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How the Arizona Cardinals can win the NFC West

There are 3 things that would need to happen for Arizona to surprise and take home the divisional crown...and it’s more doable than you might think

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The Arizona Cardinals....no...the entire NFC West is off to an amazing 7-1 start across the National Football League.

As far as divisions go, there’s none tougher.

The Arizona Cardinals, overall, are projected by the majority of analysts to finish in 4th place in their division—behind the Rams, Niners and even Seahawks. But...through two games there’s been noticeable improvement in talent on Arizona’s side.

Is it possible that they could be not a “worst to first” team but rather an unexpected division winner?

I think that it’s still unlikely...but possible? Oh, definitely.

Below are four (plus one) of the ways for the Cardinals to win the West.

#1. Keep this passing offense at a top 5 overall level

The Cardinals in 2020 were an improvement over some of the bottom-to-mid tier rankings that were seen in Kliff Kingsbury’s first year as a head coach. One step that was needed entering 2021 was to turn the Cardinals from a run-first team into a dynamic passing offense.

Arizona finished 7th in rushing, and at one point was the top offense in the league as far as yards generated. Then? It all fell apart after Kyler got hurt and their passing attack lost its identity without being able to hit Hopkins or Kirk at the same rate & protection dwindled their total to 7th in rushing and 17th in passing & pass yards per game.

So far? Arizona through two games (a small sample size) is 2nd in overall offense AND passing offense only behind the Raiders in passing yardage. The rushing attack hasn’t fallen either—it’s 12th in the NFL.

The question I think that fans should have is...how sustainable is this offense?

I think that’s a good point as 2020 showed that it was NOT sustainable for more than the first half of the season, and it ran into a brick wall against teams like the Pats, Niners and Rams.

Right now a lot of the passing offense is more on schedule than in years past, and while a large chunk has been Kyler bailing pockets and hitting broken plays...he’s been keeping his eyes downfield far more this year.

To me, that seems to indicate one of the truths of the NFL: that it is a passing league and while you may run to win or punch it in, the game is built around elite quarterbacks hitting both big plays and consistency. I think that this part of Murray’s game, provided he has Hopkins, Green, Kirk & Moore (heck, even Maxx Williams might have a career year) this part won’t be too hard to stay consistent, even against a team like the Rams.

The concern here...isn’t with the offense, though.

#2. Button up the rush defense and, if possible, find health or depth at DT and Corner

The run defense from Week 1 kind of...disappeared in the first half of week two.

While a lot of stopping the run can simply boil down to blocking and tackling (aka effort and execution) it hasn’t really been a staple of Vance Joseph’s defenses to be solid against the run.

Last year, Arizona was 10th in passing yards allowed per game...but was 22nd in defending the run. Granted, there were defensive tackle health issues (leading to starting guys off the street later in the year) and that’s been addressed some by adding J.J. Watt to the defensive line.

But...the Vikings were really able to move the ball at will, and Arizona has gone from 22nd a season ago to now 26th against the run.

A large portion of that, honestly, is due to their young starting linebackers in Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins, neither of whom have spent much time in the NFL. And Jordan Hicks, while he plays a key part, is not responsible for defensive linemen who can get moved out of their gaps.

The NFC West, in part, is such a slaughterhouse for teams BECAUSE of how dominant their run games are as a whole. The Rams might have lost Cam Akers and have Darrell Henderson ailing, but McVay’s never seen a poor rushing attack. Kyle Shanahan might be the best run-game schemer and coordinator in the entire league plus Kittle & more blocking, and Seattle has Chris Carson to boot.

The Cardinals’ strength this year is in trying to get to the passer and using their athletic linebackers in coverage to force teams to punt it back to their explosive offense.

Right now, with Jordan Phillips on IR, the other defensive linemen for Arizona need to do a better job or else they might get run over, and run right out of contention for the division. I’m not sure that this is something that’s an easy fix, although playing Michael Dogbe a bit more and seeing J.J. Watt move inside to DT a bit more for the rotation of Golden and a healthy/returning Gardeck & Kennard might help.

