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Fourth quarter woes that cost team in losses weren’t a problem on Sunday

Cardinals outside linebacker Chandler Jones tackles 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer on Sunday.
When crunch time came in past years, the Cardinals’ defense was usually the one dropping the hammer.

But in fourth quarter losses to the Lions and Cowboys earlier this season, it was the one getting squashed. The Cardinals were determined to get back to their late-game ways, and did so in Sunday’s 18-15 overtime win over the 49ers.

The defense didn’t allow a first down in the fourth quarter to give the offense every chance to win the game, and even though that didn’t happen, it didn’t break. San Francisco got the ball first in overtime and put together an impressive drive, but the Cardinals forced a field goal near the goal-line when a touchdown would have ended it.

“That,” linebacker Karlos Dansby said, “is how we’re supposed to play.”

The Cardinals led by two in the fourth quarter against Detroit but gave up a pair of touchdowns in just over five minutes as Detroit took control. Last week, the Cowboys broke open a tie game with 14 points in a seven-minute span in the fourth. The 49ers, meanwhile, scored three points in the final 29 minutes of this contest.

“We made it a big emphasis, that in that fourth quarter, that’s when we’ve got to rise up,” money linebacker Deone Bucannon said. “The first three quarters, we were lights out those first three games. … I’m happy we came out with the win. We played all four quarters.”

The defense has to be the engine for the Cardinals right now because of all the injuries and inconsistency on the other side of the ball (though it did suffer one of its own when linebacker Markus Golden left the game late with a knee injury). Success has shown up in spurts throughout 2017 but there have been too many lapses.

Red zone woes were a big problem through the first three games, as the Cardinals were last in the league, allowing touchdowns on 87.5 percent of possessions inside the 20. They didn’t allow the 49ers in the end zone at all on Sunday, allowing for the late-game heroics by Larry Fitzgerald.

“They didn’t give up any touchdowns, so that’s a pretty good day,” coach Bruce Arians said.

The Cardinals only had one takeaway – an interception by safety Antoine Bethea – but came close to a couple others. Cornerback Justin Bethel couldn’t corral a pass early in the game, and Dansby didn’t see another heading his way until it was too late.

After blowing a 17-9 lead in Detroit, the Cardinals’ defense looks to bounce back from a poor showing

Things couldn’t have started off any better for the Cardinals on defense after Justin Bethel ran away with an interception and returned it for a TD. After that, however, things seemed to slowly go downhill for James Bettcher’s unit.

At the end of the day, the defense gave up 367 total yards (285 passing; 82 rushing). They also allowed nineteen (19) 1st downs, allowing the Lions to keep drives extended, especially on 3rd down. With essentially playing zone coverage the entire game, Matthew Stafford took advantage.

DETROIT, MI – SEPTEMBER 10: Kenny Golladay #19 of the Detroit Lions scores a touch down in the second half against Justin Bethel #28 of the Arizona Cardinals at Ford Field on September 10, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

With what usually is a blitz-happy team, the Cardinals only blitzed on 15.5% of pass plays, according to Pro Football Focus. Very uncharacteristic for an aggressive defense.

The conservative game plan allowed Matthew Stafford to have a great game, resulting in yet another comeback win for his Lions. He finished the day completing 29-of-41 passes for 292 yards, while adding 4 TDs.

Haason Reddick making strides

There was a silver lining in the loss on Sunday, however, and that was the play of rookie linebacker Haason Reddick. Reddick recorded six tackles and two assists. At times, looking like he knew exactly what was coming towards him on the play. Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of 80.9 for his efforts. Not bad for a rookie playing in his first regular season game.

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Dont’a Hightower was activated from PUP this week and returned to the practice field. But according to a report from ESPN, Hightower is among a group of Patriots who did not travel with the team to Detroit for Friday night’s third preseason affair.

ESPN reports that linebackers Hightower, Elandon Roberts and Shea McClellin were not part of the Patriots travel party to take on the Lions. As such, the report speculates that veteran newcomer David Harris could have a big role in the middle of the defense in Detroit.

While Hightower is working back into the mix after missing all of training camp and the two previous preseason games on PUP, Roberts is dealing with a rib injury that saw him carted off the field last Saturday night in Houston. McClellin has been absent with an unknown injury since early in camp that’s now forced the veteran to miss three preseason games.

Previously, ESPN also reported that Nate Solder, who returned to practice this week after an extended absence to an unknown issue, did not travel, either. As such, Cameron Fleming is expected to once again be charged with protecting Tom Brady’s blind side against the Lions.

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Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

You know the saying “sometimes even a blind squirrel finds a nut”?

Well, former Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings finally found an acorn.

Appearing on Fox Sports 1’s “Undisputed”, a show notorious for outrageous and flaming hot takes, Jennings gave his opinion on why the Packers have not yet won a second Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers under center.

While many fans consistently point their fingers at defensive coordinator Dom Capers and the defense, Jennings instead thinks Capers’ boss, head coach Mike McCarthy is to blame.

While many will immediately dismiss this as just another bitter cheap shot thrown at his former team by Jennings, there is no denying he might be right on this one.

Here is what he had to say via The Sporting News:

He would cuff us. ….When you watch New England play, when they have a lead, they go for your throat, they don’t relax … they have a great quarterback, they have arguably the best quarterback in football, but they have no doubt about it the best head coach in football.

The Packers clearly have had issues putting opponents away. The most obvious piece of evidence is their NFC championship game collapse against the Seattle Seahawks in January 2015. Had McCarthy stayed on the gas offensively that game, this piece isn’t even being written.

Take a look at some games from last season;

Week 3 vs Detroit: the Packers led 31-10 at halftime. They won the game 34-27.

Week 15 at Chicago: Green Bay led 27-10 in the fourth quarter against Matt Barkley. Green Bay still won 30-27, thanks to some late heroics by Rodgers and Jordy Nelson.

Divisional playoff game at Dallas: Green Bay led 21-3. They hung on and won 34-31 thanks to the infamous clutch throw by Rodgers and a field goal by Mason Crosby as time expired.

Had the Packers not hung on in those two regular season games, they don’t make the playoffs and the Dallas game obviously doesn’t happen.

You can even wind the clock all the way back to Super Bowl XLV. Green Bay led the Steelers 21-3 before winning 31-25. They were out scored 22-10 after they went up by 18. This is clearly not a new issue for the Packers under McCarthy.

So now that it’s clear McCarthy likes to take his foot off the gas, the next question to answer is why he chooses to do so.

Maybe he doesn’t want to be the guy running up the score when he clearly could. That’s fine and dandy when it comes to sportsmanship, but all that does is show you lack a killer instinct.

McCarthy clearly likes to be respected by his peers, but when you have a defense that is clearly struggling you can’t go into a shell on offense. You have to keep your foot on the opponent’s throat, lest they rise and stab you in the back. Sometimes it’s better to be feared than it is to be respected, especially in a league like the NFL. Bill Belichick has made a career out of embarrassing opponents. Why can’t McCarthy? There really is no reason except a lack of willpower.

To be fair, the defense clearly has problems shutting teams out as well. Sometimes that’s due to injury and sometimes Capers lets off the gas as well. He deserves to have his play calling questioned too, but that’s anorher argument for another day.

That’s still no excuse for McCarthy, however. He’s the head coach and the buck stops with him. If he wanted Capers to dial up the pressure, he easily could.

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