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Arizona Cardinals season review: three key points

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Week five is in the books and the Arizona Cardinals are now sitting at 3-2, good enough for third in the NFC West after a sound defeat of the New York Jets. This Monday they take on the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football, a game with huge implications for both teams, and their respective divisions. For a team with a lot of hype, there are still several areas of improvement that need to be addressed. Let’s start with an Arizona Cardinals season review through week five.

To this point, the Cardinals season has been exactly what the Cardinals fans have grown used to. In their 1998 season, somehow, somewhere, someone coined the nickname “Cardiac Cards.” The moniker was given because in 1998, eight of their 16 regular season games were decided by three points or less.

And while the 2020 Cardinals have only had one game decided by three points or less, their week three loss to the Detroit Lions, the season on a whole has been up and down in dramatic fashion. Before the season started the consensus was the Cardinals were the team to look out for in 2020.

In fact, I wrote this article prior to the 2020 season predicting the Arizona Cardinals could be a worst to first team.

Why the Cardinals could be the NFL’s next worst to first.

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Arizona Cardinals season review

The first two weeks lived up to the hype with wins against the 2019 NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers and a win in week two against the Washington Football Team.

Then week three.

Then week four.

Losses to the Lions and the Carolina Panthers were ugly, poorly played, poorly coached, and left Cardinals fans feeling gut punched. Months worth of excitement eradicated. Going into week five was a must win situation, this sentiment supported by future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald.

“We need to be able to keep pace with the Rams and other teams who are playing really good in our division, so it is definitely a must-win.”

Larry Fitzgerald

The below article outlines keys for the Cardinals to turn their season around, but for now here’s the spark notes.

Arizona Cardinals: What changes need to be made

Isaiah Simmons needs to play, Larry Fitzgerald and the other receivers need more looks, and the secondary, specifically the corners, needed to improve dramatically.

In their week five resounding win against the lowly New York Jets, the Cardinals did what they had to do. Win soundly and improve in nearly every area of their game. Any win that didn’t include 30+ points scored by Arizona and less than 20 points scored by New York would have been reason to believe week three and fours struggles were legitimate concerns. Fortunately, the game ended with a score of 30-10 showing that, while the hype may have been overblown a bit, the Cardinals are a team that is capable of making the playoffs.

So what happens now? What must the Cardinals do in week six, under the spotlight of a nationally televised game, against a team that is reeling from a gruesome injury to Dak Prescott while trying to win a division that they currently lead with a 2-3 record.

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Who is the running back?

I play fantasy football, just like most of you reading this. In one of those leagues Kenyan Drake was drafted eighth overall. I’ll pause for a second.

Kenyan Drake came to the Arizona Cardinals in 2019 and immediately found himself contributing to a high powered run game. He performed so well Arizona quickly locked Kenyan up with a franchise tag giving him another season in the desert to build off his 2019 success.

Thus far Kenyan Drake hasn’t been the standout back he was in 2019, and many Cardinals fans are ready to move on. It’s a bit early for those types of changes, but there are some takeaways.

So far in 2020 Drake has rushed 85 times for 314 yards, two touchdowns, and six receptions for 22 yards. Comparatively, Chase Edmonds, Arizona’s second running back, has logged 19 rushing attempts for 95 yards, 1 touchdown, and 18 receptions for 129 yards with two receiving touchdowns. Edmonds has had considerably less carries than Drake himself, but his yards per attempt and receiving yards are clearly outpacing the lead back.

It seems, based on tape and data, that the Arizona Cardinals season review has highlighted two major changes to be considered for their running back core of Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds.

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Two running back offense

Chase Edmonds needs to play more. Anyone who has watched the Cardinals game knows this to be true. Edmonds had a good start to the 2019 season logging 60 rushes for 303 yards (5.1 yards per attempt), with four touchdowns despite missing time due to injuries and being relegated to a backup role upon his return. His production as a receiver has blossomed in 2020 and he looks every bit of that high powered running back we saw at the beginning of the 2019 season.