As for depth at corner...we saw Robert Alford seem suitable but not nearly the athlete Murphy Jr. and Wilson are outside, and the team has had questionable depth as it is this offseason even BEFORE Malcolm Butler retired. Adding a corner might help go a long way if they can find someone to either boost from Alford or help outside. Tay Gowan is still probably a bit away and the market’s picked thin...of course...Might be Hamilton/Douglas are already the guys.

Regardless, it won’t matter if Arizona’s passing attack stays somehow this effective if their team can’t buckle down against the run like they did vs. the Titans and the second half of the Vikings game.

#3. Kliff improves late game scenarios (balance aggression with time management)

The Cardinals of 2020 had a long laundry list of questionable late-game decisions made by Kliff Kingsbury. Some involved specific calls and others trusted the kicker in Zane Gonzalez over Kyler Murray & co. in short yardage.

This year? There wasn’t much different as far as some slow starts but overall the team issues weren’t a big deal given how explosive the offense has been in the first halves of games.

BUT...

We did get to see an issue with Kliff, and maybe even Kyler, against the Vikings.

With two minutes and 44 seconds left in the game, the Arizona D forced a 3 and out and Minnesota punted it back to the Cards. If Arizona can get basically TWO first downs, they’ll force Minnesota to use all their timeouts and then they will essentially either run the clock out or force some 10 second miracle play that has a low chance of working.

What happened on that drive?

-A rush for 4 yards to the near side, out of bounds (stopping the clock)

-A sack that lost yardage on the play

-A checkdown (with pressure) to Chase Edmonds for 7 yards

Yikes. Not great as it only took :36 off the clock and had two passes involved.

The truth be told, though, the drive was basically dead-on-arrival as soon as Murray ran out of bounds.

He could have slid, and I’d guess that his penchant for self-protection popped up, but that’s a coaching issue as far as knowing the situation and even being able to slide while in-bounds to keep the clock running.

It’s a big mistake, and this was exacerbated on the next play when Murray took a sack, making a safe completion unlikely to happen. Now...if Kyler completes it and gets a first down? Then it’s mostly forgiven.

But in a close game, small errors like this can ultimately cost you the game. Just look at the Vikings’ kicker’s missed extra point being the difference!

Kliff went aggressive in wanting to end the game...and as such I think the aggression is fine but the way he did it as far as developing calls, design or even where to go as far as with the team (If you’re going to run the ball, designing a draw play that allows Chase to operate in space or Murray to be able to keep it up the middle and slide makes more sense & might even get a penalty if he got hit in the head).

It shows that there’s a balance to be had:

If you chicken out and play to “not lose” then you often find yourself regretting as to why you gave up control of the game to the other team. But if you’re hyper-aggressive (we saw flashes of this with Arians throwing it a ton in the 2015 Green Bay playoff game on second down) a miss means an opportunity.

Finding a balance between aggression and awareness of time management is a must for Kingsbury to develop this season or else he will need a lot more missed kicks from opponents to win in close games.

#4. Take advantage of the faults of the other teams in the NFC West and pounce

While most of the NFC West has undoubtedly been the class of the NFL, it goes without saying that there are noticeable flaws that each team possesses. A “fatal flaw” if you will.

Rams: Stafford when his guys are covered will take sacks/doesn’t have elite athleticism to avoid them & linebackers

Niners: Team identity in the passing game with Garoppolo and a rookie in Lance

Seahawks: Offensive line is meh and defense still a bit suspect in areas

For starters—the Rams are probably the team with the least fatal of their flaws. They have perhaps a bit less depth if they lose guys to major injury (see Sony Michel likely starting) and have Aaron Donald but also have Matthew Stafford and one of the weaknesses that he has as far as how much Cooper Kupp & the run game does for that offense.

Stafford was able to find Kupp all over the place and was his go-to guy under pressure. When he was covered down field, Stafford would look for options or work to extend the play and...in one case got caught from behind. Unlike a lightning quick Kyler Murray who can take off, Stafford will get caught by pass rushers & take sacks or potentially toss an inaccurate ball under duress (like any QB).

