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ARI 38 DAL 10: You Budda Believe It

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest question coming into the Cardinals MNF game against the Cowboys was how could Vance Joseph account for the loss of All Pro Edge Chandler Jones to get enough pressure on QB Andy Dalton, while covering one of the most dynamic WR trios in the NFL (Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup), oh, and while finding ways to contain All Pro RB Ezekiel Elliott.

Coming into the game, the Cowboys’ offense (with a makeshift offensive line—-and now without their team catalyst, QB Dak Prescott) was #1 in the NFL in total yards (488 per game) and #3 in the NFL in points per game at 32.6. On the other side, the Cardinals offense came into the game #10 in total yards (395.4) and #16 in points per game at 25.6 (both of which they were able to improve in this game—-see the new rankings in the section below on offense).

Results:

Score: Cardinals 38, Cowboys 10

Total Yards: Cardinals 438, Cowboys 344

Key Stat:

Turnovers: Cardinals 0, Cowboys 4.

Turnover Differential (after 6 games): Cardinals 0, Cowboys -12.

Cardinals’ Defense:

It was a 0-0 game when S Budda Baker, who was being held on the left edge, ripped away from the hold to chase RB Zeke Elliott on a little flip pass from Andy Dalton who was just about to be sacked by LB Jordan Hicks—-and Baker arrived on dime to poke the ball away from Elliott, which super alert DT Jordan Phillips recovered.

This would be the first of two forced fumbles the Cardinals created on Elliott, the second was moments later when Phillips (having spent the weekend at his father’s funeral) laid a thunderous ball jarring hit on the ballcarrier which led to a fumble recovery by CB Byron Murphy.

I was wondering whether the Cardinals’ coaches and players were watching the Bucs/Packers game in their hotel rooms the evening before, because not only did Vance Joseph dial up a blitzing, aggressive defense in the Todd Bowles mode, but as was the case with the Bucs in their big rout over the Packers, the Cardinals’ defense set the table for the win by creating the first two turnovers—-and in the process they got into the head of Zeke Elliott the way the Bucs got into the head of Aaron Rodgers.

Here are the highlights of the game:

Defensive Checklist:

1—-Slow Down Elliott: __x__

The Cardinals got very physical with him—-even late in the 4th quarter when Elliott took a flat pass and was tripped up by Patrick Peterson (8 tackles!) and hammered to the turf by Jordan Hicks (10 tackles, 2 tackles for loss).

2—-Dial Up Pressure on Andy Dalton: __x__

New situational edge rushing phenom Dennis Gardeck immediately made his presence felt (nearly tackling Dalton for a safety), while reborn edge rusher Haason Reddick (5 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 tackles for loss and 1 pass breakup) came up big with 2 of the Cardinals’ 3 sacks. Timely blitzes by Budda Baker produced the 3rd sack and a few other QB pressures.

3—-Contain the dynamic WR trio of Cooper, Lamb and Gallup: __x__

Put it this way—-it took the Cowboys all the way into the late 4th quarter to score a TD, thanks to a key dropped pass late in the 1st quarter by Gallup—-but, the Cardinals kept the trio in check:

Cooper: 39/424/ 1 TD coming in——last night: 7/79/ 1 TD

Lamb: 29/433/ 2 TD coming in—-last night: 7/64/ 0 TD

Gallup: 17/348/ 1 TD coming in—-last night: 2/23/ 0 TD

Credit the Cardinals’ secondary for playing pesky man coverage for most of the game. Patrick Peterson was solid and highly engaged. Dre Kirkpatrick was the most aggressive he’s been all season (and got away with the hold on Lamb, that led to Kirkpatrick’s 1st interception as a Cardinal).

Byron Murphy (8 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 pass breakups) was sensational—-it’s the fastest he’s played and the most fundamental, as he is now mirroring and looking back for the football.

Budda Baker (7 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception and 2 QB hits) was the “eraser” just as his GM and HC like to call him. His first career interception couldn’t have come on a brighter moment.

