Safety Kerry Rhodes (center) gets a convoy to the end zone with safety Matt Ware (left) and linebacker Clark Haggans (right) on his 42-yard return during Sunday's loss.
SAN DIEGO – The potential quarterback change grabs the headlines. But how the Cardinals address their defensive struggles may eventually direct the course of the season.
"I thought from what I saw in training camp we would be better than this and I am disappointed we haven't been," coach Ken Whisenhunt said, after the Cards allowed 419 total yards and 180 rushing yards in Sunday's 41-10 loss to the Chargers.
"It's one of the things we talked about from last season, improving our defense, and as I stand here four games in, I can't say we have. It is obvious we have work to do."
Rookie Mike Tolbert led the Chargers with 100 yards rushing on 16 carries, the third straight game the Cards have allowed a 100-yard rusher and the second time it came from an improbable source (after the Falcons' Jason Snelling did it in Week Two).
While quarterback Philip Rivers had an outstanding rating of 148.1 (15-of-20 for 241 yards and two touchdowns) it is the rushing defense that most concerns defensive coordinator Bill Davis.
"We have a lot of season left," Davis said. "But we have to stop the run, focus all our effort on that, and go from there. There have been two games now where we haven't stopped the run and until we get that fixed through scheme or player change or whatever we have to do …
"It's a little bit of everything. It's a little bit of tackling, a little bit of alignment, a little bit of one-on-one battles. At some point, we have to step up and have the mentality we will be great at stopping the run."
The defense did have a brief feel-good moment when cornerback Greg Toler drilled Chargers running back Darren Sproles, forcing a fumble that was returned 42 yards for a then-game-tying touchdown by safety Kerry Rhodes.
But that certainly wasn't enough, not for a team looking to rely on its defense while it sorts out its offensive problems, which is frustrating the players involved.
"I wouldn't feel this way if I honestly didn't feel we had enough talent," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "I have been on a Cardinals team when we really didn't have talent, and we have talent. This team has a lot of damn talent. And talent goes to waste when you don't put it together."
Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald had only two catches the previous week, and 12 in three games, so after he made catches on the Cards' first two offensive plays, Fitzgerald said the Cards were "absolutely" trying to get him more involved early.
Fitzgerald ended up with seven catches for 56 yards. He was Derek Anderson's target on the Cards' first fateful turnover, a pass into coverage on the opening drive on which it looked like Arizona would get some kind of score.
"That first drive, it was the best drive of the day," Fitzgerald said. "We put together a fantastic drive and went to score a touchdown and it was called back and we tuned the football over and the floodgates opened."
Said Whisenhunt, "Usually when Larry gets going early, he is a beast. It wasn't intentiional. But early, I thought we had a good flow. It's just a shame we had so many mistakes we couldn't continue that."
GATES GOES OFF
Chargers tight end Antonio Gates collected his 500th career catch on a day when he starred, beating both safety Adrian Wilson and linebacker Paris Lenon for touchdown catches en route to a seven-reception, 144-yard day.
"We did see some things we wanted to take a shot at and advantage of," Gates said. "We were hoping that we got exactly what we got."
Whisenhunt said the Cardinals tried to defend Gates a number of ways.
"At some point, with the run game there will be times you have to be singled up and play man to man," Gates said. "That's tough. He hurt us today."
The Cardinals only reported one injury, with safety Matt Ware going out with a right ankle sprain.