Texas, held ‘em: Defense holds Cards close in Houston as strong suit, eyes redemption vs. Rams

Arizona Cardinals linebacker Josh Woods, left, trips up Houston Texans wide receiver Robert Woods, center, during the first quarter of Sunday’s 21-16 loss to the Houston Texas. (Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

TEMPE – It’s the type of play that changes the momentum of a game. Arizona Cardinals linebacker Krys Barnes read the eyes of arguably the NFL’s biggest story this season, Houston’s rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud, in the witching hour where wins become losses, and losses become wins.

Stroud’s pass intended for receiver Robert Woods in the red zone deflected off Woods’ hands and Barnes intercepted it. After a 46-yard return, the Cardinals’ offense was in business near midfield, trailing 21-16 with more than nine minutes left in the fourth quarter.

Ultimately, the Cardinals (2-9) wasted the opportunity, turning the ball over on downs on their final two possessions of the game as they fell to the Houston Texans (6-4). The defeat contained another frustrating lesson in how to finish games under first-year Cardinals coach Jonathan Gannon. Another test is scheduled Sunday in a rematch against the Los Angeles Rams, who ran away with a victory behind 20 unanswered points in the second half on Oct. 15.

Arizona’s ninth straight road loss wasn’t the worst of it for Gannon, who announced that linebacker Kyzir White (torn bicep) was placed on injured reserve after suffering a season-ending biceps muscle tear.

“(White) played another five or six snaps with a torn bicep which was actually kind of gut-wrenching to watch, because I didn’t know he tore his bicep and he’s out there playing with one arm,” Gannon said of White, who had played all 709 defensive snaps this season.

“Josh (Woods) took over the green dot (that signifies who can communicate with coaches, and then Krys came in. And both of them played winning football. So we’ll figure out who we have available this week, put together a plan and go to work.”

Quarterback Kyler Murray’s second start of the 2023 season opened with a dazzling deep ball to wide receiver Rondale Moore on the Cardinals’ first offensive possession, a 48-yard scoring connection that gave Arizona an early 7-0 lead.

“As the play was going on, I hear (offensive coordinator) Drew (Petzing) (say) in real-time, ‘Throw the post,’ and he let it rip and hit him right in stride,” Gannon said of the play. “It was just cool to see that, and I saw emotion out of Kyler too. I was excited for him.”

But Stroud more than matched Murray’s early success, throwing for 259 of his 336 yards in the first half as the Texans rallied to take a 21-10 halftime lead.

The Arizona defense put the clamps on Stroud in the second half, forcing two fourth-quarter interceptions, a pair of punts and a missed field goal to give the Cardinals a chance.

Stroud, who entered Sunday with only two interceptions in nine starts, recorded his first NFL game with three interceptions, with Arizona’s Jalen Thompson, Antonio Hamilton Sr and Barnes doing the honors.

“I think we just settled in, we challenge each other you know,” Woods said Monday. “It’s not a one-person acquisition group.”

The Cardinals have been hit with an injury bug all season, especially in the trenches, but injuries are an inevitable part of an NFL season, and Arizona has adopted a next-man-up mentality.

“You feel for all those (injured) guys … we got multiple guys getting nicked,” Gannon said. “Just like every team has … it’s part of the game in the NFL.”

With a 2-9 record, and six picks inside the top 100 in the upcoming April NFL draft, the Cardinals could look ahead to an offseason of retooling. Instead, the team is keeping a next-game-up mentality to go along with that next-man-up approach entering Sunday’s 1:05 p.m. kickoff.

“We’re feisty. We’re resilient. This is a gritty group,” said Woods, who has 35 tackles through eight games and half a sack. “I think we played harder than a lot of teams, and it shows on tape. And I think teams are afraid of our defense, honestly.”

Offensively, the Texans had posted an average of 34.5 points in their past two games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cincinnati Bengals. Stroud had a touchdown-interception ratio of 6:1.

The improvements this Cardinals roster has made collectively since their rut in October have shown in every form except in the win column. The run game ranks ninth in the NFL with 126.2 yards per game, thanks in part to a healthy Murray and James Connor, but there has been a joint effort on the defensive line that has generated six sacks and 10 quarterback hits since Murray’s return.

“We’re going to respond. We’re going to put the fire out wherever it is,” Woods said. “And if we’ve got to go score ourselves, we will.”

The defensive unit credits its success to the work of first-year defensive coordinator Nick Rallis, the youngest defensive coordinator in the NFL, whose scheme prioritizes speed and versatility.

“I think he’s become more adaptable, which goes along with our defensive philosophy where nobody is above change,” Woods said. “Nick’s a genius, everybody knows that. The biggest change I’ve seen is how he’s warmed up to guys in the locker room.”

Only six games remain in a season that many predicted, with Murray recovering from knee surgery, was over before it started, but Gannon stressed that the veterans in his locker room have stayed consistent and remain unwavering.

“My concern is, are we doing the right things on a daily basis? They take ultimate accountability and they stay aligned,” Gannon said. “And you know, they’re on the same page with what needs to be done. As we move forward, it’s really because of the leadership in the locker room, from the captains to right on down. And as long as we stay consistent, we’ll have a chance to win.”

Cody Marmon(he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Cody Marmon expects to graduate in December 2023 with his master’s degree in sports journalism.