The Redskins offense kept the team in the game, but the defense couldn't force the Cardinals offense off the field when it needed to most.
From Arizona's very first offensive drive of the game – a 15-play, 75-yard sustained series that culminated in a touchdown and chewed up more than eight minutes of clock – the Redskins defense knew it would have its work cut out for them, especially on third down.
Washington had two opportunities on third-and-long to prevent the Cardinals from moving the chains to begin the game, and subsequently the end zone, but couldn't manage to do so. Quarterback Carson Palmer found running back David Johnson for a 13-yard gain on third-and-11 near midfield and then found tight end Jermaine Gresham for 14 yards on third-and-12 in the red zone.
The scoring drive signified how dangerous and versatile the Cardinals' offensive weapons were while reminding the Redskins that a lack of execution on third down will almost always come back to bite. Arizona found the end zone three more times in the second half and went 10-of-16 on third down conversions in the game, handing the Redskins' a 31-23 defeat in Glendale, Ariz.
"It just seemed like every time it was a third-and-long, third-and-short, they just found a way to make those plays," defensive end Chris Baker said. "Us as defensive players, we have to find a way to get off the field – make the plays that we're supposed to make."
Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan characterized the defense's inability to get off the field as the story of the day.
"We were so damn bad on third downs today," Kerrigan said. "It was really kind of unbelievable. I mean we had so many opportunities to get off the field, to get our offense in better field position and we just weren't able to get off the field. That was really, I think, the story of the game, just couldn't get off the field on third down."
Near the end of the second quarter and early into the third, the defense managed to keep the offense within striking distance. The Cardinals had to settle for a field goal before the half ended thanks to strong pressure, which included a Ryan Kerrigan sack earlier in the drive, making Palmer, who ended up throwing for 300 yards and three touchdowns, uneasy in the pocket.
Later, during Arizona's next possession, it was linebacker Trent Murphy's turn, sacking Palmer on third down for a 10-yard loss (his career-high eighth sack of the season) that forced a missed 53-yard field goal from Chandler Catanzaro, which kept the Redskins three point advantage at the time.
But missed tackles and coverages on the next three drives all ended in touchdowns. After the Redskins fumbled in their own territory, Arizona took advantage of field position and Palmer found wide receiver Michael Floyd on a slant route on third down from the Washington 6-yard line for a touchdown.
The Redskins offense responded with a touchdown to keep pace, but two more Cardinals third down conversions on the next drive set up a David Johnson (84 yards rushing and 91 yards receiving) touchdown. Later, on Arizona's final drive, which culminated in a 42-yard Palmer touchdown pass to wide receiver J.J. Nelson, the Redskins defense couldn't get off the field down 24-23.
"It just sucks because our offense just keeps responding over and over in the second half," Baker said. "We can't off the field on third downs. It felt like they were 90 percent on freaking third down today. I don't know what it is, but we've got to fix it somehow. We've got to find a way to get off the field. Our offense is doing an incredible job each and every week, but we just keep letting them down on defense. It's very frustrating."
It's now been two consecutive games that the defense has entered the locker room with that feeling after being unable to give their offense a formidable chance to tie or win the game in the fourth quarter. Earlier this season, the defense's big play ability made up for the missed opportunities on third down.
Linebacker Su'a Cravens intercepted Giants quarterback Eli Manning and cornerback Josh Norman intercepted Browns quarterback Cody Kessler, plays that would end up sealing victories. Even the next week, against the Ravens, the defense prevented a touchdown during Baltimore's final drive to escape with a win, but that hasn't been the case recently.
"I think [opposing teams] are scheming pretty well right now," Cravens said. "But I think we're in the position we've been in every game this season: fourth quarter, make a stop, and get the ball back to the offense. Today, we just couldn't do it."
As the team stares down its final four games, it knows those game-changing plays must come back if they can't prevent opponents from continuing to acquire first downs in critical situations late in games.
"There's a couple of things we can be better that overall," cornerback Josh Norman said. "We will be. We've got to just trust in what we're doing right now. Trusting in the coaches, trusting in everybody else to get it corrected. And we've got four games to do that."