For a brief moment it looked like the Arizona Cardinals were on pace for their second straight road victory. In a matter of minutes it came crashing down inside the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Arizona lost in embarrassing fashion once again, this time by a score of 40-14, to the Atlanta Falcons. It was the third time this season where the opponent scored 40 points or more and the fifth time losing by 14 points or more. Today we take a look at a few of the reasons for the debacle in Atlanta
The Falcons pass rush has not been good in 2018. Heading into Sunday’s game the Falcons were in the bottom-10 of the league in sacks. Against the Cardinals, the Atlanta pass rush exploded for seven sacks, six of those on quarterback Josh Rosen. Six different Falcons received credit for a sack, led by defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Arizona struggled to slow down a determined Atlanta pass rush which left both Rosen and backup Mike Glennon looking for safety. The Falcons treated the offensive line like an old screen door.
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The protection woes leaked into the ground game as the offensive line failed to find open running lanes. Running backs David Johnson and Chase Edmonds combined for 55 yards on the ground. Arizona entered the game with the same makeshift line which finished against the Lions. Overall the line looked over-matched and confused. The inexperience of both the line and the quarterback showed with the inability to consistently call correct protections and identify blitzes. It was a major step back for offensive line coach Ray Brown and his unit.
The rookie quarterback spent most of the game running from Atlanta defenders. When Rosen was not running, he was attempting to make throws downfield in a hectic pocket. The results were two interceptions, a lost fumble, and six sacks. Midway through the final quarter, head coach Steve Wilks decided to sit his starting quarterback in favor of Glennon. Rosen finished with 132 yards through the air on 13 of 22 passing including two interceptions. Rosen struggled to take care of the football. Regardless of the pressure around him, he will need to get better at protecting the ball. The rookie routinely forced throws into coverage and was slow on his reads.
Slow progressions can be excused for a rookie quarterback under immense pressure, but where Rosen must vastly improve is in the area of turnovers. Rosen has the second most interceptions thrown in the NFL, trailing Ben Roethlisberger and fellow rookie Sam Darnold. The difference is Darnold has four more touchdowns while Roethlisberger has roughly 250 more passing attempts. The first interception was a result of an alert play off a tipped pass, but the interception was returned for a score and in part was due to Rosen lowering his arm angle for a pass out on the flat. The issues are not Rosen’s to fix alone, the team will need to add more talent around their franchise quarterback, but the rookie will need to use the final two games to show he can make the necessary changes to improve for the 2019 season.
Defensive Speed Bump
The Falcons controlled the game on the ground against the Cardinals. Atlanta gained nearly eight yards per carry on Sunday, finishing with 215 yards and two scores on just 27 attempts. Running back Tevin Coleman accounted for 145 yards on 11 carries, including a 43-yard run for his only touchdown. Coleman’s average of 13 yards per carry removed any pressure on the passing game. Part of the issue was the loss of Robert Nkemdiche inside. Nkemdiche was lost after the Lions game with an ACL tear. The athletic lineman was having a career year and was steadily improving the rush defense. His loss hurt the overall depth and talent level along the interior and gave Atlanta the obvious advantage inside. It was the worst performance against the run by the Arizona defense all season. However, it was a continuation of a shocking trend for a unit long considered among the best in the league.
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Including Sunday’s loss, the Cardinals have now played 14 games in 2018. Of those, the Cardinals defense has held the opponent under 100 yards rushing, twice. One came in a 34-0 blowout loss to the Rams, where Los Angeles threw for more than 350 yards and the run game added another 90. The second game was the surprise victory in Green Bay where the defense held the Packers to 98 yards rushing. Arizona has now surrendered the second most yards on the ground and has allowed the most rushing touchdowns in the league with 20. For a once feared defense, Sunday was another reminder of the lack of quality personal to fit the scheme used by Wilks and defensive coordinator Al Holcomb. The lack of quality depth along the interior line and linebackers at the point of attack have been the underlying factor in the defense’s struggles.
What Happens Now
The Cardinals fell to 3-11 on the season. After the embarrassment in Atlanta and the shocking victory for the 49ers against the Seahawks, Arizona is in the driver’s seat for the top overall pick in the 2019 draft. In what has been a lost season with the numerous injuries, horrible coaching decisions, and lackluster play, the number one pick is a welcome consolation. Arizona must decide if it is better to sit their rookie quarterback to protect him after the beating taken against Atlanta, or allow him and the line to gain valuable experience for next season. For many on the roster, it is time to give everything they have to secure jobs for 2019 and beyond.