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Quarterly check-in: What should Cardinals fans be worried about after another winless September?

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The 0-3-1 start wasn’t pretty, but growing pains are to be expected for a team with a rookie HC and QB. But is the winless start cause for true worry? Here’s what Cardinals fans should and should not be worried about at this point.

Arizona Cardinals v Denver Broncos
Vance Joseph has had a rough first year on the job as the Cardinals DC. Will he be another one-and-done?
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

While this 0-3-1 start is certainly disappointing, let’s be honest—no one really expected this rebuilding squad, with a rookie coach and QB, to contend. Should we have more than a zero in the win column after four games for a second straight year? Probably. But each of our first four opponents has looked like a playoff-caliber team in the first quarter of the season, and we were in each game in the second half.

So am I worried about this winless squad? No, not really. Not yet, anyway.

But it might be time to start worrying—really worrying—with a loss to our Week 5 opponent, the also-winless Cincinnati Bengals. So ahead of that matchup, let’s check in one this team after one quarter of the season.

What should Cardinals fans be worried about? What should they not be worried about? Let’s find out.

What I’m Worried About

Coaching

At the top of my list of worries so far is coaching—on both sides of the ball. On offense, I worry that Kliff Kingsbury’s dual responsibilities as head coach and de facto offensive coordinator are too much for him to handle in his first NFL job. Is he too focused on getting the Air Raid to work at the NFL level that it’s hampering his decision-making? He has left gobs of points on the board with his thus far hyper-conservative 4th-down decisions in the red zone, and has generally shown himself to be quite risk-averse overall. He seems to be defaulting to what a prototypical “old school” coach would do in pressure situations instead of embracing more analytics-based decision making like most of his “new school” coaching brethren. At this point, I’m not at all worried that he’ll be one-and-done like his predecessor, but he needs to make smarter decisions moving forward. Perhaps a stronger voice than assistant head coach/ST coach Jeff Rodgers or DC Vance Joseph in his ear in 2020 would help.

Speaking of one-and-done coaches, Joseph could certainly find himself in that category if the defense doesn’t get better in a hurry. After 4 games, the Redbirds are #31 in YPG against (417.5) and #29 in PPG against (28.8). Those numbers are both worse than Al Holcomb’s rightfully maligned unit last season. The pass rush has been working (11 sacks, tied for 10th in the league), but nothing else has. The switch back to the 3-4 was supposed to be just the panacea this unit needed, but the rush defense is once again porous, and the pass defense has yet to pick off a single pass. It’s hard for the offense to get back in a game when it doesn’t have the dang ball (we’re #29 in time of possession, although that’s not all on the defense). Joseph’s defense plainly isn’t working, although it’ll get a big boost in two weeks when Patrick Peterson returns from suspension. It might be too little, too late at that point though.

Underperforming Defensive Veterans

The defenses struggles aren’t all due to coaching—the players share equal blame here, especially several veterans who haven’t played up to expectations. We just cut one of them on Monday—adios, D.J. Swearinger. But he was far from the only offender. The defensive line has been pushed around all season: Corey Peters and Rodney Gunter have been as absent from the stat sheet as the highlight reels, and Andy Isabella has the same number of tackles as Brooks Reed (2). At linebacker, Jordan Hicks actually leads the leads the league in tackles with 48, but too many of them have been downfield and he’s been absolutely useless in pass coverage. Tramaine Brock has been another disappointment in the secondary, especially with his ridiculous penalty last week. Finally, two younger veterans—Budda Baker and Haason Reddick—haven’t made the leaps we need them to. These guys all need to step up starting in Cincinnati.

The Offensive Line

This has been a constant worry for the Cardinals for years now, and nothing has changed in 2019. D.J. Humphries at LT and J.R. Sweezy at RG have actually been competent, and Justin Pugh has been okay at LG. But RT has been a black hole without Marcus Gilbert, and A.Q. Shipley has played poorly at center. Add it all up and this is a clearly below-average line—and that’s before more injuries inevitably set in. (And remember, there’s no Korey Cunningham to step in anymore.) Things could go really sideways for this line in a hurry—and knowing our luck, that’ll happen sooner than later. For now, let’s just hope the injury imp was sated with Gilbert going on IR and doesn’t come for any of the other starters anytime soon.

