Week 3 has been a unique one for the Arizona Cardinals under Kliff Kingsbury.
In 2019, Arizona went for their first win of the Kingsbury era and ended up getting blown out by the Panthers with their backup QB in Kyle Allen with a total defensive collapse and Kyler Murray with two turnovers.
In 2020, the Cards looked to move to 3-0 for the first time in forever and instead dropped a game at home to the Lions in which they vastly outplayed Detroit but couldn’t put the game away.
How would 2021’s version fare as Arizona, coming off a hard-fought (or lucky, depending on your perspective) win over the Vikings in their home opener would face a league-worst Jacksonville Jaguars in an early time East Coast road game?
Well...it got off to a solid start.
Rondale Moore made up for a muffed punt after 3-and-outs were traded with a huge return, setting up a 1 yard Kyler Murray rushing touchdown.
The next few drives went...less than optimal for the offense but the defense came to play.
The run defense got MULTIPLE tackles for loss and pulled a game-changing interception off a ball that popped up to Byron Murphy off a great play by Jordan Hicks.
The offense...looked rhythmless and unable to run the ball and had issues in pass pro on third down, not converting a 3rd down through the first 30 minutes of the game.
The Jaguars managed to play the run well, force Kyler Murray to move out of the pocket and Arizona’s offense struggled mightily in running the football in short yardage.
A controversial pick play called as OPI set up the Jaguars to drive down the field before the half, scoring a touchdown.
Arizona drove up trying to get back to kick a FG and then....on a 68-yard attempt outside at sea level....disaster.
A 68-YARD FG ATTEMPT TURNS INTO A 109-YARD RETURN TD.— NFL (@NFL) September 26, 2021
MAYHEM IN JACKSONVILLE.
: #AZvsJAX on FOX
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So the change from Arizona going into the field with a potential lead turns to a Jaguars momentum lead into the half.
To make matters worse, Justin Pugh had to be helped off of the field on the kick return and oh my goodness...
The worst half of football we’ve seen from the Cardinals.
Well...at least it can’t get much worse? Right???
Fire this game into the sun— Yup (@SCoxFB) September 26, 2021
Arizona started the half and drove down the field, picking up several first downs. But it stalled out in the redzone and the offense didn’t look on the same page for pretty much three quarters.
A stalled drive in the redzone and Kliff going for it on 4th down made the Cardinals seem desperate.
The Jaguars responded by establishing a 0 pass, 8 rush drive for a James Robinson touchdown that seemed to take the wind out of Arizona’s sails. Someone needed to make a play.
And after Christian Kirk led the Cards down the field for a James Conner TD, one Byron Murphy DID:
Breh. https://t.co/qQFBeiH7KM— Blake Allen Murphy (@blakemurphy7) September 26, 2021
Ouch, PFF that’s rough. The momentum that swung....swung back to AZ in a BIG way heading into the 4th quarter.
The Jaguars managed to drive down the field but a SECOND interception from Byron Murphy gave Arizona a chance to run down clock and go up 31
It led to Kliff Kingsbury risking it all (potentially) by going for it on 4th and short in the redzone. A HUGE decision. Make it and have a chance for a touchdown to put it away.
Miss it and give the Jags a new life. Kyler Murray, when needed, delivered:
Kyler Murray keeping it on 4th down and converting?! pic.twitter.com/bIYx4IHU8O— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) September 26, 2021
After that, it came down to the defense coming up and stopping the Jags and they did just that.
Forcing JAX to use their timeouts and (after a wild fake punt that wasn’t) Arizona forced the Jags to run down the clock, with the game ending with a send-off sack from Jordan Hicks.
So, rapid reactions...what the heck?
- That game ended up being closer than it should have been due to turnovers, offensive mishaps and inability to stop the run, which also allowed the Vikings to hang in there last week. If Arizona can’t clean that up with the run-heavy Rams/Niners and Browns coming up, they may fall to 3-3 against superior opponents...it has to get fixed ASAP. Also the pass rush wasn’t able to get home without blitzing...something else for Vance to work on
- Christian Kirk continues to impress against Man Coverage—Kirk had over 100 yards again and was there for big plays when needed
- Hopkins wasn’t targeted as much and seemed off...AJ Green helped it not matter. With over 100 yards and some big catches, Green finally gave an outside threat to Kyler across from Hop. It showed how there are finally multiple options in the receiving game
- Arizona’s short yardage struggled...except in the redzone. The Cards game wouldn’t have been close if AZ hadn’t started 0/6 on 3rd down. Fortunately, when they got close, Kyler Murray picked up a 4th down and a touchdown, and James Conner had 2 TD’s on the day to send the Jaguars into the phantom zone at the end of the day
- Byron Murphy...can ball. The dude had 2 picks and looked like peak P2 as a ballhawk and gives Arizona’s coverage a big threat.
- The Linebackers besides Hicks....were left wanting. Zaven Collins is still coming along. Isaiah Simmons had some good plays but also another boneheaded tackle that gave the Jaguars some late life. They weren’t as physical and the DL for Arizona was gashed once again against the run to the point where it’s officially a “code red”
- Kyler threw a pick but also delivered for big plays in the clutch to win the game and had another 300 yards passing to start the season
- Kliff had a rough day at the office that was salvaged by going for it on 4th down and...seeing Kyler bail out what might have been a costly error. If someone told me Kyler was winning in spite of Kliff at times, I might not disagree. But he’s developing as a QB and that’s important at this stage to not just beat an Urban Meyer, but rather to even argue that he made THE aggressive calls to do so. (Just don’t attempt a 68-yard FG again, Kliff).
End of the day, the Cards won UGLY.
But winning ugly is still a win.
(Expert analysis, sure).
But 3-0 is 3-0 for the first time since 2015 and it doesn’t feel “false” like the 4-0 start did in 2012.
Cardinals fans can point to additional tenacity of the team in winning ugly on the road in games they lost last year as improvement and starting 3-0.
Critics (Cards fans and others) will also point to the team’s struggles vs. the run and how the Jags almost took them to town.
I think there are fair criticisms and we’ll really see if this team is “legit” if they can go 4-2 or even 5-1 over the next brutal stretch of 3 games (LAR/SF/CLE) against tough running teams. Two of those in-division.
End of the day, though, the stats might make it seem like Arizona won big, with some 3rd down struggles, and film watchers will feel that they caught a late surge.
Thing is...that late surge won the game. And in a “must win” year for the Cards that’s exactly what they did.
And against a 0-2 desperate Jags team that fought hard, that’s all you can ask for.
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