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BAL 23 ARI 17: Talking Points

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Baltimore Ravens Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Caption: QB Kyler Murray throwing the ball under duress with Ravens DE Matthew Judon getting a bead on him.

For those of us, like Seth Cox and myself, who wanted the Cardinals to draft QB Lamar Jackson in the 1st round of 2018 NFL Draft, the Cardinals game with the Ravens drew added interest, particularly in seeing Jackson compete against the Cardinals’ rookie QB Kyler Murray.

By the end of the game, both young and extremely mobile QB acquitted themselves well throughout a hard fought, hotly contested battle, with Jackson and the Ravens getting the win and with it some heavy accolades from members of the FOX crew like Terry Bradshaw, Michael Strahan and Howie Long who said after the game that Lamar Jackson is playing like an MVP candidate.

What was very frustrating from my point of view is how poorly the Cardinals’ defense played Jackson and the Ravens’ offense.

During the week I was hoping that Vance Joseph and the Cardinals’ secondary would have taken a long look at how Matt Patricia and the Lions defended Kyler Murray—-opting to throw sticky coverage downfield on virtually every play—-and conceding that if they give up a few scrambles to Kyler Murray, that would be better than allowing Murray to pick apart a soft zone.

Instead, the Cardinals defense employed a soft zone on the very first series and allowed Lamar Jackson the luxury of throwing to wide open receivers—-which resulted in an easy march right down the field TD, culminating on a TD pass to wide open TE Mark Andrews.

By letting rookie phenom WR Marquise Brown and talented TE Mark Andrews roam free in the Cardinals’ secondary, it was such a poor opening game statement by Vance Jospeh and the Cardinals’ defense, as if they had not watched Jackson, Brown and Andrews have a field day the previous week at Miami. It sent Jackson, Brown and Andrews the message that hey the Cardinals didn’t even really scout them.

How any defense could go into this game without paying strict attention to Brown and Andrews is beyond all reasonable modes of comprehension.

It essentially put the Cardinals into an immediate hole for the second week in a row.

Kudos to Kyler Murray and the Cardinals for fighting back—-but early holes on the road which fire up the rabid fan base are typically very difficult to overcome.

To Joseph’s and the Cardinals’ secondary’s credit, they scrapped the soft zone and started playing a steady diet of man-to-man coverage—-and thanks to some nifty pass breakups by Jordan Hicks, Haason Reddick and Byron Murphy, the Cardinals were able to keep the game within reach—-that is until Lamar Jackson dropped an absolute dime with the game on the line into the arms of Marquise Brown up the right sideline with Tramaine Brock defending the play stride for stride with the blazing Brown about as well as any defender can play it.

After that the Ravens were able to run out the clock and preserve a 6 point win.

However, there was another poor display of a lack of preparation on the part of the Cardinals’ defense—-and it remains the Achilles heel of Cardinals’ defenses for the past several decades—-and this is that no Cardinal defense ever appears concerned about losing edge contain.

Time after time the Cardinals’ edge players take the play action bait and crash down hard inside to stop the RB, leaving acres of open field for a running QB to exploit. When the DE crashes down and you are playing two inside linebackers who are not physically in a position to play contain, essentially the contain man becomes the CB...and in man-to-man coverage he can easily be taken deep by the WR or swept toward the other side of the field chasing a crossing or post pattern.

Not only did Chandler Jones and Terrell Suggs abandon contain all day, Jones committed error after error in his pass rush versus Jackson. When you play a scrambling threat like Lamar Jackson or Russell Wilson, you have to administer a “controlled’ rush. Again, Jones took the bait all afternoon when the Ravens’ LT, Ronnie Stanley, invited him wide and then repeatedly rode him out of the play swinging a gigantic door open for Jackson whenever he wanted to take it. And take it he did to the tune of 100+ yards.

A veteran like Chandler Jones who plays Russell Wilson twice a year should know better than this.

The last thing is—-on passing downs—-against a superior athlete like Lamar Jackson—-you need your quicker athletes to rush from the interior and to keep their lanes in order to be able to get off their blocks quickly enough to tackle Jackson before he can escape into open areas of the field. The Cardinals were doing this a few years ago when they would rush Alex Okafor from the nickel DT position and it was effective. Not sure if Michael Dogbe is injured but he could have helped, and it wouldn't have been a bad idea to use Brooks Reed and Cassius Marsh at times on the interior of the 4 man rush. As it was the Cardinals’ inside rushers where getting trapped outside their lanes and were not shedding and reacting quickly enough to Jackson when he bolted from the pocket. It’s hard to contain a great athlete like Jackson—-but the Cardinals made it too easy for Jackson to escape and keep drives alive.

In my opinion, a more professionally prepared defense for the Cardinals from the get-go yesterday could have given the team a decent chance to win that game.

But, the Cardinals also struggled a great deal on special teams where they were consistently outplayed and out hustled by the Ravens. The Cardinals took the bait on a pooch kickoff where this week’s kickoff returner, Damiere Byrd, caught the ball and stepped out of bound at the 6 yard line. Last week’s kickoff returner, Andy Isabella, was inactive this week, and the kickoff return team was not nearly as good. Gunner Charles Washington who was outstanding last week, interfered with the Ravens’ punt returner and that cost the team a valuable 15 yards. Mistakes like these cost teams the chance to win close games, especially ones on the road.

