PITTSBURGH – The Arizona Cardinals offense had been the show. The Arizona Cardinals defense had been the warm-up act. It was theatrical football. The Cardinals arrived here on Sunday with a 4-1 record, having scored 31, 48, 47 and 42 points in their victories. Three times this season the Arizona defense had limited teams to 19 or fewer points.
But the Pittsburgh Steelers smacked them at Heinz Field, 25-13. The Cardinals clumsily tumbled off stage. Piling up offensive yardage (469 net total) while piling on penalties (nine for 111 yards lost). Bumbling turnovers (three) and tiny play in big moments.
It made the Cardinals look counterfeit.
Arizona's offense shriveled under Pittsburgh's pounding red zone defense. Arizona's defense collapsed against a third-string quarterback, Landry Jones, who threw his first NFL passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns.
Arizona is 4-2 now. The Cardinals' losses have been to the St. Louis Rams, who limited them to 22 points, and now the Steelers, who choked this offense when it mattered most.
Arizona has yet to defeat a winning team.
Just what are they? Eyebrows are raised. Cross-eyed looks are coming their way.
The Cardinals locker room afterward embraced it. I was surprised to find how many of them said their fans, their doubters, had reason to take a second look. One of the Cardinals told me in the locker room: "They can, they should, they will -- until we shut that up and do something about it."
Too often on Sunday, the Steelers imposed their will on the Cardinals. As the game developed, the Steelers played harder, faster, tougher, smarter.
For Arizona, that is alarming.
"To hold them to 13 points, come on man," Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell said. Mitchell recovered a fumble on Arizona's first second-half possession. He intercepted Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer in the Steelers' end zone with 2:20 remaining. Arizona had driven 59 yards to the Pittsburgh 20. It was first-and-10 and Arizona trailed 18-13.
This drive, this Palmer pass could win it.
But, thanks to Mitchell, it ended as the third of four Arizona red zone drives without a touchdown. Mitchell said the Steelers defense finds "comfort" in the red zone. He said they relax and are confident that "someone is going to step up and make a play."
Just listen to Mitchell describe his leaping, gripping interception: "I knew he (Palmer) was going to throw it. That was a play that we had seen on film. They want to influence the safety in the post with the over route and they are going to bend it out and hit (receiver John Brown). The play was able to come back to my memory. And when I saw him come in, I was like, there's the over. I was able to weave with it. He thought I was going to take the over. I just used my instincts. I trusted it."
That is an extremely intelligent football answer.
He used his intelligence to make the pendulum-swinging play of the game.
Palmer said: "I never saw him. That can't happen. I'm very frustrated with myself for not seeing that because I should have."
Tom Moore, Arizona's assistant head coach and offensive consultant, said in the locker room afterward that he would have to see the video to discern exactly what happened on the play, why Palmer threw it and why Mitchell ruined it. Moore, 76, has been coaching football since 1961.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was more terse.
"That was not a good play," Arians said of Palmer's pick. "On a day of many good ones, that was not."
That's the kind of candor Arizona needs if it is going to be what it thinks it is, if it is going to win close games against winning teams on the road.
The Cardinals led in passing yards 233-1 at the end of the first half but led in points by only 10-3. Steelers quarterback Michael Vick suffered a hamstring injury. He was starting in place of injured Ben Roethlisberger. Enter Jones, who distorted and confused the Arizona defense after entering with 10:21 left in the third quarter and Arizona ahead 10-6. They had prepared for the edge game of Vick, but not the pocket-slinging of Jones.
The Arizona defense failed to fix it on the fly.
"They made more plays than we did," Cardinals defensive tackle Frostee Rucker said. "We had no concept on what they were doing best after Vick. We had no report on the third-string guy. We let that affect us."
So, the Arizona offense wilted in the red zone and the Arizona defense was sinking under the arm of a callow quarterback plus the treacherous speed of receiver Martavis Bryant (six catches, 137 yards, two touchdowns, including an 88-yard score).
Little wonder Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin highlighted his team's mental and physical toughness.
"We just need to do what's required to win and stand and fight," Tomlin said. "Guys did that."
Stand and fight are compelling word choices.
They describe exactly what the Cardinals need to do. They need more balance in these types of tough games between the run and the pass (it was 20 runs, 45 passes against Pittsburgh). That will boost their red zone options.
Receiver Michael Floyd, who saw his late second-quarter touchdown reception nullified for his pass interference mistake, stepped forward, talking about accountability and his and the team's need to play smarter and tougher. Floyd said that the Cardinals always believe that it is never about "how good we are" or if talent is an "issue." Smarter, tougher, he said.
Cornerback Patrick Peterson said the Cardinals "just let our guard down a little bit (when Jones entered). It shouldn't happen," he said, "but it did."
Arizona plays the Ravens at home next, then at the Browns and Seahawks. None of those teams own winning records. The Cardinals then play the currently undefeated Bengals on Nov. 22 at home.
Linebacker Dwight Freeney has spent 14 NFL seasons, most of them with the Indianapolis Colts, as an All-Pro defensive end/linebacker and has played in so many big games he has lost count. Freeney joined the Cardinals as a free agent signee six days before they met the Steelers.
He already has a piercing view of his new team.
"We played against two different teams today," Freeney said. "Vick is a different quarterback than the backup. We still kept playing like we were playing Vick. We just have to keep things in perspective. This a tough team, a strong group and we just weren't as good as we normally are. The big thing is you have got to learn from mistakes during the season. That is crucial. September and October games matter. But those games have to be a payoff for how you play and what you do in November and December. So, this should just be a step for us to get to where we want to be as a team. It doesn't have to be so defining."