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CAR 38 ARI 20: Adjustment Points

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NFL: Carolina Panthers at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Getting an Early Lead and Never Getting One Chance to Build on It

The most promising improvement of the week for the Arizona Cardinals is that, for the first time this season, they jumped out to an early lead, thanks to a timely Chandler Jones strip sack and fumble recovery and by virtue of a meticulous 14 play 75 yard drive led by Kyler Murray that was punctuated by Larry Fitzgerald’s hitch pass TD.

Cardinals 7 Panthers 0

As is the case in baseball when your team gets the lead, you need your pitcher to go out and have a shutdown inning. But, for the Cardinals’ defense, their responses to the offense getting the team the lead were absolutely demoralizing.

The Panthers’ offense, behind 2nd year UCFA QB Kyle Allen, marched right down the field on an 11 play, 75 yard drive in 5:21 and tied the game—-on a play where for some strange reason DE Chandler Jones gave himself up on an inside pass rush (as if it was a TEX stunt, only the DT wasn’t looping), thereby losing contain and giving Kyle Allen an easy escape route to his right where he was able to throw a strike to WR Curtis Samuel in the right corner of the end zone, who had beaten CB Byron Murphy by two steps.

Cardinals 7 Panthers 7

The Cardinals’ offense responded by mounting a 15 play, 53 yard drive in 5:58 which culminated in a 34 yard FG by Zane Gonzalez.

Cardinals 10 Panthers 7

Panthers response: 3 play 75 yard drive in 0:47 on a 52 yard TD pass from Allen to D.J. Moore with 0:49 on the 2nd quarter clock, thanks to CB Tramaine Brock never turning to see the ball and running himself out of the play, and poor FS help.

Panthers 14 Cardinals 10

The Cardinals responded by throwing a perfect deep pass to an open Christian Kirk, who failed to catch and tuck it. End of half.

To start the second half the Cardinals responded as well as one could ever hope for. Just as they did with their 1st possession of the 1st half, they marched down the field with the 1st possession of the 2nd half in 9 plays for 75 yards and scored a roll right throwback TD from Kyler Murray to RB David Johnson, who alertly made one defender miss and then bulled his way over another defender into the end zone.

Cardinals 17 Panthers 14

The Panthers responded by going on a 7 play 75 yard drive where they get an easy short pass TD to TE Greg Olsen on a legal pick play, since S D.J. Swearinger was pressing Olsen at the line of scrimmage.

Panthers 21 Cardinals 17

The Cardinals respond with a 12 play, 49 yard drive that led to a 47 yard Zane Gonzalez FG.

Panthers 21 Cardinals 20

The Panthers respond with a 2 play 84 yard drive on a 76 yard TD run right up the middle by Christian McCaffrey.

Panthers 28 Cardinals 20

How demoralizing is that? The Cardinals’ offense got the team the lead 3 times and then cut the lead to a single point—-and each time the Panthers’ offense went the length of the field and scored.

Defensive Disappointments:

The Cardinals’ 3rd different defensive coordinator in 3 years, Vance Joseph, has shown in the first three games that he likes to start the game in soft zones—-which in all three cases has led to easy 1st or 2nd possession TDs for the opponents.

After TEs T.J. Hockenson (Lions) and TE Mark Andrews (Ravens) had 100+ games versus the Cardinals and a couple of easy TDs—-this week, Cardinals’ fans were expecting to see extra attention in coverage paid to the Panthers’ Pro Bowl TE Greg Olsen.

What we saw was that Olsen was wide open up the seam in the 1st drive versus Joseph’s customary 1st quarter soft zone—-and then—-when the switch to man-to-man came—-we saw Joseph try to cover Olsen with FS D.J. Swearinger, without double teaming him.

Swearinger, who has looked like a shell of his former self in three games this year, was clearly no match for Olsen—-and it is almost laughable that Joseph thought his defense could cover Olsen with Swearinger. To make matters worse, Joseph never had Swearinger jam Olsen at the line of scrimmage to spoil his timing with young QB Allen, except at the goal line where the Panthers ran a legal pick play for a wide open easy gift-wrapped TD.

The Swearinger we used to know would have run through that pick like a madman. Instead, Swearinger offered virtually no resistance or communication to switch with the CB on the play.

