Losing is almost a given in the National Football League. But the first one always feels different. The Arizona Cardinals avoided the dreaded loss for seven impressive games, but it eventually caught up to them. In the 24-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Cardinals had multiple factors contribute to the prime-time defeat.
Of all the game-changing factors that cost Arizona the win, miscommunication most likely happened the least, but it only took one play for it to affect the outcome.
The Cardinals trailed by three points and stood on the Packers 5-yard line. With no timeouts, it was time to attempt a shot at the end zone before possibly tying the game with a field goal. That never occurred. Quarterback Kyler Murray sent a dart of a throw to wide receiver A.J. Green in the corner of the end zone. It was perfect. But Green never turned around to see the ball and Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas juggled the ball to intercept it and end the game.
The one theme that remained for the Cardinals after the game was that Murray and Green were not on the same page.
“It wasn’t the route we thought we had checked so we got to communicate better in those situations,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said.
As the Cardinals have progressed into an elite offense, the spotlight has shifted to Murray's ability to check the play at the line of scrimmage and audible. This play was no different for Kingsbury who saw the call as being the right call; it just never reached Green, who had his back turned to the play the entire time.
“We both know we weren’t on the same page and it cost us, but we will be better because of it,” Murray said.
Murray and Green worked well in the loss Thursday, despite the final play. Green led the team with five receptions and totaled 50 yards. Judging by the numbers, the communication has been working well as Murray has helped Green reach 456 yards and targets him the second most on the team.
It does seem that the loss could be chalked up to an environment and situation the Cardinals have luckily not been a part of so far. Usually the final 15 seconds of games for Arizona has been a kneel down or watching the opposing team attempt to earn a few meaningless yards. But Kingsbury and his offense had yet to attempt a potential game-winning play this season with the game on the line. Down the road, in the playoffs, this situation can arise again and hopefully the Cardinals will be better prepared.
2. Stopping the Run
The Packers were limping into State Farm Stadium in terms of wide receivers. The Packers had lost Davante Adams and Allen Lazard to COVID protocols. To win the game, it would come down to quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his running backs Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon playing well. They did.
Jones was pivotal for the Packers on the ground and in the passing game. He totaled 59 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown, while his seven receptions for 51-yards led the receivers and seemingly stunned the Cardinals defense. Green Bay made use of passes out to the flat where Jones used his versatility to evade defenders and move up field, helping him average 7.3 yards per catch. The passes to the flat, timed with Rodgers' quick release never allowed the Cardinals pass rush to make an impact.
When the Packers needed more power, they rotated in Dillon. The 247-pound back used his strength to earn six of the 11 first downs Green Bay had on running plays. Dillon didn’t just accept the short yardage available, instead choosing to gain a few extra yards by bowling over Cardinals defenders or evading them.
“I think when they started having success running the ball it was a go to for them,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “It wasn’t anything exotic; we just didn’t tackle as well as we wanted to.”
This is the fourth game where the Arizona defense has allowed over 120 rushing yards. Their season average of 121.8 rushing yards allowed is the 11th worst in the NFL. The Cardinals have shown at times to be dominating against the run. While run-heavy offenses like the Tennessee Titans and Cleveland Browns both rushed for fewer than 100 yards, they are intertwined with performances where the Cardinals allow opposing running backs to thrive.
No team in the NFL is without injuries and no team will ever be at 100%. But the Cardinals desperately needed players on the field to achieve an 8-0 record. Notable unavailable players Thursday night were two veterans, defensive end J.J. Watt and center Rodney Hudson.
While Hudson has been missing from action for three games, this was the first game where Arizona was without Watt. The 11-year vet hasn’t put up gaudy statistics this season, but his presence on the field has helped take pressure off players like Chandler Jones.
This week, the Cardinals learned that Watt will miss the rest of the season following shoulder surgery due to an injury suffered against his former team, the Houston Texans.
Adding to the defensive injuries was rookie linebacker Zaven Collins, who sustained a shoulder injury early in the game and was later ruled out. Collins is a pivotal part in stopping the run for Arizona. His size and physicality was desperately missing Thursday.
“We wish we had both of them out there,” Hicks said. “Physicality, leadership . . . the way he (Zaven) plays fast downhill. But again it's not an excuse and we got to play better with the guys we have out there.”
On offense, third-string center Sean Harlow replaced Max Garcia, who had been playing for Hudson. Harlow survived a stressful night that saw Murray needing to pass late in the game. On the final drive, Harlow sent a snap over Murray's head that was luckily recovered by his quarterback.
Heading into the game, star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was questionable due to a hamstring injury that he aggravated in the first quarter. From there, Hopkins was mostly regulated to the sideline, pacing and trying to find his way on the field.
“We wanted him to stay off the field, but he would just run on,” Kingsbury said. “We wanted to be smart, but he was definitely hurting.”
For a Cardinals offense that just came up short, it was hard to have their star receiver limited to two receptions on only those two targets for 66 yards.