The NFL is transitioning to running back tag teams. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and before injury the Denver Broncos had planned a Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon back field. The Cardinals could implement this strategy given they have two capable running backs that feature a great north south runner in Drake, and a great runner and pass catcher in Edmonds.

Defenses already must account for the mobile Kyler Murray and the prolific DeAndre Hopkins. But, imagine a scenario where they also must account for a split back offense that can beat you on the ground and in the air?

The Cardinals are now entering the gauntlet with Dallas on MNF, followed up by two games against the Seattle Seahawks, two games against the LA Rams, one game against the Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, and 49ers for a total of eight tough matchups over the next 11 weeks. They’re going to have to earn each and every win.

Which is why a productive back field is vital. Being able to make impact plays with your running backs not only puts points on the board, but it keeps a defense honest on the receivers, opening up options that include the likes of DeAndre Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald, Andy Isabella, and Christian Kirk.

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North/South running

Kenyan Drake has shown a penchant for trying to swing the ball to the outside. A great north south runner has somehow become a weak east west runner. It’s obvious to see why his production has declined. Below is the carry chart in week five for Kenyan Drake according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

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Obvious to see his best runs have come from north south running. And it appeared someone filled Drake in half way through the week five game. The below video highlights each Kenyan Drake run. Note the east west running in the first half vs the north south running in the second half.

Last season the Cardinals were #2 in the NFL in rushing DVOA trailing only the Baltimore Ravens. In 2020, they’re sitting at seventh. Top 10 is still great, especially considering how clunky and boring our running game has been outside of Kyler Murray. But closing the gap with the elite running teams, of which two NFC West teams have better rushing DVOA than Arizona, is important if the Cardinals want to come out on top.

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Isaiah Simmons

Alright, this one is tough. Isaiah Simmons is currently the center of attention for Cardinals fans. Half think he’s a bust, half think he just needs to play. Regardless of whether Simmons has it or not, he has to play. I covered this in depth last week on the below article.

Arizona Cardinals: What changes need to be made

Simmons was the beneficiary of an increased snap count in week five, but the increase is laughable at best. In week four he played nine snaps, week five brought him 13. Whoopty doo!

Positional need

With Chandler Jones now out for the remainder of the season, a lack of depth and injuries to the safeties, and under-performing cornerbacks, there is no reason Simmons shouldn’t be playing.

At the time Arizona drafted Simmons two story lines emerged. The first being why Carolina passed on Simmons. This wasn’t confirmed, but the storyline that came out of the Carolina Panthers decision to take Derrick Brown over Isaiah Simmons was that Carolina didn’t know how or where to play Simmons. They recognized his athletic talents, his football acumen, and his ability to be an impact player. They just weren’t sure how to utilize him.

The second storyline was that Arizona had a need for him, knew how to use him, and that Simmons was the missing piece in the defensive cog. In fact, Vance Joseph himself had this to say:

“He’s a 6’4” guy. He ran a 4.3. He’s got great lateral quickness, he’s so long he can make up the lack of some quickness with his length. I wouldn’t bet against him. But I think what he did at Clemson, some of it will translate and some of it won’t.”

Vance Joseph

Sounds like a confident coach who knows why he hand picked a player, and how to use him on a defense that ranked among the worst in every major category in 2019.

What was vs. what is

Yet here we are. Isaiah Simmons has officially been on the field for a total of 58 snaps. How is it that a top 10 pick with physical abilities and advanced football acumen is unable to get on the field for more than 58 snaps across five games?

The way it looks right now, it appears Vance Joseph fell into the trap the Panthers specifically were trying to avoid.

