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cardinals what to watch: kyler (who else?) and replacing kyzir white

Howard Balzer Avatar
November 25, 2023

There is no one on the Cardinals more closely watched than quarterback Kyler Murray.

For Murray, he is seemingly caught in the reality of having only 18 practices since returning on Oct. 18, while then becoming understandably frustrated when everything doesn’t happen as he wants.

“It kind of aggravates you,” he said after the loss to Houston. “You get frustrated with ‘How did this happen? How did we end up in that situation?’ You go over all the mistakes and where we can get better. Tuesday, you get the day off to get a head start on the next team, and that’s when you got to get over it.”

Outside noise wonders whether he regressed after his first game as if no other NFL quarterbacks who aren’t coming back from major knee surgery have tough struggles in games.

Addressing a question about getting in a groove, he said, “Every season’s been different. Everything’s been happening so fast as far as having a whole new coaching staff and basically a new upstairs. A lot of new faces on the team. (I’ve) just (been) getting acclimated to that whole deal while I was training or rehabbing this whole time. For me, it’s completely different from past years. Do I feel like I’m in a groove? I’m getting there.”

When asked if he thinks he might not find that groove or rhythm until next season, Murray said, “I hope next season’s different, and I get to actually have a more normal offseason, get to actually move around and throw. That’s something I definitely look forward to, but right now we’re in it. We’re in this situation. I’ve got to deal with it, and I’ve got to somehow get better each and every week.”

Part of finding that that groove is the relationship with center Hjalte Froholdt.

Coach Jonathan Gannon said, “It’s grown honestly the last couple weeks here. A lot. I think the communication between the two is critical. Hjalte actually talked to me about it. That’s a good question for those two guys too, because that’s a really good question. Thankful for that. Kyler wants to be involved with a lot of those calls, so it’s not all on him. It’s not all on one guy. They kind of (have a) buddy-buddy system with that, but I think it’ll continue to get better too. The communication with those guys being on the same page, getting us in the right calls and checks and all that stuff, it’s been cool to see.”

Your take, Kyler?

“I love Hjalte,” he said. “He’s a good dude and a trustworthy guy. I could keep going, but as far as just being on the field with him I feel really comfortable with him out there. I know he’s going to be in the right spots at the right time, do the right thing and I just love having a guy like that in front blocking for me.”

A definite source of frustration has been getting the ball to wide receiver Hollywood Brown.

In the game against the Falcons, he had one reception for 28 yards on four targets, one of which was overthrown and would have been a touchdown.

Against the Texans, a pass was underthrown on a play where Brown had the defender beat, and it ended with an interception. In that game, he had a mere 18 yards on two receptions with five targets.

“I’m not trying to force it to him, and I think sometimes it’s just the way the game goes,” Murray said. “If you look at last season, I think he had the most receptions in the league (the) first five or six weeks before he got hurt, and then I got hurt, but when we were on the field together last year his stats were looking pretty good. It’s not me not trying to get him the rock. It’s kind of just the way the game’s going right now.

“At the end of the day, you want to get your best players the ball. When that happens, usually you’ll have success. The past two weeks it’s been tough. We missed the first week a couple times and last week just didn’t connect like we would’ve liked to, but like I said, we’ve done it before. There’s no stress or pressing about it. Obviously, he wants the ball and I feel a sense of urgency to get him the ball. We all do, but at the end of the day, (as a) quarterback, you can’t force the ball. You’ve got to go where the defense takes you.”

Said offensive coordinator Drew Petzing, “There have been a lot of missed opportunities. In a game, you get four or five opportunities to get him the ball in a big situation. Sometimes we’ve hit him, sometimes we haven’t and lately we haven’t been able to hit him. It’s frustrating for him, it’s frustrating for us. But the thing that’s been a big positive for him is he’s stayed in it.

“He’s continued to work hard, he’s continued to be a great teammate, so really encouraged by that. We’re going to continue to try to get him the ball. The way he’s gone about his day-in and day-out, play-in and play-out, I’ve been really impressed.”

The looming question this week is that Brown suffered a heel injury in practice Wednesday and did not work on Thursday and Friday for what Gannon said was a precaution. Still, even if he plays, there was minimal time in practice for Murray and Brown to get on the same page.

What the Rams are saying about Murray

Coach Sean McVay on what Murray can do on offense: “The ability to be able to create and extend plays as good as anybody, the dynamic athleticism. He can certainly make all of the throws. They can utilize him as a runner, so he can change the math in their favor. He’s a great playmaker that elevates people around him. He’s got a play energy about himself. It’s really important to be able to try to just keep him contained because he’s an explosive playmaker that can make you pay with his legs or obviously his arm.”

