TEMPE – The outlook on the Arizona Cardinals coming into the season was not promising. With quarterback Kyler Murray on injured reserve, oddsmakers placed the over/under for their 2023 win total at a league-worst 3.5 games prior to the opening week of the season.
In their first two games of the season, the Cardinals have done little to show the oddsmakers they have it wrong.
Arizona’s first two games have indeed ended in defeat, and in painful fashion. After holding halftime leads on the road in Washington, D.C. against the Commanders and at home against the Giants, the Cardinals are left to grapple with missed opportunities and an 0-2 record.
The news didn’t get any better on Monday, when the Cardinals announced that they will be without star safety Budda Baker for at least the next four games. Baker was placed on injured reserve Monday, after suffering a hamstring injury in practice Friday.
Sunday’s home opener will be remembered as one of the more painful in recent memory. The Cardinals were nearly flawless in building a 20-0 halftime lead, and after the Giants scored quickly to start the second half, Arizona struck right back and led 28-7.
Then the Giants staged their largest comeback since 1949. They didn’t even need overtime, winning 31-28 on a Graham Gano field goal in the waning seconds of regulation.
“The momentum here and there, I don’t really buy into all that. I buy into execution and coaching and playing well,” said Cardinals coach Jonathan Gannon. “That’s what we got to do better for four quarters. We’ve shown we can do it for a period of time. We just got to make sure we do it for 60 minutes.”
Giants quarterback Daniel Jones threw for 259 of his 321 yards in the second half, and New York had 358 total yards in the final two quarters. Their first four drives after halftime ended in touchdowns, and the fifth culminated in the deciding field goal.
“(We’ve) got to limit explosive (plays),” said Cardinals outside linebacker Victor Dimukeje. “They came out there and scored in three plays to begin the second half. We’ve got to go out there and play the second half like the first half.”
Arizona was unable to build on a strong start in its home opener, particularly on the defensive side. The Cardinals dialed up consistent pressure early on with three sacks in the first half.
The unit credits its success to the work of first-year defensive coordinator Nick Rallis, whose scheme prioritizes speed.
“Nick is a mastermind,” Dimukeje said. “Sometimes you forget this is his first year doing this as a defensive coordinator. When you see four outside linebackers, there’s a lot of speed on the field. There might be a different blocking scheme you have to give us. They don’t know if somebody’s dropping or rushing.”
In his third season, Dimukeje has dramatically improved his production under the new coaching staff. Through his first 28 games, the Duke product did not record a sack and had two quarterback hits. He already has 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hits through two contests this season, including two hits on Jones Sunday.
Signed in March from the Eagles, linebacker Kyzir White has helped Dimukeje create pressure, producing immediately upon arriving in the desert. He had seven tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss against the Giants.
“He’s a dog,” Dimukeje said. “He came to OTAs (organized team activities) and I think he got a pick in the first practice. (It’s) his leadership when he walks into the room. He’s well-respected and guys know he takes the game seriously. Having a guy like that on this defense makes you want to run through a wall for him.”
Despite some early promise from the defense, it took a big hit in losing Baker in the secondary.
“You’re never going to replace Budda Baker, but we got guys that feel comfortable getting the job done playing winning football for us,” Gannon said. “They just got to do their job, and we will be OK.”
The Cardinals will look to translate their fast starts into victories when they host the Cowboys next in Glendale. Gannon believes the coaching staff needs to do a better job with changing tactics mid-game.
“The game adjusts for the play caller as the score and time adjusts,” Gannon said. “You see things going on that are not right, and you got to be a problem solver on game day. So I think myself and the other coaches got to do a little better job.”