The reason for the Cardinals’ decline is something that we should have seen coming
Odds are if you’re an Arizona Cardinals fan, you probably are hoping that someone’s there to talk you off the ledge right now.
The team started the season with two impressive wins against a stacked Niners team (before the injuries) and beating the Washington Football Team. After losing the next two, they won 3 straight and even narrowly lost to the Dolphins before ending up at 6-4 on the “Hail Murray”.
But since the Sunday Night Football miracle? They’ve downright struggled to win games, and the last three games their offense that was putting up 29+ points a game was struggling to move the ball down the field.
Begging the question….what happened?
DeAndre Hopkins route tree over his last three games has been… limited pic.twitter.com/dQzK9ZQtbV
— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) December 8, 2020
Kyler Murray is 0-3 since trademarking “Hail Murray”.
Russell Wilson is 2-3 since trademarking “Let Russ Cook”.
— StatMuse (@statmuse) December 7, 2020
My three thoughts after a lot of research & time developed are below:
#1. Team is still obviously lacking in talent…more than many Cardinals fans want to admit
How do you grade the talent of a team?
Pro Bowls? PFF Grades? Statistics? Comparison to players on other teams?
For me, the easiest thing is to look at a combination of all of the above, asking this question:
How many of the current Cardinals players surrounding Kyler Murray that Kliff & Vance have to work with would be starters for the top 5 teams in the league, regardless of position?
I can find these players who I think are “blue chip” in ability and would be able to line up for pretty much any team as a starter
- Chandler Jones (IR)
Could a guy like Isaiah Simmons get there? Possibly in time. Chase Edmonds has shown value to the team (and is their 2nd highest rated receiver)
There’s also some players who I feel would be pretty good and get valuable roles on some of those teams like Pugh, Beachum, Corey Peters, Byron Murphy, Williams and Reddick, Kirk Arnold & Drake are contributors.
But…where’s the contributors after that?
Where’s the star power?
The Pro Bowl players?
The Cardinals are a long way off from seeing Carson Palmer throwing to Prime Fitz John Brown, David Johnson and having Mike Iupati pave the way with the “No Fly Zone” Cardinal defensive backs giving them a trio to build around for the future with star players.
The guys Arizona’s expected to be stars…sadly haven’t lived up to the billing this year outside of Baker. And the drop off after that is probably…well…
It’s that of an average team.
The Cardinals statistically are solid offensively in yardage but not points, and defensively give up yards but have held in the red zone and are about 21st in overall PFF grade and 15th (down from 9th) average net yards/attempt alike.
Just look at the gap the last two games has created and these are season-long stats:
Forgot to post last night but pic.twitter.com/Rjd0RGhA4s
— Virtual Bubble Justo (Day 275) (@JuMosq) December 7, 2020
For context, here was Arizona on November 29th, just a few days ago…
So in the case of “what’s gone wrong?” a lot of it comes down to this fact:
It’s that Arizona’s an average team that’s beat up on bad teams this year but has really struggled and gotten lucky (hello, Seahawks & Bills) with some of the good ones.
A good example of talent.
Christian Kirk has had 4 catches for 98 yards the last 4 games.
He previously had 259 yards and 5 touchdowns over THOSE last 4 games. Really!
He’s vanished for whatever reason and Murray is barely attempting to throw him the ball or even looking his way. This is similar to how he had 3 touchdowns against the Buccaneers’ secondary in 2019 and as many as you and me the rest of the season.
He’s also still second in receptions on the team to Larry Fitzgerald. And Fitz has missed two games.
Speaking of Fitzgerald, he was actually the team’s leading receiver when Kyler was playing the Seahawks, and has seemed invaluable in clutch, short yardage situation as well as overall awareness on the field. The fact that Kirk hasn’t been able to pass him up yet is both a testament to Larry…but also a sign of how wildly inconsistent #13 has been this season.
Andy Isabella…yeah, everyone has seen the reference to Metcalf playing, but it’s really having him over Terry McLaurin that’s hurt right now.
Add in a middle-of-the-pack defense that’s been situationally great at times and during others…kinda meh…and you have essentially one true “star” to build around in Budda Baker long-term.
To me, the Cardinals of 2020 are in part reaping the decisions of the Cardinals from 2016 to 2019. And that part falls on the man who was overseeing both aspects of 3 different coaching staffs.
#2. Kyler’s legs were helping cover for a poor passing attack, and he was using them to beat the blitz & pass rushes…now?
Yeah, about that. I think there’s two things that go along with the obvious fact that Murray hasn’t looked the same since the sprained AC joint and has seen his rushing attempts and production decline:
First, it was obvious to a LOT of smart people that the Cardinals weren’t going to be able to rely on Kyler’s legs forever and that Arizona’s passing attack was, in a word, okay.
Murray was averaging 300 yards and 3 TD’s a game…with 67 of those yards coming in him running the football along with at least 1 TD.
And it was…kinda carrying Arizona. I mean, that’s almost one extra full length of the field and 7 points per game.
Well, it means that your QB’s only passing for 233 yards a game if you take away that production. And Kyler’s scrambles were aptly timed too, often on 3rd and long, plus the fact that the designed runs would often jump-start the Cardinals’ offense if it had started to stall or got off schedule. And that has happened quite a bit this season.
