‘It’s been unacceptable’: Panthers expose Cardinals’ struggles on defense

TEMPE – “We have to have answers for that.”

Speaking from the podium at the Arizona Cardinals’ practice facility in Tempe, coach Kliff Kingsbury was referencing his defense’s notably poor play against opposing tight ends. But he could have just as easily been talking about any of a number of issues the still-winless team needs to address before Sunday.

Arizona’s 38-20 home loss against the Carolina Panthers — sans quarterback Cam Newton, no less — was decisive, and unlike the previous two weeks, left little room for moral victory. This was a game where missed blocks and blown coverages started to look less like blips and more like bad habits and team deficits. Among those emerging issues addressed on Monday was, yes, the Cardinals’ tight end allergy.

“It’s been unacceptable the first three weeks, the type of production the tight end position has had,” Kingsbury said. “That’ll be an emphasis this week.”

It would make sense to emphasize, as the Cardinals have allowed 348 yards and five touchdowns in three games to tight ends, numbers that could conjure the Dixie Chicks with the amount of wide open space the team has offered up.

With Patrick Peterson halfway through a six-game suspension and Robert Alford on injured reserve, the defense has been limited in its tight end coverage options. But the options Kingsbury and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph have deployed thus far haven’t worked.

“I would say everything is on the table right now,” Kingsbury said.

The offensive line was another point of discussion on Monday after Carolina overwhelmed the Cardinals offensive line and Kyler Murray to the tune of eight sacks. The Cardinals have suddenly allowed 5.3 sacks per game, second only to Tennessee’s 5.7. Following Sunday’s game, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft has been hit 25 times.

It’s easy to blame a rookie quarterback for not getting the football out fast enough, for not throwing it away, the little things that tend to reflect in the stats of teammates. But for two weeks in a row, Murray has been one of the quickest decision makers in the NFL.

In week two against Baltimore, it took just 2.36 seconds from snap for Murray to throw the football, per Next Gen Stats. Against the Panthers, it took 2.45 seconds. Both of those times registered in the top five in their respective weeks, and both were comfortably faster than 2.55 seconds, the quickest average time in 2018.

That all may be part of Kingsbury’s plan, a way to simplify plays for a young quarterback and save him from additional hits Murray would surely see if he were dispensing with the ball a little closer to league averages. But it also may play into the plans of smart defenses, as it looks to have against Carolina.

Murray consistently threw underneath the defense, and ended with 30 completions for just 173 yards.

Said Larry Fitzgerald after the game: “Carolina plays a very methodical style of defense. They’re going to keep everything in front. They want to get you behind the chains. They don’t believe you can go seven, eight, nine or 10 plays in a row without making a penalty, without dropping a ball or without doing something wrong to beat yourself.”

Fitzgerald spoke as someone who has seen this league and knows it intimately. The same can’t be said for much of this team, at least not yet.

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