McVay on whether Murray looks the same as he was before the injury: “Oh yeah, he does. In the two games you look at against Atlanta and Houston, there’s a dynamic athleticism that’s always been a consistent theme for him. He’s throwing the ball really well. I think he’s seeing the field well. I think they do a nice job of being able to utilize him and take advantage of his athleticism while still protecting him. You definitely have seen that the last couple weeks.”

Nov 19, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) runs with the ball during the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

McVay on being surprised Murray is playing following January knee surgery: “Yeah, it’s really impressive. I know just from afar, just seeing the work that he put in and it’s a real credit to him, his rehab program, their trainers, everybody that was involved in that. It’s impressive for him to be out there and competing the way that he is. I know just since his rookie year, he’s always been a problem and it’s a great challenge for us.”

Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris on Murray: “I’ve seen Kyler play really well and I’ve seen him play really bad against us. So Kyler brings a different element. He’s fast, he’s dynamic. He can break your heart in one instant with a throw or his legs and that makes him extremely dangerous. And they’re definitely a better football team with him and that’s not a knock on anything that (Joshua) Dobbs did because I think he’s still playing outstanding where he is. But he’s their franchise quarterback for a reason and they paid him all the big bucks to go out there and do that because of who he is. So they’re definitely a different offense. They definitely do different things. I’m trying to word this correctly without giving away anything of the game plan, but he’s a dynamic football player.”

Defensive lineman Aaron Donald on the biggest challenge facing Murray: “He’s elusive. He can do a lot with his feet, can extend plays and then he’s kind of accurate when he throws off-schedule passes. So just trying to keep him bottled up and make him feel uncomfortable. Like I say every week, same thing every single week, but all he can do with his feet can hurt us in a lot of different ways. He can get out the pocket and run for 60 yards or run backwards and run out, then throw a Hail Mary for a touchdown or something like that. So we just got to do a good job up front containing him and not letting those guys have to worry about covering too long back there.”

Many moving roster pieces

When tight end Blake Whiteheart and defensive lineman Phil Hoskins played their first game of the season last Sunday against the Houston Texans, they became the 69th and 70th Cardinals to be on the field for a game in 2023. That number will likely increase to 72 Sunday with running back Michael Carter expected to be active and cornerback Divaad Wilson elevated from the practice squad for the first time this season.

Cornerback Antonio Hamilton Sr. (groin) is out, while running back Tony Jones Jr. was not elevated as he was last week. On defense, with linemen Kevin Strong (knee) out and Leki Fotu (hand) on reserve/injured, Phil Hoskins was elevated for the second consecutive Sunday.

Of the total players, 48 different ones have started games, including 10 defensive backs and nine linebackers and offensive linemen. Most significant is that only 17 have played and seven started all 11 games. That 17 includes kicker Matt Prater and long snapper Aaron Brewer. Last season, only tackle Kelvin Beachum and safety Jalen Thompson started all 17 games and another nine played them all.

After Sunday’s game against the Rams, the total will be lowered by one following the torn biceps suffered by inside linebacker Kyzir White against the Texans. White had played every defensive snap this season before the injury occurred on Houston’s third possession of the game. White was placed on reserve/injured, but is seeking a second opinion to confirm that he won’t be able to play for the remainder of the season.

In addition to White, the other six with 11 starts are wide receiver Hollywood Brown, center Hjalte Froholdt, right guard Will Hernandez, right tackle Paris Johnson Jr., outside linebacker Zaven Collins and cornerback Marco Wilson.

The headline relating to the White injury is that he played several snaps after being injured.

Coach Jonathan Gannon said that was “actually kind of gut wrenching to watch because I didn’t know he tore his bicep(s), and he is out there playing with one arm. That’s why he is who he is, a captain.”

“That speaks a lot about his toughness,” defensive coordinator Nick Rallis said. “I told him I’d like for him to go down and come out of the game with an injury like that. I didn’t know until the trainers pulled me aside because even when he got to the bench, he was refusing to come out of the game. That situation and how he handled it speaks a lot to his character and his leadership. He knew it could have been a serious injury at that point and you didn’t see him down. He was into the game.”