And Deionte Thompson (4 tackles) did a good job of making sure no Cowboy WR would score on a home run.

This was a signature performance by the Cardinals’ defense and a real boost to the team’s confidence and the to the improvements that DC Vance Joseph has been making.

Offense:

it was frustrating to watch Kyler Murray miss as many wide open passes as he did—-he said himself after the game that he felt a little off and not because of MNF jitters or anything like that.

The truth is—-Murray picked a good game to be a little off on his passing, because the Cardinals’ offense rolled anyway in ways that are very encouraging moving forward.

What may be lost in the frustration of Murray’s errant throws are the facts that his ball handling all night was elite, his decision to use his legs to keep drives moving was one of the real keys to this victory (how about his scamper up the left sideline and dive forward past the chains on a 3rd and long—-how about his stunning 4th and 1 lightning bolt of a bootleg to his left—-how about his scramble through the right side of the Cowboys’ defense and dive for the end zone that came up inches short of a TD—-how about his ball extended TD run to his left to make the score 21-0).

Just as impressive, when Kyler needed to throw a big-time strike, he delivered on the scintillating 80 yard home run pass to Christian Kirk and the sweet on the move sidearm flip pass to DeAndre Hopkins that went for 60 yards.

There were numerous occasions in this football game where Kyler Murray was absolutely brilliant, and yet, as I have been mentioning for the past few weeks, it feels like some fans and pundits are already taking his brilliance for granted while honing in on whatever mistakes he makes.

In Dan Bickley’s post-game analysis of the game, this is what he had to say about Murray and Kingsbury after a 38-10 win in Texas that meant the world to them:

Don’t be fooled by the point total or Kenyan Drake’s late touchdown. The Cardinals offense isn’t nearly as impressive or electric as it should be. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury is great on fourth-down conversions but is still struggling to build something sustainable.

They continue to attempt high-leverage passes to Andy Isabella, who is absolutely terrible on most occasions. They reflect an inconsistent quarterback who struggles finding and hitting open receivers. He’s missed Larry Fitzgerald on numerous occasions in 2020, including a sure touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that drew a look of frustration from the Hall of Fame receiver.

Quarterbacks don’t lose elite-level accuracy overnight, so this must be a vision issue. Or maybe Murray doesn’t read the field or survey complex defenses all that well at the NFL level. Either way, Kingsbury needs to adjust and design plays for Murray to throw on the run, in a moving pocket.

Bottom line: Despite an ESPN fluff piece that surfaced on Monday, describing Kingsbury as a “Beautiful Mind,” we’re talking about an offense that remains a work-in-progress 22 games into Kingsbury’s head coaching career. He has proven remarkably humble and adaptable in Arizona, but that’s because some of his ideas aren’t working.

Note: I always look forward to reading Dan Bickley’s takes. I appreciate his insights (and often agree with them) and his journalistic style. But this time, I thought he erred on his assessment of the offense.

For Dan Bickley to downplay the Cardinals’ success on the ground in this game which is one of the major reasons why the Cardinals’ defense was able to stay well rested and focused all night is, imo, willfully dismissive. The Cardinals had already amassed 195 yards and 2 TDs on the ground, prior to Kenyan Drake’s 69 yard TD.

For him not to highlight anything that the offense did well last night in favor of suggesting that Murray has possible “vision issues”, that the offense does not look “sustainable” and that Kingsbury may not be the “beautiful Mind” that ESPN wrote a recent “puff piece” on—-in reaction to a 38-10 win on the road is, imo, excessively unjust and falls right into the trap of taking aspects of Murray’s brilliance for granted. Which part of these runs by Murray were not worth even mentioning or celebrating?

This was Kyler Murray’s and Kliff Kingsbury’s first ever taste of Monday Night Football. It was made extra special by it being in their home state of Texas where they both excelled in high school and college (for Kingsbury at Texas Tech and for Murray winning the Big 12 Championship there). Even Kingsbury said during the week how surreal it was going to be for Kyler Murray “to stand over center and look at the Cowboy star in the middle of the field.”

