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Cardinals what to watch: clarity on kyler, hollywood reunion, kickers showcase

Howard Balzer Avatar
October 28, 2023

Not surprisingly, we wait another week (or two) before Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray will be activated from the reserve/physically unable to perform list.

First, let’s clear up the confusion that occurred in the last 48 hours regarding the lack of a practice designation on the Thursday and Friday injury reports.

As suspected yesterday, my Thursday source misunderstood the policy while believing Thursday was the only day where the designation was not necessary.

After checking with another league source today that received confirmation from the NFL player personnel department, I was told there has to be a practice report on Wednesday, but as long as there is no change in practice status the next two days, all that is necessary is a game-status designation on Friday, which there was when Murray was listed as doubtful.

That confirms, as coach Jonathan Gannon said Friday, that Murray “practiced the same all week.”

The situation did lead to an uncomfortable Gannon not wanting to address questions during his Friday availability and answering them almost under his breath compared to other responses.

Here’s a review:

Will he be active Sunday? “We’ll see.”

What about the practice designations? “Practiced the same all week; Wednesday, Thursday and today.”

Why no designation Thursday? “He’s fully healthy.”

How important are the next two days for that designation? “Important.”

Was the team trying for some competitive advantage with the designations last two days? “No, just the truth on the injury report.”

Finally, the classic: Will there be a designation today? “I’m not sure. You’ll have to ask Mark (Dalton, senior VP, media relations).”

Gannon was more open when asked what he has seen from Murray the last two weeks: “Ball jumps off of his hand, he’s explosive getting out of the pocket, he’s accurate. Got good command of the offense right now, and he threads the needle pretty well on some certain throws.”

It still befuddles me how some could report that Murray was removed from the injury report. That, obviously, was not the case.

Still, many have trouble understanding how Murray could be fully healthy, practice in full and yet, still not be deemed ready to play in an NFL game.

First, as explained Thursday, the full practice designation for players on any reserve or exempt list that are practicing is different from players on the roster.

For those on reserve or exempt, it is determined by “the context of what they are asked to do, as opposed to 100 percent of their normal repetitions.”

None of us in the media know what he does in practice after the first 20 minutes we are able to watch. However, in the individual drills that are open, he has thrown passes to players on the practice squad. In fact, after practice Friday, Murray remained on the field for a while with the practice-squad players, throwing passes to them not individually, but with several running patterns at the same time.

The key though is that however many reps he might be getting with the first unit, it likely isn’t many. That’s reserved for Joshua Dobbs practicing the game plan for the week.

It’s expected that Murray won’t do that until the week that it’s decided in advance he will start.

Most important in the big picture is that Gannon has said all along that there is more to Murray being on the field playing quarterback than simply being healthy.

When offensive coordinator Drew Petzing spoke to the media on Tuesday, before this week’s practices, he said Murray “was awesome” last week. “His engagement in the meeting room certainly showed up. You saw some strides quickly like it was something that didn’t take very long; the guy’s got it. ‘That’s what we talked about in the meeting room, here it is on the field, I’m going to go out and make sure that I’m focused on it and getting it done.’

“So really encouraged by that. He was really into it. I think it was exciting and fun for him to be out there, so it was great to see that. Anytime you go through an injury and a rehab like that, your first time back on the field there’s some emotions, some energy and it was good to see that from him.”

Asked about the learning curve with the new offense, Petzing said, “I was really encouraged by how well he did making that transition. It’s not an easy one. And it’s not always going to be smooth. But certainly, he’s asking the right questions, he’s doing the right things. I think he’s putting himself in a position to be successful and operate the offense when he’s out there.”

Most prescient is what Petzing said when asked about Murray moving on from the previous offense to the current one and being totally comfortable: “That’s a big part of it. The system, the mechanics, the footwork, the decision-making, the reads. Certainly, he had that in the previous offense; we may do something a little bit different and Kyler’s gonna have a lot of questions about that because he’s never had to do it. When he does have that question and if I’m available, great. If (quarterbacks coach) Israel (Woolfork) is available, I know he’s gonna get the right answer and it’s gonna get detailed the way it needs to be. I think that’s been the biggest area those two have been able to connect over.”

