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The Fourth Down Decision(s), And Friday Before The Rams

Not all fourth downs are the same, and the Cardinals ended up with a memorable one last week in Houston – even though it was remembered because it didn't work. The Cardinals could've kicked a field goal on fourth-and-3 at the Houston 23 trailing 21-16. Instead, a pass to Greg Dortch gained just two yards.

But that opened the door to discussion about the process to go in the moment.

"Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't, but I felt good about going for it there," coach Jonathan Gannon said. "I know our team is behind that as well because we explain to them that here's the thought process of doing those certain things. We'll get back in the lab and go for it. But not every game is the same, so I always tell our guys I'm not ever going to be always or never. A wise man avoids all extremes, so it's somewhere in there.

"Saying that, we have a process that we kind of use and stick to, and that's comforting too for me. If you're not results-driven, then it's comforting to know, and you don't really second guess yourself. I've (gone) for it on fourth downs, and they work out, but if they don't you've got to be OK with it too."

The Cardinals have gone for it on fourth down 22 times this season. They have converted just six times. Not every attempt is the same; Kyler Murray's late sideline pass to Hollywood Brown that was knocked away was done with no decision. The Cardinals had to go at that moment.

The decision to go earlier – there was still 12:48 left in the game on the Dortch play – was about analytics and feel too. At that point, it was impossible to know the Cardinals would pitch a shutout the rest of the way. (Indeed, if it weren't for timely interceptions, the Texans would have scored more.)

"You want those routes to get beyond the sticks so if they catch the ball even if they get tackled on the spot we are converting," offensive coordinator Drew Petzing said. "From a progression standpoint you wish Kyler had gotten the ball there a little quicker. When both happen a little bit incorrect in a big situation, you come up short."

When fourth downs are in play, Petzing said, there is already conversation happening – so his playcalls on the earlier downs can take into account an extra chance for the first.

"Does the decision to go for it give us the best chance to win the game? Period. End of story," Petzing said. "That could be 51-49. If we feel it is 51 percent chance to win the game doing it one way, we're going to go that way every time. That's the biggest part of the analytics is when it is close is having some instinct and feel and flow of the game.

"It's always about 'when we do this' we all believe this is the best chance for us to win the game."

Coaches have become more aggressive in the NFL. That's a fact. In some ways, going for it on fourth down is a parallel to all the three-pointers taken in the NBA – like 3s are better than 2s, if a team goes on fourth down twice and makes it only once but that leads to a touchdown, that's better than two "sure thing" field goals. And that's some of the math in use.

-- The last time the Cardinals played the Rams, they didn't have Kyler Murray, or James Conner, or safeties Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson. All those guys will play Sunday. Who won't play is wide receiver Michael Wilson (shoulder) and maybe wide receiver Hollywood Brown, and that can mess with Murray's continued comeback in the passing game. Dortch again figures to have a bigger role, and Dortch always seems to produce – he led the team with six catches for 76 yards last week.

-- The State Farm Stadium roof will be open for the game for the first time this season.

-- One guy Murray will have to throw to is tight end Trey McBride, who despite limited work early in the season is on pace to set the franchise record for tight end catches in a season.

-- Baker will play in his 100th career game on Sunday – a milestone about which he did not know.

"I was not aware," Baker said. "100th? Sheesh. Consistency. That's all I try to do. Ability is availability. Just try to play football the right way. It's definitely a blessing to be here in year seven. Blessed to be here, blessed to be an Arizona Cardinal."

-- Uniform update: The Cardinals will break out the alt blacks for the second and final time this season.

-- Punter Blake Gillikin is third in the NFL with his 50.8-yard punting average. If Gillikin can keep it up, he will set the franchise record for a season. The current record holder is Andy Lee, who averaged 49.0 yards a punt in 2021.

-- The last word goes to linebacker Josh Woods, who was asked if he would blame any fans that are hoping for Cardinals' losses in order to have better draft picks in April.

"I wouldn't blame fans for anything. That's the nature of being a fan. Not even close (in my mind). That's the nature of a fan – you love us when we're doing well, when we're struggling you're trying to find solutions from the outside looking in which is pretty hard to do when you really don't know what's going on. If that's what people think the solution is, so be it. Cool. We don't go into a week thinking we're not going to win a game."

See you Sunday.

Wide receiver Greg Dortch is tackled on a fourth-down catch last week in Houston.
Wide receiver Greg Dortch is tackled on a fourth-down catch last week in Houston.