The Arizona Cardinals moved to the desert in 1988 from St. Louis. One of the oldest franchises in the NFL, Arizona fans have grown accustomed to under-performing or just flat out bad teams. Unconditionally loved by their fan base, but a historically bad franchise. In 1998 they were given the nickname Cardiac Cards due to having won 8 games within three points. The story behind the moniker is interesting, however the reality is the Cardiac Cards have evolved to mean a team that builds excitement pre-season shuttered by a quick realization that the bad times have yet to cease. And the good times are much further away than expected. In the Arizona Cardinals week seven win, something changed.
Memories of hope
Being a Cardinals fan requires dedication, commitment, thick skin, and an unconditional love for an organization that has rarely returned the favor.
Despite their losing ways, the Cardinals have given their fan base many memories and players who are cherished deeply. The 2009 Super Bowl run is such a memory, and Larry Fitzgerald is such a player.
But like a dog chasing cars, when the Red Sea finally catches a team that has both the ability to win, great memories, and great players, they have no idea what to do.
Here we are, week seven, and the Arizona Cardinals are, wait for it…actually a good team. Legitimately good. And Cardinals fans don’t really know what to do about it.
Some can’t help but find the negative.
Some are excited for what looks like a new era in Cardinals football.
Maybe the hype is too loud, maybe not. But the bipolarity of the 2020 Red Sea is less an indictment on the fan base, and more an expected response for a bunch of dogs who caught themselves a Porsche.
So what makes the 2020 Cardinals good, and how did they showcase their talent in a week seven win against the powerhouse Seattle Seahawks?
In the first half it was the Russell Wilson and Tyler Lockett show. Combining for eigh receptions, 133 yards, and two touchdowns in the first half, the Cardinals defense looked outmatched. To be fair, three of the Lockett receptions were indefensible. Great coverage doesn’t matter when the pass is perfect and the receiver can contort himself to what can be described as nothing less than a spectacular catch.
In week six against the Dallas Cowboys, the Cardinals defense put on a show highlighted with creative blitz packages, constant QB pressure from the line, and great coverage in the secondary.
In the first half of week seven, an entirely different defense showed up with very little QB pressure, very few blitzes, and a poor performance from the secondary leading to a boring defensive effort that resulted in 27 points for Seattle, and what appeared to be a walk away Seahawks win.
The second half Cardinals defense looked much more like their week 6 defense turning into a juggernaut in overtime. In fact, without the second half and overtime defense the Cardinals put out, they would not have won that game.
This can not be overstated, but the Arizona Cardinals week 7 win only happened because of late game stops by the defense. Something the Cardinals haven’t experienced in several years.
Prior to the Monday night game against Dallas, the Cardinals defense only had one interception and two forced fumbles recovered across five weeks. To pile it on, the Cardinals were 32nd in the NFL in defensive interceptions in 2019. Turnovers had become the defenses unicorn having struggled throughout 2019 and for the first five weeks of 2020.
But then came Dallas where the defense put up two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. And then came Seattle with three interceptions.
The Cardinals defense is not only starting to force turnovers, but the play calling is improving. The first half woes against Seattle merely served to highlight what the Cardinals defense has been vs what they can be, what they need to be, and what they were in the last three quarters on Sunday.
In the first half we saw a lot of zone coverage, very few blitz packages, and a stale defense. The first half defense was the 2019 defense in terms of “safe” play calling.
The second half, especially overtime, the Cardinals defense turned up the blitzing and started throwing in different looks for Russell Wilson. The best example was three plays in one Seattle drive in overtime. Three plays across four snaps showing Vance Joseph actually outmaneuvered Russell Wilson.
Seattle had the ball with the chance to win the game. And given Russell Wilsons history, giving him the ball with the game on the line is a recipe for a loss. So what did Vance Joseph do?
A new look
The first play Vance Joseph lined up what is called a 0-6-5 formation. Meaning zero defensive linemen, six linebackers, and five defensive backs. Seven on the line, four in man coverage, forcing Russell Wilson to respect what appeared to be an all out blitz. The pressure came from the outside nearly resulting in a sack had it not been for Wilson throwing the ball away.
The second consecutive play Vance Joseph lined up his 0-6-5 again with seven on the line, producing another near sack from pressure on the inside and another incomplete pass.
The third play after a penalty saved the game Vance ran 0-6-5, again. But this time, instead of blitzing, Vance Joseph dropped linebackers into coverage resulting in an Isaiah Simmons interception.
For a more detailed breakdown of the 0-6-5 concept, watch this clip.
Three out of four plays, three out of four alignments, three big stops resulting in an interception that set the table for a Cardinals win.
When Vance Joseph schemes creative blitz packages, the Cardinals defense is one of the best in the NFL. When he doesn’t, it gets ugly.
A lot has been said of the Cardinals offense, both good and bad. Early in the season Kyler Murray had been struggling with accuracy, wasn’t involving Larry Fitzgerald nearly as much as necessary, and was relying heavily on the run game. Not that running the ball is bad, but for a team that features a future Hall of Famer in Larry Fitzgerald, potential Hall of Famer DeAndre Hopkins, and speedy Christian Kirk and Andy Isabella, passing must be a staple in their offense. Not to mention, this is a team that drafted, traded, and signed to be a passing offense.
