Struggling Arizona Cardinals defense trying to get back to early season success

There was a time earlier this season when the Arizona Cardinals' defense was the unit carrying the team, keeping them in games and giving them a chance to win even if the outcomes ended up being losses.

Not battered as badly with injuries to key players as has been the case on offense, the Arizona defense got better after a Week 1 debacle against Kansas City. Linebacker Isaiah Simmons settled down and regained confidence. Cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. was causing fits for the opposing team's best receivers. And Budda Baker played hurt, making an impact in the locker room and on the field.

But the fourth quarter of the Cardinals' 42-34 win over the New Orleans Saints saw the start of a downward trend. Prior to that, the Cardinals had allowed no more than 10 second-half points to opponents. The Saints made a Cardinals win closer with 17 fourth-quarter points in Week 7.

In three of the last four games since, the Cardinals have given up at least 20 points in the second half. They've lost all three, to Minnesota, Seattle and Monday to San Francisco in Mexico City.

"Monday night, no one was good enough. I wasn't good enough, either. They made some plays there. It's both things, it's rush and coverage, you know, and we have to get better in both areas," Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. "And myself, helping those guys make more plays and get closer in coverage. So it's all of us. That kind of game happens, it always starts with me, and it moves downhill."

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Nov 21, 2022; Mexico City, MEXICO; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk (11) celebrates scoring a touchdown following his reception against the Arizona Cardinals during the second half at Estadio Azteca.
Nov 21, 2022; Mexico City, MEXICO; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk (11) celebrates scoring a touchdown following his reception against the Arizona Cardinals during the second half at Estadio Azteca.

Opponents have found success running the ball. Aside from only 88 rushing yards for the Los Angeles Rams in the Cardinals' Week 10 win, the Vikings racked up 173 rushing yards, the Seahawks 158, and the 49ers 159.

"That's part of the league, you know. Obviously, when a team gets leads on you, more runs come out," Joseph said. "That's every week. You know, if you can't stop the run game with numbers, you've got a problem. ... Obviously Monday night, it wasn't great. It was more missed tackles than it was fits, you know, but again, that's a test of will. So we've got to bow up and show up Sunday morning and play good football."

Linebacker Dennis Gardeck said getting back to success is in the details and preparation.

"Really nailing everything down about our jobs," he said.

The Cardinals will have to contend with more quality skill position players in running back Austin Ekeler, wide receiver Keenan Allen and quarterback Justin Herbert for the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.

"Tackling's got to be better. A big thing for us is just executing every play," Cardinals defensive lineman Zach Allen said. "First half (vs. 49ers) it wasn't great but it wasn't awful. Second half we kind of let it slip away. So we just have to regroup faster and that's definitely a focus this week."

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Quick outs

*Cardinals DE J.J. Watt wore a Christmas sweater stitched with a U.S. soccer pattern and emblem while practicing Friday. The U.S. men took on England on Friday afternoon at the World Cup in Qatar. "The World Cup's awesome. Everybody can have a club team, everybody can have a team, even the NFL, you can have a team to support. But at no point is it ever, besides the World Cup or the Olympics, where the entire nation is on board with one team. You just can't get those kind of emotions anywhere else."

Watt said his sweater "just showed up in his locker" so he put it on. His wife Kealia is a former U.S. women's national team soccer player.

"We talk tactics a lot," Watt said of watching games with his wife. "It's a lot of fun."

*Kingsbury was asked about the World Cup and soccer. He said soccer was his favorite sport growing up, "but when you're the son of a Texas high school football coach, when you get to high school you're not playing soccer. So that was that."

Kingsbury played club soccer growing up.

"But then that dream got crushed," he said.

*Kyler Murray is in line to return to the starting lineup at quarterback after missing the past two games with a hamstring problem. Kingsbury said Murray looked sharp this week in practice. The team considering holding him out until after the bye week next week, but Murray convinced Kingsbury that he feels 100 percent.

WR Greg Dortch will be a gameday decision, with pain tolerance the key with his injured thumb. WR Hollywood Brown might also be ready to return at last from his foot injury, after being out for more than a month.

Murphy and OL D.J. Humphries have been ruled out due to their injuries this week, as was WR Rondale Moore with a groin injury.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona Cardinals trying to get back to early season form on defense