While game plans in the NFL always seek to prevent big plays, it’s the little things that often make the difference.
Things like the ball being snapped when quarterback Kyler Murray wasn’t looking on third-and-8 from the Minnesota 11-yard line in the fourth quarter with Minn’esota leading 28-23.
That possession had been set up by an Isaiah Simmons sack/fumble that he recovered at the Vikings 24-yard line, but the Cardinals had to settle for a field goal.
Or, usually reliable punt returner Greg Dortch muffing a punt in the fourth quarter that led to the final points of the game.
Or, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who clutched his head after dropping a catchable ball at the 25-yard line on a second-and-4 play from the Minnesota 44-yard line with 2:49 remaining. Two plays later on fourth down, a pass play to running back Eno Benjamin was fittingly stopped by former Cardinals linebacker Jordan Hicks less than a yard short of the line to gain.
Or, Benjamin being guilty of a blindside block on a Murray run on the final possession of the fourth quarter that cost 15 yards. Murray did complete a 24-yard pass to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the 37-yard line on the next play, but the final three snaps were spike, sack, sack and time ran out on the Cardinals comeback.
Those were only a few of the examples.
Said coach Kliff Kingsbury, “The penalty, that’s a backbreaker when you do it in that situation. You know you can’t crack back like that, pushing back 15 (yards). It’s tough.”
The Cardinals battled back from an early 14-3 deficit (cue the déjà vu music) and even led briefly 17-14 in the third quarter. However, the Vikings effortlessly marched 75 yards down the field in eight plays to go back ahead.
One hundred seconds later, it was 28-17 following an ill-advised Murray pass that was intercepted on a play that began at the 9-yard line thanks to an illegal double-team block by running back Keaontay Ingram and tight end Trey McBride, who on the first two plays of the second half, was flagged for holding that pushed the Cardinals back to the 8-yard line on first down.
Said defensive end J.J. Watt, who had two sacks for 18 lost yards, two tackles for loss and three quarterback hits, “We have to do a better job stopping the run game. We let them outside and they gashed us a few times. For us, we just have to stop the run, get to the quarterback and affect him. We just can’t let them score 34 points.”
Plus, the five touchdowns were all in the red zone on plays of 1, 4, 5, 7 and 17 yards. The Cardinals were in the middle of the league before the game, allowing touchdowns on 16 of 28 red-zone trips (57.1 percent) and are now 21 of 33 (63.6 percent).
What’s maddening is that in a game that felt like the Cardinals were outplayed, they had ample opportunity to win.
The result is what separates teams with good records from the mediocre ones.
Consider that Minnesota won its fifth consecutive game, all by one score, and the Vikings are 6-1, in first place in the NFC North and are 5-0 in one-score games.
The Cardinals, now 3-5, but surely still in the hunt in the suddenly mediocre NFC West, are 1-3 in one-score games.
The Seahawks remained in first place and are 5-3 after defeating the Giants. San Francisco’s eighth consecutive regular-season win over the Rams gave them a season sweep and moved their record to 4-4 and dropped the Rams to 3-5.
The Seahawks are 2-2 in one-score games and have only one double-digit loss this season. The 49ers are 0-1 in one-score games and have two double-digit losses. The Rams are 2-0 in one-score games, but have lost four games by 10 points or more including Sunday’s loss. The Cardinals have two double-digit losses.
The Cardinals have a crucial home game next Sunday against Seattle and a win would pull them to within one game of the Seahawks and be their first division win this season. After that game, there is a road game against the Rams and what would have been a home game against the 49ers, but that is in Mexico City.
As most of the games have been this season, Sunday was a tale of two halves. The Vikings gashed the Cardinals for 249 yards in the first half (6.7 per play) with running back Dalvin Cook rushing for 80 yards on 11 attempts. However, he was only 11-for-31 in the second half as the Vikings totaled 132 yards (4.3 per play), had five three-and-outs and punted four times.
