After six consecutive losses, Kliff Kingsbury and his Arizona Cardinals finally have something to celebrate.
Behind a dominant rushing attack that tallied 226 yards on the ground, Arizona steamrolled the visiting Browns by the final of 38-24.
The Cardinals set the tempo early, producing seven on the game’s opening drive that saw the birds go 90 yards on 10 plays.
Rookie QB Kyler Murray was mostly sensational, outside of a second quarter INT to fellow rookie Mack Wilson. The former Heisman winner finished the afternoon with a passer rating of 98.6 thanks to 19/25 effort through the air for 219 yards.
Murray would connect for his lone touchdown on the team’s final possession of the half, hitting recently promoted TE Dan Arnold for a six yard score in the back of the end zone.
To Cleveland’s credit, following an 11 point half time deficit, the Brown would rally to close the game to just four thanks to a two yard touchdown strike from Baker Mayfield to former Cardinal TE Ricky Seals-Jones.
From that point forward, however, Arizona would score the game’s next 17 points which included multiple touchdown’s from RB Kenyan Drake.
Drake finished the afternoon with a 137 yards rushing on just 22 carries, which included an astounding four rushing touchdowns.
Second year RB Nick Chubb would do his best to keep this one close, as the former Georgia Bulldog netted 127 yards on just 17 carries. However, with the second half margin continuing to grow, Cleveland all but abounded the running game.
At 35-17, Cleveland’s attempted fourth quarter rally was cut short thanks to a critical fumble from Seals-Jones that would put the game on ice for Arizona.
With the win, Arizona moves to 4-9-1 with the slim hope of avoiding double digit losses still alive for 2019.
Game Ball: Kenyan Drake
When the Cardinals made the trade for Miami RB Kenyan Drake back in late October, it was mostly due to necessity. Both David Johnson and Chase Edmunds were banged up and Arizona desperately wanted to continue to run the ball effectively in support of Kyler Murray.
Six games and a nice stretch of production later, I think it’s safe to say that Drake has asserted himself as the team’s top choice to tout the rock come 2020 and beyond.
Drake played perhaps his best game as a pro Sunday against the Browns. His production, which will likely garner him “NFC Ground Player of the Week” honors, doesn’t begin to tell the story.
Yes, Arizona’s offensive line held up well, but Drake’s ability to make men miss (especially on the perimeter) was the difference in the ground attack.
The lateral move he put on Cleveland DB Denzel Ward late in the game should be replayed on a loop all week in the desert.
I don’t doubt that Arizona’s front office will attempt (and probably succeed) to work a deal out with Drake prior to free agency. The bigger question remains what to do with David Johnson and his large contract hit looming in 2020.
Yes, a trade will likely be explored but I fear that any team on the receiving end (hello, Tampa?) will absolutely expect draft capital as well.
I’m not sure the Cardinals can afford to ditch picks for cap relief just yet.
Game Ball: Patrick Peterson
This game was frustrating in the sense that it gave you a glimpse of what Patrick Peterson can do when properly motivated. The stand out CB, who has been mostly garbage this season since his return from suspension, was all over Cleveland WR Odell Beckham Jr.
Peterson played easily his best game of the season, tallying an INT as well as three passes defensed. He also looked much more engaged and physical in the run game, as well.
Games like this are why you obviously want Peterson around longterm. However, with the Cardinals clearly still rebuilding and Peterson approaching 30 (with an expiring contract), perhaps this game best serves as prove to 31 other teams of what he can still do.
Arizona still has two more ultra challenging road games ahead (Seattle, LA) but Patrick Peterson showing any signs of life would be a welcomed change prior to what will likely be an interesting off season between he and the team.
Game Ball: Damiere Byrd
Kyler Murray has long been letdown by his sporting cast this season, especially over the course of this six game losing streak. That’s why the play of individuals like Drake and Damiere Byrd on Sunday give glimpses of what this offense can be when you incorporate other functional pieces.
Byrd in particular was the lone constant in the passing game against Cleveland, showing off quality skills after the catch that included a nifty little catch and run for 51 yards.
Far too often, Kyler Murray is asked to play hero ball and elevate the play of his supporting cast. What Byrd showcased on Sunday was an ability to return the favor, giving Murray a trusted pass catcher that he could continually target for big gains and first down conversions.
