In the three games prior to the derailment against the Rams, the Cardinals' offense had looked pretty good.
The Cardinals had averaged 26 points a game, generated 5.9 yards a play and ran for 121 yards a game. Kyler Murray was protecting the ball, like he had all season. The offense unquestionably was trending up.
Then came the game in which the Cardinals could do little on offense, gaining 117 of their 198 yards and their one score in a meaningless fourth quarter.
"As a playcaller you're always surprised, because you go into every game thinking you're going to have success," coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "Their defense played well, they outcoached and outplayed us. We didn't execute at the level that we can."
The Cardinals will be challenged to rebound against a Pittsburgh defense that is among the best in the league, its 43 sacks third in the NFL with an NFL-leading 30 takeaways. The Rams gave the Cards problems both because of the pass rush and because they jumped the short routes, something Murray noted after the game was an issue.
But Murray has been remarkable in how steady his play has been. He declined to call one bad game "inevitable," although it feels that way for any rookie. There is a confidence, both with the quarterback himself and the players who have watched his season play out, that a rebound Sunday is probable.
"I'm not striving for average, but I think we've done pretty well so far," Murray said.
Kingsbury reiterated he'd like to find a place in the offense for running back Chase Edmonds, who was the odd man out of the three-pronged running back options last week behind Kenyan Drake and David Johnson. Johnson's role remains in the spotlight, and the Cards also have to find a way to get wide receiver Christian Kirk more involved much earlier in the game.
"It's not that difficult to get off schedule in this business," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "You have one bad play, fall down on a route, and it's really easy to snowball if things aren't going well. What is hard is having sustained success.
"We just need to get back to doing what we do well. Getting the ball out of our hands, running the football, getting some explosives (plays). When we are rolling up and down the field, those are the things we're doing well."
CORNERBACK INJURY ISSUES COULD IMPACT SECONDARY
The Cardinals are trying to fix their pass defense, and it doesn't help to have a pair of cornerbacks added to the injury report as questionable Friday. Both Byron Murphy (calf) and Kevin Peterson (shoulder) were limited.
Kingsbury did not mention the injuries Friday when he spoke prior to the injury report's release, although he said after cutting Tramaine Brock the Cardinals were still sorting through the cornerback position with Murphy, Peterson and Chris Jones playing across from Patrick Peterson. Murphy had been starting recently.
Safety Jalen Thompson, who is coming off a concussion, was cleared from the protocol earlier in the week although he is officially questionable for the game. Also questionable are offensive linemen A.Q. Shipley (illness) and Max Garcia (toe).
For the Steelers, running back James Conner (shoulder) and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee) are out.
VANCE JOSEPH TALKS ABOUT TIGHT END STRUGGLES
Defending the tight end remains a front-burner topic around the Cardinals, but coordinator Vance Joseph downplayed the issues this week. Rams tight end Tyler Higbee had seven catches for 107 yards and a touchdown, all in the first half.
"I watch the tape, and you watch a football game, and it's sometimes really minor things that show up as major concerns," Joseph said. "The tight end, that was a major question for (the media). He caught three balls for seven yards and ran off with it (with yards after the catch). We can fix that.
"I'm not worried about my scheme covering tight ends. We can fix those things. Sometimes the public sees it as huge issues, and for us it's simple fixes. It's hard times right now, and we're all going through it. It takes courage to go through these things. That's where we are.
The Cardinals have given up 13 touchdown receptions to tight ends this season. Higbee's touchdown came on a play-action at the 2-yard line, with linebacker Haason Reddick also losing his footing at the outset of the coverage. One long play came when Higbee stiff-armed linebacker Jordan Hicks. Another came when Thompson was essentially picked off by a handful of bodies coming the other way.
"It was RAC (run after catch)," Joseph said. "After that point, he ran for 30 more yards. So, scheme issue? I don't know. Player issue? Sometimes. Sometimes it's me. It's us. It's the coaches and players. We have to play better."