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Cardinals Road Warriors; Struggle at Home. Why?

Players and coaches face the question why the Cardinals have played significantly better on the road than at home.

The road has been kind to many teams in the NFL this season, and the Cardinals are certainly in that group.

Overall, road teams are 76-71-1, including New England’s win in Atlanta Thursday night. Most noteworthy is that 16 teams have made that possible with winning records.

That group is led by the Cardinals and Patriots at 5-0 then Tennessee and the Los Angeles Rams at 4-1. 

Eight of the 16 are one game over .500 on the road for an aggregate record of 23-15. The remaining eight are a staggering 32-8.

Strangely, the Patriots are 2-4 at home, and the Eagles, 4-2 on the road, are winless in four home games. The 49ers are 3-1 on the road and 1-4 at home.

So, we know it’s happening. The question is why?

Is it an us-against-the-world mentality, coupled with being comfortable at home while expecting to do well for the fans?

Asked that question, Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said, “It could be,” and then added, “There's something to going in a hotel, go on a plane together, all your meetings are just right there, you're around each other the entire time. When it's a home game, you stay in a hotel, but in the morning, everybody kind of goes their own separate way before the game, sees family does all those things. And so I think just that aspect does bring you together and kind of the band of brothers feel as you roll in there.”

Kingsbury’s comments came after the Cardinals were dominated at home last Sunday, losing to the Panthers, 34-10. 

Yes, Colt McCoy was the quarterback and injuries have riddled the roster. However, the previous Sunday in San Francisco with essentially the same cast, the Cardinals won, 31-17.

Kingsbury said, “We've just played hard, played well (on the road), protecting the ball. I think the turnover margin is pretty substantial on the road for whatever reason. I don't have an answer, but our guys seem to come together and embrace that challenge.”

He’s right about the turnovers. 

In their five road wins, the Cardinals are plus-13 in turnover ratio with 15 takeaways and only two turnovers. They haven’t had a turnover in their last three road outings. That has produced games in which the Cardinals won by double digits in all five away contests, scoring at least 30 points each time. 

At home, however, the ratio is minus-5 with only four takeaways and nine turnovers.

If they can reach 30 on Sunday in Seattle, they would become the first team in history to do that in their first six road games of a season.

Aside from the Cardinals, the only teams with five are the 2000 St. Louis Rams, 1983 San Francisco 49ers and 1966 Kansas City Chiefs.

Linebacker Jordan Hicks claimed playing well on the road is all about players executing. He said, “It's a matter of focus each play knowing every play matters. And at the end of the day, doing our job and having your mind right.”

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However, he then acknowledged when asked about the environment they will face in Seattle Sunday, “It is such an iconic place to play because of the crowd. I know we feed off it defensively. We love it. And you can't ask for much more, going into a place feeling like your back’s against the wall with everybody screaming at you coming out of the tunnel. It’s fun.”

Sure sounds like he’s admitting that the focus and attention to detail can be better on the road, which, naturally, leads to better execution.

Cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. said, “That's something we also talked about. Our energy level on away games is kind of out the roof. Home games kind of been up and down. I just think away games we all obviously have been bringing that energy where everyone's coming ready to play and then home games, we've got to get that going. So we have to keep this thing going every single game.”

Tight end Zach Ertz arrived with the Cardinals in October after being with the Eagles since 2013 and never experienced much success personally or as a team against Seattle.

The Eagles were 0-6, including a playoff game and never scored more than 17 points. 

They had 74 total points in the six games. 

Ertz was on reserve/injured for last year’s 23-17 loss. On the road, they lost to Seattle 26-15 in 2016 and 24-10 in 2017. Ertz had six catches but for only 35 yards in the 2016 game and was 2-for-24 the next year. 

His best game came in 2019 in a 17-9 loss where he had 12 receptions for 91 yards and a touchdown.

“Me personally, I haven't had a lot of success against these guys,” Ertz said this week. “They've been very good for a very long time. The environment is one of the best in the league. It's loud, it's hostile, the players feed off that home crowd. Even in college when I was at Stanford, we played Washington in Seattle at this stadium, and it was rockin’.

“And so it's just something that we got to match their intensity as a team going up there, even though there's going to be 70,000 screaming Seahawks fans, we as a team have to play to the best of our abilities and not let that rattle us, not let that dissuade us from playing our game. Because if we're able to play at a high level, we're really a good football team.”

Overall, Ertz believes the time teams spend preparing for road games has helped.

First saying, “I don't know why it's kind of shifted,” he then said, “It's maybe people are more used to operating in the silent count. You have a lot more non-verbal communication going around on offense, a lot of signals. So you don't have to rely so much on the verbal communication. And I don't know if that's why; I couldn't pinpoint why there's been more success on the road. That's the analytics question.

“But for me, I feel like from the time I was a rookie to now, the emphasis on signals, the emphasis on playing fast, because when you're able to play fast and play up-tempo, the crowd can't just scream for 60 minutes straight. Typically, they scream on third down and we get the ball in the red zone or the defense has a big play. If you're going fast, and being able to communicate non-verbally, the crowd is not as much of a factor.”

After Sunday’s game against the Seahawks, the Cardinals have home games against the Rams, Colts and Seahawks, while visiting Chicago, Detroit and Dallas.

Stating the obvious, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said, “Our home games have been a struggle. I'm not sure what it is, but we got to figure it out fast. I think every NFL game, it takes great focus, it takes great prep, and those things I think we're doing.

“So we got to figure it out quickly. If you're going to be a dominant football team in this league, home games have to be your advantage. It can't be your disadvantage. And right now, it's not good for us.”