The Arizona Cardinals aren’t strangers to adversity.
Having to navigate most of the season behind the eight ball in some way or another, Arizona has been put through a wringer in 2021.
It wasn’t any different in Week 9.
Taking on a 49ers team coming off a bounce-back effort the week prior and the Cardinals down starting quarterback and MVP candidate Kyler Murray, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and defensive lineman J.J. Watt — on top of watching running back Chase Edmonds and offensive lineman Justin Pugh go down with injuries midgame — Arizona faced arguably its biggest challenge of the season.
Behind quarterback Colt McCoy and running back James Conner, Arizona didn’t budge, rolling to a one-sided 31-17 win over San Francisco to move to 8-1.
“They stepped up, we knew they had to,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters postgame. “When you lose some of your best players, it’s not easy, but that’s how this league is. Guys stepped up and made big plays all day.”
Starting in his first game since Week 15 of last season, McCoy looked comfortable running Arizona’s offense against a divisional foe. The signal-caller was money throughout, completing 84.6% of his passes for 249 yards and a touchdown. He also ran the rock seven times for 23 yards. And among the positives was McCoy’s ability to keep the ball out of the hands of the defense.
“That’s how he prepares each and every day, consummate professional,” Kingsbury said. “He knows where to go with the ball, he gets it out quick, gets us in the right play. Protected it all day, which we knew we had to do. I’m happy for those University of Texas fans, because after that game yesterday, at least they could find some solace in that. Just a tremendous leader, tremendous player.”
“Even when he’s running the scout team, it’s business,” Kingsbury added. “That was fun to see him execute at a high level today.”
McCoy had little trouble spreading the wealth, too, connecting with six different pass catchers throughout the afternoon. McCoy’s favorite target was Christian Kirk, who reeled in six of his catches for 91 yards. Kirk also gave his best Murray impersonation with a 33-yard pass play while on the run. Fellow wideout Antoine Wesley, who saw added looks with Hopkins sidelined, caught three balls for 62 yards.
“I did my best not to take sacks … and we hit on some big plays that really changed the game,” McCoy told reporters postgame. “Kliff got me in a rhythm early, James ran the ball hard and I just didn’t want to come in here and turn the ball over. We didn’t and you win games that way.
“For me, I’m benefitting from being on a great team. Really glad to get out there on the field and guys counted on me and we pulled through.”
As for Conner, the running back was the offense’s catalyst through four quarters.
After watching Edmonds exit after the first play of scrimmage with an ankle issue, Conner was called upon much more in both the running and passing games.
He turned those added looks into three scores, two on the ground and one through the air, marking a new career-high for total touchdowns. He chipped in two touchdowns and 96 yards on 21 carries, while making five catches for 77 yards and a score.
“I did not [know he would be this versatile], honestly, I thought he was more of a power, downhill back just watching from afar,” Kingsbury said. “Then we got him here and I watched the route running and he made some spectacular catches in training camp, quick twitch in his routes. He’s been above and beyond what any of us could have expected. Just the work ethic, the approach to the game every day is phenomenal.”
With his effort on Sunday, Conner heads into Week 10 tied with injured Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry for the league-lead in rushing touchdowns. He also paces the Cardinals in rushing yards (454) and attempts (115).
“To see [Edmonds] go down early, I knew they were gonna lean on me heavy,” Conner said. “This game is an above-the-neck game as far as being mental and being in the right spots. Put the ball in the right space and just play a good football game.”
“I felt like I practiced hard this week and it showed,” he added.
— Kingsbury on Cardinals general manager Steve Keim’s work in free agency this offseason:
“I think Steve’s done a tremendous job bringing in great leadership. Guys showed up with a sense of urgency to win and they made a point to the entire locker room that that’s what we’re gonna do. They’ve held the standard for the first part of the season. We just got to try and keep it rolling.”