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Kyler Murray, James Conner both return for cardinals sunday

Howard Balzer Avatar
November 11, 2023

The day has finally come.

Exactly 11 months since his last game and 313 days since undergoing surgery for a torn ACL and meniscus on Jan. 3, Kyler Murray will be the quarterback Sunday when the Cardinals face the Falcons at State Farm Stadium.

What will it look like? No one truly knows, but Murray has some ideas.

After all, for a few weeks now, coach Jonathan Gannon and offensive coordinator Drew Petzing have been trying to temper expectations for Murray’s season debut.

Gannon famously said,We’ve got to be willing to understand that it might not look like Kyler (from the start).”

Don’t tell Murray that. Of course, Gannon did just that.

Speaking to the media Thursday for the first time since July, Murray was asked if it’s fair to have low expectations right away.

Without hesitation, Murray said, “No. He told me that to my face and I kind of laughed at him. I understand the thought process, but every time I touch the field, I’m trying to do my thing and that’s obviously to win, but do it at a high level. I understand the thought process behind, ‘Hey, take it slow and don’t be too hard on yourself.’ Because I missed all the reps. I missed all the camp reps; I missed all preseason, and this is Week 10. I’ve missed all this time, so to go into it thinking that; I hear what he’s saying, but that’s not in my head.”

When Gannon was asked about it Friday, he said, “Yeah, he did. He laughed right in my face. He is who he is for a reason.”

After officially announcing that Murray would start, Gannon said, “Honestly, I’m excited for the guy. I’ve seen what he’s had to go through the last eight months or so, however long I’ve been here. And what he’s put into it and how bad he wants to be out there and the competitor that he is. He wants to be out there with the guys and help this team win. So that’s what I’m most excited to see.”

Teammates have expressed excitement this week and when asked about players smiling when talking about Murray, the coach said, “He can make plays and he has the ability to elevate his teammates’ game, so I think that’s what they’re excited about and they’re excited to get the guy in the huddle too. They like the guy. We all love the guy, so that’s probably why they’re smiling a little bit.”

Said safety Budda Baker, “Anytime you can have your No. 1 quarterback play in this league, that’s definitely something special. He is a special talent and a special guy who can do anything a quarterback can do, run inside the pocket, outside the pocket, throw.

“This league is very hard to win and it’s definitely very hard to win without special players on the field on offense and defense so to have K1 back and (running back) James Conner back, that’s a huge part of our offense, a huge part of our team and it’s definitely something the whole team’s excited about.”

Baker said Murray’s engagement has been impressive. “He’s in there talking to guys, communicating, cracking jokes but also talking to various guys on the team whether that’s offense, defense, special teams,” Baker said. “He’s continuing to be that leader that we know he can be. Just very excited to have him back on the field.”

Murray appeared almost surreal when talking, knowing how much he has endured since suffering the injury against the New England Patriots on Dec. 12, 2022.

Asked about his state of mind, he said,Kind of emotionless in a sense. I’m trying not to be too high, too low. At the end of the day, we’re playing football. It’s a blessing to be able to be out there with my teammates, move around, run and walk. It was a long 10 months. I’ve never dealt with that before, so doing the same thing every day, waking up and trying to get better each and every day; sometimes not feeling good and some days feeling better, but to now be here it’s a good feeling.”

Those that question Murray’s commitment don’t understand his love of football and surely don’t know the guy or what he is about.

Miss the game? Just a tad.

“I’ve been playing this game since I was 4-years-old,” he said, “and I probably had a ball in my hand before that. (But) I think everything happens for a reason. I’ve been missing it a ton.”

For those that wonder whether Murray can play his game and trust his knee, he said simply, “If I was thinking about it right now, I wouldn’t even be out here. That’s kind of it. People ask that type of question, but I can’t get better if I don’t trust it. Even with running for the first time. I go out there and run for the first time, I’m limping, and I look scared, and then I see a video of myself or whatever it may be, and I’m like, ‘OK, that doesn’t look right.’