There’s also the matter of developing a comfort level with the offensive line and center Hjalte Froholdt, where there hasn’t been a lot done yet.

Line coach Klayton Adams said Friday, “Those guys have been spending some time together in the meeting room too, just talking football. ‘This is how I see this.’ Pre-practice, they spend a lot of time together talking about snap count, not just taking reps of it but talking about it and Hjalte having experience with several quarterbacks. I think there’s valuable experience there as well.

“The reps, obviously getting out on the field doing it, that is going to be important for those guys, but in the meantime it’s just finding any creative way that we can to get those guys comfortable with each other and they’re doing a really good job of that.”

Asked what he sees in Murray, Adams said, “He’s an electric dude. He’s got a lot of confidence about him. You see a different skillset from him than probably any quarterback that I’ve been around.”

Yes, the heightened anticipation is something the fan base seems to be freaking out about. However, as Gannon always said, “He will play when he’s ready to play.”

But it likely won’t be a minute sooner. And when it does, it will be important to understand it won’t necessarily be an instant elixir.

As Petzing said when asked if Murray’s return will fix a lot of the offensive problems, “Yes and no. It takes all 11 to be good on offense. And he’s certainly a big part of that and a great player, but all 10 other guys have to continue to do their job at a high level. And if they’re not, Kyler can’t fix all of that. It’s important to keep in mind for those guys: Hey, he’s back out there; that doesn’t change the nature of your job for what you’re trying to get better at and what you’re trying to do as we move forward.”

No fine for D.J.

Left tackle D.J. Humphries was ejected from last Sunday’s game against the Seahawks when he tried to swipe the arm away of Seattle linebacker Jordyn Brooks, whose hand was covering almost all of Humphries’ face.

An official was in between him and Brooks, and with the official being shorter than the 6-foot-5 Humphries, he told PHNX he didn’t even see the official. His hand landed on the official’s head.

The league apparently agreed the contact was inadvertent and Humphries was not included on the fine list revealed by the league.

One Cardinals player was fined. Tight end Elijah Higgins, who was flagged for a facemask penalty on a third-quarter kickoff, was fined $4,167.

Roster moves

With wide receiver and return specialist Greg Dortch added to the injury report Friday and not practicing because of an ankle injury, Andre Baccellia was signed from the practice squad. Defensive lineman Ben Stille and running back Damien Williams were elevated from the practice squad, while guard Elijah Wilkinson (neck) was placed on reserve/injured.

Stille is needed with Kevin Strong out because of a shoulder injury. Strong was limited in two days of practice last week because of a calf injury and played against Seattle, registering one sack, a fumble recovery and five tackles.

Hollywood Reunion

On the first day of the 2022 draft, the Cardinals acquired wide receiver Hollywood Brown and a third-round pick from the Ravens for a first-round choice (23rd overall). The Ravens moved down to 25 and selected center Tyler Linderbaum, who has started every game since being picked. That third-round choice the Cardinals received was used for linebacker Myjai Sanders, who was waived Oct. 17.

The Cardinals will face a decision after the season whether to try and re-sign Brown, who is currently being paid $13.413 million in the final year of his rookie contract.

Brown missed five games last season, but has been productive considering the five different quarterbacks that have started in the last 24 games and that he has been missed this season on several errant throws by quarterback Joshua Dobbs.

In 19 games, he has 99 receptions for 1,091 yards (11.0 average) and six touchdowns.

Now, he faces his former team Sunday.

“He looks good, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said this week. “We’ve always respected him as a player, we love him as a person. Marquise is a great guy, and he looks good out there. He’s their No. 1 target threat for sure – crossing routes, shallow routes, go routes, over routes. Those are things that are in his wheelhouse. We’ll have our hands full. Definitely be a guy we know when his number is out there.”

Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said, “He’s an explosive player, and he’s someone you have to account for both in the vertical game and in the catch-and-run game. He’s, I wouldn’t say unique in that matter, but there’s not a lot of guys that have both skillsets. That’s something that we definitely have to account for, for sure.”

“I’m excited to play against them,” Brown told the team website this week. “A lot of my friends are still there.”

