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SF 36 ARI 26: Ripe for a Win, Cards Get Peeled and Stripped

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Week by week, the Cardinals’ offense is putting up points in the mid to high 20s, and week by week, the Cardinals defense is giving up easy TDs and costly meltdowns.

It’s like a weekly re-reading of the The Myth of Sysiphus. You know, he was that Greek dude who kept pushing the boulder up the mountain only to watch it slip from his hands just as the rock was mere inches from the pinnacle.

The Cardinals now head into their bye week 3-7-1, losers of 4 straight—-a team very exciting to watch on one end and very dreadful to watch on the other.

There are some aspects of this 36-26 los that are just plain weird.

The Cardinals came into the game with a healthy rocket armed QB and all of their skill players healthy, save for RB Chase Edmonds.

On the other side, the 49ers were hurting big-time—-with All Pro TE George Kittle, RB Matt Brieda and with their best WR Emmanuel Sanders all hurting, and all out of the game once Sanders succumbed to his rib injury.

Yet—-when you look at the passing numbers—-which QB and receiving unit had their way?

Yards Passing: 49ers: 421, Cardinals 131

Let’s not forget that even before the 49ers could get anything started on offense the Cardinals had jumped out to a 16-0 lead, on 2 well timed TD passes from Kyler Murray to Larry Fitzgerald and Pharoh Cooper—-

Yet, from that point on in the game when the score was 16-0, all the Cardinals’ passing offense could accumulate was a whopping 30 yards. That’s like 10 yards a quarter.

There was talk during the week of how WR Christian Kirk could emerge at the heir apparent to Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals’ #1 WR—-particularly following Kirk’s breakout 6/138/23.0/3 TD performance versus the Bucs—-and while Kirk did draw pass interference calls from Richard Sherman, he squandered two made-to-order RAC plays when he caught a pass on a crossing route to the left and, with nothing but green grass ahead, he elected to turn back inside instead where he was easily tackled—-and then dropping a pass right in his hands on a 3rd down play where he was so wide open that he as going to get at least 15-20 RAC yards—-

Weirdly it just didn’t seem like Kirk’s head was in the game—-as he cost the Cardinals an easy TD to TE Charles Clay when all Kirk had to do was avoid contact on a pick route that the 49ers had badly misplayed—-otherwise he looked somewhat skittish catching and running with the ball. As it turned out—-his 41 yards on 6.8 yards per catch were good enough in this game to lead the team in receiving—-while on the other end, the 49ers’ rookie WR Deebo Samuel hauled down 8 catches for 134 yards at 16.8 yards per catch.

Samuel’s 134 yards were more yards than the entire Cardinals’ receiving group’s

Then—-the Cardinals defense which has been glaringly deficient all season in stopping screen passes and covering TEs gave up a 57 yard screen to Richie Jones, a 19 yard screen to FB Kyle Juszczyk, 2 wide open TDs to TE Ross Dwelley and a wide open game winning TD to RB Jeff Wilson—-who only had to beat DE Chandler Jones in pass coverage to walk into the end zone from 25 yards out.

Curiously that was Wilson’s only snap in the game—-yet his one touch was more than a healthy David Johnson got in the entire game.

For the second week in a row the Cardinals’ defense was able to create a couple of key turnovers and for the second week in a row all the Cardinals’ offense got from those turnovers was 3 points.

It seems that whenever the offense comes on the field after a turnover, instead of seizing the momentum and going for the jugular the offense gets especially conservative. Strange.

For the second week in a row the offense had the opportunity to close out the game with a game sealing drive—-last week they gave up the rare interception and this week following Jalen Thompson’s outstanding interception, they did their best Mike McCoy imitation of run middle, run middle, get sacked on a pressure 3rd down, punt.

However, credit Kliff Kingsbury the OL, Kenyan Drake and Kyler Murray for previously scoring the go ahead TD (26-23) in the 4th quarter by mounting a 10 play 75 yard drive over a span of 5:40 that featured 29 tough yards rushing by Kenyan Drake and the electrifying 22 yard read-option TD scamper by Kyler Murray.

The Cardinals defense had been showing signs of improvement earlier in the game and in portions of the 2nd half—-it was the best 1ts half performance of the year—-as they only gave up a FG before the end of the half, and not a TD. This kept it to 16-10 Arizona at the half.

But, the 49ers took the 1st possession of the 2nd half 84 yards on 6 plays, ending on the 2nd wide open TD pass from Jimmy Garoppolo to TE Ross Dwelley.

On the 49ers’ game winning drive—-much like their 1st TD drive that took a mere 1:11 off the clock on 5 plays for 75 yards, the 49ers were able to go right through the Cardinals’ phantom defense in 1:41 on 8 plays for 65 yards.

For the second week in a row, with one last chance to respond to the opponents’ late TD, QB Kyler Murray did not seem to understand how to manage the clock or the situation. This time he had 31 seconds and 3 timeouts—-and needed a TD with the score 30-26—-the last thing a QB wants to do in that situation is throw a 5 yard check down pass.

Just as Kyler Murray seems too anxious to sell screen passes—-he checked down way too quickly to KeeSean Johnson—-and then Johnson got stacked up and stripped—-Johnson too needs to learn that in that situation you can’t wast more of the clock—-you have to get a knee down and call timeout.

But the only hope the Cardinals had was to take 20-25 yard shots downfield to set up a potential game winning pass. That 5 yard pass, alas, was right in line with the whole game’s “baby ball” passing attack.

What’s surprising in many ways in this offense under Kliff Kingsbury is how awkward and seemingly disorganized the offense is in executing situational plays. Would you have ever thought that Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense could be this conservative and lacking at key times in the all-out lust for making big splash plays?

