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NE 20 ARI 17: Deja Vu

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at New England Patriots Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

The short version of the Cardinals’ 4th quarter meltdowns is that Kliff Kingsbury has been trying to succeed in close games by having his offense run out the clock and be in position to make the game winning FG or TD, ideally with 0:00 on the clock.

The concept is understandable, and perhaps even laudable—-only if, however, Kingsbury can rely on 5 things:

1—-good, crisp interior run blocking

2—-being able to convert 3rd and 4th downs in short yardage situations

3—-going penalty free, or at least being able to recover from penalties to still move the chains

4—-a clutch FG kicker

5—-a clutch defense that can close out the win

All of these five elements have one thing in common—-they have to be performed under the highest of pressure—-but—-as Diana Ross of The Supremes said so aptly:

“Pressure can burst pipes or make you a diamond.”

In truth, Kingsbury’s Cardinals in recent weeks have not been able to check off all the right boxes under pressure in order to win close games.

Ironically, the Cardinals’ one win over the past 4 games was on a wing and a prayer. But, even that victory was nearly denied because of the team’s failure to handle the 5 key elements of late game success.

Upon closer inspection, however, there is a more complicated version of why the Cardinals lost to the Patriots 20-17 yesterday.

Thanksgiving week for NFL teams and coaches is one of the more challenging weeks to navigate because of the natural distractions and the potential changes in routine. This year it was made even more challenging by the COVID-19 team protocols—-which cost the Cardinals two important players in WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Trent Sherfield.

For 1st Ballot HOF to-be HC Bill Belichick, he was able to profit during this challenging week of preparation by studying Brian Flores’ game plan during the Dolphins’ 34-31 win 3 weeks ago in Arizona.

What Belichick was able to glean from that preparation:

1—-the Cardinals are going to try to run the clock out at the ends of both halfs—-calling mostly running plays that set up key 3rd and 4th down short yardage conversions—-which the Cardinals almost always try to convert on the ground, either on an inside dive play from the shotgun or on a Murray keeper off the read option.

2—-the Cardinals defense is apt to play softer pass coverage late in both halfs, plus you can beat their pressure with QB scrambles.

3—-Kyler Murray can be stifled in the running game if you zone and string him—-something the Seahawks showed Flores on the game film of the Oct. 25th SNF contest.

4—-Kyler Murray, when pressured in his face, is apt to make one or two panicky or rushed decisions in the 2nd half.

5—-Have your best cover CB play WR DeAndre Hopkins—-and overplay him to the point of perhaps taking a PI penalty or two or four—-which could work in the long run because Murray will stop looking Hopkins’s way.

6—-the Cardinals have a kicker who struggles under pressure, a punter who is inconsistent, no real threats as kickoff or punt returners and are susceptible to giving up big returns on the kickoff and punt return cover teams.

7—-the Cardinals are penalty prone to the point where a costly penalty can do them in late in the game.

8—-you can use key timeouts to your advantage in critical situations by seeing the Cardinals’ alignments on offense and defense.

9—-the Cardinals tend to use their timeouts when there is confusion on the field (with the offense or defense) or of the play clock is running down, or if they are in situations late in the halfs on defense where they want the ball back. Typically their calls coming out of the timeouts are not particularly strategic.

10—-the Cardinals FG blocking efforts are nothing to worry about—-edge rusher Patrick Peterson rarely if ever planes out to block the ball and the inside rushers haven’t blocked a kick all year. Thus, long FG attempts are very makable.

Therefore, if you apply these 10 prep considerations to the Dolphins and Patriots winning formula versus the Cardinals, the similarities of their success are striking.

1—-at the end of both halfs in both games the Cardinals failed to convert key 3rd and 4th short yardage situation on dive plays.

2—-in both games, the tying and winning scores were aided and abetted by the Cardinals soft coverage and giving up costly QB scrambles.

3—-in both games, other than with one read option TD Kyler scored where he deked two defenders and was able to stretch the ball over the goal-line, after other attempts failed the Cardinals stopped calling the read options.

