Arizona Cardinals show signs of regression in loss to Bengals
Oct 8, 2023, 4:58 PM | Updated: Oct 9, 2023, 12:06 am
(Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports)
Fire and desire go a long way in the NFL. But not all the way.
The revamped Cardinals learned another bruising lesson on Sunday.
Their 34-20 defeat to the Bengals was neither a surprise nor a shocking disappointment. But it took an emotional toll, ruining the mood and the opportunity for a rare two-game winning streak at State Farm Stadium. It took a physical toll, sending more big names and key performers to an overcrowded trainer’s room. And in the end, it was something of a reality check for a defense that has allowed 69 points in the past two weeks.
This game was the first sign of regression from our newest underdog, quarterback Joshua Dobbs. A sleepy offense started slow, with Dobbs missing a wide-open deep shot to Hollywood Brown. Dobbs seemed to find his stride, rallying the team from a 10-point deficit before halftime. But then he tossed his first interception of the season at the worst possible time, from the worst possible place.
Throwing out of his own end zone near the end of the first half, Dobbs had a pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown, a seven-point sucker punch right before halftime. Even worse, the turnover occurred immediately after a dramatic goal-line stand from the Cardinals defense had turned the ball over on downs.
Dobbs appeared to throw an uncatchable, short-yardage fastball to Zach Pascal, who had no chance to reel in the pass. But Dobbs said Hollywood Brown was actually the intended target, a receiver who was running a deeper route.
Either way, Dobbs took all the blame, just like he did for a second-half fumble.
“Turnovers are tough,” Dobbs said. “We take pride in taking care of the football. And both of those are on me.”
After intermission, the Bengals uncorked a 63-yard touchdown bomb to start the second half, just as the Daniel Jones and the Giants had done a few weeks earlier. And from there, it was a slog.
Injuries clearly played a factor. The loss of Jalen Thompson wiped out the back end of the Cardinals defense, removing both of Arizona’s star safeties from the equation. Meanwhile, the offense was missing its sledgehammer, losing physical running back James Conner in the second quarter.
The Cardinals somehow ran the ball effectively without their raging bull, accumulating 142 total rushing yards. But their passing attack was muted. Following a breakout game in San Francisco, rookie Michael Wilson was targeted twice on Sunday. And for all the sparkling tactical scheming that we’ve seen from Drew Petzing in 2023, the offensive coordinator called a clunker on a key 4th-down-and-1 conversion attempt that failed spectacularly, effectively sealing the outcome.
There was no denying the difference in talent and desperation on Sunday. Bengals star quarterback Joe Burrow showed signs of health and life, moving better than he has all season. Receiver Ja’Marr Chase responded with 15 catches for 192 yards and three touchdowns. The Bengals have been to the past two AFC Championship Games, and a loss on Sunday, could’ve ended their playoff hopes before mid-October. They had no alternative but victory.
“You can’t let their best player beat you, and that’s what we just did,” Cardinals head coach Jonathan Gannon said. “That’s on me. Point blank. There’s the game on defense. I’m pissed off, it’s my fault and we’ve got to get that cleaned up.”
The biggest issue for Arizona is their collective mindset moving forward. Even before Sunday’s injuries, the Cardinals defense had begun playing to its deficiencies. They rank 31st in the NFL in salary cap space allocated to its defense. They were a speed bump to the 49ers in Week 4, allowing five touchdowns in six full possessions and forcing only one punt. The last two quarterbacks facing the Cardinals have completed 56-of-67 passes for 600 yards.
It’s hard to compile those numbers in flag football, much less the NFL.
Thus, the challenge for Gannon and his young staff, who have mostly produced a clean, compelling brand of football: how do you create culture when the losses mount and your defense is built to fail?
Despite their 1-4 record, the Cardinals have been one of the NFL’s early success stories, a team that is clearly not tanking for draft picks.
It’s also clear the heavy lifting is just getting started.