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Cardinals Off-Balance All Day In Loss To Panthers

Defense struggles to make stops in 31-21 defeat

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray tries to get off a pass under pressure during Sunday's loss in Carolina.
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray tries to get off a pass under pressure during Sunday's loss in Carolina.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The pass sailed well over the head of Larry Fitzgerald, a play Kyler Murray certainly would have liked to have back, and it short-circuited the first drive of the game Sunday.

The overthrow also served as a harbinger of a forgettable afternoon at Bank of America Stadium.

"We started off a little sluggish," Murray said after the 31-21 loss to the Panthers. "We just couldn't really catch up.

"It was off from the jump."

Frustrated coach Kliff Kingsbury was more blunt.

"It wasn't good," he said. "We didn't play well, we didn't coach well. We didn't match their intensity from the start. … It was a bad performance."

The missing intensity has been a subject for a couple of weeks now, even with some of the hiccups the Cardinals had in their most recent win against Washington, before the current two-game losing streak. Crowds aren't there to provide energy, one way or the other (although the Panthers did have a smattering of about 5,200 fans Sunday.)

"That was an area today that we lacked," Murray acknowledged, noting that the Cardinals (2-2) did a much better job with that in the season opener at San Francisco – a game the Cardinals won.

But executing the game also would help. After the Fitz miss derailed the first drive, Andy Lee's first punt was partially blocked. The defense, showing the absence of its top three safeties, could not find a way to get off the field on the Panthers' initial drive.

It was only the beginning of a long day for the defense. Without clean-up artist Budda Baker on the back end, the Cardinals struggled. The pass rush rarely made Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater sweat and his receivers were frequently open.

Baker is one of the best safeties in the league, Kingsbury said, "but that's no excuse. We knew what we had coming in."

Twice the Cardinals (2-2) seemed to have a breath of life. The first came when Patrick Peterson, sliding to safety for a play, made a nice sideline interception with the score 14-0 Carolina. The Cards were able to convert on the first Arizona catch for new tight end Jordan Thomas on a touchdown – only to have the Panthers immediately answer with a touchdown drive of their own.

The defense got a stop to start the second half as well, with the 21-7 deficit – but as the Cardinals drove, Murray had the ball knocked from his grasp as he began to throw, a play that was ruled upon a Carolina challenge a fumble that the Panthers recovered. That too eventually ended in a Carolina touchdown.

The Panthers ended up with 444 yards of offense, controlled large sections of the clock. The Cardinals' defense, tops in the league in third downs, allowed the Panthers to convert 7-of-11 (and one time they didn't, the Panthers converted the fourth down.)

"It's simply execution," linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "I'm a firm believer if you play your leverage and do your job, the defense will work. … You'll at least compete."

At 28-7, it was a chasm the Cards weren't getting across. Not this day.

"We have to first look at ourselves and get back to basics," Hicks said. "We have to figure something out."

Murray threw for three touchdowns and didn't have an interception, and he completed 24-fo-31 throws. But in a textbook case of why passer rating isn't always truthful – Murray's was a gaudy 116.7 – he only threw for 133 yards, as most of the Cards' passes were horizontal and made ineffective by the Panthers' pursuit.

"The last two weeks we had a chance to answer the bell," Kingsbury said. "We have to find a way to get there in a hurry."

DeAndre Hopkins, bum ankle and all, extended his streak of games with at least five catches to 22 by snaring seven receptions, but it accounted for only 41 yards. Fitzgerald was targeted three times, and his two catches only gained six and minus-2.

Murray had an electrifying 48-yard scramble, but it came with the big deficit.

"When this offense works best it's hitting those explosive plays and getting back on the ball and hitting tempo," said wide receiver Christian Kirk, who had his first touchdown catch of the season. "We were lacking that today."

Other than Murray's run, the Cardinals only had one play longer than 13 yards – a 25-yard pass down the seam to tight end Dan Arnold. And while they will face a New York Jets team next week that has been porous defensively and offensively could be without starting quarterback Sam Darnold, it is on the road and the Cards are in their own funk as well.

Hicks has played on his share of good and bad teams, and "I believe this is a good team."

"I don't believe there is any reason to panic," Hicks said. "I think there is a reason to get back into the lab."

Images from the Week 4 matchup in Carolina