Maybe the hype was a little premature. Or maybe the overall strangeness and disjointedness of the 2020 season delayed the breakout campaign by a year. Whatever the case, the Cardinals team we saw bully the Titans in a 38-13 road win on Sunday finally looked like the one worthy of landing on all those lists of up-and-coming contenders last summer. The offense looked capable of producing an MVP winner in Kyler Murray. And Kliff Kingsbury’s play-calling looked more deserving of its Air Raid moniker.
The 38 points speak for themselves, but this performance was about more than the final score. The way the Cardinals offense hammered the Titans just felt different. It wasn’t overly reliant on Murray’s exceptional improvisational skills, and DeAndre Hopkins didn’t hog all of the targets in the passing game. This was a truly balanced performance by an offense that had been far too reliant on its two stars a season ago. Murray’s four touchdown passes were split evenly between Hopkins and Christian Kirk, who enjoyed a career day. Rookie receiver Rondale Moore made a play anytime he got his hands on the ball. Even 33-year-old A.J. Green made an impact. This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen the offense explode during Kingsbury’s time in Arizona, but it’s difficult to recall a more comprehensive and convincing showing.
It was just one game, though. And a Week 1 game at that. If the Cardinals fall off a cliff from here on out, it wouldn’t be the first time we were fooled by a one-game sample. So let’s just ask the question: Was this real? Are Kliff, Kyler, and the rest of this Arizona group on the verge of a breakthrough that might propel the team into the postseason for the first time since 2015? Or is this the same disjointed and uncreative passing attack we saw fade down the stretch in 2020?
After reviewing the film of Sunday’s game, the answer is … it’s complicated.
It’s complicated because Murray’s game is complicated. He is one of the league’s most physically gifted quarterbacks, but he’s also very small—at least relative to the giants who play in the NFL. I know we’re not supposed to care about a quarterback’s height these days—not after Drew Brees and Russell Wilson made teams look dumb for writing them off. But height does matter: In Murray’s case, because his stature makes him uncomfortable in tight pockets. Murray looks to bail as soon as he feels the walls start to close in on him. And that eagerness to abandon the structure of a play has to be factored into any evaluation of Kingsbury’s scheme.
That’s not to say Murray is holding Kingsbury back. The opposite is probably true. When the Cardinals were rolling early last year, the offense was heavily reliant on the quarterback’s mobility to make it go. After Murray suffered a midseason shoulder injury and defenses devised better strategies to trap him in the pocket, Arizona’s offense sputtered. Kingsbury’s precious scheme could not provide any answers, and it became readily apparent that Murray’s creativity had been powering the whole operation.
If you caught only the highlights of Sunday’s win, you might think it was more of the same against Tennessee. Murray made throws that my mind is still trying to process, including his first touchdown pass to Hokpins in the back of the end zone.
That’s all Murray, right? The play broke down, he got out of the pocket, and he made a 99th-percentile throw. But if we zoom out and take a look at the all-22 angle, we can see that Hopkins was probably going to be open if Murray had just hung in the pocket for an extra beat or two. We can also see that the offensive line had provided him with plenty of time and space to do so.
This happened a few times. Murray would abandon the pocket with a receiver about to come open downfield. Sometimes, like the play above, it worked out; other times, it resulted in a negative play.
For the most part, Murray’s freelancing served the Cardinals well on Sunday. But a full game of going-it-alone wouldn’t have produced 38 points. Obviously, Kingsbury’s play-calling put him in a position to throw for 289 yards and four touchdowns. So to get a better sense of how the offense performed when the plays were executed as called, I reviewed every passing play the Cardinals ran on Sunday. Each play was put into one of two buckets: “in structure” or “out of structure.” If Murray took a normal dropback and remained in the pocket, it was marked as “in structure.” If he left the pocket, it went down as “out of structure.” And from Sunday’s batch of plays, it’s clear the passing game was far more efficient when Murray stayed in the pocket.
Kyler Murray in and Out of Structure v. Titans
|Out of Structure
Hey, look at that! Kingsbury’s designs work when the quarterback follows the play! That’s the case on paper, at least. But, again, with this offense … it’s complicated. Though Murray did do most of his damage within the structure of the Cardinals offense, a lot of his bigger plays required obnoxiously difficult throws—the type of throws Kingbsury cannot rely on Murray to make every week if this offense is going to sustain itself.
One of the most improbable completions Murray made on Sunday, according to Next Gen Stats’ completion probability model, was a backfoot dime that traveled about 45 yards in the air. Most quarterbacks aren’t making that throw—or any of the throws featured in the video above. Kingsbury massively benefited from his QB elevating his play calls, and while he wasn’t the only coach to do so this week, those unlikely completions accounted for nearly all of Arizona’s offensive production. The four in-structure plays in the video above yielded 11.1 of the 14.6 EPA Murray produced on Sunday, per RBSDM.com. If two or three of those passes fall incomplete, we’re having a totally different discussion.
While Kyler continues to make impossible throws look routine, the rest of the passing game largely looked the same as it did a year ago. At least, how Kingsbury called the game looked the same. He replaced a few play-action calls with some screens, but that was the only real difference from 2020.
