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Where Did It All Go Wrong? Arizona Cardinals Crushed By Atlanta Falcons 41-7

Luke BungerCorrespondent IIISeptember 21, 2010

Where Did It All Go Wrong? Arizona Cardinals Crushed By Atlanta Falcons 41-7

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    41-7.

    Just three digits, separated by a dash.

    Maybe it's an elementary school math question, in which case the answer is 34, maybe it's part of your phone number, or address. A bible reference perhaps.

    Maybe it's just three digits, separated by a dash.

    Unless, of course, you're an Arizona Cardinals, or Atlanta Falcons fan.

    For the Falcons, it's a reminder of how dominant they can be when they put their minds to it.

    For the Cardinals, a huge blow to their chances of continuing to dominate the NFC West for the third year running.

    Yes it's only week two, yes it was our second, back to back game on the road, against a non-divisional rival, and yes, our fellow NFC West teams didn't fare much better.

    But none of that makes watching your team get dismantled by a team you beat, in this very stadium, on the way to the Super Bowl just two seasons previously any easier.

    Where did it all go wrong? Perhaps the better question is, did anything go right?

We've Got High Hopes. Cardinals Arrived at The Georgia Dome In Good Spirits.

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    It's no secret that the Cards entered this game as underdogs.

    In the run up to the game, I didn't see a single pundit pick the Cards to win this one, but that was not a problem. In many ways, it makes things easier.

    The Cardinals are well used to being underdogs, and that has rarely prevented the resilient team from winning in the past.

    Indeed, while written off by most experts, Arizona players and staff seemed up beat, even hopeful going into the game.

    Tackle Darnell Dockett, an Atlanta native, dedicated the game to his mother, who was murdered in the city when he was a boy, and reportedly wanted to use the game as a platform to thank those who had always believed in him, and prove himself to those who had not. 

    After problems with ball security in week 1, Arizona running back Tim Hightower, addressed them head on, stating in no uncertain terms, that he was aware of the issue, but that it wouldn't be a problem again.

    And after struggling to get in sync during week one, stud receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Quarter Back Derek Anderson looked to be on the same page during practice.

    As the team stepped on to the field, they looked comfortable, perhaps even confident and assured. They had the look of a team who believed that they could win, and who were we to doubt them. 

Start As You Mean to Go On. Penalties and Takeaways Cost Games.

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    At the close of week 1, two things became abundantly clear.

    If Arizona were to win against better opponents than St. Louis, the Cardinals had to improve their discipline and turn the ball over much, much less.

    In many ways, the first play of the game set the tone for the remainder.

    Following a nice 6 yard run by Michael Turner, wrapped up by Darnell Dockett, Kerry Rhodes, who had actually been one of the better performers in Week one, got called for "Unsportsmanlike Conduct" and a 6 yard play became a huge, 21 yard gain.

    Atlanta marched for a touchdown, and on the ensuing kick off, LaRod Stephens howling returned the ball 98 yards for a touchdown, only to have the play called back because of a holding call on Dockett.

    By the end of the game, the officials had handed out a whopping 16 penalties, for 184 yards, to both teams, on both sides of the ball. For their part, the Cardinals got flagged 10 times for 109 yards, including seeing Kerry Rhodes ejected from the game for touching the official, about four minutes from the end of the game.

    And, while Arizona's fumble woes were much improved, with Anderson fumbling only once, which was recovered by Levi Brown, he added two interceptions to his total.

    However, it was the nature of the penalties which was most grating to Cardinals fans.

    Basic procedural penalties like illegal formations which plagued Arizona during the early exchanges quickly gave way to the more serious, unnecessary roughness, roughing the passer and unsportsmanlike conduct variety. The longer the game went on, the more down-hearted the team became, and the less disciplined they became.

    The Cardinals showed neither the composure nor control necessary to win the game, and handed the win to the Falcons.

A Lack Of Imagination Lead to Predictability. Derek Anderson Lost His Spark.

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    After week one, I had praised Derek Anderson for his decision making, composure and play-calling.

    While he was not perfect, in week one, against the Rams, Anderson gave Arizona every chance to win. His play calling showed maturity and knowledge which, I suggested, gave me hope that he could return to his 2007 pro-bowl best.

    What a difference a week makes.

    This sunday, Anderson regularly looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming semi-truck.

    On one level, it is not all Derek Anderson's fault. His offensive line regularly crumbled, the pocket, at times, was non-existant, and the Atlanta defence were on him within seconds meaning that he was forced to make far too many passes under unacceptable pressure.

    He was hit more often than any QB should be, and, to his credit, showed excellent toughness, always getting up to try again.

    In many ways, it is impressive that Anderson was only sacked twice, and threw only two interceptions, such was the level of pressure he was under.

