Cards true to form, with one glaring exception

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- This current Arizona Cardinals team might never develop the maturity and emotional stability needed to play at a high level from week to week.

The Cardinals might continue showing up when the stakes are high or when the public doubts them -- as when they upset the New York Giants on the road last week -- only to vanish the way they did Sunday during a 34-21 home loss to the Carolina Panthers.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt will express disappointment and frustration. Quarterback Kurt Warner will talk about how these Cardinals remain a work in progress. Linebacker Karlos Dansby or someone else will credit the other team for a fine effort.

The public will doubt the Cardinals and the cycle will start all over again.

Sound familiar? It should.

The 2008 team upped its record to 4-2 with a milestone victory over the Dallas Cowboys, only to lose at Carolina in Week 8. That setback was temporary. Those Cardinals won their next three to all but close out the NFC West race.

One primary difference this season could threaten the Cardinals' ability to make another playoff run. The current Cardinals, 4-3 and leading the NFC West, simply can't find ways to push the ball downfield to their wide receivers in general and Larry Fitzgerald in particular. It's short-circuiting their offense.

"It seems like every time we try to throw it down the field, we're getting Cover 2," Whisenhunt said. "It's a guessing game. We had a down-the-field throw called the first play of the game and they're playing off-coverage."

At this point last season, Fitzgerald had caught 43 passes with a 15.4-yard average and five touchdowns. Anquan Boldin was leading the NFL with seven touchdown receptions. Warner had 14 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 102.1 passer rating despite enduring a meltdown game against the New York Jets in Week 4.

Fitzgerald is averaging only 10.8 yards per catch on his 47 receptions this season. Boldin, who did not return Sunday and could miss additional time after aggravating an ankle injury, has only one touchdown. Warner's rating has fallen nearly 20 points from this point last season to a middling 81.5.

Fitzgerald owned the playoffs and made the big play look routine last season. He hasn't caught a pass longer than 27 yards all season. In 2008, Fitzgerald had 10 games with at least one reception of 30 yards or longer -- and he was only warming up for the most prolific postseason by a receiver in NFL history.

"Teams are trying to bang him at the line of scrimmage and get a safety up over the top of him as much as they can when he is singled up," Warner said. "Some of it has been protection at times where we haven't been able to hold it to try and take the shots down the field. Other times it's just the defense hasn't dictated to take those shots."

There's simply no acceptable explanation for Fitzgerald to lose nearly 5 yards per reception overnight. It's not like opponents are suddenly discovering Fitzgerald is a threat. Fitzgerald previously flourished with or without Boldin. Opponents have rolled safeties to Fitzgerald's side in past seasons, to no avail.

"You're right, it's not like it's never been that way before, but I think when we get into games like this where we are down, teams putting safeties back, they are running man coverage underneath and trying to get pressure on us with four guys and it's a tough coverage to throw against," Warner said.

Teams are inviting the Cardinals to run the ball and Arizona has shown signs of improvement in that area. But this team cannot maximize its potential without Fitzgerald reemerging as a dominant force.

"Once (they) get a lead, they do a nice job of running the football and grinding out the clock and then they are able to get in the right defense to prevent the big plays," Fitzgerald said. "The closer the game is, the more the field is open."

Six turnovers changed the dynamics Sunday, but the Cardinals couldn't get anything going down the field from the beginning.

Instead of going deep on the first play, as Whisenhunt had intended, Warner checked down to running back Tim Hightower. It's becoming an all-too-familiar scenario for Arizona. The Cardinals handed off to a running back or threw to one on their first six plays and 10 times in their first 11 plays. Their running backs account for 17.4 percent of receptions this season, up from 12.8 percent during the 2008 regular season.

With Boldin either out or limited, the Cardinals might need to reinvent themselves a little.

As thoroughly as the Panthers dominated Sunday, the Cardinals trailed by only 10 points, 31-21, with nearly 10 minutes remaining. Arizona's defense limited the Panthers to a three-and-out possession. A team with Warner, Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston should have been able to rally, particularly at home.

Arizona had first-and-10 at its own 39 when Warner dropped back to pass with 7:13 remaining. Warner had sufficient time to find an open receiver, but there were apparently none. Warner held the ball as he kept searching for someone to get open. Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers finally tracked down Warner from behind, sacking him and forcing a fumble. Carolina recovered and the Cardinals were finished.

"They are dropping a lot of people off in coverage, so it's like, run the ball," Breaston said. "You have to run the ball. I think we run the ball good, but we were playing from behind the majority of the game. As a team, we can't have turnovers like that."

Overall, the Cardinals let down against a desperate team and paid the price. Their defense tackled poorly and played without discipline. The bounces that had gone against the Panthers all season suddenly went their way. It was puzzling at times, but teams make their breaks a lot of the time and Carolina did that Sunday.

"The biggest thing with us, it's a continuous pattern," Breaston said. "You've got to want this. You've got to want to be the elite of the NFL. You've got to want to break that trend of, 'Oh, we win a couple games and fall back.' You've got to want to put the streak together, keep looking forward and don't be happy with where you are because stuff will happen like today. When we have a nice little run, we have to keep grinding like the way we got there."

Especially when the one thing Arizona always could count on -- Warner to Fitzgerald down the field -- isn't what it used to be.