4—-versus the Dolphins, on the one time Kyler was asked to throw on 3rd and short, he rushed a pass to an open Christian Kirk on an quick out pass which sailed wide of the target and led to a missed FG. Versus the Seahawks last week, Kyler incurred a costly intentional grounding penalty which ended up leading to a safety in the end zone because of a holding call. This week versus the Patriots, with the score tied at 10-10, Murray with a blitz coming toward him, triple clutched on a pass that wound up being tipped and intercepted, which led to the Patriots’ go-ahead TD.

5—-DeAndre Hopkins picked up 6 PI calls versus the Dolphins and Patriots, but his lines ended up being: 3/30yds/10.0ave/0-td vs. Dolphins on 3 official targets and 5/55yds./11.0ave./0-td versus the Patriots on 7 official targets. Not even a combined 100 yards for 0 TDs in the two games for the NFL’s leading receiver.

6—-K Zane Gonzalez missed the 49 yd. FG (short)in the effort to tie the game versus the Dolphins. Versus the Patriots, he missed the 45 yard FG (wide right) that would have given the Cardinals the lead with 1:47 left on the clock. Versus the Dolphins, P Andy Lee punted once for 42 yards with a net of 32, via a 10 yard return by Jakeem Grant. Versus the Patriots, Lee booted a 34 yard line drive punt versus which Gunner Olszewski ran back for 82 yards, but it wound up counting as 58 yards after the Pats got flagged on a questionable blind side block. With the Cardinals up 10-0, Dante Moncrief returned a short Gonzalez kickoff 53 yards to set up the Patriots’ first TD to make the score 10-7.

7—-In the Dolphins game the key penalty on the Dolphins game tying 4th quarter drive (31-31) was a 17 yard Pass interference call on Patrick Peterson which put the Dolphins close to the red zone. In the Seahawks loss the key penalty was Dre Kirpatrick’s unpsortsmanlike conduct call late in the game which led to a TD. In the Patriots game it was Isaiah Simmons’ unnecessary roughness penally on Cam Newton that helped to set up the game winning FG. Note: no coach in the world is going to encourage a defender to make a hit with the QB clearly heading out of bounds—-not in that key end of game situation. Arguing whether it was a penalty or not is a moot point. It was a poor decision and a costly one.

8—-In the Dolphins’ game, Brian Flores used each of his timeouts in the 2nd half to make key in-game adjustments, the last of which sealed the win when he saw the Cardinals were not crowding the A gaps on a 3rd and 1 and thus told Tua to sneak the ball for the win. In the Patriots game, two of Bill Belichick timeouts, late in both halfs, were game changing decisions: (1) calling TO on 4th and inches when the Cardinals decided to go for it at the end of the 1st half...Belichick saw the Cardinals’ alignment (TE overload to left) and set up his goal-line defense—-as they had prepared all week——and Kliff Kingsbury came out with the same alignment. RG J.R. Sweezy got spun around on his block, backup DT Adam Spence held firm in his gap and MLB Ja’Wuan Bentley filled to hole to make a textbook tackle. (2) calling TO on 2rd and 6 for the Cardinals with 2:08 left in the 2nd half. It allowed them to use the 2:00 warning after the 2nd down run and then use their final TO after stuffing Drake on the 3rd down run which led to the missed FG on the next play. Amazingly the Cardinals came away with 0 points on both end of the half situations.

9—-Unfortunately, Kliff Kingsbury had to use a TO to avoid a delay of game penalty, another during what appeared to be confusion on defense, and then the last one to stop the clock following the sack on Newton to create 3rd and 12 with 0:57 left—-the problem was coming out of the last TO, the Cardinals didn’t think of keeping a spy on Cam Newton and thus they witnessed the absolute nightmare scenario of Newton scrambling for 13 yards and then Simmons giving the Patriots 15 more yards on the penalty.

10—-It’ an uncanny coincidence that the Dolphins and Patriots beat the Cardinals (with virtually the same game plan) on 50 yard FGs by Jason Sanders and Nick Folk respectively.

