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Figuring this team out: Five things to keep an eye on against Washington

Sunday’s win in the Bay was amazing, but there are still several question this team needs to answer in this young season. Here’s how they can answer them against Washington this weekend.

NFL: SEP 13 Cardinals at 49ers
Kyler had one of the best rushing performances of his young career against the Niners. Can he keep it up on Sunday?
Photo by MSA/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Sunday’s game against the Washington Football Team features two 1-0 teams coming off huge upsets of division rivals. The Cardinals won a wild one on the road, while Washington battered the Eagles at home.

Almost no one thought this Week 2 matchup would be between 1-0 teams. The winner will be 2-0 with plenty of national buzz—the “Are they for real?” pieces will be all over the internet on Monday morning. The loser will fall back to 1-1 and out of the national spotlight.

So, yeah, this is pretty big game for the Cardinals if they want to make any kind of playoff push this year.

There will be plenty of eyes on the Cardinals on Sunday. Here’s what I’ll be looking out for as we begin to figure out who this team is in 2020.

Can the offensive line repeat its performance?

The offensive line was a relatively unsung hero against the 49ers, paving the way for 180 yards on the ground (5.0 YPC) and allowing only 2 sacks with just 6 yards lost. This in spite of D.J. Humphries having a brief injury scare and Mason Cole missing half the contest. He’s currently questionable for Sunday, putting Lamont Gaillard in line for his first NFL start.

The line might be in for an even stiffer test this week, as the Washington front seven absolutely manhandled an Eagles O-line widely considered to be among the better units in the league. Washington held the Eagles (albeit without Miles Sanders) to just 57 yards on 17 carries (3.4 YPC) and sacked Carson Wentz an insane 8 times. Chase Young solidified himself as the DROY frontrunner with 1.5 of those sacks. If the O-line can get the running game over 120 yards or so and give up no more than 3 sacks, I’ll consider that a passing grade for this tough test.

Can Kyler Murray keep up his 1,000-yard rushing pace?

One of the things I was happiest to see last week was Kyler set a career high with 13 rushing attempts—including this gorgeous TD. He ran early and often—some by design, some scrambles—and looked confident doing it. He still showed the tendency to sit down or run out of bounds maybe a half-second earlier than he maybe needed to, but the more hits he avoids, the better.

I’ll be eagerly watching to see whether he has another 10+ rushing attempts this week. With a seeming dearth of receiving options behind DeAndre Hopkins (something else I’ll be keeping an eye on), Kyler’s legs might be the key to unlocking this offense—and his MVP potential. (I know, I know, it’s too early.) With 10 or so rushing attempts each week and a slight improvement to his 5.8 YPC from last season, a 1,000-yard rushing season would be within reach. And, heck, with a slight uptick in his passing yards, he could have the league’s first 4,000-yard passing/1,000-yard rushing season. That would be incredible.

How much regression will there be on 3rd down on both sides of the ball?

Third down was very much in the Redbirds’ favor last week—they went 7/14 while the Niners went just 2/11. Kyler made several clutch 1st downs both running and throwing, while Jimmy Garoppolo struggled mightily to convert on both 3rd and 4th down (0/2). There will obviously be some regression—teams don’t convert 50% of their 3rd downs over the course of a season, or convert less than 20% of the time—but how much?

For context, Philadelphia converted 5/14 (36%), while Washington was even worse, converting 5/18 (28%). So the Redbirds can probably afford to be a little less efficient on 3rd down than they were last week as long as Washington struggles to convert again. If the Redbirds’ offense is as good as we think it is but the Washington offense isn’t quite as bad as it was last week, we should still probably come out ahead on these critical downs.

Was the defense good against the 49ers last week, or just lucky?

I don’t know what to make of the defense after last week. The held the 49ers to 20 points at home and stiffened up late when they needed to, which was great to see. The defense would have 100% lost this game last season. But they also gave up over 360 yards and didn’t force a turnover on Sunday. We made a ton of mental errors (paging Isaiah Simmons) and the Niners left a lot of yards/points on the field—and the injury to George Kittle probably changed their plans in the second half quite a bit. I think if they replayed last week’s game from scratch, the defense wouldn’t look nearly as good.

But things will be easier for them this week, as the Washington offense is a pretty low-octane attack. They did score 27 points last week, but their longest scoring drive of the day was 48 yards—like the 49ers, the Eagles couldn’t get out of their own way for most of the game. Washington had only 239 yards of offense and averaged a piddling 3.4 yards per play. If we can hold Dwayne Haskins and Co. to under 20 points and 300 yards of offense, I’ll feel a lot better about the defense. But I’ll have concerns if this turns into a shootout.

How will the Cardinals handle playing as big favorites?

This might be the most important factor of all in figuring out whether this team can push for the postseason this year. The Redbirds are currently 6.5-point favorites over Washington. They haven’t been favored by this many points since the 2016 season, and they haven’t won a game as a favorite since 2017. So this is decidedly unfamiliar territory for this team.

But this is a team they *should* beat. Washington probably has the better defense and has a more experienced coach, but the Redbirds are favored for a reason—they have the (far) better QB, better running game, better offensive playmakers, and homefield advantage (whatever that means in 2020). I’ll be closely watching how they come out in the 1st quarter. Confident, loose, and fast? Or nervous, tight, and slow? I’ll be concerned if this team doesn’t get out to a quick start and take an early lead.

Final Thoughts

Sunday’s win over the 49ers showed that this team is improved from last year, but there are several lingering questions from that game that they can go a long way toward answering this weekend. What I hope we see is another strong rushing game with big contributions from Kyler, a solid performance on 3rd down on both sides of the ball, and for the team to get off to a fast start. What I don’t want to see is for Kyler to get mauled like Carson Wentz last week and for more defensive lapses to turn this game into a shootout.

Either way, we’ll know a lot more about who this team is on Monday. I’ll be back next week with my reactions to Sunday’s game.