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Howard Balzer Avatar
October 25, 2023

Every week, there is a level of surprise with what the Cardinals do offensively, defensively or both with the way playing time is apportioned.

Mostly, it is in the secondary or at running back with a sprinkling of the offensive line on Sunday against the Seahawks.

Then, Wednesday came the bombshell news that quarterback Kyler Murray was listed as a full participant in practice. In the portion of practice (individual drills) open to the media, Murray was throwing only to wide receivers and tight ends on the practice squad. The practice designations are for the “team” portions of practice that are not open.

Fully practicing is defined as 100 percent of “normal” reps. The question is whether “normal” is the same for someone in Murray’s status when he’s not officially on the active roster.

It could simply be getting some reps with the first team and a lot with the scout team. Normal for a starter on the roster would be getting all the No. 1 reps the starter usually does. Gamesmanship can’t be ruled out with the Cardinals putting it out there to potentially have the Ravens believe there’s a chance he could play. Then again, him playing isn’t out of the question. Stay tuned for the rest of the week.

It is intriguing to note what defensive coordinator Nick Rallis said Tuesday when asked if Murray would be helpful this week with the scout team and mimicking Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. Rallis said, “I don’t know. You’d have to run that by JG (coach Jonathan Gannon), but that sounds good to me.”

Gannon wouldn’t totally commit to that when asked about it Wednesday. He said, “Yeah, I guess a little bit. I think that we’ll get the looks that we need to see throughout the week and I know it’ll be a little bit faster on game day with No. 8 back there, but we’ll get the looks we need.”

Now, back to our look at the team’s volatile position groups.

Defensive backs

This is where most of the changes have occurred, some due to the injury that sidelined safeties Budda Baker for five games and Jalen Thompson for the last two. Thompson was back at practice Wednesday for the first time since suffering the injury and was limited.

Oddly, the most consistently on-the-field player has been cornerback Marco Wilson, who has missed only two snaps all season. Baker has played all the snaps in the two games he’s played, while Thompson missed only two in his four games.

After that, it’s a grab bag. Consider:

Safety K’Von Wallace played 70 percent in the first game when both Baker and Thompson played. With Baker down, Wallace played every snap for five games and then, with Baker back against the Seahawks, despite being lauded by coaches consistently, he played no defensive snaps and was waived Tuesday.

Rookie cornerback Kei’Trel Clark missed only three snaps in the first four games, then plummeted to 49 and 56 percent in the next two games before not playing at all, even on special teams, against Seattle.

Cornerback Antonio Hamilton Sr. played only 10 snaps in the first four games, but with Clark’s snaps reduced, he started and played 80 and 79 percent in two games, but was inactive for the Seattle game after not practicing all week because of a groin injury. He was on the field Wednesday and was limited.

Instead of Clark getting more time against the Seahawks, it was Starling Thomas V, a waiver-wire pickup in late August, that started and played every snap this past Sunday after playing 44 percent the week before. He was inactive for the first four games and got his feet wet with seven special-teams snaps in Week 5.

Safety Andre Chachere has been all over the map, playing three defensive snaps in Week 1, then 93, 60 and 49 percent before playing 96 percent in Week 5 and every snap the last two games.

Finally, versatile rookie Garrett Williams was activated off the non-football injury list last week and played 43 percent of the snaps against Seattle.

When defensive coordinator Nick Rallis answered questions from the media Tuesday, it was about an hour prior to the announcement that Wallace had been cut.

He was asked specifically about Wallace not playing and what he saw his role becoming and it became clear later why he answered the way he did.

Rallis said, “I think that’s the week-to-week discussion of different roles” and then changed the subject, saying, “I’ve been pleased with how the secondary’s played. They’ve done a good job of … different guys have been in and out and they’ve played with good continuity and that actually trickles down to the linebacker room as well.

“Just the communications throughout the back end being on the same page with matchups, everything like that, move guys in and out; they do a good job week-to-week preparing for that and the roles are something that’s gonna be changing week-to-week whether it’s injuries, or what the opponent does. That’s something that we assess early in the week right now and then we work throughout the week in practice.”