“Immediately, the scariness goes away and then cutting, same thing. In order for me to get better, I have to trust it. If the doctor tells me I’m good, if Buddy (senior reconditioning coordinator Buddy Morris) says I’m good, then we’re good. As far as being scared, you get one day of those reps to be kind of hesitant, but after that, we’ve got to go, so that was kind of the mindset.”

Murray has embraced learning the new offense and his coaches agree.

“Completely different,” he said. “The verbiage, terminology, and the way we do things now, but it’s been good. I’m comfortable with it. Drew explains it really well. He coaches it really well, to the T. There are so many details about it. I love it. I think the detail-oriented part of it has been great for me. I’m excited to go out there and execute.”

He also has the confidence that the narrative about the team will change beginning Sunday afternoon because he said what stands out about the offense is “how close we are. There’s a couple plays a game here or there where we just shoot ourselves in the foot and we’re really not that far off. People may think we’re a bad football team; we’re not a bad football team. We’ve got to clean some things up and we need to make more plays. That’s what it comes down to is making plays.

“I’m excited to go out there and be able to give these guys the opportunity to feel success and win together. It’s been unfortunate to have to sit back and watch us go through the pains that we’re going through right now, but I’m excited to get back out there and be out there with my teammates. I’m looking forward to it.”

Asked what he wants to see from Murray, Petzing joked, “No incomplete passes and five to eight touchdowns a game.”

Not joking, when asked how much he wants the ball, wide receiver Hollywood Brown said, “Early and often.”

Asked about defending Murray, Falcons coach Arthur Smith said, “Different system than what he’s played in before, but he’s a talented football player. That’s why he was the top pick in the draft. Something that’s been a problem for us; Josh Dobbs got out of the pocket last week and hurt us with play extensions. That’s kind of Kyler’s strength, so we gotta make sure we’re better there and tackling better and I’m sure they’ll try to move the pocket and they’ve got speed on offense to take shots and try to set him up. So we gotta be ready to go. We gotta make sure we’re containing.”

Finally, Murray was asked if he has thought about how the first game back will play out.

He said, “Of course. I like to do a lot of envisioning. Obviously, it doesn’t always happen the way you expect it to happen. There’s going to be some adversity I’m sure throughout the game, but you prepare for that, you plan for that, and you get back out there, and you keep going. I’m excited. I know we’ve had a good week so far and I plan for it to be a good day.”

The Red Sea will be watching and hoping for the same result.

Conner also returns

After missing the required four games, Conner is back after being placed on reserve/injured Oct. 10 because of a knee injury suffered against the Bengals. He was activated Saturday.

Gannon recently said, “I think he’s getting faster.”

As for Conner’s all-out approach, Gannon said, “That’s why he is who he is. That’s why he’s a very productive and really good player because of the way he practices and prepares. That trickles down to the team and that’s one of the reasons he’s a captain, because of his habits on a daily basis. He displays winning behavior day-in-and-day-out.

“He’s our workhorse in the run game so it’ll be good to get him back and it helps not only Kyler, it helps our team.”

Cardinals coaches love using the word violent and that’s especially true with Conner.

“He’s violent, he plays with a presence, plays with an attitude. He’s also a great teammate, “Petzing said.

Gannon said, “He can break tackles, he gets hidden yardage he’s a violent guy with the ball in his hand.”

Behind Conner will be Keaontay Ingram and Tony Jones Jr. Jones was waived Thursday, signed to the practice squad Saturday and elevated for the game.

What’s up front?

There are several questions facing the offensive line with Sunday’s game looming.

Left tackle D.J. Humphries did not practice this week because of an ankle injury suffered against the Browns that caused him to miss nine snaps. He is questionable and would be replaced by Kelvin Beachum, who was the only lineman to start all 17 games last season.

Gannon said it’s “huge” to have a veteran like Beachum available and said, “I’m glad we have him.”

As for embracing his new role with right tackle Paris Johnson Jr. being the only lineman who hasn’t missed a snap this season, Gannon said, “He’s been excellent. He’s an ultimate pro. I talk to him a lot. I pick his brain a lot. He always has a good viewpoint of what’s going on and things like that, so he’s been a huge resource for me.”