Sure, De’Vondre Campbell has been playing lights out at weakside linebacker. Which happens to be the position Kliff Kingsbury and Vance Joseph had earmarked for Simmons. And benching Campbell at this point would make the Cardinals defense worse. But in normal years the NFL requires flexibility and adaptability, especially for rookies. But in 2020, a season that has had the dark cloud of COVID hanging over it all year, where injuries are stacking up, games are being rescheduled, and offseasons were nearly eliminated, flexibility and adaptability is even more important.

There is no reason Simmons can’t be filling in at safety, ILB, OLB, or even slot corner. His skill sets are superior to the practice squad players Arizona keeps running out there. And as the Arizona Cardinals season review unfolds, it’s becoming clear this is not an Isaiah Simmons issue. This is a defensive coordinator issue who was woefully unprepared to develop their #8 overall pick.

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Outside linebacker

A huge blow to the defense was announced this week when Kliff Kingsbury notified reporters that Chandler Jones would be undergoing surgery to repair a torn biceps muscle ending his 2020 season.

A gut punch to say the least. Chandler Jones had entered 2020 as a reasonable candidate for surpassing the single season sack record of 22.5. But through week five he had only recorded 1.0 sacks, one tackle for a loss, and seven QB hits. Lowly numbers for such a dynamic pass rusher.

How the Cardinals respond to this adversity will be a factor in how the remainder of their 2020 season plays out. Devon Kennard has been battling injuries but is on pace to be back full time on Monday. Haason Reddick has been playing well, and special teamer Dennis Gardeck recorded two sacks when he filled in at outside linebacker across 10 snaps.

Reports started coming out this week that Isaiah Simmons had also been getting reps in practice at outside linebacker. This position may turn into linebacker by committee, but for a team that upgraded its front seven, continuing to apply QB pressure is vital.

So far, Arizona’s defense through five weeks is ranked seventh in the NFL for sacks at 14, fourth for third down stops, and second for total red zone defense.

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Cornerbacks

The Arizona Cardinals signed Prince Amukamara to their practice squad. Obviously the intent of signing a good cornerback like Amukamara isn’t to let him sit on the practice squad. Once Amukamara has acclimated to his new team he will see playing time. And hopefully a lot of it.

Why? Because the reality is the cornerback situation in Arizona needs improvement. And a lot of it.

First off, the Cardinals vets need to be better. Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick have underwhelmed to this point. Peterson has recorded a PFF grade of 46.3 allowing 15 receptions on 27 targets. Dre Kirkpatrick has put up a PFF grade of 38.2 with 17 receptions allowed against 23 targets.

Their struggles have required Byron Murphy to move to the outside at corner. Murphy has always been a better slot corner. And as we saw in 2019 Murphy playing on the outside didn’t go well.

One of the biggest reasons for the Cardinals defensive woes in 2019 was due to playing players out of position. Chandler Jones, Haason Reddick, and Byron Murphy all played out of position. Sometimes moving guys around is inevitable. But the fact remains, Arizona corners will need to dramatically improve. Especially against teams like Dallas, Seattle, and Buffalo who are proving elite in their passing offenses.

Arizona Cardinals season review through week five proves, beyond a doubt, that some of the 2019 issues have carried into 2020. The most prominent issue being poor play out of the cornerbacks.

Is this a cornerbacks coach issue? A player issue? A coordinator issue? Or a combination of all of the above? We’ll know for sure as the Cardinals begin playing more pass savvy offenses.

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Summary

The Arizona Cardinals have not played up to the fans expectations despite a respectable 3-2 start. Considering fans wanted a 5-0 start to the season, it was obvious that expectations needed to be curbed. And with the Seattle Seahawks now ranked as the #1 team in the NFL according to Sports Illustrated, the Cardinals may have played themselves out of contention for a division title. Maybe not.

But they aren’t out of the playoff picture. They have the talent to put together a great season, the question comes down to improvement, growth, and execution.

If the Cardinals can show up Monday night, find a way to replace Chandler Jones’s production, involve the elite physical talents of Isaiah Simmons, and turn their secondary woes around, the season could turn into one of the more exciting Cardinals seasons in recent memory.

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