About an hour after Wallace’s departure was revealed, Gannon told ArizonaSports 98.7 “it was kinda a numbers issue. He’s played some meaningful snaps for us. But some guys are getting healthy right now, (and with) everyone’s role in that room; we’re just honestly a little heavy there. Like what K’Von did, but feel good about the room moving forward.”

Keep in mind that “heavy” room includes safeties Joey Blount and Qwuantrezz Knight.

Wednesday, Gannon told the assembled media, “We feel good about the room, who’s playing in there right now and the roles of different guys on fourth-down plays (special teams) go into that. Not so much what K’Von didn’t do; it’s what the other guys have been doing.”

As for Williams, Gannon was asked about him ability to play in the slot and said, “I think the first thing is in that spot, to me, is you’ve got to be able to think fast so that’s a highly intelligent position in what we ask that guy to do. Then his skillset—the skillset of a nickel — there’s a lot going on; you’ve got to be able to cover, you’ve got to tackle, you’ve got to play zone, you’ve got to blitz a little bit, you’re in the box and you’re in space.

“It’s a unique position and it’s a starting position to me. One of the most important on the defense and he got himself ready to play. He stepped in there and played well.”

As for Thomas, Rallis said, “Every week we talk about it; it’s what’s best for what we need to do to win that game and that was a decision we made as a group throughout the building; what we felt was best going into the Seattle week. Star’s played good, Kei’Trel’s played good as well and we wanted to get Star rolling and get some reps out there on the field, but I thought he did a good job.”

We’ll see what that will mean for Sunday’s game against the Ravens as we see the “week-to-week” mantra in action.

Running backs

James Conner suffered a knee injury in the Week 5 game against Cincinnati, played only 12 snaps and is on reserve/injured for at least two more games. Rookie free agent Emari Demercado played all the other snaps at the position 44 (77 percent) in that game with Keaontay Ingram inactive because of a neck injury.

The next week, Ingram was back, started and played 37 percent (28 snaps), carrying 10 times for 40 yards. Damien Williams was elevated from the practice squad and had eight carries for 36 yards in only 13 snaps (17 percent). Demercado played the most snaps (33/43 percent), but had only two attempts for 11 yards.

Everything changed again last Sunday against Seattle. Ingram played no offensive snaps and Williams played 12 (18 percent) and had one rush for two yards. Meanwhile, Demercado played 80 percent (53 snaps) and rushed for 58 yards on 13 attempts adding 17 yards on four receptions.

Gannon said, “We had the three backs up and we have a game plan that we go in with a set number of plays and that kind of always changes game-by-game. I thought Emari did well in there. He took the fair share there and I was pleased with his performance.”

Offensive coordinator Drew Petzing called it a “very fluid situation. He was playing at a high level. Had some explosive runs, showed some dynamic ability so we rode the hot hand in the game, but it’s very much week-to-week matchup-based, scheme-based in terms of what we’re gonna do and how we’re gonna do it.”

Which means, no one knows what to expect Sunday against the Ravens.

Offensive line

With left guard Elijah Wilkinson inactive against Seattle because of a neck injury, expectations were that Dennis Daley would be the starter, including the Fox broadcast.

When the game began, the TV graphic showed Daley as the starter and analyst Jonathan Vilma said he would start. Yet, Trystan Colon not only opened the game but played every snap, something Vilma didn’t notice.

In fact, with a little over a minute left in the game, he said, “I’m looking; they also have Trystan Colon in on the offensive line for the Cardinals, so you’re looking at a few offensive linemen that probably went down. You’re looking at backups Kelvin Beachum, add to that Trystan Colon. You have the whole left side of Trystan Colon and Kelvin Beachum playing right now.”

Beachum was playing left tackle, not because D.J. Humphries “went down,” but because he was ejected for making contact with an official.

After playing all the snaps in the first two games, Wilkinson shared with Colon over the next three games. When Daley was activated from reserve/injured in Week 6, he shared snaps with Wilkinson and Colon played no offensive snaps. Against Seattle, Daley didn’t play at all.

Asked about there not being a job-share in that game, Petzing said, “Colon played pretty well. It was more about his performance than it was about anything else or what anybody did. I think he kinda earned that opportunity and took advantage of it and played at a high level, so I was really pleased with his performance and he certainly brings a level of energy and enthusiasm and I think the offense can feed off of as well.”