In fact, you could argue from these two stats that the following tweet sums up the issue at heart:
From last week but still stands. Murray’s freestyling almost entire reason they’ve had a good offensehttps://t.co/aCspYYft5i
— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) November 23, 2020
With that removed and with Hopkins being given extra attention, suddenly teams are relying on, well, blitzing him more and taking away his legs.
And boy oh BOY are they blitzing more.
That’s really been the plan. Teams are blitzing the Cardinals at a high rate and AZ’s getting the ball out to short yard passing plays as a result and Kyler’s not been making them pay all the time.
#3. Went from playing teams with top 10 picks to playoff teams w/ veteran coaches & DC’s…and Kliff needs to be a bit more diverse.
Point #1 about talent? I think it also applies to the coaching staff of the Cards. Not in that they’re trotting Adam Gase out there but I think there’s a far cry from the diverse play packages they were trotting out as far as yards, personnel and the like.
To start the year there would be packages where I would see 2 tight ends, bringing a tight end in motion and then instead of a handoff, a run play would be faked and the tight end would end up wide open.
It looks like it’s a far simpler offense: the team’s in 11 personnel a LOT with Kyler in shotgun and Drake back with him and Maxx Williams isn’t on the field nearly as much as he had been (with his replacement Darrell Daniels out for the season). So teams are simply teeing off on Kyler and putting their hands up and his confidence seems to not be what it was since he doesn’t have his legs and…isn’t using them.
Especially on zone reads as we saw in the above video.
It’s an adjustment teams are making and it’s where I think Kingsbury is either trying to simplify the offense for Kyler by giving him smaller, easier reads to make in the face of teams bringing constant pressure OR he’s gotten his playcalling tendencies a bit too comfortable in the run game on first and second down and it’s throwing the Cardinals off schedule too much on the early downs.
I think both are true, and the easiest way to adjust? Well, it’ll start with getting Fitzgerald back, for starters. Adding in Williams and the team looking at their run-blocking effectiveness and dialing up a few misdirection plays is good but their issue right now
And on the early downs? Well…
Kirk and Isabella aren’t making teams pay quickly or being open enough and the little bit of hesitancy from Kyler is all that a team needs to break up the pass or bat it down.
So what do you do?
Mix it up.
Run it with Kyler on 2nd and long or come out throwing the ball on a flea flicker.
Andy Isabella got 19 yards on a reverse and they kinda disappeared for the rest of the game as the Patriots brought pressure, Kliff tried to get Kyler some areas to go to and it struggled to work.
I think part of it is Arizona’s gotten a bit comfortable with what they’re doing with the 11 personnel and are running a lot of shotgun in part to try to keep Kyler clean and I don’t think you need to put him under center more often rather just make a few changes to tweak up some of the play design to give defenses new looks so they’ll be reticent to bring pressure.
And if they do? That’s where I think designing a screen game to Dan Arnold and Chase Edmonds comes into play. As from what I’m seeing consistently, the Cardinals are seeing 5 or so blitzers being brought on plays and Murray is under pressure often before his receivers are out of their break….cause they didn’t pick up a lot on running it on first down.
That’s what Maxx Williams and Dan Arnold are for and use them to block, while giving Kyler a bit more protection for his guys to get open downfield…cause Hop and Larry will do that.
Honestly, I think the worst thing for the Cardinals will be if they trot out the same 10/11 personnel against the Giants, who blitz Kyler and read their rushing plays and are keyed in on stopping his legs especially and we see Arizona struggle again.
And to me that last part is on Kingsbury to do. While you can’t really replace the receivers you have, nor if a defense blitzes or not, I think that as we saw in the second half of the Rams game, there’s adjustments to be made that will allow the team to push the ball downfield a bit more.
And it starts up front with protection.
So? What are the three key issues? And ways to fix them?
- Talent overall just needs to get better and grow with time on OL and at receiver after Hopkins when facing tougher opponents
- Kyler’s legs have been carrying Arizona and teams are now scheming to take them away and pressure him by blitzing
- Cardinals are playing tougher opponents who’ve been game-planning for them so they need to mix it up a bit as far as tendencies & preparing for blitzes, which they can do without overhauling their identity and using their tight ends to adjust to the pressure to give him time in the passing game….which should open up his legs to run again.
If you want it in the simplest form possible?
Cards are getting blitzed creatively by teams in a way where it’s stopping the run and Kyler’s legs & the receivers after Hopkins/Fitz aren’t helping him.
Previously when teams would blitz Kyler we’d see him burn teams with his legs but they’re REALLY gameplanning for him now in terms of selling out to stop the run knowing that’s Arizona’s identity.
There’s likely more subtlety but this is a road block that the Cardinals are facing for, really, the first time all season in dropping more than 2 games in a row.
As I’ve said all season long…the passing game HAS to develop beyond where it’s been and I felt the team’s still been a weapon short. The two games without Larry Fitzgerald has made the future look dim without at least one more major addition/replacement.
And in a few games where Kyler hasn’t chosen to run or has been forced into staying into the pocket, his development there is being rushed quicker than expected just as he’s being rushed.
But that IS to be expected. This is the NFL after all. And if you don’t adjust, you’re less of a legend and more of a passing memory.