    However, I can't help but feel that he made many of these problems for himself. His play calling was predictable, and lacking any kind of creativity. You could read him like a book, and, clearly the defence did. He seemed unwilling, or unable to make changes at the line of scrimmage, or to deviate, even one iota from the WR progression lists, regardless of coverage.

    Practically every third down play, regardless of distance, was a pass out of the gun, and rather unsurprisingly, the Falcons stifled every one.

    The Cardinals third down percentage, a big fat zero.

    There were positive signs, WR Larry Fitzgerald looked much more productive, in spite of being well covered most of the game, and rookie Stephen Williams looked like a much better prospect than Max Komer until Early Doucet returns to full health.

    When they did choose to run, it continued to show signs of life, with the Cardinals only points coming from an 80 yard run to the end zone by Tim Hightower, and Arizona still managed to rush for nearly 120 yards, even without feature back Beanie Wells. 

    Steve Breaston, who broke career records in week one, was a bust, but given the overall lack of offensive production by the Cardinals, this can be forgiven, he still caught most of the balls thrown his way.

Falcons March, Cardinals Can't Counter. Arizona Defensive Frailties Exploited.

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Arizona have never had a top defence.

    Traditionally, Arizona win games not through defensive stands, but with high-powered offence. We control games not through shut down defence, but through scoring, lots, and allowing offenses to make mistakes.

    Our defence is set up to capitalise on those mistakes.

    Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Adrian Wilson, Darnell Dockett, and recent additions and newcomers Joey Porter, Kerry Rhodes, and Greg Toller are high pressure, boom or bust sort of players. They are all capable of, and regularly make, big, high impact plays, game changers. Interceptions, sacks, forced fumbles, this is their bread and butter.

    The problem, of course, is that this sort of defence struggles to stop the 'long march down field'. And that's exactly what the Falcons did.

    All. Game. Long.

    Their gains were rarely huge, though penalties often made them so, Michael Turner, and Jason Snelling were both able to break of a few longer runs, and Matt Ryan, who looked fantastic and composed all night, made a few of his longer passes, but in the main, they got their points from long, plodding drives.

    On average, their scoring drives were 9 plays long, chewing up, on average, on average, 4 minutes per drive.

    Arizona were still able to turn the ball over a couple of times, in spite of this, but the stuttering offence could not make anything happen from them.

    Atlanta had Arizona's number all night, and played a perfect game to counter their defensive style.

    Atlanta kept the chains moving with short passes and runs, and there was not a thing the Cardinals could do to stop it.

    What is sad, is that these players, many of whom are pro-bowlers, possess the skills and talents to stifle this type of play, but they were unable to adapt to do so. Atlanta didn't play into Arizona's hands, and rather than changing their play calling to counter the plays they saw unfolding, these elite players stood around wondering what was happening, while Falcons third string running back Jason Snelling marched up and down the field.

    Assignments were blown, coverage was shocking and The Cardinals defence didn't seem in the slightest bit bothered.

    On both sides of the ball, but especially on defence, the Cards were just not prepared enough to know what the Falcons were going to do, and too inflexible to change on the fly.

Sorting The Men From The Boys: Where Do We Go From Here?

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    After such a shocking defeat, it'd be easy to assume that there was little positive to take from Sunday's game. Indeed, Arizona did very little well, but, fellow Cardinals fans, all is not lost. Far from it.

    For one, we are still in a very weak NFC West.

    Our divisional rival Seahawks, 49ers and Rams fared little better than we did. 

    The Seahawks were dumped by the Denver Broncos, going to 1-1, St. Louis played hard, but were overcome by a weak Oakland team, leaving them 0-2, and a last second field goal saw San Francisco also loose to go 0-2.

    There is more good news too.

    Our home opener next week is against a weak looking Oakland team, and after a couple of tougher ties, and a bye week in week 6, the remainder of our schedule is almost embarrassingly easy, by comparison to our other divisional rivals.

    Secondly, in spite of a horrendous performance on all parts, there were highlights even in the game.

    Tim Hightower's 80 yard TD Run showed what he can do with a small crease. Larry Fitzgerald and Derek Anderson seemed to, at least, be running the same plays this week, and ball security was much improved.

    We also leave the game with a clear idea of what needs to improve, Play Calling, Flexibility and discipline, all of which are primarily mental changes.

    And the reality is, Arizona were not expected to go 16-0. Their would be losses along the way, and, in a weak NFC West, especially given what we've seen weeks one and two, 9-7 or 10-6 should quite easily clinch our division.

    To go further, of course, we shall need to improve, a lot, because divisional winners is only the first step towards Super Bowl Champions, our ultimate goal, but one loss, even such a humiliating one, should not be considered the end of our season.

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