Furthermore, despite Swearinger’s obviously struggles, there was no plan B from Joseph. No double teams and no matchup switches. Why not try Byron Murphy on Olsen? Do something? Anything?

Getting Stronger Up the Middle

Last week at this time, I was pointing out the weakness of the Cardinals’ personnel up the middle. This week, on the two swift back-breaking TDs the Panthers scored—-the long TD pass to Moore and the long TD run by McCaffrey—-the Cardinals had zero FS help on the play. On the long pass, Budda Baker was over covering the deep left third of the field and the deep middle man, Swearinger, got twisted around on the play and was no factor.

On the McCaffrey run, Joseph was running a version of the 4-4 defense, with Baker and Swearinger up on the 2nd level flanking Haason Reddick and Jordan Hicks—-the Panthers ran a power dive and Reddick, who is showing some good signs of improved linebacker play, was too late to react to the lead blocker, whom he should have met closer to the hole in order to divert McCaffrey, Instead, Reddick got blocked aside, Hicks didn’t scrape well to get to the ball and the FS, Deionte Thompson, like Reddick, reacted too slowly and stormed the alley too late and whiffed completely on McCaffrey.

Credit Byron Murphy for his hustle in almost catching the speedy McCaffrey from behind.

Storming the alley is a skill that free safeties have to hone—-it’s all related to timing—-the goal is this: Before the snap, the RB is 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage and the FS typically lines up 10 yards behind the line—-which means that—-because the RB knows the play he gets a one yard head start, but, the second he is handed the ball, the FS has to storm the alley knowing that if the RB gets to the midway point between them—-which is 3-4 yards past the line of scrimmage, then the FS will be able to meet the RB and take him down before he can make a move in the open field.

If the FS gets a bad jump—-then he should know he can’t make a lunging run at the RB—-he has to break down, stare at the RB’s belly button so as not to get juked and then do anything he can to bring the RB down.

The irony is—-the best safety on the field yesterday was Tre’ Boston who played textbook centerfield, while the Cardinals at that position were throwing the book out of the window.

Next point—-can anyone please explain why the Cardinals’ one defensive pass rusher who was having a major impact on the game was on a few key occasions dropping off into zone pass coverage?

Other than Chandler Jones—-and one good inside push from Corey Peters—-where was the Cardinals’ pass rush yesterday? It looked like Terrell Suggs was injured—-and now two weeks in a row he was a non-factor on the pass rush, while a younger UFA with Vance Joseph ties, Shaq Barrett ($4M for 1 year), is leading the NFL with 8 sacks in 3 games.

For much of the game, the Cardinals interior did well stopping McCaffrey as they were swarming to him and gang tackling him. But, to McCaffrey’s credit, he kept hitting his holes like he was going to break one. And, of course, he did—-and with it—-the Panthers broke the Cardinals’ backs.

The Cardinals’ Running Game:

McCaffrey’s effort is why so many Cardinals’ fans have been exhorting David Johnson to hit the holes harder—-because his deliberate approach is giving the defense a better chance to close down on him. Yesterday, Chase Edmonds hit the holes harder and he had two carries for 10 yards at 5 yard a pop. But, Johnson did run harder on a few of the key third down conversions, including the one for the Wildcat.

But this week, make no mistake about it, all of the short passes that the Panthers were giving the Cardinals were in essence, 4-5 yard running plays. It makes no difference whether you are handing the ball off and passing it quickly. Credit Kyler Murray and the Cardinals receivers for doing a very good job of taking what the Panthers were giving them.

This is the first week that Kyler Murray established himself in the running game and he did so with great skill, gaining 69 yards on 8 attempts, often keeping the scoring drives alive in the process. The most beautiful of which came on one of the rare occasions where the Panthers played man to man coverage and left the middle wide open—-which Murray saw and then ran the QB draw through for chunk yards.

The Panthers’ Zone Defense

After Murray exploited man coverage with his feet, the Panthers reverted exclusively back to their zone coverage, which might be the best zone defense in the NFL, because they draft fast linebackers who have the feet, agility and anticipation to play their zones effectively and the toughness to lower the boom on passes made in front of them.

The Panthers also draft zone CBs who are good at keeping everything in front of them, and as was the case with CB Donte Jackson, they have the savviness to peel back to make zone plays on the football. Last week, I mentioned the zone rule of—-if you are standing still with no receiver in your zone area you are making a mistake—-look at the way Jackson peeled back on throws to his side by running toward the intended receiver. That is textbook zone play. The result was two big interceptions.

