It’s week 2 of the NFL season and the 1-0 Washington Football Team will be traveling to Arizona to face a 1-0 Cardinals team. This game will again feature no fans in the stadium, so all crowd noise will be simulated.
The Cardinals are a young and rebuilding team, but they have already passed the nadir of their rebuilding process and are on the upswing. Exactly where on that upswing they exist is anybody’s guess as they are likely in the most competitive division in football (the NFC West), but they just beat last year’s NFC Champion 49ers (a division rival), so they are off to a good start. The Cardinals offense revolves around Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury and QB Kyler Murray, the 2019 first overall draft pick. Kingsbury runs a college-inspired spread offense with shotgun as a base-set and Murray rarely lines up under center. Empty backfields and multiple receiver sets are the norm. Arizona also uses running backs as integral parts of the passing game. A focus on the short passing game and the QB’s distance from the line under shotgun result in a fast-paced offense that schematically neutralizes opposing pass rush. To make things worse for Washington, Murray is a mobile QB who ran for over 100 yards against the 49ers if kneeldowns are excluded. The Cardinals also traded for WR DeAndre Hopkins this offseason, who had 14 receptions for 151 yards in his week 1 debut.
The Cardinals defense is helmed by Vance Joseph, who favors an aggressive pass rush that tends to leave the middle of the field less defended in the passing game. As a result, the Cardinals were the NFL’s worst defense at guarding passes to TEs last year, but they have numerous multi-faceted chess pieces like Budda Baker, Haason Reddick, and Isaiah Simmons to help solidify the middle of the field. The defensive line is anchored by star pass rusher Chandler Jones, whose absurd 19 sack total was 2nd highest in the NFL last year.
To learn more about these and other issues, I asked Seth Cox of Revenge of the Birds five questions about the state of the Cardinals and what to look for in this game.
1. The Cardinals managed to surprise the “experts” by beating a 49ers team that won the NFC Championship last year. What did you learn about your team in that game (the first after a cancelled preseason) and what were the key factors leading to victory?
I think the biggest thing that was learned is that they have improved from last year. While that seems like an obvious one - adding talent like DeAndre Hopkins, Jordan Phillips, De’Vondre Campbell and Isaiah Simmons - the reality is it is easy to build a team on paper.
Last year the Cardinals were in the same scenario three times, getting a lead late in the game with needing only a defensive stop to preserve a victory. They finished 0-2-1 in those games.
So, for the team to start the season, on the road, against an admittedly banged up 49ers offense, and come through just shows the progression of the team. Instead of giving Kyler Murray and the offense back the ball down three with under two minutes to go, they got a third and fourth down stop, and were able to run out the clock on offense.
That didn’t happen in 2019, it happened in the first game in 2020 which should signal growth.
2. What has been your impression of Kliff Kingsbury and his coaching staff so far? Does the group have any particular strengths or areas for improvement?
Kliff is genuinely liked by the team. They appreciate his knowledge and understanding of the game, his passion and time he puts in, but they even more appreciate that he treats them like men and equals.
The staff has done a great job along the offensive line and on special teams, but they have struggled to develop on defense. That could have been a lack of talent in 2019, so giving Vance Joseph and his staff another year and adding a ton of new talent should give us a better idea.
Kingsbury is innovative and imaginative in his offensive play calls and really is the perfect first coach for a young quarterback to develop under.
3. How would you describe Kyler Murray’s playstyle? What makes him such a good fit for the Kingsbury offense?
Kyler is a lot like Russell Wilson. He is a bit faster twitched, but also doesn’t play with the refinement that Russ has developed over the last decade of playing.
What Kyler does well is work as a passer, he is someone who likes to win with his arm first and uses his legs to do that. When he needs to though, he is able to make plays with his legs that few quarterbacks in the league can (Lamar, Russ the others).
Kyler’s arm is what I think surprises so many; with a compact delivery, he gets the ball out quick with impressive velocity. He takes some risks, but part of that is what Kliff wants from him. He wants him to see what he can and cannot get away with early in his career so he can make the proper adjustments, instead of saying “don’t do that.”
Whatever Kliff’s long-term outcome is (and obviously we hope it is for a decade plus), I don’t think there could be a better match for Kyler at this point.
4. A lot of Washington fans think the outcome of this game will be determined in the trenches. Who are the notable starters on the Cardinals OL and DL and where would you say the strengths and weaknesses of those units lie?
The Cardinals offensive line has improved, but they still get a ton of help from Kliff Kingsbury’s schemes. They try not to put their tackles, D.J. Humphries and Kelvin Beachum on an island too much or for too long, instead relying on short and quick passing game to setup a deeper shot or two. In the run game, it is really about the ability to utilize Kyler. They had 36 carries for 180 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday against a great 49ers defense. But Kyler accounted for 91 yards on 13 carries (7 ypc including kneel downs). Being able to attack with Kyler takes pressure off of Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds, but also the offensive line.
All of that being said, the biggest matchup is easily if the Cardinals offensive line can do enough against a fantastic Washington defensive line. The WFT has elite talent and the Cardinals need to be able to keep them at bay. You’ll never shut out a group that includes Chase Young, Da’Ron Payne, Matt Ioannidis, Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen and oh yeah can keep Ryan Kerrigan on a pitch count. It is impossible, but the question is can you limit that group?
The Cardinals will likely be without starting center Mason Cole, so second year center Lamont Gaillard will have to prove himself, along with the veterans at guard in Justin Pugh and J.R. Sweezy. They’ll have their hands full.
Can the Cardinals contain a dominant defensive front? That is really the question and one that I am looking forward to see if the Cardinals can answer in a positive manner for a second week in a row.
5. If you were Washington, how would you gameplan to beat the Cardinals and in particular limit Kyler Murray?
If you can keep your rush lanes, pressure with your big three inside and keep two outside to make that sideline harder to get too, you can control Murray. Ron Rivera has done that before with a lesser defensive front in Carolina. That is what worries me so much about this game. Washington has the horses and the mind on defense to limit Murray.
Thanks again to Seth Cox for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Cardinals.
As of right now, Vegas has Arizona as 7 point favorites over Washington. How would you bet?
This poll is closed
Arizona wins by 7 or more points
Arizona wins by fewer than 7 points
Washington wins outright
As of now, Vegas has the over/under for this game at 46.5 points. Which would you bet?
This poll is closed
47 or more total points are scored (both sides combined)
Fewer than 47 total points are scored (both sides combined)