With the preseason Week 3 “dress rehearsal” game in the rearview, we’ve seen just about all we’re gonna see from the Cardinals’ starters this preseason. They didn’t play much in the first two games, and what we saw wasn’t great—a lot of punts for the offense and opposing RBs running wild on the defense.
The Vikings game was a bit better: three field goal drives for the offense, and just the one (long) Dalvin Cook touchdown against the defense while harrying Kirk Cousins into a 3/13 performance. Kliff Kingsbury’s team is still clearly a work in progress, but the Vikings game was at least encouraging.
But, as always around this time of year, it’s tough to say what we really know about the team at this point. Kingsbury’s offense has largely been kept under wraps thus far, and I’m sure Vance Joseph would tell you the same thing about his defense.
But based on watching the games, reviewing the tape, and combing through the box scores, we can say we know a few things with a good degree of confidence. Here are three things about the offense and three things about the defense/special teams that I think we can say we know about the 2019 Arizona Cardinals so far.
Kyler Murray Is Going to Be Fun to Watch
There are many adjectives you could apply to the 2018 Arizona Cardinals—inept, embarrassing, pathetic, unsightly. “Fun” certainly wasn’t one of them, though. The team was just brutal to watch when Mike McCoy and Sam Bradford were running the show, and things didn’t get much better with the switch to Byron Leftwich/Josh Rosen. The offense was basically 2-yard DJ run, 2-yard DJ run, QB overthrow, punt, repeat. Yuck.
While I can’t say for certain Andy Lee will punt any less yet, we can at least be sure that Kyler Murray will be vastly more entertaining to watch than either Bradford or Rosen were last year. He’s mobile, he’s accurate, and he can make the Ron Wolfley “Wow!” throws. Three traits Cardinals QBs decidedly did *not* possess last year. Even if the team is losing, Kyler has already shown this preseason that the games will at least be worth watching.
The Pass Catchers Will Be Better
Caveat: The bar for this is incredibly low. After the trio of Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk, and David Johnson, the team’s fourth-leading receiver was Ricky Seals-Jones with 34 receptions for 343 yards and 1 TD. After him, no Cardinal had more than 20 receptions or 210 yards. And, if we’re being honest, DJ, Fitz, and Kirk weren’t exactly winning you your fantasy matchups every week either. The Cardinals’ skill position players were mostly terrible last year.
To avoid a repeat performance, the team brought in a number of rookies and free agents. Although there have been some bumps in the road (Andy Isabella’s slow development, Hakeem Butler’s injury, Kevin White’s Kevin White-ness), the improvement has been undeniable so far. KeeSean Johnson looks like a keeper and is the likely third starting WR. Damiere Byrd, Pharoh Cooper, and Trent Sherfield have been preseason stars at various points and are all pushing to make the final 53. And although I wasn’t a huge fan of the signing, Michael Crabtree is a steady veteran who’s familiar with the offense, so he should help as well. While it’s still unclear how much we’ll use the tight ends (they’ve been on the field a lot, but not targeted a ton), this stable of receiving threats looks much better than the 2018 squad.
The Offensive Line Is Going to Be a Problem… Again
Fans and pundits alike have been hammering GM Steve Keim all offseason for not doing enough to improve the O-line, and their concerns have been 100% warranted. Our line, widely regarded as one of the worst in the league, has really struggled this preseason: 7 sacks given up, 3.8 YPC for our RBs (2.9 for DJ), numerous penalties. The unit has been dealing with some injuries, yes… but that has been one of the biggest criticisms of Keim’s approach to building the line in general anyway.
So it looks like it’ll be another long year for Kyler, DJ, and the rest behind a porous, injury-prone O-line. Kingsbury will do what he can to compensate for this with his schemes and playcalling, but the O-line woes will clearly lower the offense’s ceiling. To what extent is anyone’s guess; hopefully it won’t have as dramatic an impact as last year when combined with a largely immobile QB and subpar receiving talent, but that could easily prove to be the case even with Kyler and improved skill position talent. Kliff and Kyler’s abilities to overcome the O-line issues will determine how high the Redbirds can fly in 2019.