The biggest problem for the Cardinals was just when they had dinked and dunked their way in getting the Panthers to inch up in their zones, the two zone breaker passes that the Cardinals threw deep, the one to Kirk and the other to Trent Sherfield, were dropped. You have to make zone teams pay in the gray areas, otherwise, in the Cardinals’ case, they gave the Panthers the comfort and confidence to keep not only the receivers in front of them, but, most of all, keeping Kyler Murray in front of them—-which further enabled them to pin their ears back and rush him like crazy.

The Cardinals’ Pass Blocking and Kyler Murray’s Time Clock

Like Matt Judon wreaking havoc in the Cardinals backfield at LDE the week before, Brian Burns was constantly having his way with the Cardinals’ new RTs, Justin Murray and Jordan Mills.

If I am Kliff Kingsbury, I am doing two things this week—-one, I am designing chip help for the the tackles and two I am seeing whether someone more athletic, like Brett Toth or Mason Cole—-can be more effective against quick edge rushers.

On the other side, D.J. Humphries struggled this week with RDE Mario Addison—-who had 3 sacks.

However, when Kyler Murray watches the tape, he will see that he bailed out of the pocket a little too quickly on a few occasions and he missed opportunities to throw the ball away.

The Panthers had 8 sacks, most of them in the 2nd half. But, to be fair, it’s tough for the offensive line when their QB does not step up in the pocket.

One can imagine that Murray is reluctant to step up for two reasons—-one, to incur added hits from defensive tackles and two to hinder his downfield vision.

This is why the Cardinals’ offensive line cannot and should not be blamed entirely for the 8 sacks.

The Cardinals need to figure out ways to fix this.

One of the ways is to put Murray on the move, far more than they have thus far—-shifting the pocket the way the Redskins used to do for Joe Theisman and the way the Packers do at times for Aaron Rodgers would make it harder for the defense to know where Murray is going to be.

Another way is to have Murray take deeper drops off the shotgun snap, thus creating more open space for himself. The thing is—-as unconventional as this is—-Murray has the arm strength to do this.

What Murray needs is time and room.

Because this was the first game that Murray established himself as a runner, it looked like his adrenaline was running a little too higher than normal, which is why his time clock sped up and why he got a little too antsy at times in the pocket.

The shorter passes were easy—-Murray said so himself after the game. Versus the Panthers’ zones it is the deeper passes that are most difficult and to Murray’s credit he delivered on the ones to Kirk and Sherfield. As he said about his interceptions, at that point he was forcing the issue due to being behind.

If only the Cardinals’ defense could have given Kyler Murray and the offense the chance to build the lead...who knows?

But this week was the first week that the Cardinals ever had a lead, that is going back to OT versus the Lions—-and yesterday the Cardinals had the lead 3 times.

Conclusion:

The Cardinals are making strides on offense—-and have been doing so versus three of the best defenses in the NFL. The Lions (2-0-1) have been playing excellent, sticky man to man defense the first three games. The Ravens (2-1) have one of the most aggressive front 7s...the key to beating that defense is finding a way to give your QB the time to exploit the back end of their secondary, as the Chiefs were able to do a couple of times with Patrick Mahomes yesterday. The Panthers (1-2) have the ideal zone defense to combat Kyler Murray—-and, even despite that, Murray was giving them fits for 3 quarters.

The Cardinals’ defense is nearly last in the NFL right now and swift changes need to be made. There is no reason why the Cardinals shouldn’t be flat-out aggressive on defense—-in order to get the ball back in the hands of the offense as quickly as possible.

The Cardinals’ special teams have been good in two of the three games. And they have been good in all three games in terms of the kicking game.

There a number of aging veterans on this team who are struggling at this point. They need to pick it up and be the leaders that the Cardinals signed them to be. If not, the sooner the Cardinals can tap into their young talent, the better.

Kyler Murray had a poor defense last year at Oklahoma and, despite that, he carried that team to 12 wins. However, to expect him to do that this early in the NFL with the Cardinals is unrealistic. You can tell that Kyler has been putting a great deal of pressure on himself. Under the chill facade and tinted visor, his fire to win is white hot.