GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona's Kliff Kingsbury says it's an honor to coach against his former mentor Bill Belichick.
It's safe to say the student could really use a win over his teacher.
The underachieving Cardinals have lost four of their past five heading into a home game against the New England Patriots on Monday night. The extended slide has made Kingsbury's job status a bit tenuous in the regular season's final month.
If the fourth-year coach is worried about his future in the desert, he's done a good job of hiding it. In a way, the poker face is reminiscent of Belichick, who has become a master at even-keel coaching while leading the Patriots to six Super Bowl titles.
Kingsbury was drafted by the Patriots in 2003 and spent one season there as a backup quarterback learning the inner workings of the most successful franchise in recent NFL history.
“It was a crash course in football, and I learned more in the time there than the rest of my life put together probably,” Kingsbury said. "It’s a football 101 for anybody who’s been through that program — coaches, players, anybody. To see him still doing it and the level he’s doing it at is just incredible.”
The Cardinals (4-8) have been dogged by injuries this season, particularly on offense. They're healthier than they've been for most of the season with quarterback Kyler Murray, running back James Conner and top receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Marquise Brown all available for just the second time this season.
New England (6-6) has lost two straight games and is in last place in the ultra-competitive AFC East. The Pats are still just one game behind the Jets for the final playoff spot in the conference. Belichick said that a struggling Cardinals team still presents challenges, particularly with Murray under center and Kingsbury on the sidelines.
“I mean Kliff, obviously, coached in college, had (Patrick) Mahomes and everything else, so he knows how to use and put pressure on defenses with athletic quarterbacks,” Belichick said. “So, not only does Murray do it, but he’s also in a system that I would say probably enhances it.”
ALL ABOUT CONSISTENCY
It’s no secret that the Patriots haven’t gotten the production they’ve hoped for offensively this season.
New England entered the week averaging just 20.75 points per game, which ranks 20th in the NFL. It's tied with Denver for last in the league in red zone efficiency, having scored a touchdown on just 37.5% of trips inside the 20-yard line.
Belichick said that wholesale changes aren’t feasible at this point in the season. Perfecting the approach and schemes they have in place will remain the emphasis.
“Success comes through consistency. That’s really what we’re trying to build towards always,” Belichick said. “More consistency, more production and we’ll continue to try to work towards that.”
There have been a lot of individual players on Arizona's defense who have had nice seasons.
J.J. Watt has turned back the clock with 6 1/2 sacks, which is more than he had the previous two years combined. Zach Allen has a career-high nine tackles for loss.
Young linebackers Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins have been much more productive. Safety Budda Baker continues to play at an All-Pro level.
But as a whole, the Cardinals defense has been pretty erratic. They're ranked 21st in the league in total defense and 31st in scoring defense.
“There's been games where we've been pretty good, but then there's five or six plays of bad football,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. “We've had a chance to make plays that turn games and we haven't made them all the time.”
While the offense has struggled, rookie DB Marcus Jones has been one of the few players to produce game-changing plays for New England this season.
Jones had an 84-yard punt return touchdown to lift the Patriots to a 10-3 win over the Jets on Nov. 30, and followed that up two games later with a 48-yard TD reception in their loss to Buffalo on Dec. 1.
That’s all come in addition to the snaps Jones has been getting on defense. While Belichick acknowledged there is a limit to how much Jones can be utilized in each phase, he said they are using similar situations with former players like Troy Brown and Julian Edelman as a guide.
“I don’t think he’s been overtaxed in any of those areas, but ... potentially could they add up? Sure,” Belichick said. “We’ve had some experience with this type of player, this type of thing before, but each case is a little bit different.”
Conner ran for 120 yards in Arizona's loss to the Chargers in Week 12, which was the first time he ran for more than 100 yards in his two seasons with the Cardinals.
The two-time Pro Bowler could shoulder a heavy load during the season's final weeks. The team released primary backup Eno Benjamin last month, leaving Conner as the main rushing option.
Conner has run for 476 yards this season and is averaging 3.9 yards per carry.
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