What’s very discouraging about the defense is how easy they make it on opposing QBs. Chandler Jones is the only player who is getting consistent pressure on the QB. During the Cardinals’ 4 game losing streak in which one huge sack could have been the difference between winning and losing, all that Terrell Suggs has contributed is 12 a sack and 2 QB hurries—-again—-in 4 close games, 3 of which went down to the wire.

Suggs and Patrick Peterson have dragged the defense down the past three weeks by playing at half speed. Suggs isn’t even practicing during the week—-and is it a mere coincidence that Suggs and Peterson were the only two veterans who elected to skip OTAs?

Veterans like Suggs and Peterson continue to be enabled and coddled by the GM and the coaches. Some coaches are adamant about—-if you don’t practice all week, then you don’t play. And some coaches are adamant about—-if you don’t hustle and run hard—-then you get taken out. But—-make no mistake about it—- it is this preferential treatment that is at the heart of the team’s continued dysfunction.

At least Kliff Kingsbury had the guts to sit David Johnson. This brings hope for a new set of coaching standards with regard to player accountability.

It is fair at this point to continue to question not only GM Steve Keim’s personnel moves on defense (has anyone ever really gotten the sense that Keim understands 34 personnel protol-types?)—-but, to question his last three choices for defensive coordinator? Here are the numbers:

2017—-under James Bettcher—-Cardinals defense was 27th in total yards, 27th versus the run and 19th versus the pass.

2018—-under Steve Wilks and Al Holcomb—-Cardinals’ defense was 31st in total yards, 22nd in run defense and 32nd in pass defense.

2019—-under Vance Joseph—-Cardinals’ defense 31st in total yards, 11th in run defense and 32nd in pass defense.

Some pundits and fans attribute the Cardinals current failures on defense to a lack of talent—-and while there were times in the game yesterday where finally we were seeing a more concerted effort to match up in man coverage—-there are still those glaring glitches where the defense is giving up easy TDs to wide open receivers—-and far too many of those glitches come in the red zone as they did ad nauseam yesterday. That’s on the coaching.

Let me ask you this—-if you had access to the coaches’ sideline conversations and you learned that Vance Joseph’s call was to go full house blitz after Garoppolo, ironically leaving your only good pass rusher in Chandler Jones (who is tied for the NFL lead in sacks) out of the rush in one-on-one “peel” coverage on their RB, would you tried to talk the coaches out of that?

Of course you WOULD!—-you NEVER leave the middle of the field wide open with the game on the line. And the Cardinals—-who are the NFL’s laughing stock on defense—-proved why.

Put it this way—-late in games—-even if you rush 4 at the QB, you can cover all 5 receivers man-to-man and still have twin safeties to help over the top. With twin deep safeties you can call double teams on the opponents’ top targets if you want.

There is no excuse for leaving any receiver wide open unless the cam you assign to cover him slips and falls.

If we were seeing regular man-to-man coverage, then yes if the defense is still failing we could attribute it to the personnel. But the fact that we are seeing such continued confusion and breakdowns in coverage casts a dubious light on the coaching.

If you are Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim, do you fire Vance Joseph this week?

The only logical interim DC would be LB coach Billy Davis. But, here how Davis’ NFL defenses have fared when he was DC:

SF 2005: 32nd (points against), 30th (yards against)

SF 2006: 26th and 32nd

ARI 2009: 15th and 20th

ARI 2010: 30th and 29th

PHI 2013: 17th and 29th

PHI 2014: 22nd and 28th

PHI 2015: 24th and 29th

Those numbers speak for themselves.

But, what about—-if we are going get creative here—-what about Assistant Head Coach Jeff Rodgers as interim DC?

Rodgers’ brother, Jay, is the defensive line coach for the Bears, so he has a built-in resource there. Jeff Rodgers himself was a linebacker at Texas St—-so he is no complete stranger to knowing what good defenses look like. Rodgers would have the bye week to organize his plan, while his STs assistant, Randall McCray could take a more prominent role in coordinating the STs.

Even as a STs coordinator, Jeff Rodgers is no stranger as to what it takes to bust up tandem blocks on returns and certainly could apply these principles to busting up screen plays. As said earlier, it isn’t very difficult to assign coverage matchups on the 5 eligible receivers and have 2 safeties behind them. He could modify and build on the current blitz packages—-so as not to drop Chandler Jones into coverage with the game on the line.

Plus—-Jeff Rodgers gets his guys to run fast and tackle hard, doesn’t he?

If Jeff Rodgers would agree to take the DC reins for now, then a creative change might be well received by the players. Otherwise, it would seem best to keep Vance Joseph in place.

But—-having seen Jospeh slide both Chandler Jones and Terrell Suggs at times back into coverage as often as we have—-like he did in key 4th quarter 3rd down situations during the 1st 49ers’ game which led to easy clock-draining conversions—-how many of you, if you were the GM, would have gone to Joseph and told him to rips those plays out of his playbook?

How many of you would have demanded an answer as to why so many receivers are left uncovered? Why are so many are left uncovered in the red zone for easy TDs?

We have been watching the same old same old for 11 games with no discernibly consistent adjustments.

The other question is—if you were the GM, what would you say to Kliff Kingsbury? Doesn’t it seem to you like the offense is at its very best when the tempo is fast and when there is a concerted effort to attack the defense on all three levels, rather than just dink and dunk left and right? Would you encourage him to be aggressive, particularly late in games when the offense could put the other team away?

The Cardinals under Kingsbury and with Kyler Murray at QB are doing some very special things on their side of the ball—-and the fascinating thing is that they still haven’t as yet unleashed the full potential of this offense.

With three straight home games ahead, following the bye week, the Cardinals have an opportunity to find a way to manage these close games in their favor.