When replacement Krys Barnes had an interception in the second half, Rallis said, “You see Kyzir on the sideline going crazy, excited, running down with him. He didn’t even want to come out of his pads at halftime. That’s the kind of guy he is. He is a true leader and his character is resilient. I know he was down, deep down, but he didn’t show it. I appreciate that about him.”

Echoed safety Budda Baker, “Very tough to lose a guy like Kyzir. He’s a guy that plays football the right way. A guy who runs to the ball no matter what, no matter how tired he is. He has the green dot calling the calls, letting us know what we can look out for so it’s definitely a big loss.”

Baker added, “Me personally, if I felt that in my bicep(s) like that I probably would have came out. I saw him on film and he’s a warrior for trying to be out there and playing. He doesn’t have no frail bones in his body because playing with a torn bicep(s) like that the way he was, at the mike position, I’ll say he’s crazy for it. But gotta love that kind of mentality.”

Josh Woods relayed the defensive calls after White departed and will have that responsibility against the Rams. Gannon said both “played winning football” against Houston and Baker insisted, “We have all respect and all excitement for the other guys that are coming in. I have all the belief in the world for them and it’s going to be very exciting to play with them.”

During practice this week, White was on the field observing, prompting Gannon to say, “He wants to help. He’s a team guy. That’s why he is a captain, so he doesn’t want to miss anything. He’s one of our leaders and he wants to be out there.”

As for not having White, Gannon said, “It’s huge. He’s obviously the quarterback of the defense. Another one of those guys that we are trying to build a culture around here. A guy that goes hard every day. Guys trust him, guys can lean on him and he’s accountable. You don’t want anybody to be out for the rest of the year or get hurt in general. The fact that it happened to a guy that goes as hard as he does, it’s tough.”

The replacements

Woods has played eight games, starting four, and was inactive in Weeks 2-4 because of an ankle injury. Barnes has played 10 games, starting two, and was inactive for one with an ankle limited injury and was limited to special teams in five games because of a finger injury. Ezekiel Turner, a core special-teams player, becomes the top backup. He started in Week 4 when Woods and Barnes were both injured.

Woods said it’s time for others to step up with White out.

Explaining the obvious, he said, “Have you seen our injury report the past however many weeks? It’s just next-man mentality if that’s what it comes down to. It’s been that every single week; somebody’s gone down. We’ve just got the injury bug and it happens sometimes.

“But the thing is everybody here is a professional. They’re expected to prepare as if they’re the guy. And I’m excited for some guys to be getting some opportunities because that’s the name of the game.”

Rallis said he’s “very confident” in Woods and added, “He did a great job. I know he was a little tired. I think he realized you have to give all that communication in between plays; that’s actually very tiring as well. Josh does a great job in practice of helping Kyzir communicate different things, whether it’s in the huddle, or after we break the huddle at the line of scrimmage so Josh is already very demanding and vocal and a guy that helps run the defense with Kyzir, so when Kyzir went down it was a very smooth transition for him. In practice too he also has an ear piece so it wasn’t new for him hearing the calls come into his helmet.

“Josh has tackled really well. We talk a lot about cuttin’ that engine; getting on a guy’s hamstring and Josh has done a great job with that. Whether that’s in open space or between the tackles, I also think Josh does a really good job of targeting the football. If you watch the tape, two guys that really stand out to me are him and Gardeck as far as every time they’re around that ball carrier, they’re trying to strip that thing out. Josh plays extremely hard, he plays extremely violent and he tries to take the ball away, which I think he does a really good job of.”

Woods and Barnes competed in training camp for the starting job and it weas a close decision.

Woods acknowledged, “It was a tight battle between him and I coming out of camp, but the thing that is most impressive about Krys is his character never wavered. He was always a good friend, he was still a good teammate. It was never anything spiteful and I think it paid off for him.

“The first thing he said when he got to the sideline (after the interception) was, ‘Man, I’ve been living right.’”

It wasn’t by accident.

While Gannon said Woods and Barnes “played winning football,” Rallis noted of Barnes, “He did a great job and I’m not surprised by that one bit because Krys prepares as detailed as anybody. He prepares with mental reps when he doesn’t get the reps. The reps that he gets, he maximizes in practice. Krys has played a lot of good football over his career in the NFL, so when he went in, it was smooth for him.”

Nov 19, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Arizona Cardinals linebacker Krys Barnes (51) returns an interception against the Houston Texans in the second half at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Numbers to know: In addition to the 70 players that have played in games, two that haven’t were active, but did not play and another three were on the 53-man roster, but were inactive for games.

