The Cardinals missed Budda Baker on Sunday, but the way the defense played, it probably would have needed to clone him a few times to stop the Panthers.
With the Pro Bowl safety sidelined with a thumb injury – and starters Devon Kennard, Jalen Thompson and Chris Banjo shelved, too -- the group had easily its worst performance of the season in the 31-21 loss.
Teddy Bridgewater looked like a star quarterback, the Cardinals didn't register a sack and the mostly-anonymous running back duo of Mike Davis and Reggie Bonnafon combined to average 5.3 yards per carry in Carolina's easy win.
"I'm a firm believer that if you play your leverage and you execute – just do your job, simple as that – the defense will be successful," linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "It will work, or you'll at least compete. There were guys wide open. They ran the ball. They were able to keep us on our heels. At the end of the day, it's all execution. It's basics."
Bridgewater finished the contest 26-of-37 passing for 276 yards and two touchdowns, with his lone slip-up an overthrown pass that was intercepted by Patrick Peterson.
The Cardinals entered the game No. 1 in the NFL in third down defense, but the Panthers converted on 7-of-11 attempts and were successful on their lone fourth down attempt.
Carolina converted a crucial third-and-12 on the first play of the fourth quarter to kickstart a long field goal drive that clinched the win.
"I've got to give them credit, but we have to be better," coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "We have to get off the field on those third-and-long situations."
The Cardinals used Deionte Thompson, Curtis Riley and Charles Washington at safety, but seemingly did not use Isaiah Simmons in the role. The No. 8 overall pick in April has played sparingly this season and was not used much against the Panthers despite the absence of three safeties and Kennard.
"We're still trying to work him in," Kingsbury said. "We want to put him in positions to be successful, to understand our scheme. It's a work in progress still. No offseason. No preseason. We knew it would take some time. We're a month in now, and we think he is progressing. We're going to continue to try and find ways where he can have success."
Kingsbury said this week the Cardinals are hoping to have Baker back "sooner rather than later," and that seems to have more importance after the performance against the Panthers.
"Obviously he's one of the best safeties in the league, and brings lot of intensity and playmaking to that side of the ball, but it's no excuse," Kingsbury said. "We knew what we had going in. We had to make plays, and we weren't able to make plays and get them off the field on third down."
DRAKE, PUGH LEAVE GAME WITH INJURIES
Running back Kenyan Drake was hit hard on the Cardinals' final drive and went to the locker room for further examination. He finished the game with 13 carries for only 35 yards, an average of 2.7 yards per attempt.
Guard Justin Pugh was injured later on the drive, pointing to his right leg when being examined by trainers on the field. Max Garcia took his place in the lineup.
"I don't believe it was anything major (for either player), but we'll see," Kingsbury said.
KIRK SCORES TOUCHDOWN IN RETURN
Wide receiver Christian Kirk returned to the field after a one-game absence. He only caught three passes for 19 yards, but did have a touchdown reception and drew a pass interference to set up another.
Kirk missed last week's loss to the Lions with a groin injury and was a game-day decision to be active in this one.
"I attacked it like I was going to play against Detroit, and it helped speed up the recovery," Kirk said. "It felt good to get back out there and help contribute."
Images from the Week 4 matchup in Carolina