Wide Receiver Depth

Although the team just got good news on Christian Kirk’s injury, the depth at WR is still pretty thin behind Larry Fitzgerald. Damiere Byrd started hot but has cooled down and is now dinged up. KeeSean Johnson hasn’t been overmatched, but he also hasn’t made big plays like he did in the preseason. Trent Sherfield has just one reception to go with at least one brutal drop—he also doesn’t look like the player we saw in the preseason. That leaves the door open for Andy Isabella to make an impact, but he’s played only 9 snaps on offense thus far and doesn’t have a single target. How much confidence can you have in a player like that? (And, no, Pharoh Cooper isn’t going to help much.) All the hype this unit got during training camp seems like a distant memory now. Who will step up to fill the void behind Fitz now? Anyone?

What I’m Not Worried About

Kyler Murray

Our new QB might be the part of our team I’m least worried about. There have been hiccups, sure, with the offense going stagnant at times, and his pocket awareness still clearly needs work. But Kyler looks like an NFL QB out there, and the stats back it up—he has twice eclipsed 300 yards passing and is on pace to throw for 4,000 yards. It’s a relief to watch a rookie QB actually move the ball down the field consistently and make big throws. And it looks like Kyler is starting to use his legs more as well. Once he gets all parts of his game working at once, watch out. I think we’re gonna see a huge breakout game from Kyler soon—hopefully this week against the Bengals.

David Johnson

DJ has not looked great running the ball in 2019—47 attempts for 173 yards (3.7 YPC) and 1 TD. Those numbers are a function of several things: playcalling tendencies, game flow, poor O-line play, and—perhaps—declining athleticism on DJ’s part. Plus, Chase Edmonds has outplayed him as a runner: 11 carries for 59 yards (5.4 YPC in an admittedly small sample size). So why am I—the guy who has suggested trading DJ not once but twice—not worried? For one, he’s been effective in the passing game, with 28 receptions for 182 yards and 3 TDs—a 16-game pace of 112/728/12. That especially impressive considering he had a 1-catch, 0-yard game in Baltimore. Maybe he’ll effectively be our WR2 with Kirk out. DJ has also been solid in pass protection and can provide some veteran leadership. It’s pretty clear that he isn’t one of the best RBs in football anymore, but I’m not worried about DJ moving forward.

The Secondary

I know, I know—the pass defense has been awful thus far. We’re #23 in passing YPG against (271.0), #31 in passer rating against (118.4), and we don’t have a single interception yet as mentioned previously. But things could turn around soon. For one, cutting Swearinger should be addition by subtraction—and maybe Joseph will give Baker Swearninger’s old responsibilities. That also clears playing time for the Thompson Twins. At corner, Byron Murphy is steadily improving and has been a bright spot. Guys like Chris Jones and Kevin Peterson haven’t looked lost out there either. And, of course, we get Patrick Peterson back in two weeks (and hopefully Robert Alford at some point). That won’t help us against the Bengals this week or against the Falcons the week after, but I expect things will improve drastically in the second half of the season.

Special Teams

Yes, our kicker just missed two field goals last week, our punter is banged up, and our punt returner just went down. But Jeff Rodgers has had this unit playing well since he took over as special teams coach, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Gonzalez was steady before the Seahawks game, Ryan Winslow has looked like a solid fill-in while Andy Lee is hurt, and there are any number of candidates to replace Kirk as punt returner (it’ll probably be Cooper). This unit should continue to be reliable moving forward.

Final Thoughts

Thus far, the things I’m worried about outweigh the things I’m not worried about—but, again, this is a rebuilding team, so expecting much more than what we have gotten so far is mostly futile. This was never going to be a playoff team, or even a .500 team, and the early-season schedule has been tougher than anticipated.

Thankfully, the rest of the schedule doesn’t look as imposing as it did during the preseason due to key injuries and underperforming teams. Can we take advantage? We’ll have to start this week in Cincinnati.

But if we can’t beat a fellow banged up, winless team with a first-year coach? Then it might be time to really worry.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.