Cardinals cornerback Richard Marshall is straight-armed by Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall during Sunday's 32-20 win by Pittsburgh.
During their bye week and leading up to Sunday's game, the Cardinals had better practices, they believed. They had a team meeting to clear the air.
They needed to be rewarded for that, quarterback Kevin Kolb said, which didn't happen Sunday. The Cards were instead left with a fifth straight loss – this time, 32-20, to the Steelers at University of Phoenix Stadium, and trying to figure out what to say and where to go next.
"It's not any fun," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "I'm really upset that we can't make enough plays to change an outcome of a game.
"We are not going to give up."
That's obviously not an option, given that the Cardinals (1-5) still have the majority of the season left to play. Losing doesn't make next week's trip to Baltimore any easier, nor does the possibility running back Beanie Wells could be out after he sprained his right knee late in the first half. Whisenhunt said he didn't know if Wells will be out short-term or long-term, a blow to a team that does not need it.
The missed plays remained painful. Quarterback Kevin Kolb was intercepted on the game's first possession and what looked like a miscommunication in coverage allowed Pittsburgh's first touchdown pass. Kolb missed wide-open tight end Rob Housler down the seam for what should have been a TD for a second straight game, and the Cards – even though they knew the Steelers (5-2) would throw deep to wide receiver Mike Wallace – still were beat on a 95-yard touchdown pass.
And in the most crucial sequence, after a short swing pass to running back LaRod Stephens-Howling turned into a 73-yard touchdown for the Cardinals to pull within 17-14, the defense couldn't get a stop, allowing Pittsburgh to respond for a touchdown.
A penalty on the ensuing kickoff put the Cards back on their own 7-yard line, and on the first play, Kolb took a safety when he was called for intentional grounding – although he would have been sacked anyway.
The Steelers were back up by 12, and in control from there.
"Once we scored, everyone on the defensive side was excited," safety Rashad Johnson said. "It was on us, which is the way you want it to be. We didn't do what we wanted to do."
That started with Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had a fantastic day. Moving around and escaping pressure when he had to, Roethlisberger had 361 yards passing and three touchdowns, completing 26-of-39 throws. Two of his receivers – Wallace (118) and Antonio Brown (102) – surpassed 100 yards.
In contrast, the big day from Wells never materialized because of the injury. Beanie finished with 42 yards on 12 carries, while backup Alfonso Smith gained just 17 on five attempts (but scored his first NFL touchdown). Kolb had decent statistics (18-for-34, 272 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) but it simply wasn't enough.
And that has become an all too familiar refrain.
"You just have to be mentally tough," Kolb said. "That's all you can do. You have to know you're doing it right and get a little extra inch. What choice do you have? There is no simple answer."
The Cardinals made some changes coming off the bye. They got more playing time for young linebackers Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield. They had a plan to have cornerback Patrick Peterson on Wallace – although the long pass was one of the few times Peterson didn't have Wallace, because veteran Richard Marshall was on him – and offensive coordinator Mike Miller was brought down from the booth to the sidelines.
It didn't make enough of an impact. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who despite 10 targets had just four receptions for 78 yards, said he doesn't allow "stinkin' thinkin'" to climb into his head during a rough time like this and insisted the Cardinals as a group wouldn't either.
"We're not going to allow any losses to affect us, or adversity to make us separate or splinter," Fitzgerald said. "We've got to stick together."
With 10 games to go, there can be no other plan.
"We are moving in a direction we believe that, in the future, we are going to be something special," Kolb said. "That future can be one week, that future can be one year. Whatever it is, we feel like we have a lot of key components here.
"I feel we got a lot better this week, but not good enough to win. That's not good enough at this level."