The Kliff Kingsbury/Kyler Murray era of the Arizona Cardinals began with… a tie? I guess that means we’re technically both undefeated and winless at this point. That seems somehow fitting given how the game unfolded.
It was looking like it would be another long season in the desert when the Lions took a 24-6 lead early in the 4th quarter, but then Kliff and Kyler loosened up and played 25 minutes of near-flawless backyard football. If this team can play like that on offense for four quarters, they’re going to be in a lot of football games this year.
That said, this team’s flaws were on full display for three quarters before the Redbirds righted the ship—and some of them still dogged them down the stretch to force them to settle for the tie.
As such, we have an appropriately equal number of winners and losers from yesterday’s game. We’ll start with someone who was a little bit of both.
Loser: Kliff Kingsbury (Early)
For a guy who came into the game with a reputation (whether earned or not) of being a hotshot offensive innovator, Kingsbury was frustratingly… stodgy early on. The first drive is a prime example: incomplete pass on first down, then a holding penalty set up 2nd-and-15. Kingsbury then channeled his inner Mike McCoy and called a conservative run to set up 3rd-and-11 and the first of many Andy Lee punts. I hated that run playcall there. Two drives later, he called a punt on 4th-and-1 from our 43, and of course there was the craven decision to kick a field goal on 4th-and-goal from the 2 just before halftime. I don’t know if it was nerves or what, but Kingsbury was seemingly coaching how he thought a Real NFL Coach was supposed to, rather than being bold and maximizing his team’s chances for success. For a lot of this game, he was coaching to not lose rather than coaching to win—and in the end, he got neither.
Winner: Kliff Kingsbury (Late)
Once the team fell behind 24-6, the pressure seemed to lift off Kingsbury (“Well, we’re already probably going to lose…”) and he seemed to loosen up and rely on his instincts more. He streamlined the offense, and we finally saw the breakneck tempo we heard about all offseason. The result was 21 points over four straight drives and a miraculous near comeback win. That said, he had another “coaching to not lose” moment when he chose to punt on the second OT possession. I know it was 4th-and-7, but the offense was clicking. I won’t necessarily fault him for not going for it there, but I really hope he at least thought about it.
Loser: Red Zone Offense
I thought our red zone offense might struggle this season given our reliance on (relatively) smaller receivers and lack of a power running game. That prediction proved accurate so far, as we only scored one red zone TD on four attempts in Week 1. Convert one of those three field goals into a touchdown and we’re most likely celebrating a victory instead of feeling like we just kissed our sisters. I did like the horizontal action on the TD to Fitz and subsequent 2-pt conversion to Kirk, so maybe more playcalls like that will work moving forward. The red zone might also be a good area to try some screens or designed Kyler runs. Anything to improve that meager 25% rate.
Winner: Larry Fitzgerald
Speaking of Fitz, he was probably the Cardinals’ MVP yesterday—even more so than Kyler. As John Venerable pointed out, his 41-yard grab early in the 4th quarter really seemed to ignite the Redbirds rally. He added another 45-yard reception in OT to set up the go-ahead field goal. In between those two catches was, of course, the 4-yard TD that allowed us to tie the game on the Kirk 2-pt conversion. It all added up to a vintage line for the oldest active WR in the NFL: 8 receptions for 113 yards and a TD. If there was any question about who the team’s top receiver would be in 2019, Fitz answered it emphatically yesterday.
Loser: Pass Defense
We knew the secondary was going to struggle without Patrick Peterson and Robert Alford, but Matthew Stafford turned the field into a slaughterhouse for most of the game yesterday as he just butchered us through the air. His final line certainly made his fantasy owners happy: 27/45 for 385 yards and 3 TDs. It must be said though that starting CBs Tramaine Brock and Byron Murphy held up well, as most of the damage came against the linebackers and safeties. Rookie TE T.J. Hockenson and slot WR Danny Amendola combined for 13 receptions for 235 yards and 2 TDs. Pass defense is especially a cause for concern given what next week’s opposing QB (Lamar Jackson) just did to the Dolphins. (I’d link to highlights, but they’re definitely NSFW.)
Winner: Run Defense
The Lions were one of several teams this offseason to bluster a bunch about “committing to the run game” on offense. But while they did run against us frequently yesterday—32 attempts—it was mostly ineffectual. Lions RBs only gained 90 yards on 28 carries (3.2 YPC). Free agent acquisition Jordan Hicks was a beast in the run game, racking up 14 combined tackles (although he was less effective in coverage—see above). However, Matty “Wheels” Stafford did pick up 22 yards on his three carries—something to keep in mind with Lamar Jackson coming up next week. But for what I thought would be one of our biggest weaknesses this season, the run defense was fairly stout overall in the first game. Let’s hope it can continue to hold up.
Loser: Pass Protection
I also identified pass protection as one of our potential biggest weaknesses, and that proved unsurprisingly prescient in yesterday’s game. Kyler was sacked 5 times and was on the run almost all afternoon. Fill-in starting RT Justin Murray was especially a liability, but the line as a whole was badly outplayed on passing plays. They did play a bit better in the running game—see David Johnson’s 4.6 YPC—but they have to play better to protect the future of the franchise. Getting Marcus Gilbert and Lamont Gaillard back will help, but there aren’t any reinforcements coming after them (unless you count the likes of Max Garcia).
Winner: Special Teams
Special teams were absolutely OUTSTANDING yesterday. Zane Gonzalez went 4/4 on field goals and made his only extra point. Andy Lee boomed 8 punts for 380 yards (47.5 average), including 3 inside the 20. Trent Sherfield made several sensational plays as a gunner. Andy Isabella looked good on kick returns (4 for 86 yards, a 21.5 average). We would never have been in this game without the efforts of our special teamers. It looks like this unit will once again be a strength in 2019.
Loser: Tramaine Brock
Like I said above, Brock played well overall, but his dropped interception near the end of OT was a glaring mistake that cost the team a chance to win the game. He just HAS to make that play. That said, he looks like he’ll be able to help hold down the fort until our starters are back. Let’s just hope he makes the next big play that comes his way.
Winner: Kyler Murray
It wasn’t a sterling debut by any stretch—his 1st quarter INT was brutal, he had at least 4 throws batted down, and he only completed 54% of his passes on the day—but Kyler looked as advertised as a dynamic playmaker and potential franchise savior. His final numbers were good, not great—29/54 for 308 yards and 2 TDs/1 INT—but remember that he was 9/26 for 70 yards and that pick at the end of the 3rd quarter. Simple arithmetic tells us that means he went 20/28 for 238 yards and 2 TDs in the 4th quarter and OT. So he had a better stat line than Josh Rosen ever had in an entire game in 25 minutes of football. (Sorry. Had to. Hope things get better for him in Miami.) Tougher times are almost certainly ahead with next week’s trip to Baltimore, but Kyler has already proved himself capable of carrying this team. He’s going to do some exciting things this season.
Yesterday’s game was an absolute rollercoaster—from down 24-6 to up 27-24 to Brock’s near interception to… however I’m supposed to be feeling about the tie. I like that we’re undefeated, but we’re also winless still. Confusing.
Speaking of which, how do YOU feel about the tie, Bird Gang? Let us know in the comments, along with your thoughts on winners and losers from Week 1. This is already shaping up to be an interesting season, and I can’t wait to experience it with y’all.