Tight ends

With Zach Ertz on reserve/injured because of a strained quadriceps, the room consists of Trey McBride, Geoff Swaim, Elijah Higgins and Blake Whiteheart, who was signed from the practice squad this week.

Of Ertz, Gannon said, “Hopefully he gets back here in four games. Looking at the amount of time that he was probably going to miss and try to get back, we thought that was the best decision for him and for us.”

While Ertz has had some issues in the first seven games, Gannon said his recovery from a torn ACL was not hindering his play and said, “I thought he’s played well.” Ertz has 27 receptions in seven games, but an average of only 6.9 yards per catch.

McBride will be expected to have his targets increase and Petzing said, prior to Whiteheart being added to the roster, “We talk about that room as a whole and certainly Trey’s a big part of that. Really encouraged by Trey, Geoff, Elijah. I trust all three of those guys whole-heartedly to come in, not miss a beat and continue to play at a high level. Trey’s play, his production, what he’s done, what he brings to the offense, I think has shown up in a major way and I expect that to continue.”

Higgins was claimed on waivers in late August and was inactive for the first six games of the season. He played six snaps in Seattle and caught his one target for one yard.

“He’s done a great job of just jumping in and learning the offense and getting to know his teammates,” Petzing said. “I think it certainly helps having Zach and Geoff in that room along with Trey, but two guys that are vets that have been around, been really helpful to bring guys under their wing, teach them the game, to watch their process and I think he’s done a really nice job of soaking that all in and making sure that when he got his opportunity he was ready to go.”

Gannon said, “We feel good about Trey and Geoff, and Higgins will be up and playing and that’s a good solid room. Each guy has a little bit different skillset, but Trey’s playing some really good football for us.”

Petzing added, “There are certain things they might do better than others or at a higher level, but the goal for all of them is to be well-rounded and to be able to show up in all three phase of the game, play on special teams, have an impact on multiple downs.”

Prater’s day to forget

Kicker Matt Prater missed a 34-yard field-goal attempt in the loss to Seattle and wasn’t happy about it, especially because of an issue with the hold by punter Blake Gillikin.

Also, late in the first half, the decision was made not to have him attempt a 62-yard field goal with two seconds remaining.

Special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers said, “Most kickers don’t want to kick the laces, so that’s something that shows up. So why did that happen, how can the snap be better, how can the hold be better, could we have overcome that? The whole operation needs to be better.”

Gillikin has been with the team since Oct. 3.

“It’s just a rep thing,” Rodgers explained. “Blake’s been really good in practice, he’s been good in the past and he’s performed pretty well here, but obviously that was one that we’d like to be better. You try to give guys as many looks as you can … there’s a lot of people if they catch it and the laces are perfect can put it down. What can we do, how can we replicate when they’re not there. Are they pointed in, or are they pointed out. Pointed back, like whatever those things are. So we’re working through that.”

Asked about how precise it has to be in an operation that is bang-bang, Rodgers said, “It’s really fast. Less than 1.3 (seconds) from the time the ball is snapped until it’s kicked. That’s kind of the standard league-wide. Most guys are at 1.2-something. We had a scouting assistant a couple weeks ago and he said, ‘Hey, let me try the hold and it’s like. ‘Oh, wow.’ It’s a challenging job for guys that haven’t done it.”

As for the long kick, he said, “At that end of the field, you watch the first kickoff wasn’t like their kicker just hammered the ball out of bounds. It started drifting that way and the wind was coming in from that side and held it up short. It was always in the kicker’s face going in that direction. That was also the end that Prater kicked off and the ball hit the goal line. There was a little bit working against us. Obviously, he’s hit from 62, 62-plus.

“The yardage isn’t the biggest factor there, it’s what is the right decision. We had come up with a line and must-have in the game in the half and just felt like the offense in that situation was our best plan.”

The quotebook

Gannon of the ejection of Humphries, who was swatting the arm away of linebacker Jordyn Brooks, who had his entire hand on Humphries’ facemask, but hit the head of an official between them who he probably didn’t see: “Our guys know the non-negotiables are fighting and touching a ref.”