The fourth year receiver would finish with six catches for 86 yards on six targets. That’s a money stat line for a quarterback who needs all the help he can get right now.
Rookie Watch: Jalen Thompson
It’s clear, with just two games remaining in the season, which rookie fifth round safety has separated himself from the other.
Deonte Thompson, the fifth rounder out of Alabama, remains a healthy scratch after playing valuable snaps to start the season. On the flip side, fifth round supplemental pick Jalen Thompson, may be Arizona’s best all around safety RIGHT NOW.
The former Washington State product had an ultra productive game against Cleveland, netting four tackles as well as a fumble recovery. However, Thompon’s play goes well beyond the stat sheet, as he was in on numerous tackles that would result in a Cleveland punt.
Arizona has not had many (if any) impact players on day three of the draft during Steve Keim’s tenure as GM. Jalen Thompson has a legitimate chance to break that streak if this kind of production continues.
At the very least, one can assume that the Cardinals should be able to field a competent secondary in 2020 with ascending players like Thompson, Budda Baker and Byron Murphy. Throw in a motivated Patrick Peterson, and that unit should absolutely be considered strength.
Needs Improvement: Run Defense
I wanted to take it easy on the Cardinal defense after what was their best outing since the Giant’s game back in October. However, it’s still grossly evident that Arizona lacks capable bodies within their front seven to stop opposing rushing attacks.
The Browns lined up and pushed around Arizona’s front seven for the majority of the afternoon. If it hadn’t been for Kyler Murray and the Cardinal offense continually producing points, the game would have looked eerily similar to the Steeler contest from a week ago.
Jordan Hick is a quality #2 ILB, but Arizona will likely be on the haunt for yet another impact linebacker come free agency. They also need, at minimum, two capable DT upfront that can be stout against the run. Too many front seven defenders for Arizona missed critical tackles against both Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Personnel, not coaching, is likely the biggest culprit to this consistent struggle for the Cardinals.
- While it won’t show up on the stat sheet, Kyler Murray was incredibly productive orchestrating Arizona’s rushing attack on Sunday. Murray finished the day with 56 yards on the ground, but it was his ability to read the RPOs that allowed Drake to have the kind of impact he had.
- Give credit where credit is due: Arizona’s offensive line played great against Cleveland. Not only did they have a career day running the football, but they allowed ZERO sacks on Kyler Murray. After missing the majority of practice this week, LG Justin Pugh toughed it out and put together a great performance. The guard play of Arizona remains it’s strength upfront.
- Chandler Jones netted his 15th sack of the season, while newly added OLB Haason Reddick left the game late due to injury. The Cardinal pass rushing group will need a significant off season face lift in an attempt to garner more favorable matchups for Jones in 2020. Reddick, IMO, isn’t the answer...at least not right now.
- Larry Fitzgerald was his productive self, hauling in three catches for 42 yards. Fitz still looks like a capable player but it’s fair to wonder if the future hall of famer just concluded his final home game as a pro. For what it’s worth, his father tweeted out something similar prior to kickoff.
- It’s frustrating to watch countless second round receivers, from Deebo Samuel to Terry McLaurin, Dk Metcalf and AJ Brown produce at a high level as rookies. Then see fellow second round pass catcher Andy Isabella offer next to nothing in the passing game. Yes, it’s early and I’m aware all of those other individuals went ahead (outside of Metcalf) of Isabella last April. But I think it is fair to wonder if the Cardinals simply missed on a guy that excelled at a small school and is simply overmatched at the next level.
- David Johnson saw limited (lets call it next to zero) playing time on offense Sunday against Cleveland. Arizona even tried to get creative late in this one, allowing Johnson to return kickoffs in replace of the struggling Pharoh Cooper.
- The 38 points scored were a season high for Arizona under Kingsbury.
- This was not a good day for former Cardinal head coach Steve Wilks, as the Cleveland defense allowed Arizona to rack up 445 total yards of total offense.
- Arizona’s defense has allowed over 20 points in every game played in 2019.
- The Cardinals, at four wins, have now eclipsed last year’s total of three victories. Progress!
- With this win, at the writing of this article, Arizona is now slated to pick seventh overall in next April’s NFL Draft.