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Cardinals defense steps up in second half vs. Browns

Cleveland Browns quarterback Josh McCown (13) is tackled by Arizona Cardinals middle linebacker Kevin Minter (51) in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Like most NFL coaches, Bruce Arians measures the effectiveness of his defense through four main statistics: third-down defense, red-zone defense, turnovers forced and points allowed.

Here’s how the Cardinals defense fared against the Cleveland Browns in the first half of Sunday’s game at FirstEnergy Stadium.

Third-down conversions allowed: 6 of 8

Red-zone defense: 0 for 3, with 3 TDs allowed (all on third down).

Turnovers forced: 0

Points allowed: 20

“The first half (we were) sluggish,” defensive back Tyrann Mathieu said. “I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t our type of football.”

Arizona’s fourth-ranked defense was nearly unrecognizable against the Browns, so the Cardinals took a look at one another, offered a self-critique that may have involved some harsh language from Arians, and took the field for the second-half wearing their normal game faces.

Arizona forced two turnovers (one thanks to Browns running back Robert Turbin’s butter fingers), it held Cleveland to 3 of 8 on third down, it held the Browns out of the red zone altogether and it allowed zero second-half points in a 34-20 win.

The Cardinals also generated good pressure (it was non-existent in the first half against a Browns offensive line that had allowed the third most sacks in NFL), sacking quarterback Josh McCown once, but moving him off his spots and making him uncomfortable on numerous occasions, including Kevin Minter’s big hit that left McCown grimacing for the rest of the game.

Once the offense decided to hang into the ball – at least for a while — Arizona pulled away for an expected 34-20 win over the Browns that pushed the team to 6-2 at the halfway point of the season as it heads into its bye week.

“Obviously, that’s why you have the game timed for 60 minutes,” Arians said. “The (defense) made some good adjustments and we just started tackling better. We didn’t tackle very well in the first half.”

After Atlanta’s surprising home loss to Tampa Bay, the Cardinals are tied for the third-best record in the NFC behind Green Bay and Carolina. They also have a two-game lead over the New York Giants for the No. 3 seed in the conference, and a game-and-a-half lead over St. Louis for first place in the NFC West.

The Cardinals are clearly capable of scoring points. Their 263 points are the most in the NFL and their 32.7 points per game are second to New England’s 35.6. The second half of the season gets much more challenging, however. The Cardinals will face two-time defending NFC champ Seattle twice, Cincinnati (7-0), St. Louis (4-3), Minnesota (5-2) and Green Bay (6-0 entering play Sunday).

To achieve the ultimate goal before this team’s window closes, they’ll need more efforts like the one they got in the second half on Sunday over the aforementioned 60 minutes of “timed” football.

“That’s our goal every week, to get better and improve,” Mathieu said. “There’s been too many times this season we’ve started a game like that. As you all know, after this bye week, the teams get tougher. For us, we have to start playing in the first quarter, playing how we played in the second half.”

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