Right guard Will Hernandez suffered a knee injury earlier in the Cleveland game and missed 15 snaps. He was replaced by Carter O’Donnell, who was waived the day after the cut to 53 by the Colts after they claimed two offensive linemen on waivers. The Cardinals claimed him the following day. The game against the Browns was the first time he’d been active this season and the 17 snaps were his first in the NFL.

Hernandez is questionable, as is O’Donnell, who suffered an ankle injury in practice this week and was limited Thursday and Friday. Hernandez was out of practice Wednesday and Thursday, and was limited Friday while having his right knee heavily wrapped.

Trystan Colon, a waiver claim from the Jets who started at left guard against the Seahawks and the Ravens, but injured his calf on the third snap of the Baltimore game, will be inactive for the second consecutive week.

Cardinals line coach Klayton Adams, who is assisted by Chris Cook, was on the Colts staff when O’Donnell was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2020. O’Donnell was on the practice squad in 2020 and 2021 and then missed the 2022 season because of a training-camp foot injury.

Asked about that relationship leading to O’Donnell being claimed, Petzing said, “Those conversations with (general manager) Monti (Ossenfort), with Klayton and the entire organization from a roster standpoint are, ‘Here are the guys who might be available to come in and help us, what do we think about them?’ Do we have any character background, any experience with them? That’s a big part of the type of person we bring into this building (and) is very important as we try and build a culture.”

Petzing said Colon and O’Donnell “both were guys we knew could handle it mentally. They jumped right in. I thought the coaches did a great job, Chris and Klayton, of getting those guys ready. It’s a limited amount of time. You gotta find extra time to meet with them to make sure they know what’s going on to show them the different looks, managing the reps throughout the week so that if they are called in to play, they know exactly what to do and I think that’s showed up, which is good to see.”

The backup at tackle (if Humphries doesn’t play) will be Jackson Barton, who was elevated from the practice squad Saturday. At guard, it is unknown. Keith Ismael, an August waiver claim from the 49ers, has been active for eight games, but has played only on special teams. Doug Kramer was claimed on waivers earlier this week from the Bears.

O’Donnell did well last Sunday, according to Petzing, who said, “It’s a hard front. That’s a dynamic group, well-coached, playing really hard. He didn’t miss a beat. Jumped in there. You never know when you’re gonna have to play, so certainly showed some things, first NFL game reps, and was great to get that experience and learn from it.”

When asked on Tuesday who the backup guard would be, Petzing nearly whispered and said, “Well, we don’t know who’s healthy.”

He then said, “Those guys are always competing for reps. And a lot of that gets sorted out in practice during the week. If you’re the starter, you’re in there getting reps with the ones and everybody else is getting full-speed reps with the twos on the scout team and we’re evaluating all those reps from ‘How’s your technique, how’s your fundamentals, are you communicating well’ to make sure the next guy in the game we feel gives us the best chance to win the game. That’s a role that’s constantly in flux like a lot of the roles, as you’ve seen throughout the year.”

Petzing said of Kramer, “He’s a smart player. Those guys that are really high intellectually can generally jump in at a lot of different spots and play if they need to.”

Marquis Hayes and Austen Pleasants are all offensive linemen also on the practice squad after Vitaliy Gurman was released Friday.

Overhype for Dobbs

Now-Vikings quarterback Joshua Dobbs has been a frequent fumbler in his career, so it was perhaps fitting that he also fumbled with how he characterized his final days with the Cardinals, especially considering he got the opportunity to play this season because of the Cardinals’ support.

On Fox 9 in Minneapolis Thursday, Dobbs told the tale of Gannon telling the media immediately after the loss to the Ravens that he would remain the team’s starter. Dobbs made it a point to mention the Cardinals lost by only seven points, without noting they were losing by 17 in the fourth quarter, he had passed for 60 yards in the first three quarters, and the fourth-quarter success occurred with the Ravens defense playing differently.

Dobbs then recounted his meeting with Gannon the following morning when the coach told him Clayton Tune would start the next week against the Browns.

