Victory over Steelers a blueprint for Arizona Cardinals to follow
Dec 5, 2023, 5:00 PM
TEMPE — The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a model of consistency for more than a decade and half.
They haven’t posted a sub-.500 mark since head coach Mike Tomlin took over in 2007.
The blueprint for success is clear: Have a hard-nosed defense that complements a ground-and-pound offense looking for contact.
But in the Steelers’ Week 13 loss against the Cardinals, it was Arizona, not Pittsburgh, putting those attributes into action.
“Honestly, when we got on the plane on Friday, I knew that’s how it was going to go because the week of practice and the preparation from the team, the leadership in that locker room. Nobody was down,” head coach Jonathan Gannon told reporters postgame.
“They believe in each other. That’s what we talked about, look to your left, look to your right, don’t let your teammate down and it showed up all week, and that’s why we gave ourselves a chance to win tonight.”
And it’s exactly the type of model Gannon and the rest of the Cardinals must continue to follow moving forward.
A look at Arizona’s dominant showing in the Steel City, by the numbers:
Cardinals’ red zone perfection
Quarterback Kyler Murray last Wednesday preached the need for better red-zone efficiency.
On Sunday, he and the rest of the offense backed up the talk with a trio of touchdowns on three red-zone trips and were 2-for-2 in goal-to-go opportunities.
Arizona’s third-down conversion rate wasn’t 100% like their red-zone work, but when a team can convert double-digit third downs, good things tend to follow.
The Cardinals were an impressive 10-for-17 (59%) on third down Sunday, marking one of their best conversion rates of the season.
After starting the game 1-for-5 on third down, with the lone conversion due to penalty, Arizona went 10-for-12 the rest of the way.
The Cardinals also found paydirt twice on third down, with Murray finding tight end Trey McBride for a five-yard touchdown in the first half before James Conner bullied his way in from two yards out in the fourth quarter.
The success the Cardinals saw in Pittsburgh didn’t translate over to the home team, who were 4-for-11 (36%) on third down, thanks to a stout Cardinals defensive performance.
Ground game balance
There was a concerted effort to get Arizona’s run game ignited behind Conner on Sunday.
It was a back-to-basics feel for offensive coordinator Drew Petzing in Pittsburgh, with Conner totaling 25 carries for 105 yards and two touchdowns in his return to his old stomping grounds.
The OC said he wished he would have given the veteran back the rock more in a dismal offensive showing in a Week 12 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. He certainly accomplished that.
But it wasn’t only Conner who earned more touches.
After just one carry — albeit for a touchdown — against the Rams, Murray did it with his legs nine times for 20 yards in the victory.
Those numbers don’t immediately jump off the page by any means but there’s a pattern.
When Murray carries the ball at least nine times over his career, the Cardinals boast a 13-2 mark. On the flip side, Arizona is 14-31-1 when he’s held to eight rushing attempts or fewer.
Just the threat of Murray taking off forces defenses to play the Cardinals differently, especially if it’s a consistent flow of touches throughout a game.
Under center vs. shotgun
Since Murray returned to action, there’s been a heightened awareness around his ability to operate the offense under center.
After seeing a lopsided split in favor of working out of the shotgun formation — despite the success operating under center — I have Murray at 27 plays from under center compared to 34 out of the gun, excluding penalties and a trio of kneel downs.
Gameflow had an impact, but the offense made sure to keep the defense on its toes before turning to under center for the majority of Arizona’s final two drives, chewing up clock and picking up first downs in the process.
Weather delays? What weather delays?
The Cardinals and Steelers had to endure not one but two weather delays on Sunday with a layoff time of around 90 minutes combined.
But given the dominance showed by Arizona throughout, you wouldn’t have guessed any added time was spent in the locker room.
“It was crazy, but the energy never calmed down,” defensive lineman Kevin Strong said Monday. “We were in the locker room ready to go. Guys were talking about doing the Oklahoma drill in the locker room if we wanted to. It was exciting. The whole was just great.”
A Cardinals defense that doesn’t quit
Much like Strong said, the defense and the rest of the team were more than ready to get back out there and make an impact.
And while the Steelers looked to have the upper hand in the ground game early, the Cardinals dug in and ended up setting the tone.
Despite having their backs up against the wall on a fourth-and-goal look that would have given the Steelers an early lead, Arizona’s defense stalemated running back Najee Harris at the line of scrimmage, handing the offense the ball and a whole lot of momentum.
The offense returned the favor, with Murray and Co. driving 99 yards the other way before capping off the possessions with a five-yard touchdown to tight end Trey McBride.