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Cardinals’ Hunt for Red November

NFL: Player Headshots 2021 Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

“Whenever I feel the dark, drizzly November in my soul, I take to the sea.” (Ishmael, from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick)

Last year by the end of October, after their stunning 37-34 OT win at home versus the Seahawks, the Cardinals were sitting pretty with a 5-2 record.

And then came November —- an agonizing month that, save for the spectacular Hail Murray, the Cardinals suffered through tight losses to the Dolphins, Seahawks and Patriots.

During that painful stretch, Kyler Murray was slowed by a shoulder injury and was further stifled by defenses that had now figured out ways to prevent the dynamic, young QB from exploiting them with RPOs.

This season the Cardinals have come through September and October tied for the best record in the NFL at 7-1.

However, last week was their most difficult week of the season, having lost their lightning rod DE J.J. Watt to a dislocated shoulder/torn tendons and then having lost what by all rights could have been the most epic come-from-behind win in franchise history —- having waged a tremendous goal-line stand versus the Packers and then having marched 95 yards down to the Packers’ 4 yard line only to lose on a botched audible where a player did the unthinkable by watching his own man intercept the ball on the Jumbo Tron —- had the Cardinals converted those 4 yards or won in overtime, they would have surpassed the 1974 St. Louis Cardinals Cardinals (7-0) for the best start (8-0) in franchise history.

Ahhh. the football gods!

Regardless, the Cardinals’ 7-1 start to this season has been a joy and privilege to watch.

Week 9 is the bridge game of the NFL’s new 17 game season.

Kyler Murray is now nursing a sprained ankle which, depending on the severity, could take him 1-3 weeks to heal. Versus the Packers without J.J. Watt, the Cardinals defense never made a big tackle or sack behind the line of scrimmage, save for the one play where DE Zach Allen tackled a scrambling Aaron Rodgers for a half yard loss. Furthermore, All Pro WR DeAndre Hopkins spent most of the game on a the sidelines after aggravating his persistent hamstring injury.

If you watched the 49ers’ 33-22 win over the Bears at Soldier Field yesterday, as one can imagine that many of the Cardinals coaches and players did, it is clear that with a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo and Trent Williams back in their lineup and with the prospects of George Kittle being ready to play this week, the 49ers, at 3-4, are determined to surge back into the NFC playoff picture.

This week’s game in Santa Clara presents a significant challenge for the Cardinals. Last year, despite beating the 49ers in the first game, the Cardinals in the rematch, with a playoff berth on the line, got summarily pounded by a 49ers team led by third string QB C.J. Beathard. What that disappointing loss for the Cardinals manifested—- regardless of records —- it proved that NFC West rivalry games are ferocious battles of the will.

When the Cardinals beat the 49ers 17-10 in Glendale a few weeks ago, the 49ers’ defense put out a blueprint as to how to slow down the Cardinals’ high scoring offense, a blueprint that was successfully copied and pasted this past week by the Packers.

Hopefully this time around, the Cardinals’ coaches and players have promptly come up with their counter punches.

During the 17-10 Cardinals’ win, on the other side of the ball, with rookie Trey Lance at QB, Kyle Shanahan tried to pull out all of the stops by going for it on 5 4th downs —- which, to the Cardinals’ credit, the defense stopped 4 out of 5 times, the most stunning of which came when Isaiah Simmons and Tanner Vallejo stopped a full charging Lance a mere one inch in front of the goal line.

It wasn’t until late in the 4th quarter that the Cardinals found some momentum on offense. The Cardinals closed out the game in fine fashion. As you might recall, while clinging to a 10-7 lead with a little over 5 minutes left in the game, Kyler Murray bolted through the left side of the 49ers defense for 9 yards, then while buying time to his left threw a 30 yard 50/50 ball to DeAndre Hopkins that set up a 1st and goal from the 9 yard line, which the Cardinals converted on the next when Murray threaded the needle on a back shoulder throw to Hopkins at the left pylon.

After the 49ers answered with a Joey Slye FG to make the score 17-10, the Cardinals offense then ran out the clock with a nifty 11 yard completion to DeAndre Hopkins and then a series of power runs by James Conner.

The Cardinals knew all week that the 49ers game was going to be dogfight, no matter who their QB was.

