Things you could circle as definites when looking at the Arizona Cardinals last season:
Kyler Murray was the clearcut starter. Larry Fitzgerald can still catch it with the best of them. Opposing tight ends ran wild.
The Cardinals’ kryptonite last season was covering tight ends. The opposing pass catchers scored at least one touchdown in 12 games last season and had five games with two scores. Arizona gave up a league-high 1,147 yards and 17 touchdowns on 94 receptions to the position.
But in an effort to remedy the situation in 2020, Arizona went shopping this offseason. The team revamped the defense with veteran linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and Devon Kennard.
Arizona didn’t stop there, selecting versatile rookie LB Isaiah Simmons with the 8th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
On paper, the Cardinals accomplished this offseason assignment.
Come Sunday, they get their first — and possibly greatest — test of the season in the form of the San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle.
Kittle and the 49ers enter the new league year following a fourth-quarter collapse in the Super Bowl to the Kansas City Chiefs. There’s no doubt they want to kick things off with a bang to show the world they are still a contender.
With wide receiver Deebo Samuel out, the tenacity and intensity Kittle plays with will be on full display.
“Kittle’s a great player, obviously,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said Thursday. “In our first game last year, he made two or three big plays to hurt us, especially on third downs. Having a plan for him is going to be vital to us having success on defense.
“I won’t share our plan but obviously he’s one of their best targets on all pass downs. First, second and third down. Last year he had over a 1,000 yards receiving, the next guy had about 500. He’s definitely a guy we have to find on all pass downs and have a plan to get him stopped this year.”
Entering his fourth NFL season, Kittle has amassed 216 receptions for 2,945 yards and 12 touchdowns.
In 2019, the tight end caught 85 of his 107 targets for 1,053 yards and five scores. In his only game against the Cardinals last year, he had six receptions, 79 yards and a touchdown. The 2019 First Team All-Pro leads all NFL tight ends in yards after contact, yards after the catch (1,600) and missed tackles (45).
This season could see even more production out of the TE, as Kittle will be leaned on even more to move the chains with injuries plaguing the 49ers wide receivers room.
Simply put, he makes the 49ers offense go.
The Cardinals hope they’re ready for the task after another offseason under Joseph and additions to the linebacker group. Simmons provides the team with a big body that can move all over the field decisively, and the two veterans, Campbell and Kennard, bring more stability alongside linebacker Jordan Hicks — something that wasn’t necessarily there a year prior.
“I think as a defense as a whole we’re just in a further along spot then we were at this point last year, and maybe even a few games in,” Hicks said. “Just because of it being our second year in the system, the ability to have that familiarity of the coaches, of the communication, playing with the same guys and having the addition of some key guys in the role that have picked up really well.
“As a whole I think we’re ready. Obviously there’s some preparation we’re grinding through right now, but come game time I’m excited with where we’re at.”
The Cardinals face a tall task on Sunday. There’s no denying it. But if Arizona can limit Kittle, the 49ers offense turns more one-dimensional, leaving the Cardinals in a prime spot to capitalize on the injury-riddle defending NFC champs.
On a broader note, a strong defensive showing in Week 1 will only breed confidence moving forward as Arizona navigates the 2020 season.