We Still Can’t Stop the Run
Last year at this time, Cardinals observers were (rightly) concerned about the run defense. We had given up 322 yards on 73 carries (4.5 YPC) and two TDs in the first three preseason games. Well, this year after three preseason games, those numbers are 97 carries for 492 yards (5.0 YPC) and 5 TDs. That’s right, we’ve given up 164 YPG—even worst than our league-worst 155 YPG last season in Al Holcomb’s much-maligned 4-2-5 defense. Our run defense has been U-G-L-Y, and we don’t even have the alibi of playing in an unfamiliar scheme as we switched back to the 3-4 we’ve run for years.
Our D-line was a weakness going into the offseason, and it’s clear that Keim didn’t prioritize it in free agency. He didn’t sign anyone until late in the process, and both his big new acquisitions—Darius Philon and Terrell McClain—have since been released. Philon was released after legal issues, which you can’t put on Keim, but McClain was just a whiff. He did re-sign Rodney Gunter and draft Zach Allen and Michael Dogbe (and bring in several JAGs), but those moves didn’t seem like enough earlier in the offseason, and that concern has proven true after these first three preseason games. At linebacker, Jordan Hicks seemed like a great signing, but other than the goal line forced fumble against the Chargers, he’s looked a step slow. Haason Reddick has been hurt, but when he comes back, he’s still Haason Reddick. Things aren’t getting better anytime soon.
Like I said above, Kyler Murray will be a lot of fun to watch… but he might not have the ball much with opposing teams running roughshod over us.
Our Cornerbacks Are Going to Struggle
Man, back in April, our cornerback corps was looking pretty good. Patrick Peterson was going to take half the field away, we had a proven starter in Robert Alford across from him and we had just drafted Byron Murphy in the 2nd round to man the slot. We had also signed some depth guys like Josh Shaw and Tramaine Brock and it seemed like we’d finally—FINALLY—be rid of Brandon Williams.
Well, things did not go to plan—Peterson got himself suspended, Alford broke his leg, Shaw hurt his shoulder, and Brandon Williams is still somehow on the cornerback depth chart. It’s looking like our Week 1 starting corners are going to be Brock and Murphy, with several practice squad–caliber guys (Chris Jones, Nate Brooks, Deatrick Nichols, Williams) fighting for roster spots behind them. We’ll get Peterson back in Week 7 and *hopefully* Alford at some point, but we’re going to be very vulnerable on the outside until then, especially considering that opposing QBs have completed 70% of their passes with a 8.5 YPA and 4:1 TD:INT ratio (107.7 QB rating) against us this preseason.
The ideal version of the defense Keim put together this offseason had a chance to be an above-average unit, but the version we’ll be rolling out in Week 1 definitely ain’t it, chief. Also, and this is a topic for another column, but is it too soon to start questioning Vance Joseph’s abilities as a DC? I was not a fan of his hire in the first place, and the defense as a whole has been BAD this preseason…
Special Teams Will Be a Strength Again
Our kicking specialists have been busy thus far, and they’ve looked good doing it. Andy Lee has a 47-yard average on his eight punts, with two down inside the 20 and no touchbacks. (Former UDFA Ryan Winslow has also looked solid spelling him.) And Zane Gonzalez has been perfect this preseason: 6/6 on FGs (including the 55-yarder against the Chargers) and 4/4 on PATs. Kickoff returns and coverage have both been strong (22.5-yard average for us, 20.1 for opponents), and punt coverage has been outstanding (5.7 yards per return). Neither Pharoh Cooper (4.8 yards) or T.J. Logan (4.0 yards) has impressed on punt returns, but Damiere Byrd had a 28-yarder against the Vikings. Maybe Jeff Rodgers has found something there. Special teams were a surprising strength last year, and that’s looking like it will carry forward into 2019 as well.
After three preseason games’ worth of tape and statistics, it seems clear that this team is going to struggle badly in the trenches… again. The difference from last year on offense is that at least we’ll have a mobile QB who can avoid sacks and keep plays alive, a guy who will be fun to watch even if we’re losing. The difference on defense is that our pass defense will be markedly worse than the #4 pass D in yardage in 2018. So it sounds like we could be in for some shootouts this year, 45-28 losses instead of 45-10. Progress? We’ll predict what the season might have in store for us next week.
In the meantime, give us your takeaways from the first three preseason games in the comments. Feeling optimistic about the offense? Is there any hope for the defense? Debate away in the comments—just make sure to keep it classy.