Pittsburgh tried hard to give the game away, from a derelict fake punt to daffy play-calling at the end.

But in some ways, they were also the worst opponent at the worst time. The Steelers are a national brand and traditional powerhouse. They routinely take over other team’s stadiums while Arizona is known for its transient fans.

But this felt like a new low for the Glendale experience, from the abundance of Steelers replica jerseys to the Terrible Towels they all waved in unison.

This is what happens when a team loses its grip. The Cardinals once made magic look routine at State Farm Stadium. Now, they are 2-12-1 in their last 15 home games. The building no longer strikes fear in the opponent, and is no longer a den of din.

Let’s hope that 2019 season is rock bottom for the team’s collective showing at home, that somehow this motivates Kingsbury’s crew in the future.

Sadly, it’s a rite of passage for all great Arizona athletes. That unforgettable day they show up for work and find their stadium overtaken by opposing fans. It happened to Randy Johnson. It happened to Devin Booker. And now it’s happened to Murray. We’ll see how he responds.

For now, the Cardinals have one more home game to make good. They badly need another victory to show tangible improvement. They can’t claim great optimism for the future while potentially ending the season with a nine-game losing streak.

In the NFL, you either win or you lose. You can’t have it both ways.

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