As for some of this season’s problems, he said, “It’s tough. Whenever you feel like you leave plays like that, especially big plays like that, not only for myself but the team that can turn a loss into a win, it’s frustrating. But you have to be in love with the process and for me, it’s the process of being around Josh Dobbs and knowing what he’s been through and trying to help him the best I can.”

On his production this season, which is 32-382-11.9-3, he said, “I feel like the stats don’t tell it all. Talk to my coaches, everyone has been pleased with how I’ve been playing. I feel like I have taken a big step in my game as far as route-running, releases and doing what is asked of me.

“I feel like I am a totally different player from (Baltimore) until now. I feel like I’m way more polished. I understand everything so much better, not only the football aspect of things but the stuff that goes into it.”

Moving Pieces

The establishment of a new culture with the Cardinals has been a consistent theme from the beginning of the offseason and now with the season’s halfway point almost here it is at times dizzying witnessing the changing in roles each week and hearing various coaches repeat the mantra of how it’s linked to matchups or schemes.

It also seems clear that this is very much an evaluation season for many players to see whether they are fits moving forward for a 2024 offseason that isn’t that far away.

Gannon said, We’re looking for consistency, playmaking and doing the right thing as much as you can. We’re not afraid to move some guys around here or there. Some of that can be matchup driven a little bit at times and some other times during the week a guy might play a little bit better throughout the week and he gets the nod. It’s a highly competitive league and we’re a highly competitive team.”

“Since Day 1, before we played a game, we’ve talked about being very consistent with our behaviors, winning behaviors,” defensive coordinator Nick Rallis said. “And so that doesn’t change. It’s reinforcement of, ‘This is how we need to continue to behave if we want to continue to get better and then start wracking up some wins in the win column.’ You gotta stick to that if you really believe in it and you’re convicted in what you’re doing. And we’re convicted with what we’re doing.

“Not saying there’s not things we can continually improve on and adapt throughout, but there’s never a radical change week-to-week and that’s something you gotta preach, whether you win a game or you lose a game, is OK what happened, where can we have been better, where were we good. How do we keep building on that and you go forward from there and you don’t look at it with any kind of emotion. You look at it from a very rational how am I going to use this tape to get better and so week-to-week that’s not gonna change and our players, that’s their mindset. They do a great job with that.”

Both Rallis and Petzing stress the importance of constant communication with the players.

Petzing said, “Communication during the week is critical. You never want a guy to walk out on the field and play a lot more than he expected or a lot less than he expected and they also understand it is fluid and things do change, but here’s kinda the plan and then knowing that the plan can change. The reality too is injuries happen so it can change the third play of the game or the first play of the game. But, yes, we need to communicate that and make sure that everybody’s on the same page going into Sunday.”

“It’s important when you’re mapping out roles for each week that you’re very clear as to why,” Rallis said. “There’s never anything with player uncertainty on what they need to continue to improve on or what their role that they’re filling is. I think clear communication is critical for that and the players know that we got their back and we’re doing week-to-week what we think is best, whether that’s for playing-time packages, calls, whatever that is, to win the game. I think our players do a great job of embracing that and being the best they can be in their role.”

When Rallis was asked if that is one Gannon’s strengths, he said “yes” before the question was finished and then said, “Jonathan has set the tone for what that behavior looks like. You have to set those expectations as soon as you get here and he’s done that with the coaches. As soon as we got here, he set the expectations of what it looks like for us — winning behavior — and that’s really ultimately serving the players. He doesn’t just say serve the players; he maps out what it looks like for each position coach, for each coordinator, each quality control coach, whatever that is, everyone plays a role in serving the players and he mapped that out for the coaches.

“He did the same thing for the players, saying, ‘OK, here’s the different areas that we need to maximize ourselves to become the best players we can be and here’s how we continue to improve that week-to-week.’ Sometimes there’s bigger emphasis on, ‘Hey, we need to improve this or this. We need to improve this scheme, we need to improve this technique, we need to improve this recovery, this physical stuff.’ Jonathan’s very clear week-to-week on what that is. (He’s) very even-keel; he’s the same guy every day and that’s important for us coaches to see, it’s important for the players to see and he does a great job with it.”