Yet, since the Kliff Kingsbury era started in 2019, the run game has outpaced the passing game. The downside being not utilizing their passing weapons. The upside? Imagine what the Cardinals could look like once their passing game improves? We got to see that outcome with the Arizona Cardinals week seven win on Sunday. An offensive onslaught.
In fact, Kyler Murray outperformed Russell Wilson. No one saw that coming.
What improvements did the Cardinals make in the passing game, and how did those changes contribute to a big victory?
Spreading the offense
For two consecutive weeks Kliff Kingsbury had to apologize to his fan base for not incorporating Larry Fitzgerald into their offense. Those two weeks resulted in the Cardinals only two losses, and a mediocre stat line for Kyler – combined 403 yards, five touchdowns, and three interceptions.
Then week six and seven happened. Kyler Murray combined for 548 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception.
Sharing the love
In weeks three and four only DeAndre Hopkins exceeded 50 yards receiving – once. Weeks six and seven? DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk twice, Chase Edmonds, Larry Fitzgerald, and Dan Arnold each produced more than 50 yards receiving. Against Seattle in the biggest game of the season, Kyler completed 34 passes to seven different receivers.
An early storyline is emerging. When Kyler relies heavily on DeAndre Hopkins, the offense struggles. When Kyler spreads the ball, they excel.
Underappreciated offensive line
Prior to the season I wrote about the offensive line and their projection for 2020. TLDR; the offensive line was far better than the stats or analysts said.
Not that the offensive line was dominant, but their production had improved dramatically, and with additions on the line in the offseason, my prediction was an offensive line that could turn some heads in 2020.
ESPN has offensive line stats called pass block win rates, and run block win rates. You can learn more about these stats here, but essentially an offensive linemen is considered to have won a pass or rush block if they hold the block for 2.5 seconds or longer.
The Cardinals offensive line currently ranks second in the NFL for run block win rate at 73%, and first in the NFL for pass block win rate at 70%. Nothing short of elite.
In the Arizona Cardinals week seven win against Seattle, the Cardinals offensive line allowed zero sacks, one pressure on 48 dropbacks, and across the entire season lead the NFL with only 10.3% QB pressures.
Top of the pile
Individually, the offensive linemen are also ranking atop the NFL.
Justin Pugh ranks fourth in the NFL for pass block win rate at 96%, Mason Cole seventh at 95% pass block win rate and fourth with a 77% run block win rate, Kelvin Beachum 10th at 78% run block win rate, and D.J. Humphries has accrued a 79.6 PFF grade, good for top five in the NFL. Over the past three weeks Humphries has produced the top PFF grade for all left tackles.
The offensive line has vastly outplayed any expectations they had to start 2020.
Kyler Murray is a franchise QB
The quarterback disparity in the NFL is quite obvious. Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers et al have shown that if you want to be a winning football organization you have to lock in your quarterback.
For a Cardinals organization that has been unable to find their franchise quarterback, Kyler Murray has finally given the desert the young and talented quarterback they have so desperately needed. Sure, Carson Palmer and Kurt Warner were fantastic in red. But both of them were acquired in the last halves of their careers. Never had Arizona drafted their franchise QB.
Let Kyler cook?
Kyler Murray is often compared to Russell Wilson due to their size, mobility, and passing prowess. Week seven was an opportunity to see if Kyler deserved such high praise. When the game ended, the consensus was unanimous. Kyler was worth the hype, and he outperformed one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks.
By the time analysts were able to unpack this spectacular game two main takeaways emerged:
- Russell may not be the lock for MVP
- Kyler is a legitimate MVP candidate
What exactly did Kyler do in the Arizona Cardinals week seven win to earn this praise? He only threw for 360 yards with three touchdowns and led the team in rushing with 67 yards and a touchdown.
So far in the 2020 season Kyler is pacing to finish the season with 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards, and 48 total touchdowns, a feat never before accomplished in the NFL.
But wait, theres more!
- Kyler is the first player in NFL history to have a rushing and passing touchdown in six of their first seven games
- Has outproduced Lamar Jackson at the same point in his career
- Second quarterback in NFL history to throw three touchdowns and overcome a 4th quarter deficit of 10+ points
- Leads the NFL (including running backs) for most rushes of 10+ yards with 18
- Has won NFC player of the week two out of the last three weeks
- 3rd in the NFL in red-zone passer rating at 129.1
- Has the most rushing touchdowns in the NFL including running backs
- The highest rate of 1st down and touchdowns on a run in the whole NFL at 43%.
For those of you who play fantasy, Kyler is also leading all QB’s in total fantasy points. And yes, that includes Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Josh Allen.
Arizona has their quarterback, and he showed on Sunday Night Prime Time exactly why the Cardinals are in playoff position after finishing last in the NFC West in 2019.
For an NFL team self described as the Cardiac Cards, Sunday’s game against the undefeated Seahawks was an exhilarating game featuring a lethal Arizona offense, and a defense that has shut down potential.
If the Cardinals are able to maintain balance across their offense and continue to run creative defensive schemes there really is no reason why the Cardinals can’t compete for a division title.
There are still areas to improve on offense and defense, of course. But for a team that many had written off, the Arizona fans have every reason to believe they will get to see playoff action in 2020. And considering the youth on the team, this success might just be here to stay. Time will tell. But all signs point to many years of Cardinals winning football.