The excitement brewing in the desert started late in the 2019 season. Sure, a 5-10-1 record is nothing to get excited about, but for a team mired in mediocrity, improvement and purpose goes a long way. Which is why the Arizona Cardinals week one win in San Francisco against the reigning NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers was more exciting than your average victory.
The biggest issues coming into the 2020 season, as outlined in the article linked below, was defending the tight end, reducing third down conversions on defense, the offensive line, and offensive red zone conversion. We’ll unpack how each of these aspects of the Arizona Cardinals week one win either improved or left more to be desired.
Defending tight ends
The Arizona Cardinals were the worst team in the NFL for defending tight ends in 2019. How awful? 1,100 yards and 16 touchdowns allowed to tight ends in 2019. Ouch!
Playing San Francisco with George Kittle, arguably the best tight end in football, in the first week put the 2019 Cardinals’ biggest defensive issue in the spotlight immediately.
Steve Keim was aware of the defensive woes. It was impossible not to be. And it became clear as the offseason unfolded that Keim put defense as his number one priority having signed multiple corner backs, linebackers, and drafting defensive linemen and linebackers. And just about every month Keim reminded fans these moves were meant to shut down tight ends.
The depth added proved to be crucial to the Arizona Cardinals week one win.
And how did George Kittle do? Not great.
Kittle started the game off in typical Kittle fashion with four receptions for 44 yards on five total targets. With less than one minute left in the half, Jimmy Garoppolo hung Kittle out to dry with a high screen pass. Coupled with a low hit from Budda Baker, it appeared as though Kittle was staring at the possibility of a gnarly injury.
Turns out, he wasn’t. Kittle returned in the second half putting up no receptions and no yards. According to Garoppolo, Kittle was as lively and quick as normal in the second half with his drop in production having nothing to do with the first half hit to his legs. Garoppolo had this to say when asked post game about the impact the hit had on Kittle’s second half performance:
“No, I don’t think it affected him…They were cheating a lot of coverage to him and putting some extra people on him, so made it a little difficult at times, but I thought he played a hell of a game.”
Kittle said his legs feel “fantastic.”
Reports did come out that Kittle might have suffered a knee sprain, but the tale of the tape had less to do with an injury, and more to do with a defense that was finally able to keep a defender in the tight end’s back pocket.
For comparison purposes, the Cardinals played the 49ers twice in 2019. In their first matchup, the Cardinals allowed 108 yards and one touchdown to San Francisco tight ends, and 14 yards with two touchdowns in their second game.
De’Vondre Campbell and Devon Kennard, two of Keim’s offseason acquisitions, were often seen all over Kittle in week one. By the time clock struck 00:00, it was apparent that the 2020 Cardinals defense is not the 2019 Cardinals defense. The Arizona Cardinals defense ended week one with 44 yards and no touchdowns to tight ends.
Ability to cover tight ends: drastically improved
Defensive third down conversions
The Arizona Cardinals were ranked 30th on third down stops in 2019. Statistically they produced a 46.73% opponent conversion rate. Many of those missed third down opportunities came with long yardage, and short yardage was nearly a guaranteed first down for any offense facing the Cardinals on third down in 2019.
So how did third down plays go in the Arizona Cardinals week one win? In a word:
San Francisco started the game going 0-7 on third down, and ended the game going 2-11 on third down and 0-2 on fourth down. And one of those fourth down stops was a momentum changing goal line stand.
The primary reason the defense improved after the first quarter was a combination of depth and positioning.
In 2019 the Cardinals defense was thin on the line, at linebacker, and at cornerback. This lack of depth required Vance Joseph to put players out of their natural positions; such as Chandler Jones being dropped into coverage instead of pass rushing and Byron Murphy playing CB1 on the outside instead of CB3 in the slot. Due to Keim’s offseason work on defense, Chandler Jones was able to stay on the outside rushing the passer, and Byron Murphy was allowed to roam inside where his speed and hit stick ability can be used to it’s full advantage.
On top of getting the right people in the right place, De’Vondre Campbell proved his worth managing seven tackles, five solo. He trailed only Budda Baker, who put up pro bowl numbers with 15 total tackles (10 solo). Even Haason Reddick received praise for his improved play. Oddly enough, Reddick was also in his natural position unlike previous seasons. Great players playing their natural positions putting on a show? Whoddathunkit!?
