The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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October 23, 2012

Cardinals sputtering despite big game from Stephens-Howling

TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals did just enough on offense to get by the first month of the season, riding one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses to their best start in 38 years.

Not even their defense has been good enough to overcome the offensive ineptitude lately.

Unable to protect whichever quarterback is healthy or get out of their own way, Arizona’s offense has sputtered during a losing streak that reached three games with Sunday’s stuck-in-the-mud 21-14 loss at Minnesota.

“We think the defense is doing a great job, they’ve put us in position to win every single game,” Cardinals guard Daryn Colledge said Monday. “We owe it to them to play better football.”

Arizona’s defense has certainly held its own.

The Cardinals (4-3) have the NFL’s fourth-best scoring defense, allowing 16.9 points per game, and they’re seventh in total defense, giving up just over 312 yards. Arizona has 22 sacks, two behind league leader Green Bay, and has had a knack for coming up with big plays, forcing eight interceptions and seven fumbles, including one returned for a touchdown.

With numbers like that, all the offense really has to do is make a couple of plays and avoid big mistakes.

They did just that early in the season, opening 4-0 for the first time since 1974, 14 years before the franchise moved from St. Louis to the desert.

Over the past three games, Arizona’s offense turned it over too many times, allowed way too many sacks, and has been unable to come up with plays downfield or when in scoring position.

The Cardinals have scored 33 points during their three-game losing streak and overall have given up an NFL-high 35 sacks, including 29 the past four games.

“It kind of feels like we’re not handling our side of the ball,” Cardinals running back LaRod Stephens-Howling said. “The defense is playing great, the special teams are playing great, we just need to pick it up and score points.”

Injuries are certainly a part of Arizona’s offensive struggles.

Quarterback John Skelton, who won a tight battle with Kevin Kolb to open the season as the starter, sprained his left ankle in Arizona’s opener against Seattle. Kolb took over the next five games, only to go down with chest and rib injuries in an overtime loss to Buffalo two weeks ago – the same day Skelton was back in uniform.

Running back Ryan Williams is out for the season after suffering a shoulder injury against St. Louis on Oct. 4. Beanie Wells has played three games and is out until at least Thanksgiving with a turf toe injury. Stephens-Howling missed two games with a hip injury and returned against the Bills. The Johnstown High School graduate had his best game as a pro on Sunday.

Tight end Todd Heap hasn’t played since the opener due to a knee injury and left tackle Levi Brown is out for the season with a triceps injury.

The attrition has led to plenty of shuffling and moving players into unfamiliar roles.

“That’s the NFL, you face that,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “You don’t have 90 (players) like you do in training camp, you only have a 53-man roster, and part of our continuity on offense is struggling because of that. You can’t use it as an excuse. You’ve got to move forward.”

All Arizona’s offense had to do was move forward just a little against Minnesota after the defense held the Vikings to 209 total yards.

They couldn’t do it.

The Cardinals started four possessions on the Vikings’ side of the field in the first half and came away with one touchdown – set up by an interception by the defense inside the 20-yard line. Arizona failed to get a first down on two of the drives and Jay Feely missed a 47-yard field goal on the other.

The Cardinals’ beleaguered offensive also had a hard time keeping the Vikings’ pass rush away from Skelton, who was sacked seven times and spent most of the day throwing off the run.

Skelton ended up with two of the game’s biggest gaffes, losing a fumble with Arizona in position for at least a field goal and throwing an interception that Minnesota safety Harrison Smith returned 31 yards for a touchdown.

“We can’t make those kinds of mistakes where we are as a team right now,” Whisenhunt said.    

The Cardinals need to clean it up quick. They play NFC West-leading San Francisco on Monday night and have games against Green Bay and Atlanta coming up.

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