Charting the snaps (snaps/percentage; starters in bold)

*Indicates player that did not play from scrimmage, but participated on special teams

OFFENSE (66 snaps, 18 players)

Quarterbacks: Joshua Dobbs (66/100)

Did not play: *Clayton Tune

Reserve/physically unable to perform: Kyler Murray (practicing)

Running backs: Emari Demercado (53/80), Damien Williams (12/18; elevated from practice squad)

Did not play: *Keaontay Ingram

Practice squad: Corey Clement, Tony Jones Jr.

Reserve/injured: James Conner (eligible to return after Week 9)

Wide receivers: Marquise Brown (61/92), Michael Wilson (55/83), Rondale Moore (44/67), Greg Dortch (4/6)

Inactive: Zach Pascal (injured)

Practice squad: Andre Baccellia, Kaden Davis, Jeff Smith

Tight ends: Trey McBride (35/53), Zach Ertz (35/53), Geoff Swaim (25/38), Elijah Higgins (6/9)

Practice squad: Blake Whiteheart, Bernhard Seikovits (international exemption)

Offensive linemen: LG Trystan Colon (66/100), C Hjalte Froholdt (66/100), RG Will Hernandez (66/100), RT Paris Johnson Jr. (66/100), LT Kelvin Beachum (42/64), LT D.J. Humphries (24/36; ejected)

Did not play: G Dennis Daley, C/G Keith Ismael

Inactive: LG Elijah Wilkinson (injured), T Carter O’Donnell

Practice squad: Jackson Barton, Marquis Hayes, Hayden Howerton (injured)

DEFENSE (60 snaps, 17 players)

Defensive linemen: DE Jonathan Ledbetter (44/73), DE Kevin Strong Jr. (35/58), DE Dante Stills (26/43), DE Roy Lopez (26/43), NT Leki Fotu (23/38)

Practice squad: Eric Banks, Phil Hoskins, Ben Stille

Reserve/injured: DE L.J. Collier (eligible to return), DE Carlos Watkins (eligible to return)

Linebackers: ILB Kyzir White (60/100), ILB Josh Woods (52/87), OLB Zaven Collins (38/63), OLB Victor Dimukeje (28/47), OLB Cameron Thomas (24/40), OLB BJ Ojulari (20/33), OLB Dennis Gardeck (18/30)

Did not play: ILB *Krys Barnes, ILB *Owen Pappoe, ILB *Ezekiel Turner

Inactive: OLB Jesse Luketa

Practice squad: ILB Tyreek Maddox-Williams

Defensive backs: CB Marco Wilson (60/100), CB Starling Thomas V (60/100), S Budda Baker (60/100), S Andre Chachere (60/100), S/CB Garrett Williams (26/43)

Did not play: CB Kei’Trel Clark, S *K’Von Wallace, S *Joey Blount, CB *Bobby Price

Inactive: CB Antonio Hamilton Sr. (injured), S Jalen Thompson (injured), S Qwuantrezz Knight

Practice squad: CB Quavian White, CB Divaad Wilson

SPECIAL TEAMS (24 snaps, 37 players)

LB Ezekiel Turner (20/83), CB Bobby Price (19/79; elevated from practice squad), LB Victor Dimukeje (17/71), LB Owen Pappoe (15/62), S Joey Blount (15/62), TE Geoff Swaim (13/54), LB Dennis Gardeck (11/46), WR/RS Greg Dortch (10/42), LB Cameron Thomas (10/42), P Blake Gillikin (9/38), LS Aaron Brewer (9/38), RB Keaontay Ingram (9/38), TE Trey McBride (9/38), LB Krys Barnes (9/38), LB BJ Ojulari (9/38), TE Elijah Higgins (7/29), NT Leki Fotu (7/29), S Andre Chachere (7/29), K Matt Prater (6/25), CB Starling Thomas V (6/25), S K’Von Wallace (6/25), DE Dante Stills (5/21), LB Josh Woods (5/21), LB Kyzir White (4/17), CB Marco Wilson (4/17), C Hjalte Froholdt (3/12), T Paris Johnson Jr. (3/12), G Will Hernandez (3/12), G Trystan Colon (3/12), T Kelvin Beachum (3/12), RB Damien Williams (2/8), QB Clayton Tune (1/4), RB Emari Demercado (1/4), WR Michael Wilson (1/4), DE Jonathan Ledbetter (1/4), DE Kevin Strong (1/4), S Budda Baker (1/4)

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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