This week the Cardinals know they have to impose their will on the 49ers because the Cardinals know that in prevailing in this game, they can deflate the 49ers’ playoff hopes and continue to improve their own.

But, in order to do so, the Cardinals have to make some key decisions.

Number one, with the trading deadline at 4 PM EDT tomorrow, it would be a significant boost for the Cardinals, in light of losing J.J. Watt, to acquire a good, physically imposing playmaker to the defensive interior.

The defensive interior on the Cardinals has been a need area even before J.J. Watt was injured. The Cardinals are 31st in the NFL in rush defense in terms of yards per carry, where they are giving up 4.9 yards per touch.

If the Cardinals are serious about contending for a championship, they cannot continue to surrender 4.9 yards per carry. The Cardinals’ defense has been very stout otherwise. Imagine how good the defense could be if it wasn’t so vulnerable between the tackles.

Personnel-wise the Cardinals need a difference maker on the interior and they need their linebackers to get downhill to the ball and finish the way good defenses do. Even when the Cardinals’ linebackers were sitting in the holes versus the Packers, Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon overpowered them.

Budda Baker is pictured above because, Budda Baker, as the alpha and textbook tackler on the defense, needs to show his teammates how to hit and wrap up like meat hooks while driving through the ball carriers. As a whole. the pad levels on Cardinals’ tacklers has been too high.

The problems up front for the Cardinals personnel-wise is that the younger players like Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu have only combined for 7 tackles, 1 tackle for loss and 0 QB hits, while veteran defensive tackles Corey Peters and Jordan Phillips, who have missed 8 games combined due to injuries, have combined for only 12 tackles, 2 tackles for loss and 0 QB hits.

The bright spots have been J.J. Watt (16 tackles, 5 TFLs, 1 sack, 10 QB hits), Zach Allen (16 tackles, 2 TFLs, 2 sacks, 3 QB hits) and Michael Dogbe (15 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 sack and 2 QB hits). Taking Watt out of this mix creates a significant void.

Steve Keim did a fantastic job of reacting to the loss of TE tough-guy Maxx Williams, when he traded for Zach Ertz.

J.J. Watt was the tough-guy up front on the Cardinals’ defense. It would be a huge boost to the team if Steve Keim can make a key addition to try the fill the need up front.

On offense, if Kyler Murray’s ankle and DeAndre Hopkins’ hamstring are still sore on Thursday of this week, then it might be very wise of the Cardinals to give them another week to heal.

The team can rally around Colt McCoy at QB and would give him some big targets with A.J. Green, Zach Ertz and Antoine Wesley, and some speedy playmakers in Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore and Andy Isabella.

Plus, this might encourage the Cardinals to put more emphasis on the running game by handing the mall more consistently to Chase Edmonds and James Conner, perhaps in the way the Packers emphasized their running game while playing without All Pro WR Davante Adams.

The Cardinals could feel encouraged by the way backup QBs won games in impressive fashion this past week:

Another encouraging factor here is that last season, Colt McCoy helped lead the Giants to a stunning 17-12 upset win over the Seahawks at Lumen Field when he filled in for an injured Daniel Jones.

Kliff Kingsbury has stated on numerous occasions how impressed he is with Colt McCoy, and has gushed about how important his addition to the offense has been.

The Cardinals cannot afford to let Kyler Murray’s and DeAndre Hopkins’ injuries linger, especially were they to aggravate the injuries (as Hopkins did this past week) which could then continue to limit them for the games ahead. Plus, whenever a player favors an injury he risks incurring an injury somewhere else.

Kyler admitted this off-season that his shoulder injury last year was worse than what he let on. He conceded that it caused him to alter his throwing motion. Thursday night, minutes after Kyler was asked about his limping on and off the field (and told the media “I’m fine”) he was seen leaving the building in a walking boot.

It’s always difficult to keep ultra competitors like Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins out of games, but sometimes, as sages avow, “discretion is the better part of valor.”

If need be, wouldn’t it be sweet poetic justice if the Cardinals went up to Santa Clara and returned the favor of knocking the 49ers off with their backup QB?

Whatever the case, the Cardinals’ hunt for red November begins this Sunday during this Week 9 Golden Gate Bridge chapter of the 17 game season.

The Wild Card in the game?

Budda Baker.

Just ask George Kittle.