The new seven-team playoff format incited a riveting conclusion to the regular season. For the Arizona Cardinals, it boiled down to this: with a Cardinals win over the Seattle Seahawks and a San Francisco 49ers win over the Los Angeles Rams, Arizona would claim the NFC West crown. The Niners did their bit, with an overtime victory in Los Angeles, but the Cardinals didn’t, now limping into the playoffs on the back of a disheartening loss to Seattle. Worse so, it was a loss filled with familiar problems for Arizona.
The Cardinals have gone from the hottest team in the NFL to relative irrelevance. An anemic end to the regular season, a 3-6 run-in that included five straight home losses, saw Arizona lose their grip on a once-commanding 95.2% chance to win the NFC West. It started well, and it’s not over yet. However, as far as the regular season is concerned, it ended badly, and the loss to the Seahawks was emblematic of some recurring problems for Arizona.
Recurring Problems For Arizona Cost Cardinals NFC West Crown
Lack of Balance on Offense Causes Problems For Arizona
If there’s anything reflective of Arizona’s struggles as a whole, it’s the offense. A downturn in offensive consistency has coincided with the team’s downward trend as a whole. In the last month, they’ve not been good, bordering on poor, and against Seattle, it was much of the same. As a whole, the unit isn’t necessarily struggling with production; against Seattle, the offense managed to put up 30 points, a figure that has been a positive benchmark all season. It isn’t production then, but rather a lack of balance and consistency that is costing Arizona’s offense.
As a whole, the unit seems to have put up a fair showing. In reality, James Conner accounted for most of the good things about Arizona’s offense recently. His monopoly on scoring continued, notching both of Arizona’s offensive touchdowns. As it stands, Conner is perhaps the only reliable offensive player for the Cardinals. He’s a saving grace that is covering for a misfiring passing game, and his continued involvement in an ultimately-meaningless game saw him go down hurt. The loss of Conner would be catastrophic, not least because Arizona’s offense has become completely one-dimensional, and he’s it.
Receivers Absent For Cardinals
Granted, it looks bad when Kyler Murray holds the ball too long and gets sacked, which happened a tonne against Seattle. However, Murray’s indecision is as indicative of the inadequacy of his receivers as it is of his own under-performance. Arizona’s receivers were virtually non-existent against Seattle; A.J. Green only drew attention for what was a brutal day for the former All-Pro, reeling in only four receptions on nine targets. Green’s drops will bear the brunt of the scorn this week, and there were a few, but the group as a whole was poor against Seattle. Murray’s frustration is palpable as it’s clear his guys aren’t getting open, and he’s getting drilled in the backfield for it. He isn’t playing great either, but the receiving corps isn’t doing him any favors.
Losing the two most dynamic talents in the group, DeAndre Hopkins and Rondale Moore have clearly harmed the unit as a whole, as well as the quarterback. They’re just not getting open, and it’s limiting the explosiveness of this offense. Consistency is only being found when Murray targets Conner and Zach Ertz, and that’s typically on shorter routes and dump-offs. It’s not efficient football, and it’s certainly not effective. Arizona’s offense is lacking balance not because of Conner’s overachieving, but because of the underperforming passing game; Conner is propping up a poor group right now. Arizona isn’t getting Hopkins back anytime soon, so their other receivers have to step up. Their absence against Seattle was damning, and one-dimensional football won’t do in the postseason.
Upward-Trending Defense Still Has Same Issues
The last two games were solid outings for Arizona’s defense. They helped to control the league’s most potent offense against the Dallas Cowboys, and their notoriously-poor run defense stood up to Jonathan Taylor on Christmas Day. It’s a group headed in the right direction, and they contributed some good things against Seattle. Zach Allen ran in a fumble after twelve seconds, Chandler Jones and the pass rush looked decent, and Jalen Thompson managed to log an interception. Unfortunately, though, they’re still plagued by the same problems, and it was evident.
Their performance against Taylor was a distant memory as the group struggled against another in-form back in Rashaad Penny. Penny went for a series-record 190 yards in Arizona, averaging 8.3 yards-per-carry, a step-back for a run defense that held Taylor to only 4.0 two weeks ago. Ultimately, Penny’s 62-yard touchdown won and iced the game. Even with J.J. Watt potentially returning, this run defense has to be better.
Otherwise, it was the same staffing issues on the back end that cost Arizona. With the backup to the backup, Kevin Peterson lost early in the game, Arizona ended up deploying sixth-string guy Breon Borders. Well, Russell Wilson noticed and went right at him, to great effect. Back in August, Arizona’s cornerback depth was a worry. Now, here in January, the Cardinals are paying for the fragility in the group’s ramshackle composition.
Marco Wilson may still return, but there’s no update on Robert Alford; Arizona may never get their starters back this season, so the stand-ins will have to do. Antonio Hamilton showed a bit of something against Seattle, and the number one guy, Byron Murphy, is still standing, but with Cooper Kupp and the Rams awaiting, this group, particularly Murphy, has to find a way to be effective, and quickly. The Arizona Cardinals finish the 2021 regular season with a record of 11-6. On to Los Angeles. On to the playoffs.
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