Running back Marion Grice leaps a defender during one of his carries in relief of the injured Andre Ellington Sunday.
ATLANTA – Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald stood side-by-side on the Georgia Dome sidelines as the final minutes of Sunday's 29-18 loss to the Falcons ticked away.
The two star veterans were just a few feet from the field they would have given anything to be on, but were of no help adorned in their matching Cardinals hooded sweatshirts.
It's nothing new, this concept of key players watching from the bench, but until two weeks ago, it didn't matter. Despite the hits, the resilient Cardinals piled up nine wins in ten games to move to the top of the NFL pack. Since then, the defeats have started to come and the injuries haven't ceased.
It was safety Tyrann Mathieu (broken thumb), running back Andre Ellington (hip pointer) and guard Paul
Fanaika (high ankle sprain) in quick succession in the first half, which dealt a significant blow to a team already without Dockett, Fitzgerald, quarterback Carson Palmer and linebacker John Abraham, among others.
The trio didn't play in the second half, replaced by Tony Jefferson, Marion Grice and Jonathan Cooper.
"No excuses, regardless," Fanaika said. "Whoever is the next man up better be ready to play, and that's that."
The Cardinals said afterward it wasn't the departure of more personnel that led to the loss but the lack of intensity.
"We're still a good football team with good players," Mathieu said. "I just don't think we performed well at all today."
Cooper played two series in place of Ted Larsen at left guard in the first half so the coaches could see his
progress, and then was thrown in full time after Fanaika was hurt. Larsen finished the game at right guard and Cooper left. It was the most extensive action of the former first round pick's NFL career.
"I was caught off guard because I wasn't expecting that, to go in at a full-time role, but what I learned from it is that I've got a lot of work to do but I've got a decent foundation," Cooper said. "That's not a bad starting point."
Grice had five carries for 16 yards with a long of seven in relief of Ellington, though the Cardinals' offense was handcuffed late by the big deficit and went to the pass. Grice also had three receptions for 24 yards but the rookie from Arizona State was unhappy with his performance.
"It was not good enough for me," Grice said. "I pretty much knew what I was doing, I just have to focus in more. I have to stop being distracted by the crowd noise, block it out, and then listen to the quarterback when he first calls the plays and not ask him for a second time."
Mathieu broke his thumb while trying to make an open field tackle, and while he said he could have returned to the game, the coaches decided against it. He had a cast on when he came out after halftime and isn't sure if he will be able to play against the Chiefs next Sunday.
High ankle sprains will generally keep players out for multiple weeks but Fanaika said he will know more tomorrow. Ellington's hip pointer is not an aggravation of a previous injury and his status for Sunday is also up in the air.
"I have a little hip bruise, but I don't think it's anything too serious," Ellington said.
"I still feel we have a close (offensive) group and as close as it is, I think we'll fix all our problems," Ellington added. "We know what we are lacking and we know what our problems are and I have no doubt in my mind we'll get it going."
Fitzgerald missed his second straight game with a sprained MCL, but was moving pretty well while catching passes on the field before the game. It's possible a few of those players are back for Kansas City, but if not, the message from Arians won't change.
When asked how many injuries the Cardinals can absorb, he said "as many as it takes."
The Cardinals did a masterful job of rolling on despite the injury issues earlier in the year, yet it's natural to see the continued depletion and wonder how much it's contributed to the current skid. The players know it won't help them to dwell on any of that so instead they move forward, confident the 'Next Man Up' mantra will recover its early-season magic.
"It's adversity, and we've had it all season long, but we've just been able to fight back during the games," Cooper said. "Now this is something we'll have to overcome. It's nothing but a little adversity as long as we stick together. Don't worry about what outsiders say, just focus on us and we'll be fine."