In flux or not, Cardinals defense gets torched by Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Christian Kirk reckoned that the Arizona Cardinals could bounce back from a gutting loss to the Miami Dolphins the same as they did earlier in the year following a manhandling by the Carolina Panthers.
That 31-21 defeat preceded a three-game Arizona winning streak, but it was the fact that the Cardinals are here again following a 34-31 loss at State Farm Stadium that had some players fuming, others feeling disheartened and some just expecting better execution and focus moving forward.
While the offensive decision-making and missed opportunities were storyline 1A, it was the defensive problems that might portend to longer-term concerns for the Cardinals.
Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray and the offense moved all Sunday, putting up 442 yards on 6.9 yards per play.
Miami totaled 312 yards and 5.6 yards per play — plus got the help of a defensive touchdown after a fumble by Murray.
One eight-play, 80-yard possession that gave the Dolphins a 21-14 lead in the second quarter represented the obvious problem.
Down nickelback Byron Murphy (COVID-19 reserve) and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (thigh), the depth is thin in the defensive backfield.
In his second start for Miami, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa looked down the field on the first two plays of the drive, attacking 5-foot-11 Cardinals cornerback Kevin Peterson matched up against the 6-foot-5 Preston Williams and 6-foot-3 DeVante Parker.
The first was a 35-yard Miami gain after Peterson was flagged for pass interference. He was hit with the same penalty on the second play, though Miami got an offsetting penalty.
Making matters worse for Arizona, Peterson left with an injury on the drive and was replaced by De’Vante Bausby, who is just a week removed from joining the team. Though he began with a violent tackle, later on the drive he looked to the sideline with confusion when his man shifted in a pre-snap motion.
Nickelback and undrafted rookie Jace Whittaker began getting more run at corner from there, while also sliding into the slot with Bausby outside in nickel packages.
“There’s no excuses,” Kingsbury said. “Brought those guys in, they had practice all week knowing that was a possibility. I’ll have to watch the film to see how they played but once again, Miami outcoached us, outplayed us and found a way to get it done at the end.”
By the end of the night, Tagovailoa completed 20-of-28 passes for 248 yards and kept plays alive with his legs, rushing seven times for 35 yards. When he wasn’t trying to bait Arizona’s DBs into pass interference flags, he went without a turnover, taking what a limited defense from a personnel standpoint gave him.
“I think (Dolphins offensive coordinator Chan Gailey) did a great job with getting me comfortable with getting the ball out quickly, looking down field and going through my progression reads as well,” Tagovailoa said.
Cardinals linebacker Jordan Hicks wouldn’t single out his defensive coordinator — “V.J. called a great game,” he said of Vance Joseph — or the fresh faces in the defensive backfield.
He did say, however, that mistakes weren’t owned solely by the newcomers.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s out there,” Hicks said. “We practice all these calls throughout the week, we know what we have. To me it’s focus, and here’s the thing: It’s everybody. It’s not just one person, it’s not just two people.
“At some point it was everybody saying ‘my bad,’ and when you have too many ‘my bads’ from that many different people, it’s going to look the way it did tonight.”
If there were any positives, it’s that the Cardinals appeared to shore things up in the second half.
Arizona held Miami scoreless in the third quarter to help the offense gain a 31-24 lead, and at points it came down to Tagovailoa creating with his talent.
Whittaker was in tight coverage when Tagovailoa hit Mack Hollins with a perfect throw in the back of the end zone as the Dolphins tied things up 31-all with 11:19 left.
Up front for Arizona, where injuries have also left their scars, veteran pickups Josh Mauro and Markus Golden, who returned to Arizona after past runs here, accounted for two of the team’s three sacks.
Still, there wasn’t much room for silver linings.
Especially after the Cardinals had a chance to even up with the NFC West-leading Seattle Seahawks at 6-2, it hurt.
“It wasn’t talked about, but we all knew the opportunity that was at hand,” Kirk said. “That’s why it’s so frustrating. Guys have every right to be as mad as they are.”