The Cardinals won all of the key stats in this game—-for which they deserve credit—-but, it was tough to see them squander their best overall defensive effort of the season by virtue of their failure on both sides of the ball to handle end of half situations. This cost them what would have been a superb win in Foxborough. Anyone thinking that this game could have and should have been easy is underestimating how difficult any game versus Bill Belichick in Foxborough is.

The biggest question for Kliff Kingsbury is whether to stick with his late half strategies by keeping on working to improve them—-or—-to change the approach by being more agggressive and less predictable.

The irony is that with better, clutch FG kicking and timely closeouts by the Cardinals’ defense, Kliff Kingsbury could be candidate for Coach of the Year.

This is how fine the line has been for the Cardinals and Kingsbury.

To put Kingbsury’s efforts in greater perspective, he had the Cardinals competing for 60 minutes in 10 of the 11 games (except the loss in Carolina)—-7 of which have gone down to the wire (the wins versus WAS, NYJ and DAL were in hand——of the other 4 losses (not counting the loss at CAR), the Cardinals have lost 3 of them on game winning FGs in games where Zane Gonzalez missed a FG or XPT.

Conversely, the Cardinals have won two games on last second plays, the FG versus SEA and the Hail Murray versus BUF.

Thus, for those keeping score, in games that have gone down to the wire, the Cardinals are 3-4. Wins: SF, SEA, BUF. Losses: DET, MIA, SEA, NE.

The Cardinals may have caught a break the past two weeks when MIN lost to DAL t and when the Rams lost to the 49ers.

if the Cardinals can find a way to beat Sean McVay’s Rams for the first time (6-0 vs. Cardinals, 5 of them blowout wins), amazingly the Cardinals could be tied for 2nd in the NFC West, and if somehow SEA falters tonight at PHI or next Sunday vs. NYG, the Cardinals could be tied for 1st place.

The Cardinals have been very persistent in sticking with their game plans and their personnel, regardless of the mistakes made along the way. RB Kenyan Drake was trotted back out on the field after 3 glaring mistakes vs. BUF and Drake rebounded with a 100 yard game. LB De’Vondre Campbell was still starting in NE despite a few rough games and he answered the bell with one of his best games. CB Dre Kirkpatrick was not cut following his egregious penalty at SEA and he too had one of his best games. K Zane Gonzalez has been kept thus far, despite his struggles. From the sounds of it, it appears that Kliff Kingsbury is not going to make a change, unless perhaps STC Kevin Rodgers approves of it.

The Cardinals are making a commitment to learning from the mistakes and trying to correct them. Recently we have seen improvements by individual players, but not as much in the overall team results. However, this kind of patience and commitment can eventually have its rewards.

However, I think a few changes could be key to getting he team back on track:

The offense is painfully slow now—-I believe the tempo needs to change—-it’s nerve-wrackingly deliberate—-and it gives the defense ample time to align and catch their breath. Murray is thinking too much. He and the offense are at their best when they play fast and instinctively and wear the defense down.

Cards need to use Williams more on iso blocks on ILBs. Only 2 passes thrown down field, both caught by Isabella and Kirk but both just barely out of bounds. This needs to get straightened out. Kyler needs to take stronger command of the offense again.

As many of you know, I believe that Matt McCrane has the most consistently fundamental and accurate kicking form that I have ever seen. I have wanted McCrane to be our kicker ever since he was signed as a CFA in 2018.

I would add to this that last February Matt McCrane was making 50 plus bombs in the icy air MetLife Stadium of the Meadowlands right down the middle for the New York Guardians of the XFL. Matt was 8/8 in FGs for the Guardian’s 5 game season (3-2). The Cardinals play at MetLife Stadium in two weeks.

For me and my sister who made the ride with me from CT to Foxborough on November 29, 1981, the Cardinals provided these game winning heroics on this keen pass from rookie QB Neil Lomax to WR Roy Green.

Man, it would be so great to see the Cardinals bring back the excitement that they had been generating before the bye week.

I think they have hit in them—-do you?