Linebacker Sam Acho returns his fourth-quarter interception while Falcons tackle Sam Baker tries to pull him down during Sunday's 23-19 Cardinals' loss in Atlanta.
ATLANTA -- For a moment, Larry Fitzgerald was speechless, searching for the right words to describe what he just lived through in the Georgia Dome.
"The defense caused six turnovers and you don't come out with a win, that's … that's …" Fitzgerald said, considering his next thought. "I've never seen it before. It's really disheartening."
There weren't a whole lot of words needed to paint the picture of Sunday's 23-19 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. The facts alone made the story. The Cardinals didn't get behind until the final seven minutes of the game. The defense harassed the Falcons all day, intercepting Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan a career-high five times and also recovering a spectacular fumble.
But in a game before which coach Ken Whisenhunt promised that changes were coming, the offense endured the biggest, with rookie Ryan Lindley replacing John Skelton early in the second quarter. Lindley struggled – 9-for-20, 64 yards – and his fumble on his first series was returned for a controversial touchdown.
Offensively, the Cardinals (4-6) couldn't keep up. Five times they started a drive at the Atlanta 35-yard line or closer, and managed one touchdown and two field goals.
"I'm still trying to gather my thoughts," center Lyle Sendlein said quietly. "Frustrated to say the least. Our defense gave us every opportunity to score points and win the game and we didn't execute. To come up with one touchdown with all those opportunities … that lies on us offensively."
Whisenhunt didn't declare his starting quarterback for next week's game against the Rams, and said he needs to watch the video before assessing Lindley's play.
Changes has been promised, Whisenhunt reiterated, with his team in a losing streak. Until Lindley came in, the biggest news was that veteran safety Adrian Wilson did not start – Rashad Johnson was in his place as the Cards opened in a nickel package – and Wilson played in only the base defense.
"We're in the business of winning games," Whisenhunt said. "We're going to make changes if we feel like that gives us a better chance to win going forward and that's what we said we were going to do."
As for the quarterback move, "if you're going to hold other guys on the team accountable, you have to hold every position," Whisenhunt added. "It's not 'Every position but the quarterback.' "
Whisenhunt had enough prior to the Cards' second field goal, when a Kerry Rhodes interception set the Cards up at the Atlanta 18-yard line. On the next play, Fitzgerald was open in the end zone, and Skelton missed him badly. The next series, Whisenhunt made the move to Lindley.
The Cardinals did run the ball better – LaRod Stephens-Howling ended up with 127 yards on 22 carries – but the Cards could only net 41 yards passing and were 2-for-16 on third downs.
Yet it almost was good enough because of the way the defense played. Three of Ryan's interceptions came in the first quarter, as the Cards got off to the fast start they craved. It covered only nine yards, but the Cardinals' first drive resulted in a touchdown.
The fumble recovery was memorable, as linebacker Sam Acho poked the ball loose from Falcons running back Jason Snelling near the sideline and cornerback Greg Toler – seeing it was going out of bounds – grabbed it and tossed it behind him back in bounds where safety Rashad Johnson could grab it.
"We did what we were supposed to do," Rhodes said. "We wanted to make their life hard. We didn't do enough."
Added linebacker Daryl Washington, who grabbed his first interception of the season, "We've got to pick those guys (on offense) up. We understand the circumstances, and we have to pick them up more. We have to make more plays."
The Falcons (9-1) didn't take the lead until Ryan – who had 296 yards passing but no touchdown throws – led a drive that concluded with a one-yard touchdown run with a little more than six minutes to go. The Cards' offense couldn't answer, but the defense did, with Acho grabbing a tipped pass for yet another Ryan turnover.
The Cardinals got the ball on the Atlanta 32, and managed to get to third-and-2. But a Stephens-Howling sweep didn't gain anything. On fourth down, trailing by four and with only 3:13 left, Lindley found Fitzgerald down the left sideline in one-on-one coverage.
Fitzgerald got his hands on the ball and came down with two feet – but as he fell down and hit the turf out of bounds, the ball popped loose. Unable to maintain control through the end of the catch (the NFL rule), it was incomplete.
"I've just got to hang on to it," said Fitzgerald, who was targeted seven times but had just one catch for 11 yards. "I've made that play plenty of times in my career."
Johnson and cornerback William Gay had the other two interceptions for the Cardinals, the first time the team had five picks in a regular-season game since a 1994 contest against the Houston Oilers. The Cards did intercept Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme five times in a playoff game after the 2008 season.
"I'm just glad we still won," Ryan said. "As a quarterback you don't ever want to have one of those games, but they happen."
That's the way the Cardinals are going to have to win games, however, just as they had earlier in the season. The losing streak has reached six, a number that seemed incomprehensible earlier in the season. Running back Beanie Wells is expected back next week, which will help that side of the ball, although there has to be a way for the offense to click.
"If we could get our offense to match our defense," Skelton said, "we'd be tough to stop."