Finally, Gannon commented on whether he has concern that players’ confidence can be affected when play-time changes. He said, “Yeah, sometimes,” but then added, “They know that they have to maximize their reps on a daily basis. That’s how we evaluate them and that’s how we improve them. I think that we’re psychologically trained as a group and as a team to not let that affect them. They know they’ve got to get up, line up and play, and when their number is called you’ve got to produce.”

Special day for kickers

Whenever kickers like the Cardinals’ Matt Prater and the Ravens’ Justin Tucker are in a game, great things can possibly happen. Sunday, they will be on opposite sidelines as the Cardinals host the Ravens.

Prater is in his 17th season and has kicked for the Falcons, Broncos, Lions and Cardinals. He was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2006 by the Lions, but was cut as a rookie. He had a stop with the Dolphins before kicking in his first game with the Falcons in 2007 where he replaced Billy Cundiff. Remember that name.

Prater didn’t last long in Atlanta, where he was replaced by Hall of Famer Morten Andersen. His excellence then took off in Denver when Cardinals special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers was there and he hasn’t missed a beat since.

Tucker has spent his entire career in Baltimore and has never missed a game. Singed as an undrafted free agent in 2012, he beat out in training camp … Billy Cundiff, who had been in the Pro Bowl in 2010, but missed a 32-yard field-goal attempt with 11 seconds left in the 2011 season AFC Championship Game against the Patriots that the Ravens lost 23-20. In his career, Cundiff kicked in six postseason games and that crucial miss was his only one in 12 attempts.

Cundiff coincidentally received his MBA from Arizona State and currently lives in Phoenix where he works for a real estate development firm.

In Tucker’s rookie season, he showed he belonged immediately and was 30-for-33 on field-goal attempts including 4-for-4 from 50-plus.

Asked this week whether he marvels at what Tucker has accomplished, Rodgers first said, “That may be the first time in six weeks one of you guys has asked me an opponent question.”

He then said of Tucker, “He’s one of the best to ever do it. I’ve known about him for a long time. He actually went to my high school (Westlake in Austin, Tex.) and I saw kicking competitions my dad put on when he was going into his junior or senior year. He’s really good and they’re really good around him.”

Rodgers respects what Harbaugh has done with the Ravens. A special-teams coordinator in college for 10 years and then with Philadelphia from 1998-2006, in 2007 he asked Eagles coach Andy Reid to switch him to defensive backs coach so he would have a better opportunity at a head coaching job.

The Ravens hired him the next year and now in his 16th season has an overall record of 163-106.

Rodgers is impressed with “the culture that they have created on special teams. They’ve got, I think, three guys, maybe more, coaching the kicking game. You see the way their roster reflects that. Since he’s been there, you know they’re going to be fast, you know they’re going to be physical, and you know they’re gonna know what they’re doing on fourth down.”

Gannon said, “Those fourth-down plays are critical to winning and losing games. We’re playing a really good unit this week and we have a really good unit. I told the (players) it’s good-on-good, so we’ve got to maximize our opportunities. They’re very well-coached in that phase, they’ve got good players in that phase. So do we and that’ll be a good matchup.”

Prater has kicked in 240 games and is tied for 17th on the all-time list with David Akers for points with 1,721. He is tied with Akers for 15th with 386 field goals.

Tucker has kicked in 185 games and is tied for 26th with Olindo Mare with 1,555 points and is 18th with 375 field goals.

Want long-distance field goals? You’ve come to the right place. Prater set the NFL record with a 64-yard field goal in 2013, but it was broken by Tucker in 2021 with a 66-yarder.

There have been 34 60-yard-plus field goals in league history and Prater and Tucker have five. Prater has two 62-yarders, including one this season and Tucker’s other was for 61 yards.

Prater’s lifetime field-goal percentage is 83.4 (386-for-463), which is 36th all-time, while Tucker is at the top of list at an eye-opening 90.4 (375-for-415).

