Linebacker Larry Foote chases Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning last week in Denver.
Julius Thomas delivered the injury and Peyton Manning added the insult last Sunday as the Broncos' offense took the luster off the Cardinals' 3-0 start with a 41-20 victory in Denver.
Many had marveled at the job done by the Cardinals' patchwork defense to that point, when it shrugged off a rash of key losses to allow only 45 total points to the Chargers, Giants and 49ers. Manning was a different beast, finding open receivers in stride and letting them do the rest to the tune of a career-high 479 passing yards with four touchdowns.
Cornerback Jerraud Powers called it a humbling experience after the game, and the defense re-lived its miscues in the early part of the week.
"In the end, the tape speaks for itself," nose tackle Dan Williams said. "We made too many mistakes against a Hall of
Fame quarterback. You can't do that."
The attention now shifts to Washington's offense, a less explosive outfit but one still ranked seventh in yards per game. The Cardinals will look to bounce back, but must do so without defensive end Calais Campbell, out one-to-three weeks with an MCL strain following Thomas' chop block, and linebacker Matt Shaughnessy, out at least eight with knee cartilage damage.
Even though Bruce Arians is an offensive-minded coach, the defense has been the shining light since he was hired by the Cardinals before the 2013 season. It was sixth in total defense a year ago and fifth heading into the Denver game, but dropped to 24th after Manning's performance.
The Cardinals are now giving up 302.5 passing yards per contest this year, joining the Jaguars as the only two teams allowing more than 300 per contest. Much of that is scheme-related, as defensive coordinator Todd Bowles stacks the box to stop the run and blitz the quarterback, putting his defensive backs in regular 1-on-1 coverage.
Arians said neither the front nor back end performed well against Denver, leading to the defensive failure.
"They outran man-to-man coverage and we didn't get to the quarterback," Arians said. "He didn't get on the ground enough. So if he's standing up, he's going to hurt you."
The total yardage statistics can fluctuate wildly early in the season, especially after facing a lethal offense like Denver's. Despite the loss, the Cardinals are still 3-1 and the defense still believes in itself.
"Nobody's lost any confidence or anything like that," Powers said. "The defense has been the backbone around here for
years. That's not going to change."
The Cardinals are facing a backup quarterback this week, but one with considerably more potential than average. Kirk Cousins is 92-of-150 for 1,217 yards with eight touchdowns and five interceptions since filling in for the injured Robert Griffin III in the second game of the year.
Washington is averaging 393.6 total yards per game – only three yards behind the Broncos -- but it has resulted in only 22.4 points per contest and a 1-4 record. Although Cousins said the team is "close," coach Jay Gruden is taking a wait-and-see approach.
"Close to what?" Gruden said. "(Expletive). I think we can be close to a lot of different things the way you look at it. The positive person says we're close to being pretty darn good. We're already ranked in the top 10 right now. I think if we clean up our third downs, we're right around 30-something percent, we have to get that up to at least the mid-40s, 40, 42 percent, to keep drives alive, and I think we can take the next step. Until we do a better job of protecting the ball and doing better on third downs, we're not very close."
The Redskins will try to run the ball with Alfred Morris, who has yet to get untracked in 2014 (84 carries, 345 yards, three touchdowns) but is a guy Arians said can break out at any minute. The Cardinals must replace the production of Campbell and Shaughnessy while still weathering the season-ending losses of defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and linebacker John Abraham, so the front seven will be tested.
The personnel roadblocks have been constant since training camp, and now the Cardinals' defense has taken a hit to its psyche. With an uncertain quarterback situation on offense, it seems imperative that the defense responds well to this first hint of adversity in 2014.
Throughout the winning streak the players preached an even keel, which could pay off now.
"When we were 3-0, you'd never know we were 3-0, because we were getting coached like we were 0-3," linebacker Sam Acho said. "It's not like anything changes. We still get coached hard and we still work hard. Obviously we've just got to do a little bit better on the field."