Dobbs said, “And this is leading up to Kyler’s return. I’m not sure when he comes back, but I think he comes back soon so they want to see what the rookie can do. So I understood. I was upset with it, but I understood the situation the franchise was in at that moment.”

However, Dobbs then said, “When I had my meeting with JG in Arizona, he looked me in the face [and] said, ‘You’re not getting traded. You’re not being released. You’re going to be here in Arizona.'”

The insinuation was clear that he believes Gannon misled him or even lied. Dobbs has been around long enough to know things can change fast in the NFL, especially the day before the trading deadline and the day after the Vikings lost quarterback Kirk Cousins for the season.

The reality is that Dobbs would likely still be in Arizona had the Cousins injury not happened. The other reality is that Gannon probably had no clue Monday morning a trade might occur, much less that he doesn’t make trades.

In fact, during his media conference that Monday afternoon, when asked about working with Ossenfort about potential deals, Gannon said, “That’s his area of expertise. When he has something to talk about with me, he comes and talks about it with me.”

Do you anticipate any trades? “You never know,” Gannon said.

Dobbs went from a 1-7 team to one that was 4-4, knowing he would be the eventual starter. He should be thanking the Cardinals, not throwing shade at Gannon.

One last point. In the rush to anoint Dobbs for what he did against the Falcons last Sunday, let’s not overlook how he actually played.

Yes, he led the Vikings on a game-winning drive and it was impressive considering he’d been with the team for only five days. However, calling his performance “great,” as many have done, is simply wrong. In fact, it was very similar to the eight games he played for the Cardinals and the final four that led to him being benched.

Dobbs completed 20-of-30 passes for 158 yards (7.9 yards per completion and 5.27 per attempt) and had 111 before the final possession. He also fumbled three times, losing two in his own territory, something he specialized in while with the Cardinals. Thankfully for the Vikings, they limited Atlanta to field goals after those two turnovers. He was also sacked in the end zone for a safety. The game-winning drive featured a 22-yard run on fourth-and-7 from the Falcons 34-yard line with 52 seconds remaining in the game. That was what he did best with the Cardinals.

So, let’s stop anointing Dobbs and realize he is simply what he is.

Talking turnovers

The Cardinals have only 10 takeaways this season and there are nine NFL teams that have fewer. They have none in the last two games. Sunday could be an opportunity to increase that total because the Falcons have 16 turnovers, the second-most in the league. However, quarterback Desmond Ridder accounted for 12 of those on six interceptions and six fumbles lost, having been afflicted with the dreaded Dobbs disease.

The Cardinals have fumbled 10 times this season and lost five, all by quarterbacks with Dobbs losing four and Tune one. Of the 10, Dobbs fumbled a staggering eight times, Tune that one and center Hjalte Froholdt was credited with one on a wayward snap and aborted play.

It’s significant to note that 16 running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and return specialists have a combined 391 touches, but no fumbles.

Discussing how to work on getting takeaways, defensive coordinator Nick Rallis said this week, “You gotta talk about it. You gotta teach it in the meeting room. And then you have to go do it on the field. It’s something we talk about in the offseason, it’s something we have very detailed out. It’s something we talk about on a week-to-week basis with our opponent about where are our opportunities to take the ball away. You gotta be able to go out in practice and do it. The thing I appreciate with JG and Drew as well as the offensive coaches and this isn’t necessarily the norm, but we are allowed to strip at the ball during practice so those running backs and receivers take a lot of punches on the ball and that allows us to work our technique because if you can’t work that technique throughout the week, it’s hard to go out there and replicate.

“And once you work it throughout the week, it’s gotta show up in the game. It’s got to be on the players’ mind. That’s why you gotta talk about it over and over again. Sometimes takeaways, they’ll come to you; you’re in the right spot, but you gotta go out there and generate them. And you gotta hunt that football.”

Rallis is grateful that Eagles coach Nick Sirianni allowed that strategy to be a part of practice.

