Dan Bickley, azcentral sports
October 18, 2015
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Landry Jones (3) celebrates with tight end Matt Spaeth (89) after throwing a touchdown pass to wide receiver Martavis Bryant in the fourth quarter an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015 in Pittsburgh. The Steelers won 25-13. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH - The hype train has derailed. No passengers are allowed back on board until the Cardinals beat a good team.
Their 25-13 defeat to the Steelers on Sunday was simply awful, and a testament to the power of frustration. They lost after the Steelers had one passing yard in the first half. They lost to a third-string quarterback, who had never thrown a pass in the NFL. They lost because derelict officiating got under their skin.
They lost because they have forgotten how to win close games.
“When you’re on the road, you have to play against everybody,” Cardinals star Patrick Peterson said. “You have to play against the refs, against the crowd, against the opposing team. To say bad calls haunted us … what was really the tale of the tape in this game is we just didn’t finish the way we should have.”
Since pulling away from the Saints in the fourth quarter of Week 1, it’s been feast or famine for the Cardinals offense. They have blown out three opponents and lost two close games. The late-game magic has disappeared. There are issues that need to be addressed.
Great quarterbacks relish the chance to produce game-winning drives, but Carson Palmer has whiffed on his past two opportunities. Against the Steelers, he threw a bad interception in the end zone, failing to see free safety Mike Mitchell circling like a vulture.
“That wasn’t a good play,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “For many of the good plays he had, that wasn’t one of them.”
Palmer struggled through an erratic performance, even while assembling 421 passing yards. He seemed to lose patience, looking too hard for big plays at the expense of open receivers. An assortment of terrible calls from the officials prevented the Cardinals from creating separation in the first half, but that is no excuse.
The Steelers’ defense was missing four key players, and the Cardinals are supposed to have one of the most potent offenses in the league. It shouldn’t have been that hard.
Yet in both losses, the Cardinals offense became painfully lopsided, too infatuated with the forward pass. Against the Rams, their pass-run ratio was 46-20. Against the Steelers, it was 45-20. On Sunday, a healthy Andre Ellington had only one carry, and that came on the first series.
Translation: In close games against inferior teams, the Cardinals seem to become jumpy and impatient. They look too hard for quick scores. Their handful of blowout victories have been too intoxicating, creating a standard that’s impossible to reach on a weekly basis.
“They have the best offense in the league statistically,” said the Steelers’ Mitchell. “That’s a very good football team. To hold them to 13 points was huge. No one has been able to do that all year. We knew it was going to be a challenge. We don’t have everybody we need to have, but we have a really tight-knit group, and we always have a ‘Next Man Up’ mentality. So I was really proud of the guys with the way we played as a team. It was a great team win for us.”
That quote sounds like the 2014 Cardinals, a team that cobbled together 11 wins by prevailing in a preponderance of close games, even when undermanned. Critics called them lucky, while Arians said it was a reflection of great leadership and character.
The Cardinals don’t lack those qualities in 2015. To the contrary, they have an abundance of intangibles. But in their past two close games, the Cardinals have been at their worst in the fourth quarter, and it’s not just the offense. Both times, the defense has reverted to hero ball, collapsing right along with the offense.
Visit the locker room after the Steelers’ game, and you’ll find Calais Campbell berating himself for “letting the team down” and “not playing the game I wanted to.” You’ll find Peterson talking about how the defense needs to focus for a full 60 minutes. And you’ll find an agitated Tyrann Mathieu responding poorly on Twitter to a negative comment, which seems to be his only weakness.
“Guys have to continue to play responsible and accountable,” Mathieu said. “That’s really what it comes down to. A lot of times you get comfortable. You may get lackadaisical. You may not get a call that you want it kind of affects how you perform going forward. We have two lessons, the Rams game and this game. I feel like we’ve been doing great, but those couple of (losses) … it’s just tough.”
Maybe we’re all too hungry. You can’t win a Super Bowl in October, and you can’t beat every opponent by four touchdowns. Every season is a growth process, and clearly, there’s no shame in being 4-2.
But ever since their first taste of a blowout victory, the Cardinals have not looked comfortable inside a tight game. That has to change. After all, to win that elusive championship, they’re going to have to beat good teams and learn how to win at the wire.
Reach Bickley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8253. Follow him at twitter.com/danbickley. Listen to “Bickley and Marotta,” weekdays from noon-2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.