What this means is a tough task for Arizona: covering Cooper Kupp. Yikes.

But hey, if they can do that and ensure that their coverage is solid, the good news on the other end is that while Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey/Rams cover guys can be scary...their 3rd and 4th options and the linebackers are not.

Christian Kirk/Rondale Moore could feast but it’s Kyler Murray who might see the biggest boost as the Rams linebackers weren’t able to keep up with Carson Wentz extending drives. That might be a big key.

Now, on to San Fran.

They’re 2-0 but...it’s been weird as Brandon Aiyuk has barely been used and the Niners are already seeming to be on their 3rd running back and not giving carries to Trey Sermon...or even as many targets to Kittle.

Deebo Samuel is beating Rondale Moore (and everyone else) in yards after catch but the real story is Jimmy Garoppolo and his unwillingness to take shots downfield. Kyle Shanahan either hasn’t trusted him or he hasn’t trusted himself and with a big armed QB in Trey Lance who can move on the bench...it remains to be seen if this offensive identity can keep up under Shanahan and Mike McDaniel’s run game designs and Deebo staying healthy and racking up YAC.

If Lance comes in, his downfield aggression was offset in ways in the preseason by the sacks that he took, and it’ll be interesting to see what does or doesn’t change for Shanahan along with his key players. The Niners have been run on a LOT so far, as Javon Kinlaw hasn’t stepped up a bunch and their cornerback depth has become a real problem.

Finally, the Seahawks.

Seattle just showed how easily it is to get trounced not just by Derrick Henry, but by a good offense in general. They still have Wagner and Dunlap and Adams to contend with, but it’s a secondary that can be exposed against this Cardinals’ receiving core. And on the other side, Russell Wilson’s offensive line and targets after Lockett and Metcalf are a bit...eh.

So there’s definitely chances for Arizona, no?

I could talk a bit about how outmatched they might look against the Rams, how the Niners’ efficiency and a potential rushing QB plus a Seattle ever & present danger (Lockett went off for 200+ against them a year ago) but...the goal is to find their path to winning the division.

If they can expose these team’s flaws and manage to ensure that the above are followed, they could certainly look at a 4-2 divisional record and take the crown if they’ve managed to not BLOW IT against out of division/conference opponents.

And that leads to maybe the most obvious way to win the west...

#5 (Main Point) In the end, it all comes down to winning in-division games.

Period.

Kind of “duh” for most sports fans & even regular people, no?

If you go 2-4 in division, it’s tough to make the playoffs. Going 2-4 means that some other teams probably went 4-2 or 3-3 against you and for the most part, winning is all that matters in the NFL as it is.

The Cardinals need to take a step forward and beat these other NFC West teams if they want to win the division. That much should be obvious, no? It’s the only thing that counts.

And in recent years, it’s been something we’ve seen from the team only twice in recent years. One gutsy win in Seattle over the Seahawks and two CLOSE wins over San Fran and Seattle were followed up by losing 4 straight to those teams.

If Arizona is going to win the division, they’ll have to probably brush off the ghosts of 2017 and on and beat the Rams at least one time this year.

Then, they’ll probably have to, at best, beat one of San Fran or Seattle twice to go 4-2 to hopefully get to the divisional crown (and I guess...hope that LAR doesn’t go 5-1, lol).

Could they go 3-3? Maybe...but that might be the difference between a divisional crown and a playoff spot. The Cardinals will need to show from a Kyler, Kliff and defensive perspective that they are right up there with the division.

If they can do that, the sky’s the limit for this team even against the likes of their opponents. It’s going to be tough, obviously (the road looking even tougher given how they’ve got a shot to be 1-1 right now if not for Greg Joseph) but is it doable?

I think it is. It doesn’t mean they WILL do it but I think they’ve shown they can. Whether they actually will is another question entirely.

But it’s one I can’t wait to find out.

You can follow @blakemurphy7 weekly on the Revenge of the Birds podcast