He said, “It was awesome to see an offensive coach do that. He knew it made his offensive players better. That’s what JG knows; it’s not just for the defensive players, it’s for the offensive players. Ball security. Because if you don’t feel any of those strip attempts in practice, you could be lax with the football and then all of a sudden you get in the game, people are coming after it.”

Another issue for the Cardinals has been capitalizing on takeaways, especially when they occur in plus-territory. Six of the takeaways have ended with the ball past the 50-yard line (17, 30, 34 twice, 37). One was recovered by linebacker Camerion Thomas and returned two yards for a touchdown against Washington.

However, none of the others led to touchdowns with four field goals and a field-goal miss.

On the flip side, 10 of the Cardinals 12 turnovers were in their own territory and six resulted in touchdowns (one on an interception return for a score) along with three field goals and a punt after an interception at the 48-yard line.

In the last two games, the Ravens and Browns have each scored two touchdowns after starting a possession after a turnover in Arizona territory: the 11, 23, 43 and 49.

As Gannon said, “When you get down across the 50, you’d like to see that scorecard tick (for touchdowns), so we have to do a good job of execution and making sure we’re coaching up the right things and capitalize on those opportunities.”

And also hope that turnovers can be limited to field goals and the quarterbacks hold onto the ball.

Falcons present challenges

While much of the focus for the Cardinals will be on Falcons rookie running back Bijan Robinson, the offense is now entrusted to quarterback Taylor Heinicke.

After Ridder was sacked five times on 17 pass plays in Week 8 against the Titans, Heinicke came in to steady the ship. He has been sacked twice in the two games he’s played, while the number is 25 for Ridder.

“He plays fast, and he can make off-schedule plays,” Gannon said. “He can move around, make plays with his legs. He’s got a strong arm so he can push the ball down the field; both on time and off schedule. I know he’s very, very smart and he operates well, so a big challenge ahead.”

Rallis said, “I’ve gone against him being in that division when he was at Washington and he’s a guy that can go out and win any Sunday. Has that play-making ability and you can’t teach it, but he can go out there and sling it. He can throw the ball on time, he can hit when they scheme people up and guys are open, he knows how to get it off on time when it’s not there, he’s got ability to extend plays.

“He can take off and run or he can extend to throw. That’s what’s made him so dangerous, is you just don’t know when an explosive play can happen with him because of his ability to extend or his ability to throw on time. You gotta bring you’re A-game against him.”

Of course, having Robinson helps. He has been more productive than Tyler Allgeier yet the latter has more carries (116-103). Robinson has rushed for 517 yards (5.0 average), while Allgeier is at 371 (3.2 average). Robinson is utilized more in the pass game with 28 receptions for 197 yards compared to 11-for-76 for Allgeier.

Cardinals safety Budda Baker said of Robinson, “I see a guy who can do it all. A guy who can be a first-, second-down running back, third-down back as well out of the backfield and also a guy they like to use as a receiver. He can run any route in the route tree. He’s very special, especially with him being a rookie. Very quick, very twitchy, a guy we’re going to have to get all eyes to the ball for him.”

“He’s so efficient with how he plays the game,” Rallis said. “Whether it’s an outside zone play or it’s an inside run, there’s no wasted space with those creases that he finds and so he hugs those blocks tight on top of being extremely explosive. He can accelerate fast, so he can start to stop his momentum, find his lane open up and then he hits it fast. He’s efficient in terms of there’s no wasted time. As soon as that thing opens, he hits it.

“And then when he gets rolling, he’s fast, he’s big, he runs violent and so he makes what should have been a 2-yard gain into 8-yard gains and that’s what scares you a little bit about him is that when you feel like you’re executing at a high level and you say, ‘Hey this was a great call, a great scheme, we played these blocks great, we fit this good,’ sometimes he can make those yards out of nothing. And then if you give him a cut violation, he’s gonna make an explosive out of it.”

Gannon noted that the way Smith deploys his team’s play-makers is “very tough” to game-plan. Gannon added, “He uses a lot of groups. He uses those guys a lot of different ways. That’s one of his secret sauces. He’s extremely smart and detailed about how they do that. You hear us talking about playing to our guys’ skillset and maximizing their skillset. That’s what he’s doing when he’s doing that. If a guy doesn’t do A, B well, and he does C really well, he puts them in position to do C most of the time. And that’s with all his people. That’s why he’s a really good football coach.”