The good news on special teams was the continued excellence from P Andy Lee and K Zane Gonzalez, plus some booming tackles in kick coverage by Dennis Gardeck and Zeke Turner.

Sometimes one player can impact a game just enough for his team to prevail. In this game that player (besides Lamar Jackson) was the Ravens’ edge rusher Matthew Judon who consistently beat the Cardinals’ new RT Justin Murray and thus caused Kyler Murray to race through his progressions much faster than a QB would ever want to. It also prevented the Cardinals from trying to throw deep passes, as Murray’s time clock was quickened to the point where he was relegated to throwing into just the short and intermediate areas of the field.

It’s extremely unnerving to see an edge rusher in the backfield a mere second and a half after the snap time and time again. Like with BA—-Justin Murray spent practically the whole afternoon on an island with the coaches offering little help.

The problem for Justin Murray was not setting up quickly enough (his drop step was good), it was then playing on his heels and not attacking Judon by delivering hand jolts and jabs—-his technique was way too passive and too slow to counter.

Amazingly, Kyler Murray still found way to get the ball to his playmakers, throwing most of the time off of his back foot from his fixed spot in the pocket. In typical Air Raid fashion, Murray generated two 100 yard receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk while spreading the ball out to nine different receivers.

The Cardinals’ running game was on the shelf this week, thanks to the Cardinals trying to dig themselves out of a hole and never having the lead, plus David Johnson’s slow get-offs on the handoffs, save the hole he burst through on the Cardinals only TD. That came after Johnson had left the game for a lengthy stretch having suffered a wrist injury.

The Cardinals still could have won the game without running the ball effectively—-but it would have taken better creativity and execution in the red zone. The good news is that the Cardinals are not ignoring Larry Fitzgerald in the red zone like they have the past couple of years. The problem is that Kyler Murray is throwing to Fitz as if Fitz was 7 feet tall. Murray and Fitz both know that if you give him a 50/50 chance he is likely to come down the ball. But the passes this week to Fitz in the end zone had zero chance.

It’s a bit surprising how conservative Kliff Kingsbury has been in his red zone play calling. Look at the wrinkle that OC Greg Roman and the Ravens threw at the Cardinals by running the old, TE take a dive as if blocking play and then pop up to catch a wide open TD (when Jackson threw an easy little 1 yard pass to TE Hayden Hurst).

After giving up 3 TDs to opposing TEs the past 2 weeks, perhaps Kingsbury could focus this week on using Maxx Williams and/or Charles Clay on end zone routes. Clay looks slow and heavy footed, however. Seems to be a shadow of his former self.

I am still scratching my head over the addition of WR Michael Crabtree. Fitz, Kirk, Johnson and Byrd have good chemistry with Kyler Murray and Andy Isabella could run the deep seam a few times a game. Plus, Trent Sherfield is coming off an excellent pre-season.

Just the same—-what’s been glaringly missing in the red zone has been designed running plays for Kyler Murray. Once Murray gets comfortable using his feet to make big plays, like he did on the read option first down conversion that was called back because of a timeout—-opposing defenses are going to feel the pressure that the Cardinals’ defense felt yesterday in trying to defend the pass and contain Lamar Jackson all at the same time.

However, the best play in the red zone yesterday was the side step backpedal dime Kyler Murray threw to KeeSean Johnson for the 2 point conversion. That play was a work of art.

Murray likely will never be as eager to run the ball as often and as strong as Jackson, but, Murray is the more natural passer of the two.

Too bad that finally with the ball and a chance to take the lead late in the game, the offensive line imploded. J.R. Sweezy got called for another phantom holding penalty—-it’s a as if any time the Cardinals get a good gain on the ground the refs think it must have been the result of a hold. However, problems snapping the ball in the 4th quarter were a significant issue.

On the one hand, it felt like Kyler Murray was being a little too deliberate in calling for the snap, because he was trying to slow down that Ravens’ pass rush, but this didn’t help the timing with C A.Q. Shipley—-whose first early snap ended one drive and his later struggles led to D.J. Humphries’ jumping off-sides. It felt like the Cardinals ever really gave themselves a chance.

Murray tried talking with Shipley on their way off the field, but it looked pretty clear that Shipley was furious with Murray and wanted no part of a dialogue. Regardless, this was not a good showing of leadership from Shipley, one of the offensive captains.

Last week, I offered the suggestion that Kliff Kingsbury have Tom Clements sit on the bench with Murray between series to take a look at the defensive formations (have Jerry Sullivan up in the booth). This week there finally was a tablet on the bench and it was in Brett Hundley’s hand, which he occasionally was trying to show Kyler Murray. The times that I saw this—-Murray didn’t seem all that interested in going over the formations.

Kingsbury needs to give Murray more sideline coaching—from a coach, not the backup QB. And Murray has to start looking coaches in the eyes and communicating more openly and directly. Giving Murray some autonomy is a good thing, but he, just like any young QB, needs mentoring.

Seth Cox had the perfect post-game reaction yesterday—-it’s time now to take the training wheels off. I was making the argument during the pre-season that the Cardinals should have been running Air Raid plays in the pre-season games, especially seeing as it is a new system being run by a rookie QB. Murray didn't score a TD during the pre-season and thus the Cardinals are still trying to work the kinks out and to find their groove in the offense. All of the self-imposed secrecy has not worked to the Cardinals’ advantage because their execution in two games, especially in the red zone has been erratic.

Imagine what this offense cam look like when it is running on all cylinders.