–31 players have been on the practice squad, with 14 that also played games or were active but did not play (1).

–48 players have started games with only 17 that have played all 11 and seven that have started them all.

–By position, the players that have all 11 with those that started all 11 in bold:

–Linebackers (6): Zaven Collins, Victor Dimukeje, Dennis Gardeck, BJ Ojulari, Cameron Thomas, Kyzir White

–Offensive linemen (3): Center Hjalte Froholdt, right guard Will Hernandez, right tackle Paris Johnson Jr.

–Tight ends (2): Trey McBride, Geoff Swaim

–Wide receivers (2): Hollywood Brown, Rondale Moore

–Defensive backs (2): Andre Chachere, Marco Wilson

–Specialists (2): Long snapper Aaron Brewer, kicker Matt Prater

More chances for Dortch

After catching six passes for 76 yards and making plays last week against the Texans, wide receiver Greg Dortch will likely be strongly in the mix again this week with Michael Wilson missing another game because of a shoulder injury.

Oct 8, 2023; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Greg Dortch (83) against Cincinnati Bengals safety Jordan Battle (27) at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In seven of the 10 games he’s played (Dortch was inactive for the game against the Ravens because of an ankle injury), he totaled only seven offensive snaps with three with one and another three with none. His highs before the 46 (75 percent) played against Houston, were 16 and 22.

Asked how Dortch handled the inactivity, quarterback Kyler Murray said, “I feel like it’s tough for him just him being in the position that he’s in. When he touches the ball and he’s on the field for quite a few snaps, good things happen. He’s one of those guys where he’s got; I call it feel. You can’t really coach it. It’s just something that he has. It’s a natural feel for the game.

“When he touches the ball, good things usually tend to happen. It’s tough because we’ve got a lot of guys that have to touch the field, but when he does touch the field, he makes the most of his opportunities.”

The numbers bear that out. In his six career games with at least 75 percent of the snaps, Dortch’s production is 9-103, 7-63, 9-80, 4-15, 10-98 and 6-76.

Offensive coordinator Drew Petzing said, “Early on, there were some other guys that were ahead of him on the depth chart, but a credit to him, he didn’t let that bother him. He didn’t get down, he continued to work, continued to prepare and you saw on Sunday when he had his opportunity, he went out there and made a lot of big plays for us.”

Award nomination for Budda

For the fourth consecutive year, safety Budda Baker is the team’s nominee for the NFL’s Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, named after the former Pittsburgh Steelers owner and that “recognizes players around the league who exemplify outstanding sportsmanship on the field.”

Former Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald won the inaugural award in 2014 and is on the four-person panel that will narrow the list and pick four players from each conference. Players will then cast ballots during Pro Bowl voting in December with the winner announced during NFL Honors Feb. 8, three days before Super Bowl LVIII.

Asked his thoughts, coach Jonathan Gannon said, “Awesome. When you look at how he plays the game and the position; I’ve been in that room for multiple years in the DB room working with safeties and corners and all that. How he plays, what we ask him to do and how he plays the position; extremely aggressive, violent, fast and then playing within the rules and also respecting teammates and things like that.

“I think that’s why he’s up for that award. You’re kind of in awe with how he can operate and play the game the way that he does on a week-to-week basis. That showed up before we got here, that’s shown up since we’ve been here and I’m grateful for him.”

Baker said, “Definitely a blessing, definitely an honor for guys to vote me in for that. Me, I just want to continue to be the person I am, continue to come to work every single day to work hard and continue to help to the best of my abilities the way I can. Coach these guys up and also take the coaching as well to be that full-around guy that has integrity, that guys believe in and guys are going to talk to.”

Asked what he learned from Fitzgerald, Baker said, “He was who he was every single day. Consistent. Not too high, not too low; a guy you can ask questions about anything off the field or on the field. I don’t know if I’m as good as Larry in that type of sense because I got a little more fire, talk a little smack every now and again.”

When it was suggested that he could potentially lobby Fitzgerald for support, Baker laughed and joked, “Maybe a little advance, a little text message here and there, ‘Hey come over, have some dinner.’”

Getting serious, when asked what it would mean to advance in the process and even win, Baker said, “That would definitely be a true blessing. That would definitely be awesome to hold that honor and me, just try to continue to be the person I am each and every day and never change.”

Stopping Kyren

Six weeks ago in Inglewood, the Cardinals led the Rams 9-6 at halftime and had limited the Rams to 123 yards. Most significant was that the Rams ran only 20 plays with three runs. Running back Kyren Williams had two carries for four yards.