Cardinals Pass Game Breakdown
Outside of a few nifty run designs—this fake counter with Murray was especially evil—there weren’t any new play designs. The pass game offered the standard Air Raid fare, and there were still too many passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage. Honestly, I don’t know how much change we can expect from the third-year coach. Kingsbury has pretty much emptied out his bag of schematic tricks by this point, so any significant improvement by the offense will likely come from Murray’s development and an improved cast of skill players rather than an updated playbook.
This sounds like an awfully cynical take on the Cardinals’ performance, but I assure you there were some promising signs. That improbable touchdown pass that Kirk hauled in over his shoulder, Willie Mays style, was one of them. After the game, Kingsbury revealed there had been a different play called in the huddle, but Murray audibled after Tennessee’s pre-snap alignment indicated an all-out blitz was coming.
“It was [Cover 0], and they kinda tried to disguise it,” Murray said of the play. “[I] saw it and at that point when you get [Cover 0], you pick a man and go to him.”
It wasn’t the only play Murray made against Cover 0, which is a man-to-man blitz coverage that offers no safety help deep. The Titans defense had also shown a similar look earlier in the game, and Murray recognized it, made a pre-snap check, and beat the blitz for a touchdown. That time, it was a quick throw to Hopkins.
Murray wasn’t doing these things a season ago.
“This is year three in the system, and we give him freedom at the line to get into what he sees,” Kingsbury said of his 24-year-old quarterback. “And I think he’s just getting more and more confident with that. We’ve got weapons out there that he trusts. He took advantage of some things.”
Beating those aggressive blitz looks was a point of emphasis for Murray this offseason, Kingsbury said. In 2020, blitzing had been a popular tactic for defenses to combat the bite-sized quarterback. No other QB attempted more passes against Cover 0 last season, according to Sports Info Solutions. And despite having the most dropbacks against those looks, Murray produced just 1.4 EPA on those plays, which ranked 22nd in the NFL. Through one week of the 2021 season, he’s already surpassed that total.
Murray has progressed mentally, but he’s also getting more help in pass protection thanks to the offseason acquisition of veteran center Rodney Hudson. The former Raider is one of the best in the league at sorting out his team’s protection assignments before the snap. Hudson’s former teammate Kolton Miller told The Athletic last summer that Hudson hadn’t “missed one pressure” in 2019. Now that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but his presence is already making a difference in Arizona. On 13 Titans blitzes, Murray was sacked only once and averaged 12.6 yards per attempt on those plays, per Pro Football Focus. Before Hudson’s arrival, the Cardinals had a hard time picking up blitzes and Murray was rarely able to beat them for big gains. He averaged 7.3 yards per attempt against the blitz last season, which ranked tied for 21st in the league, according to PFF. With Hudson around to get the offensive line on the same page, Murray should get more time to exploit overly aggressive defenses.
Kyler Murray says Rodney Hudson "makes a ton of difference" and credits new #AZCardinals center for recognizing zero blitz on second TD pass to D-Hop.— Paul Calvisi (@PaulCalvisi) September 15, 2021
Murray’s passing chart from Week 1 offers yet another promising sign. Last year’s passing game was comically left-side focused, mostly due to Kingsbury’s refusal to move Hopkins around the field. Without a reliable second receiving option, Murray force-fed Hopkins targets, and it showed up on his 2020 heat map, via The 2021 PFF QB Annual.
On Sunday, Murray did a much better job of divvying up targets and spreading the ball around. He actually threw more passes to the right side of the field than the left.
And that was with Hokpins still confined to the left side of the field on 51 of his 61 snaps, per PFF. Murray put more faith in his ancillary options on Sunday. Kirk was the main beneficiary, hauling in all five of his targets for 70 yards and two scores, but don’t discount the presence of Green, who joined Arizona on a modest deal after a rough 2020 season in Cincinnati. The veteran’s arrival allowed Kirk to move inside to the slot, where he’s better suited to play. He lined up in the slot on 94.9 percent of his snaps against Tennessee, per Pro Football Focus. He was outside for all but 16.6 percent of his snaps in 2020.
Green could end up being the X factor for this passing game. He’s lost a few steps, but he managed to get open more often than not against the Titans, even if Murray didn’t always reward him with a target. At the very least, his presence will allow Kirk to be more productive in the slot, which in turn should incentivize Murray to consider his options a bit more rather than defaulting to “Shiiiiiiiiiiiiid..... Hop down there somewhere!” (That’s a direct quote.)
None of this is a magical balm that’s going to automatically drive the Cardinals to the Super Bowl. As evidenced above, Murray still has trouble operating in-system, and Kingsbury is clearly not the innovative play-caller the Cardinals hoped for when they hired him in 2019. The good news, though, is that he might not have to be that guy to get this team to the playoffs. Arizona has more than enough talent to make a run—though playing in the NFL’s best division will certainly make the job a bit more difficult. The 49ers, Rams, and Seahawks are all coming off impressive Week 1 displays, and they’re all led by more accomplished coaches and more experienced quarterbacks. The Cardinals remain the odds-on favorite to finish at the bottom of the NFC West for good reason.
But while the deck is certainly stacked against Kingsbury’s team, after that Week 1 performance, no one should be writing them off. Arizona’s defense looked legit, suffocating a loaded Titans offense. Murray is starting to figure things out mentally and hardly missed a throw on Sunday. This roster is good enough. Now it’s a question of whether the coach is good enough. We’ll have a definitive answer in a few months.