Looking back on the first game of the 2020 Cardinals season, a game in which Deandre Hopkins caught 14 passes for 151 yards and Kyler Murray rushed for almost 100 yards.
In some ways, it seemed like that was the entire Cardinals offense when nothing else was working against the Niners’ front seven.
And in that regard, maybe it’s an apt comparison for a Cardinals game in which their defense held Cam Newton to career lows on offense but was anemic in putting points on the board with only 17 scored points despite multiple redzone trips (one extended by the Patriots twice, no less) and a chance to win the game...and this time it ended not with a sigh of relief but exasperation.
Ultimately what Bill Belichick does as a defensive mind is gauge the strength of a team and then scheme to take said strength away.
Which was Kyler Murray’s legs.
In this game, in which Murray was banged up from the week before & only had one designed run and handed off about every other read....it certainly felt like either Belichick took away the ability to run for Kyler, or he didn’t have confidence in it and wasn’t going to use his legs in the first place.
And in that aspect, the Cardinals’ #2 rushing attack in the NFL fell apart.
When putting together a house of cards, triangular shapes create a stronger set base. It takes precision, balance and being able to have two cards hold the weight of another two cards, and so on. What you need for it to stand, of course, is a solid and level foundation.
Ever tried building a house of cards on the sand without wedging them in? Or on uneven ground? Foundation’s something that is important to every project. And the foundation for the Arizona Cardinals this season has been one that’s a little....shaky:
From last week but still stands. Murray's freestyling almost entire reason they've had a good offensehttps://t.co/aCspYYft5i— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) November 23, 2020
This caught my eye in part because it matches what you see on tape and in the way of games:
-Arizona seems to limp out on offense to start a game usually
-They take a few deep shots and some connect but most have not
-Either a turnover sparks the team or, a Kyler Murray run picks up big yards on a scramble or bails the team out on a play in 3rd and long to keep a drive going
-A Hopkins catch bails the team out
Do I agree with it all? Yes and no.
I think Arizona’s got a competent enough offense. But what’s special about it is the rushing attack w/ Murray. Just like Hopkins’ ability to run precise routes AND make insane catches that shouldn’t happen, it’s a blue-chip trait that drives a DC crazy.
Murray’s been averaging a crazy 6.7 yards per rush over the course of 92 rushing attempts and has been one of the most effective runners in terms of designed scrambles and even has 10 rushing touchdowns to boot.
I think Arizona’s got more than JUST Kyler “He’ll run around and do something” Murray as their offense. But as far as special traits or things that you have as a team identity?
The buck kinda stops there if it’s stopped there, to be honest.
What is the ONE thing you need to have against Bill Belichick if you’re going to succeed on offense? Answer: The Third option
I remember the Patriots vs. the Giants Part II in which Belichick effectively sold out to stop Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. What happened? Eli Manning was able to find Mario Manningham.
And it’s kind of true for a lot of offenses in the NFL too. You can see how teams are able to take away strengths but ultimately players can still make plays when it comes down to a 1-on-1. To take away said one-on-one’s you can double or scheme things to players and avoid taking a team’s strengths head-on.
What Belichick (and the Seahawks) exposed was how anemic Arizona’s passing attack was. Now granted...it’s not like it was flat out awful. Heck, Cam Newton was about 1⁄2 as good as Murray and only hit two receivers all game, essentially.
But with Hopkins held to 5 catches for some 55 yards and the Cardinals not running the ball with Murray, what did the rest of the offense do to push Arizona over the top?
The interior OL had him take a bad sack & struggled to get some push on the right side.
Andy Isabella had the longest play of the day at 19 yards on a jet sweep but wasn’t able to pick up the load, and Christian Kirk was out of bounds on a bit of an overthrown deep ball but had a BRUTAL end zone drop that cost Arizona dearly.
It was a play that Kirk has to make, and one that sadly Larry Fitzgerald wouldn’t have dropped but with the legend missing time (and honestly not able to separate like Kirk had been able to) it was up to the younger guys to carry the load at wide receiver.
They were...meh, I suppose?
Dan Arnold had a solid catch but if you had to ask which Cardinals player you would pick if you were building a team out of everyone in the NFL, who would you take?
-Maybe Chase as a playmaking back?
Not for me. And here I think is part of the problem in Arizona.
Sure, there will be questions about the decisions that Kliff Kingsbury has made and how his offense can go from dynamic to 3-and-out sometimes in what seems like a matter of minutes (or flip the switch and sustain long ones) but I think what Belichick did was more than just a solid coaching job.
I think he exposed that the foundation of Arizona’s offense was the rushing threat of Kyler’s legs and that’s something that has to change for the future.
It’s fine having a dynamic QB like Murray in tow, but if your foundation is built on a QB running then like Johnny in The Karate Kid, all a defense has to do is “sweep the leg” and not let Hopkins get loose and....Arizona’s kinda done.
The house of cards crumbles to the ground as the metaphor goes.
The Cards lost to the Lions, Panthers and Seahawks in the rematch that way, and now to the Patriots. In fact, Arizona was struggling in the Bills game as well UNTIL Murray started making plays with his sweet feet, and I think that this is the place to start.
There’s meaning behind this. Some will wanna jump to some conclusions, too:
- Does this mean Kliff’s scheme is flawed in how it just needs a guy to scramble to make something work?
- Or is it becoming too predictable in terms of how to stop a rushing QB & force the ball inside for a shorter gain or a loss on the play?
- Does playing “eleven on eleven” with defenses respecting Kyler running the ball free up part of both the passing game and the running backs to get some room to move?
- Is Kyler right now having to rely on his legs while developing as a QB to reading NFL defenses and that’s lifted Arizona up more than expected?
- Is the talent level at receiver after Hopkins a big issue?
Given the fact that the two receivers after Hopkins caught 7 passes for 52 yards and Hopkins snagged 5 for 55...I think it’s clear that the Cardinals don’t have a “Third Option” right now that’s a good enough trump card to win games.
Which is why they’ve thrived against bad defenses.
And struggled against ones that have taken those two trump cards in Arizona’s offense away.
Looking forward, Arizona needs to find the answer to some of these questions. Fortunately, there’s plenty of things they can do to adjust this season even if Murray isn’t able to run like he once did.
And I’d expect Arizona’s offense to bounce back. We saw Kingsbury make adjustments & grow some, as well as Kyler.
But finding a 3rd option—be it a road-grading OL, a tight end weapon, a WR2 or unlocking something in terms of playcalls that’s consistent without trying to fool the defense on every snap—is a must for the Cardinals this offseason.
Because they clearly don’t have it right now. And I hope that the Cardinals can get back to running the ball with Murray & still keep him clean. Because otherwise this 53-Card pick up is going to be a lot shorter and more disappointing than some childish toss of a deck in the air as a prank.
And the ones who will feel punked most of all will be the fans themselves.