Third down defense evaluation: dramatic improvement
2019 Offensive line
The Arizona Cardinals offensive line was considered one of the worst in the NFL in 2019 after Kyler Murray was sacked 49 times. But a lot of the analysis related to the 2019 offensive line was a bit more harsh than the data suggested. Most analysts saw the sack totals and wrote them off.
I reviewed the 2019 offensive line here. To recap, the Cardinals offensive line started the season in terrible fashion. But by the time the season ended the Cardinals were #2 in the entire NFL for rushing DVOA, increased the time to throw for Kyler Murray, and was a top 10 line for both pass block and run block win rates. Not that these data points prove the line was good in 2019, because it wasn’t. More that the Cardinals offensive line might not be as bad going into 2020 as most people might think.
2020 Offensive Line
In the Arizona Cardinals week 1 win, the offensive line outperformed their 2019 production. Facing 2019’s defensive rookie of the year Nick Bosa, and the top ranked 49ers defense didn’t seem to phase the offensive line. Kyler Murray rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown before two kneel downs dropped him to 91 yards, Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds combined for 86 yards and a touchdown, and Kyler completed 65% of his passes for 230 yards and a touchdown.
The Cardinals offense looked lost in the first half. But the offensive line stepped up holding Nick Bosa to zero sacks, and ended the game only allowing three total QB hits, of which two were sacks. And considering the Cardinals averaged over three sacks on Kyler Murray per game in 2019, facing off against a powerhouse defense and walking away with two sacks allowed is a victory in and of itself.
Gaillard, a sixth round pick, was never considered to be a viable option outside of depth. Yet, when his number was called, he put together a near elite performance. After missing the majority of the season in 2019, coming in week one against one of the best defenses in the NFL, Gaillard had his work cut out for him. He was able to play in 46 snaps earning an 83.2 pass blocking grade. There’s already rumblings among fans that Gaillard might have earned the starting role.
To add to Gaillard’s coming out party, Justin Pugh ended the game with a 90.1 pass blocking grade.
Offensive line evaluation: dramatic improvement
Offensive Red Zone conversion
If the evaluation was based on the Cardinals ability to get into the red zone, then they would have failed. The Cardinals were able to produce only two red zone appearances. But because the evaluation is based on conversions, the Cardinals dominated. They were able to convert both red zone opportunities into touchdowns.
In 2019 they averaged over three red zone opportunities per game. However, in week one they only had two legitimate red zone opportunities, something they will need to improve if they want to maintain success. Technically, the Cardinals only made it into the red zone twice. But we’ll count Kyler Murray’s 22 yard rushing touchdown as a red zone conversion gift.
The 49ers showed themselves incapable of two things throughout this game. First, they couldn’t defend DeAndre Hopkins who reeled in 14 receptions and 151 yards. Second, they couldn’t defend Kyler’s mobility. The best example being this red zone touchdown.
The Cardinals converted on their first red zone trip with this short pass to Chase Edmonds:
Then again in the fourth quarter with Kenyan Drake. The touchdown that sealed Arizona’s victory:
We’ll need to see more red zone opportunities before we can provide an adequate evaluation. But for a team desperately needing to convert in the red zone going three for three is a decent start.
Red Zone conversion evaluation: nice start
The Arizona Cardinals week one win was a huge breath of fresh air. For an organization that constantly comes into each season with high hopes, only to watch those dreams get smashed on the rocks of failure, this victory set a trajectory for the 2020 season that will give Cardinals fans something to get hyped about.
The win was definitely clunky. The offense seemed out of whack in the first half – a similar story line to their 2019 offensive struggles. And the defense looked out of sorts in the first quarter, and penalties killed momentum on several offensive and defensive plays.
The team will need to figure out how to polish their play in the first half if they want yesterdays momentum to carry through 17 weeks and hopefully into the playoffs. However, considering the unique offseason highlighted by no preseason games, the entire NFL has shown that the majority of teams still have some cobwebs to clean out – the Cardinals included.