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Two steps back: Five takeaways from the dispiriting loss to the Lions

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NFL: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals
Cardinals coach Steve Wilks likely wondering if his head coaching career will be over in the next few weeks.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

To absolutely no one’s surprise, the Cardinals followed up last week’s shocking road win over the Packers with a complete dud of a home loss to the Lions. In many ways, this loss was emblematic of the 2018 season: pitiful and unimaginative offense, solid but not spectacular defense, special teams miscues, and scaredy-cat coaching. Here are a few takeaways in the aftermath of this, the team’s 10th loss of the season.

The Packers Game Was a Mirage

I don’t think any Cardinals fans thought anything so trite as “We can build on this!” or “The team has really turned a corner!” after last week’s win, but it was definitely a feel-good moment in a season in dire need of one. That said, today’s dismal performance confirmed what I, like many Cardinals fans, suspected: last week’s game was more about the Packers than the Cardinals. The Packers had their own set of issues, and it couldn’t have been more clear that they didn’t give it their all for a coach they had stopped listening to—and who was fired immediately after the game. (They also probably assumed Aaron Rodgers would bail them out once again.) It was a nice win, but it really didn’t change anything for the Cardinals’ season or the outlook for the remaining games.

Lord Byron Isn’t the Answer

Yes, Byron Leftwich is still working with Mike McCoy’s playbook and similar personnel deficiencies, but the offense hasn’t been much better under the Bruce Arians disciple. Under McCoy, the Redbirds averaged 13.1 points and 221 yards per game. Under Leftwich, those numbers are… 14.3 points and 268 yards per game. Even with that modest “improvement,” we will still be #32 in both categories after Week 14. Even more concerningly, Josh Rosen appears to have taken a step back under Leftwich’s tutelage. In four games with McCoy, Rosen completed 55% of his passes with a 6.4 YPA and 196 YPG. In six games under Leftwich, those numbers are 56% completions with a 5.9 YPA and 182 YPG. Now, the running game has dramatically improved (107 YPG vs. 65 YPG under McCoy), but that’s not what you’re paying your OC for with a highly touted 1st-round rookie QB under center. We need an OC who can get the most out of Rosen, not just improve our run game to merely below league average rather than historically bad. It doesn’t look like Leftwich is that guy.

The Defense Struggles to Create Turnovers

Now, the Redbirds are still top-5 in sacks even after only getting one against the Lions. But sacks aren’t nearly as important as turnovers, and this defense has only created two turnovers—two!—in the last six games. This offense needs all the help it can get, and the defense simply isn’t giving them enough short fields to work with. Despite plenty of talent on defense, we just haven’t seemed to get the big plays that defenses like the Bears, Rams, and even Packers seem to get every week. I’m not sure if the problem is more schematic- or talent-related, but we averaged 27 takeaways per year from 2014-2017—and we’re on pace for just 17 this season (14 in 13 games). Guys like Patrick Peterson (2 INTs), Tre Boston (3 INTs, 1 FR), and Chandler Jones (3 FF, 1 FR) are doing their parts, but others like Antoine Bethea, Haason Reddick, and even Budda Baker (0 INTs) just haven’t made those splash plays on a consistent basis. This is a problem that hasn’t been talked about too much, but it’s really been the Achilles’ heel of Al Holcomb’s otherwise sturdy defense.

We’re Back on Track for a Top-2 Pick

Let me be clear: I absolutely do not advocate the team tanking, and I will sincerely be rooting for us to win all of our remaining games to avoid the culture of losing that seems to have infected a certain other Valley sports team. But given the paramount prominence of the NFL draft turning a team around, you can’t help but pay attention to the draft standings once your team is eliminated from playoff contention (as the Cardinals officially were today). Our loss coupled with wins by the 49ers, Raiders, and Jets vaults us back up to the #2 overall pick if the draft were held today. We have a very real shot at the #1 overall pick, which would give us plenty of options to improve our team for 2019 and beyond. (Not that getting the #1 pick seems to have helped that other Valley sports team.) We’ll see how things shake out these next three weeks, but it’s all but a lock that we’ll have a top-5 pick in April.

Steve Wilks Is Back on the Hot Seat

Well, that didn’t last long. I wrote last week that Wilks’s seat had cooled a bit after the upset in Lambeau, but scoring only 3 points in a home loss to a 4-8 team has it heated back up in a hurry. The consistently conservative approach (why are you punting on 4th-and-inches down 10 points in the second half?) and defensive effort on the decisive touchdown drive rightfully have fans and media alike questioning (again) whether the team has quit on Wilks. You know things are bad when a 4th-string RB is running roughshod over your team in front of the home crowd. Wilks is now 3-10 in his debut season, and his margin for error is razor-thin for these last three games. No one wants to fire a head coach after one season, but I honestly don’t see how Bidwill brings him back after a 3-13 season. Would 4 wins be enough to get him a second season? 5? Wilks is likely coaching for his job these next three weeks. Can he get the players to show up and save his job?

Final Thoughts

After a one-week vacation from the constant losing, the season from hell continued today. The Cardinals once again have the worst record in the league thanks to an utterly inept offense, a lack of splash plays on defense, and conservative-bordering-on-comatose coaching. Things are not going to get any better these next three weeks, and, unless big changes are made, they won’t get better in 2019 either.

What were your takeaways from this latest loss, Redbirds fans? Any thoughts on Leftwich or Wilks? The defense or the draft? Let’s commiserate once again in the comments.