As for Kingsbury, his offense is still evolving 22 gams into his career—-same with Murray’s. It’s called the adjustment from college to the NFL, which come with the territory for players and coaches.

A nuance that may be overlooked here about Kingsbury’s game plan last night it, how clearly Kingsbury has shifted his team’s focus over the last three games from Screen Raid to Deep Raid.

it’s one of the main reasons why he has been working so diligently with Sean Kugler to establish the team’s running game—-because it gives him and his QB better chance to hit home runs over the top of the defense.

The deep pass to Andy Isabella on the first drive was a great call. Isabella was open and Kyler’s pass was a little wide right. To call Isabella “absolutely terrible on most occasions” as Bickley did is a bald-faced lie. Had Kyler thrown the ball sooner and more on target it may have been the home run they were looking for. Like this deep pass to Andy that Kyler dropped a dime on (first play of video):

The second deep pass to Isabella was some sort of miscommunication. No question. But, on that play, Andy was not open and in retrospect, Kyler should have checked down on the play.

However—-the gist is—-those failed two deep pass attempts were not in vain—-because they set up the 80 yard home run pass to Christian Kirk when Andy was able to command the attention of the FS on his deep route up the middle.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s a great thing to see Kingsbury dialing up more deep passes in this game than screens.

And just as Vance Joseph checked off the main three boxes of his game plan, so was Kliff Kingsbury:

Offensive Checklist:

1—-Establish and Lean on the Running Game: __x__

The rap on the K-Raid from the moment he acme an NFL head coach was that it was “Pretty Boy” football. Look at the Kingsbury’s offense now—-it’s a heavy dose of thunder and lightning in the running game. Brian Griese, as a former QB, was rightfully lauding Kingsbury for having the “adaptability” in the NFL to add such a physical component to his offense. This just in—-as one of the top running teams in the NFL, the Cardinals’ offense is looking highly “sustainable.”

After 6 games the Cardinals are #3 in the NFL in rushing yards per game and #1 in rushing TDs a game. Plus, they are #1 in 4th down conversion percentage. As an offense the Cardinals are now #4 in total yards, #6 in points per game. Plus, the offense is #2 in Red Zone TDs.

2—-Hit the Home Run Deep Pass: __x__

Now that the deep pass is more of a threat in Kingsbury’s offense it is only going to cause further concern for opposing DCs. It was an is the most logical next step in the evolution of the offense. It took a while because of developing the running game to be able to take more deep shots per game. As long as deep shots are not intercepted, even when they are incomplete they back the defense off—-and that is always a good seed to plant. This is a work of art—-made even more impressive when Kliff Kingsbury told of how he coached Christian to catch it “late with the hands” so that he wouldn’t fall on the catch:

3—-Don’t Turn the Ball Over: __x__

Even though it was frustrating to see Kyler put the offense out of FG range when taking his one sack in this game—-it was far better than Kyler throwing the ball up for grabs or forcing a ball into a crowd. This shows how focused the offense is on learning from the turnover mistakes from the team’s losses. This cannot be more appreciated, and yet, a pundit like Dan Bickley makes zero mention of it, or a mention of anything positive the offense accomplished last night.

The Cardinals played an aggressive, physical and gutsy game on offense last night.

The Cardinals improved to #8 in the NFL for fewest offensive turnovers.

Special Teams:

Once again, they were very good—-all of them—-save for one longer than desired kickoff return. Gonzalez was 1/1 FGs and 5/5 XPTs and Lee did a nice job of pinning the Cowboys deep.

Team Spirit:

What I appreciate and enjoyed as much as anything in this game is the energy and enthusiasm the Cardinals were bringing to each other, from all sides of the ball. They were a complete tour de force in this game and it was so great to see them having such fun playing the game they love an celebrating their success together.

It was great to hear that this week the team gave Budda Baker a “C” to put on his jersey.