However, on the first possession of the second half, they came out running the ball and the Cardinals weren’t ready. On the first four plays, Williams ran for 47 yards and added five more on two attempts in the drive. The Rams scored a touchdown to take the lead, 13-9, and they didn’t stop running.

Williams had four carries for 45 yards in a field-goal drive and then gained 55 yards on seven runs, including a 5-yard touchdown for a 23-9 lead. In those three possessions, he had runs of 10, 14, 17, 27 and 31 yards. In the second half, he had 154 yards on 18 attempts and the Rams totaled 259 yards in the final two quarters.

Oct 15, 2023; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Rams running back Kyren Williams (23) scores a touchdown against Arizona Cardinals safety K’Von Wallace, left, and linebacker Josh Woods during the second half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Alex Gallardo-USA TODAY Sports

However, Williams suffered an ankle injury on his final run of the game and was placed on reserve/injured. He returned to practice this week and is expected to play Sunday. Everyone who talked about Williams this week used the word energy.

Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur said, “You go back to his last game and it was arguably his best game in terms of obviously statistically, but it was textbook in terms of how to set up blocks within the run game. Not only was he breaking tackles and say he was blocked for four and he was getting six, well, it was blocked for six and he was finding a way to get 16, 18 and all that. A lot of it was just how he was setting up those blocks and staying away from contact.

“He brings an element of explosiveness that it’ll be good to get him back there. Then obviously just the juice he brings on top of that. His play style; it’s contagious. You can feel it on the sideline. I believe you probably can feel it from the stands in terms of just the energy that guy plays with.”

McVay and wide receiver Cooper Kupp are glad to have Williams back on the field.

“He’s got a play energy and he’s got just such a good charisma and presence,” McVay said. “That play energy I think is one of the better ways that I could describe it in terms of he elevates guys around him, he’s so engaged, he’s so coachable. This is a guy that … he loves the game. He loves to compete. I think you guys have seen that when he’s out there and his teammates love playing with him and I thought he’s had a really good week and it’s good to be able to get him back.”

Said Kupp, “I’m so excited to have Kyren back. With Kyren, just the energy that he brings. You see what he was able to do, I think last time we played Arizona, and he runs hard. He will be able to do a lot of things back there. Having Kyren come back, he’s a special player.”

Scouting the Rams

Offensive coordinator Drew Petzing said there’s been some “small changes” to the Rams defense since the first time they played.

“They moved some guys around, they’ve got a different guy playing here maybe in this package than they did previously,” he said. “But for the most part, the scheme is pretty consistent in what they’re trying to accomplish in terms of the way they move around their personnel packages, how they try to affect an offense. We saw some things in our game that we hadn’t seen, prior, and they’ve continued to show up a little bit. It’s a well-coached group.”

As for the offense, defensive coordinator Nick Rallis said, “When they’re clicking, they can play a complete game on offense. They’re able to run the ball and with that quarterback (Matthew Stafford) they’re always able to pass the football. Looking back at our last game, we allowed them to click on all cylinders. They were able to establish a run game. That opens up some things in the pass, so it’s elite quarterback play, elite scheme, elite play-caller, elite coaches and so you have to be able to take away certain things that they’re really good at. If you let them get going in those areas, it opens up their whole playbook.”

Coach Jonathan Gannon said, “With Sean (McVay), they do a good job of attacking the defense they’re playing. So each game looks a little bit different. Stafford’s obviously playing at a high level; they got skill guys. They make you defend everything horizontally and vertically, which is a challenge and they’re running it pretty good.”

Simply noting

Rams killer: Running back James Conner has six rushing touchdowns in four career games against the Rams. He was on reserve/injured for the game played on Oct. 15. In three of the games, he’s scored multiple touchdowns. Since 1970, only Frank Gore has more two-plus games with rushing touchdowns against the Rams and he had four in 19 games. Since 2021, the Rams have allowed a running back to score two-plus rushing touchdowns five times and Conner has three. His six rushing scores against the Rams are the most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2017.

Ertz working: Tight end Zach Ertz, on reserve/injured with a quad injury, was not designated for return this week. He was seen working on the side during practices.

Killing it from 50: Kicker Matt Prater’s 57-yard field goal against the Texans was the 77th of his career from 50 or more yards. That’s by far the most in NFL history and is 19 more than anyone else. In his last 15 games, Prater has connected on 11 of 12 kicks from at least 50 yards.

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

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