Defense keeps Cardinals afloat while offense figures it out

TEMPE, Ariz. -- It was like déjà vu all over again for the Arizona Cardinals.

Another week, another first half full of three-and-outs (3), failed fourth downs (2), hardly any yards (137) and even fewer points (3).

Coach Kliff Kingsbury called the offense “anemic.”

“It’s all of us -- coaches and players,” he said. “We got to figure it out, the recipe. We got an offensive pass interference on an RPO, which I've never seen. It’s just strange things are happening.

“We just got to find a way to settle in early and call better plays and execute at a higher level.”

While the offense tried to do that out of the gate Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, the defense kept them afloat in a game they'd eventually win, 26-16.

When the Cardinals’ offense went three-and-out to start the game, the defense stopped the Panthers on fourth-and-1. When the Cardinals’ first fourth-down attempt was blown up because Kingsbury admittedly tried to get “too fancy,” the defense forced a three-and-out.

And on it went for the first two quarters, with the Cardinals’ defense adding an interception, its first of five tipped passes off Panthers QB Baker Mayfield and a fumble recovery by the time the second quarter ended. It was like the Cardinals copied their starts from the first three games and just pasted it onto the field in downtown Charlotte.

Yet, Arizona’s defense continued to hold, giving the Cardinals’ offense time to figure itself out in Carolina -- time to get going.

“We came back at halftime, nobody was down, nobody was pressing, anything like that,” quarterback Kyler Murray said.

To start the second half, Arizona limited Carolina to 16 net yards, one first down and 12 plays in their first four possessions. For the game, the defense limited the Panthers to to 220 yards, 2-for-10 on third down, and 1-for-3 on fourth down. The offense finally woke up and pounced. Arizona scored 23 unanswered points to take control during that stretch.

“Defense played a hell of a game,” Murray said. “Had our backs all day. We finally kicked it in gear, come second half, found our rhythm which, I think, that’s part of the problem. There’s no rhythm at the beginning of the game. We’re sleepwalking out there, that’s what it feels like. To finally touch the end zone, it’s been six quarters, it’s been six quarters since we touched the end zone.”

The more Arizona’s defense held Carolina’s offense, the more its offense’s confidence grew, especially when the defense handed the offense short fields. Arizona started inside Carolina territory four times on Sunday.

“I think it really kept us in it, kept our heads in the game and allowed us to really settle in and play well the second half,” Kingsbury said.

Kingsbury explained that the Cardinals’ coaching staff made a concerted effort to stick with their game plan in the second half. That meant running the ball (23 carries) as much as possible. Armed with its first regulation lead of the season on Sunday, that was doable.

The Cardinals’ front seven disrupted Mayfield all afternoon. Zach Allen had three batted passes and J.J. Watt had two, one of which led to an interception by linebacker Dennis Gardeck, who returned it to the Panthers' 5-yard line, leading to a touchdown.

Watching the defense play well while the offense slowly warmed up made the offense feel an urgency to get going.

“We’re like, ‘S---, come on, we’ve got to do something,’” Murray said. “They’re doing their job and we’ve got to have their back, and that’s kind of the mentality when they’re doing what they’re doing out there.”

How long can the defense keep carrying the offense? Not much longer, Kingsbury said.

“About six more days,” he said. “I mean, that team we're playing [the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday] has been really, really good on offense and scored a lot of points, particularly the first half. They're getting way out on people. So, if we play like that Sunday, it'll be a long day.”

All last week, Kingsbury stressed the importance of getting to 2-2. The Cardinals did that, but Murray wasn’t thrilled with how, saying that it matters to him that Arizona is still starting slowly despite a strong finish Sunday.

But Murray has faith that the Cardinals can balance its offense with its defense soon enough.

“I know this can’t last forever. Can’t last forever,” he said. “We got it. We’ll figure it out. We will figure it out. I’m not making it a thing because it’s not. We just have to execute. That’s what it fully comes down to, is being better, everyone being better, and I think what a great way to start it off next week at home against an undefeated team.”