Prater, 39-years-old, has the most field goals in history of 50 or more yards with 74, but the 33-year-old Tucker (34 on Nov. 21) is only 15 behind. Prater’s percentage on those long kicks is better: 74.7 on 99 attempts and Tucker 69.9 on 83 tries.

We’ll see Sunday what these iconic kickers will do.

Numbers to know

–The Cardinals have lost four consecutive games by a combined score of 115-55 largely because they are a different team in the second half, especially the fourth quarter. They have been outscored 104-30 in the second half this season and 67-7 in the final 15 minutes. In their six losses, they have yet to score in the fourth quarter, having been shut out 64-0. In the four-game losing streak, they have been outscored 57-12 in the second half and 37-0 in the fourth quarter.

–After a solid start to the season, Dobbs has struggled in the last three games, completing 51.9 percent of his passes with passer ratings of 58.5, 57.6 and 68.5. For the season, his average per attempt is 5.94 with an 81.8 passer rating, tied for 23rd in the league. In last Sunday’s 20-10 loss to Seatle, he had only 106 passing yards before adding 40 to the total in the meaningless final possession of the game.

–Under the guidance of new offensive coordinator Todd Monken, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has completed 71.0 percent of his passes, averaging 8.03 yards per attempt with eight touchdowns and a passer rating of 101.9. He has also added 363 rushing yards and five touchdowns. The fast-starting Ravens have outscored their opponents 55-6 in the first quarter.

–In last week’s 38-6 win over the Lions, the Ravens gained 503 yards (9.1 yards per play) and Jackson was 21-for-27 for 357 yards and three touchdowns, while adding a rushing touchdown. Jackson was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week while becoming the fourth player in league history to pass for at least 350 yards, throw three-plus touchdown passes, add a rushing TD and have a passer rating of 150-plus in a game. The others to accomplish that were Drew Brees (Dec. 29, 2013), Ryan Fitzpatrick (Sept. 9, 2018) and Aaron Rodgers (Oct. 20, 2019).

Jackson also reached 50 wins in the fifth-fewest starts (68) of the Super Bowl era. Only Ken Stabler (62 starts), Patrick Mahomes (63), Tom Brady (65) and Roger Staubach (67) reached the mark in fewer starts since 1966.

Defending Lamar and Co.

It’s a tall task to be sure.

Gannon said, “His skillset makes him extremely hard to defend and he’s playing at a really high level right now. We’ve got to make sure that we’re on the rules and responsibilities of how we’re trying to defend him in the run and pass game to give ourselves a chance.”

Noting that Jackson’s supporting cast has improved, Gannon said, “They’ve got playmakers everywhere, but he makes it go. I think the O-Line is very underrated. It’s a very good O-Line and the backs do a really good job at breaking tackles, yards after contact, in space and in the pass game. They’ve got some really good receivers and some really good tight ends, so they’re a complete unit.”

While talking about Jackson, safety Budda Baker also mentioned the Ravens offensive line.

He said, “Lamar is doing a great job of getting the ball out whether it’s quick game, intermediate throws or even deep throws. A guy who can also get out of that pocket and in a blink of an eye, he’s getting 20 yards. (They have) a very big O-Line. They love to run the ball, use those big pullers that they have and kinda just get numbers on numbers and let the running back or Lamar eat. They don’t really have any weakness and for us we just gotta understand the game plan and trust in the game plan; take it one play at a time.”

That big line? The starters are left tackle Ronnie Stanley (315 pounds), left guard John Simpson (330), center Tyler Linderbaum (290), right guard Kevin Zeitler (315) and right tackle Morgan Moses (330).

Asked if there is a loss of sleep in preparing for Jackson, Rallis laughed and said, “To be 100 percent honest, there is. I set my alarm clock 30 minutes earlier this morning (Tuesday), so I slept good but I didn’t set as big of a window to sleep because I had to get in here and make sure that I needed a little bit extra time to prepare for him.”

He said, “He’s a dynamic player and he can beat you in so many different ways. You gotta be very sound with your rules, you gotta have a good plan and you gotta have a plan that the players can go out and execute at a high level. He presents challenges that not a lot of people in this league can present. The arm talent, his legs. He can beat you in the pocket, he can beat you with his arm outside the pocket, he can beat you with his legs outside the pocket, he can beat you in the run game. His presence in the run game can allow for other people to have great days in the run game. That’s a lot right there that one player brings to the table.”