Gannon (defense) and Smith (offense) shared a small office as quality control coaches with the Titans in 2012 and there is mutual respect.

Gannon said, “Offensively, they’re top three in explosives. He’s committed to running the ball and finds creative ways to do that, and then when you say, ‘You know what? We’re going to stop the run,’ he throws it over your head. It’s a hard scheme to go against and he’s got good skill that’s well coached.”

Defensively, the Falcons have allowed only 304.0 yards per game and 4.9 per play. Their first-down defense is second in the NFL with a 4.49 average. As a comparison, the Cardinals defense is 27th at 6.17.

“It’s a good defense,” offensive coordinator Drew Petzing said. “They made a conscious effort in the offseason to bring in some guys to fill some holes that you see playing at a really high level at multiple positions. On top of having a premier corner, new defensive coordinator (Ryan Nielsen), new scheme, that has given them a fresh attitude. It’s gonna be a challenge. They do a lot of things well and it’s a reason they’re winning games (4-5, having lost their last two by a total of eight points).

That corner, A.J. Terrell, Petzing said “is a phenomenal player and arguably one of the best corners in the league. (Safety) Jessie Bates, who I thought I got away from when he left the Bengals, now I have to see again, so that’s a little bit frustrating. They have a number of good players up front. (Outside linebacker) Bud Dupree was in Pittsburgh; it’s like I’m playing the whole division again is kinda what it feels like. They do present a lot of problems from a personnel standpoint.”

Gannon said, “The defense hired a new coordinator from New Orleans, and they brought (in) some premier players this offseason. They’ve got good skill on all three levels. They mix up looks and they do a good job of rush and cover. They do a really good job on first-down efficiency to get you behind the sticks, so we’ve got to make sure we play the game on our terms.

“Special teams; they do a couple different things as far as with their return units, so we’ve got to be able to combat that a little bit, and as always to play penalty free and generate some explosives on fourth down. That’s helped our team immensely.”

Notable numbers

–The Cardinals have won four consecutive home games over the Falcons, including a playoff game after the 2008 regular season. In the last 17 games between the teams, the home team has won 16.

–In a 34-33 Cardinals win at home in 2019, Murray’s rookie season, he completed 27-of-37 passes for 340 yards and three touchdowns.

–For the third straight week, Atlanta’s opponent will have a quarterback starting their first game of the season. Last week, it was Minnesota’s Jaren Hall and the week before Will Levis of the Titans.

–This is the fifth home game of the season for the Cardinals and Brown has had a touchdown pass in each.

–Bobby Price played all 28 special-teams snaps against Cleveland and Zeke Turner played 24. Adjustments have to be made. Price was placed on reserve/injured this week with a quad injury, while Turner didn’t practice all week and is questionable because of a hamstring injury.

Gannon said of Price, “He’s been playing good football for us. We’ve got to pick up the slack with some other guys.”

The coach credited the job coordinator Jeff Rodgers and assistant Sam Sewell do with the constant changes that affect the different units.

Gannon said, “Yeah, there’s no doubt because with guys going up and down, getting reps where they need reps and being able to execute what the job description is. Jeff and Sam do a really good job. We do some different things with developmental periods and things like that to get them live reps, because reps are gold. We feel good about who’s going to go out there.”

The quotebook

Gannon on knowing he won’t be asked any more questions about when Murray will play: “When you have a player like Kyler going through what he went through, I understand the questions. I appreciate the questions, but I am glad that’s over.”

Rallis on Budda Baker, Jalen Thompson and Garrett Williams: I’ve been pleased overall with the tackling on the defense; 3 (Baker) makes (great) tackles every single game that I marvel at it. J.T. and Garrett; those three in the middle are also tackling really well. You don’t see a lot of missed tackles, you don’t see a lot of hidden yardage. They do a good job of getting the ball down now without yards after contact.”

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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