Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers, who are fresh off a win over the New Orleans Saints, will feature a matchup between two former college teammates and Heisman Trophy winners in Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield.
Murray and the Cardinals are 2-0 all-time against Baker Mayfield. However, the Panthers are a perfect 6-0 against the Cardinals since 2015. One of these streaks will come to an end.
Here are three things to watch and consider as the Panthers host the Cardinals in Week 4:
Kyler Murray’s passing production vs Panthers’ secondary
Statistically speaking, Kyler Murray’s production has been respectable for the most part through the first three weeks of the 2022 regular season. He ranks 12th in passing yards (784) and has a 63.8 completion percentage. Though he ranks fourth in the NFL in total completions (90), Murray is second-worst in yards per pass (5.6) with his longest completion going for only 30 yards. The Cardinals’ positive offensive production has mainly come from the short pass game with a combination of completions on out routes and curl routes to Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Greg Dortch, who are both first and second on the team in receptions and receiving yards respectively. 2021 second-round pick Rondale Moore should contribute greatly in a gadget role having missed the first three weeks of the season due to a hamstring injury.
In his previous two meetings against the Panthers, Murray has thrown for under 200 yards each with only 306 total passing yards combined. The Carolina Panthers’ secondary limited quarterbacks to under 200 passing yards in two out of three games this season in large part because of the elite performances from 2021 first-round pick Jaycee Horn, who is allowing an astounding 15.3 quarterback rating when targeted. Opposite Horn is Donte Jackson, who has two interceptions against Kyler Murray in his career. Considering the Cardinals’ misfortunes against the Panthers in the past and their lack of a deep passing attack, it should be another day of short dump off passes as they try to get things going offensively.
Getting the run game going with James Conner, Kyler Murray, and company
The Cardinals have seemingly become a very one-dimensional offense through the first three weeks of the regular season coupled with slow starts and deficits in every game this season. After having an incredible 2021 season with over 1,000 scrimmage yards, 18 touchdowns, and a Pro Bowl selection, James Conner received a three-year $21 million contract but has struggled ever since. Conner rushed for a season-high 39 rushing yards last weekend and has 90 total rushing yards on the year so far. The Cardinals need to Conner to recapture his 2021 form if they hope to not only win this game but to turn their 2022 season around.
Carolina’s front seven allowed a whopping 217 rushing yards to the Cleveland Browns in Week 1 but have made steady improvements since with 103 allowed in Week 2 to the Giants and 84 to the Saints last week. They had to deal with some of the best running backs in the NFL during that stretch of games with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Saquon Barkley, and Alvin Kamara. Panthers’ defensive tackle Derrick Brown deserves credit for the Panthers’ respectable run defense performances. In the Cardinals previous two meeting against Carolina, Kyler Murray had a total of 14 carries and 147 rushing yards. Panthers have struggled to contain Murray before. Though Murray is adamant about treating his legs as a “luxury”, it clearly has not worked out for the Cardinals. If the graphic below is any indication of the Cardinals’ future success, Murray will need to run a lot to increase read-option effectiveness and their overall efficiency on the offense.
Cardinals’ defense need to keep Mayfield on the adjustment path
The Panthers traded for Baker Mayfield this offseason but it has not been smooth sailing for the former No. 1 overall pick. Through three games, his completion percentage (51.9) and passing yardage (550) are both ranked second-worst in the NFL which is slightly better than Bears’ quarterback Justin Fields. According to ESPN, Mayfield’s adjusted QBR of 18.9 is the worst in the league. If the Cardinals want any chance at beating the Panthers and getting back on track this season, they need to make sure Mayfield’s struggles continue on Sunday. If Mayfield somehow rights his ship and starts taking over the game, Arizona will be in big trouble. And this may be a tall order considering the Cardinals own one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL.
Arizona’s defense is allowing a 70.9 completion percentage which is third-worst in the NFL. Their 8.2 yards per pass attempt allowed is ranked second-worst. Their passing yards (843) and passing touchdowns (7) allowed is tied for fourth-worst. Despite the Panthers’ lack of passing success, D.J. Moore, Robbie Anderson, and Laviska Shenault are still a talented receiver trio. Byron Murphy, Budda Baker, and Jalen Thompson need to fortify that defensive backfield. J.J. Watt and Zach Allen will need to continue their strong play this season but they need the entire group of pass rushers to step up considering Watt is the only Cardinal with sacks on the stat sheet. The Cardinals’ defensive front seven will have to worry about dynamic running back Christian McCaffrey, who is dealing with a quad injury but is expected to suit up Sunday. With nose tackle Rashard Lawrence ruled out and no signings imminent, Arizona might have a tough time stuffing McCaffrey behind the line of scrimmage.
The Cardinals are 2-7 in their last nine games. It is very clear that things have to change for them in all phases of the game. Kliff Kingsbury has not had any luck against Matt Rhule’s Panthers in the NFL but a win on Sunday will put Arizona right back in the thick of things in the NFC West.
Consider this a must-win game for the Arizona Cardinals.