As for the supporting cast, Rallis said, “The addition of (wide receiver) Zay Flowers has been really good for them. He’s a dynamic player in and out of cuts and is a reliable target. (Receivers) Odell (Beckham Jr.), (Nelson) Agholor and (Rashod) Bateman are good players, so they’re deep in that room with a really good tight end (Mark Andrews) and a quarterback that can dish it, so it presents a lot of challenges. He’s more than equipped to get it to them. You take them away, he’s gonna take off on his own.”

Rallis has never had a game against Jackson and joked, “I’ve been hiding from them. When I was with the Vikings and they were going to play them I went to Philly.”

With Monken arriving, Rallis noted, “They’ve done a good job with what’s worked for them in the past. It’s not like they’ve abandoned that, but there’s also new wrinkles and good stuff that they’re doing.”

Then there’s the Ravens defense

Petzing said, “They’ve been good all year and really for multiple years. Playing them twice a year, being in that division, they’re a really well-run organization, really well-coached team and a great defense. Mike (Macdonald) has done a great job since he’s been there. It’s going to be tough. We’ve got our hands full against them and we have to make sure we’re locked in this week in a major way.”

Asked who has to be accounted for, Petzing said, “That’s a long list. A number of those guys stand out. The front seven is really dynamic. Certainly (Marlon) Humphrey in the back end; one of the best corners in the league especially when he’s healthy. The two inside linebackers (Patrick Queen, Roquan Smith) probably stand out the most because they fly, they run, they hit. Their kinda the centerpiece of the identity of the defense in a lot of ways, but it’s a really good group.”

The Ravens lead the NFL with 29 sacks, are third in sacks per play and 12 players, led by defensive lineman Justin Madubuike with 5.5, have sacks.

Cardinals offensive line coach Klayton Adams said, “They play pretty selfless defense. They have a very challenging scheme and they’re very well-coached. Their pressure packages on third down even going back the last 12 years have been relatively exotic. They bring them from all over the place; they change their packages up week-to-week.

“They’ll change the pattern of who’s rushing, they’ll give you one look and build a tendency on it and then they’ll break it. They do a very nice job of self-scouting and self-regulating what they’re doing and make it a little bit tougher to find patterns when you’re game planning.”

Adams said his unit has to be more consistent. Asked about how the group is coming together, he said, “It’s been up and down based on the standard that we want to play with. Although it’s been sloppy, there’s been some things on first and second down that have been really encouraging, but in known pass situations we need to do a better job fundamentally and do a little bit better job communicating.”

Good fronts surely can have a say in that and while acknowledging that reality, Adams said, “Our job is to do it better than they do and that’s a little bit of what we’re missing right now is just playing with elite technique. We’re not doing it all the time and the guys know how to do it, they’re fully capable of doing it and we’re just continuing to try to build to what we want with the group.”

Rookie right tackle Paris Johnson Jr. has had growing pains and struggled against the Seahawks last week.

Adams said, “He is really a mentally strong guy. Really smart, really tough, super motivated and so just like with any rookie, there’s gonna be things that you fix and then there’s another thing that pops up. I think that’s where he’s at right now. He gets one thing down and you feel really good about it and then all of a sudden something else shows up that you gotta fix.

“That continues throughout a guy’s career, but it gets less fewer and further in between. He would probably tell you he didn’t play his best game, but there were some things that he did well.”

Adams likes what left guard Trystan Colon has brought to the line with Elijah Wilkinson sidelined by a neck injury.

“He’s played center,” Adams said of Colon, “so you get another guy on the field who’s a very strong communicator and has a really good understanding of the scheme. So between him being kinda a lively energy guy, being a good communicator, he gives us something in that way.”

Adams said Dennis Daley is still getting acclimated after missing the first five games of the season because of an ankle injury.

“He’s still been on the ramp-up coming back from injury and he’s done a really good job and he’s filled some other roles within the offense,” Adams said. “Right now, just working to get him back to where he was before he got hurt.”

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com. Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD

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