However, while Minnesota’s one turnover led to a field goal, the Cardinals’ two in the second half resulted in two touchdowns with the Vikings gaining possession at the Arizona 31- and 25-yard line.
Entering Sunday, the Cardinals had only five turnovers in seven games, but they added three to that total Sunday.
Kingsbury said of the team’s self-inflicted mistakes, “It’s been that way all season, whether it’s penalties, crucial situations, turnovers, things of that nature. Like I said, effort has been outstanding; just not clean enough in any phase to get it done.”
Murray agreed, saying, “Offensively, I thought we played well. Again, I thought we moved the ball. They’re a good team. They’re going to stop you. But at the end of the day, self-inflicted turnovers can’t happen.”
Murray had one of his better outings of the season, completing 31 of 44 passes for 326 yards with three touchdowns. However, in a close loss, the two interceptions will be what is remembered.
The second appeared to be a miscommunication with tight end Zach Ertz and the first a heave off his back foot that was well underthrown to wide receiver Robbie Anderson.
Murray acknowledged, “The first one, shouldn’t have even let it go. Got hit. My second one, just me and Zach not on the same page with what’s going on.”
Added Watt, “We competed, but we just crushed ourselves. We did too many things we can’t do against a good football team. They took advantage of every opportunity today, and we are sitting here where we are because of it. We got to stop making mistakes to hurt ourselves. We got to execute what we are supposed to execute. We got to play the way we are supposed to play. We can’t put ourselves in difficult situations. You get beat, then you get beat. We can’t put ourselves in situations where we are beating ourselves.”
It’s difficult to have any issue with Hopkins, whose drop on a pass that he did have to reach for, was the only target to him not completed. In his second game back from suspension, he had 12 receptions for 159 yards including a remarkable one-handed catch in the end zone that cut the Minnesota lead to 14-10 with 47 seconds remaining in the first half.
Wide receiver Rondale Moore caught seven of eight targets for 92 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown play that made the score 28-23 late in the third quarter. He also had a catch for 27 yards two plays prior to the touchdown and had a 31-yarder against New Orleans in Week 7.
While Murray was productive, the running game was not. Playing their third consecutive game without running back James Conner, Eno Benjamin (9-22) and Darrel Williams (5-8), who was back after missing two games, combined for only 30 yards on 14 carries.
Benjamin had four rushes that totaled two yards (0, 0, minus-1, 3) and Williams had four that totaled three (0, 2, minus-1, 2).
It certainly didn’t help that left tackle D.J. Humphries was inactive because of a back injury and center Rodney Hudson missed his fourth straight game. From center to left tackle, the starters were Billy Price (signed on Oct. 4), Cody Ford (acquired Aug. 22, but who was on reserve/injured for the first six games of the season) and Josh Jones. Injured backup guard Max Garcia was also inactive.
The three backup linemen were Sean Harlow, Lecitus Smith (did not play) and Badara Traore, who was elevated from the practice squad Saturday.
In the first eight games of the season, the Cardinals have had five different starting combinations on the offensive line with all of the changes at center and on the left side. There have been four starting left guards (Harlow, Justin Pugh, Garcia and Ford); three starting centers (Hudson, Harlow and Price) and two left tackles (Humphries and Jones). That’s 10 different players that have started games on the line.
In addition to Conner and the missing offensive linemen, five offense starters were out, including wide receiver Hollywood Brown. The loss of nose tackle Rashard Lawrence to a shoulder injury surely affected the run defense
“It’s tough,” Kingsbury said of the line issues. “I thought our guys battled, but lose three of those starters, a lot of Pro-Bowl type players, it’s not going to be easy on the road. But the guys battled.”
Of course, as we all know, it takes more than battling in the NFL to win.
We can hear “next man up” until we’re blue in the face, but backups are usually backups for a reason.
Often, especially when there are too many playing significant snaps, they’re simply not up to the challenge in critical situations.
Of course, when the starters also aren’t, that’s when trouble is brewing.
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