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Three areas the Arizona Cardinals need to improve in order to remain unbeaten

Johnny Venerable Avatar
September 22, 2021

The Arizona Cardinals are 2-0 for the second consecutive season.

Yet, unlike a year ago, this group of Redbirds seem much more equipped to handle the sudden expectations that come with immediate success. It’s why the fine folks over at Draft Kings have boosted their projected win total from eight victories to 10.5.

However, anyone who watched Sunday’s nail-biter against visiting Minnesota understands the Cardinals aren’t perfect. Their edge in talent was inevitably the reason they came out victorious despite losing the turnover battle to Mike Zimmer and company.

The Cardinals can likely afford this type of performance against the mid-to-bottom tier teams in the NFL but that’s not going to cut it against the dreaded NFC West. Come division play, the Cardinals will need to put on their big boy pants in order to notch wins against the likes of Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan and Pete Carroll.

For those needing a refresher, the Cardinals are 3-9 against the NFC West during the Kliff Kingsbury era. Despite being 2-0, they are still saddled with the worst odds within the division to win it outright. The disrespect is real and is likely due to the team’s late season failures of 2020.

So how do the Cardinals defuse the obvious concerns that remain prevalent while remaining unbeaten?

  • J.J. Watt resurgence

    Through two games this season, the Arizona Cardinals’ biggest free agent addition has been rather quiet. Although he had a couple penetrations against Tennessee in Week 1, the Cardinals paid J.J. Watt to be a disruptor from the interior and that hasn’t happened yet.

    The former Houston great has a mere four tackles to begin the season. He has yet to record a sack and is currently sporting a marginal PFF grade of 59.2 (28.1 against the run).

    Watt was famously absent for a large majority of training camp due to a lingering hamstring injury suffered day one. Perhaps a case could be made that the future Hall of Famer simply needs more reps and familiarity in order to regain his once dominate form.

    What isn’t arguable, however, is the Cardinals need of an impact 5-techinque defensive linemen. Their recent draft picks at the position remain underwhelming while former big money signing Jordan Phillips is currently M.I.A. on injured reserve.

    When defending Minnesota, the Cardinal defense was once again exposed against a zone running team similar to the likes of in-division rivals LA and San Francisco. Watt needs to be the equalizer in this situations, especially when looking ahead to divisional play.

    It remains far too early to knock the addition, but if the Cardinals hope to reach January football, J.J. Watt has to become an impact player for this team.
  • Improved pass protection

    Since offensive line coach Sean Kugler’s arrival in the desert, the Cardinals have had one of the better pass blocking units in all of football. In fact, the 2020 core allowed the second least amount of hits on Kyler Murray behind only MVP Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay.

To begin the 2021 season, however, it’s been a different story with the Cardinal offensive line ranking somewhere closer to the middle of the pack. This was evident Sunday against the Vikings when the usually steady D.J. Humphries struggled mightily against DE Danielle Hunter.

Hunter would record three sacks on the afternoon but could have easily come away with more. Both Cardinal tackles were abused throughout the game, which led to Kyler Murray being forced out of pocket one too many times.

Even on the long touchdown pass to WR Rondale Moore Arizona’s protection upfront all but crumbled. Yet the play was made by the greatness that is Kyler Murray’s elusiveness.

While Murray himself is attempting roughly the same amount of passes as last season (34), his continued emphasis on driving the ball down field requires better protection upfront. If the Cardinals want Murray to continue his maturation process as an elite thrower of the football, he cannot be subjected to too many hits especially with 17 games now on the schedule.

Last year, Murray used his legs to gain yardage on the ground but this season we’ve already seen a big shift in priority. While his mobility remains an elite weapon, it’s now utilized more so to buy time in the pocket to hit the big play in the passing game. The Cardinal oline must reward their young quarterback for this key step in his development.

They can’t afford repeat performances of what took place against Minnesota’s front. Kyler Murray and his 5’10 frame just won’t last.

To remedy this, the Cardinals need to commit to one singular player at right guard. Both Josh Jones and veteran Brian Winters have seen time during the first two weeks. Cohesion as a unit will not be achieved until Kugler is able to establish a core five and stick with it.

Right tackle Kelvin Beachum’s status is dicey as he remains dinged up with some bruised ribs. Against a Jacksonville team that is underwhelming upfront, it may be advantageous to allow Justin Murray one final start before reinserting Beachum Week 4 at LA.

Lastly, newcomer Rodney Hudson has historically been one of the premier pass blocking centers in the NFL yet his transition to the team has been bumpy at times. Through two games with the Red Birds, the former Pro Bowler has a below average pass blocking grade of 32.8.

The best news surrounding the current status of Arizona’s oline is that it’s still coached by Kugler who typically finds a way to get high level of play from whomever is starting.

Kyler Murray and the Cardinals need that trend to continue.

  • Commitment to running the football

Chase Edmonds is currently averaging 5.4 yards per carry to begin the season.

Among starting NFL running backs, that’s good for sixth best in football.

Additionally those numbers remain consistent with Edmonds career averages as the fourth year man out of Fordham is typically instant offense whenever he touches the ball. The Cardinals and head coach Kliff Kingsbury were adamant to begin the season that both Edmonds and newcomer James Conner would see the bulk of the load in the run game.

And they have…when Kingsbury has opted to run the football.

Blink and you might miss it.

Like his quarterback, Kingsbury is too often tempted by the lure of the big play via the passing game that he sometimes all but forgets about his run game. Given the results early this season, it’s hard to blame the third year head coach for his thought process.

The Cardinal offense is currently second in both yards and total points, yet they do not have a rushing touchdown by either running back.

Looking back to this past Sunday and the Cardinals were gauging Minnesota’s front seven by running the ball yet neither Edmonds nor Conner eclipsed more than eight carries on the afternoon.

The Cardinals’ offense needs to evolve as the seasons progresses. What we’re seeing now, which is three different Cardinal receivers on pace for one thousand yard seasons, may not be sustainable as we enter those late season months that have plagued prior Kingsbury clubs.

Establishing a healthy run game to lean on could further solidified this offense as one of the top units in all of football. It could also serve as a safety net come November and December should the passing game again falter.

Not to mention the benefit it could have late in games when the Cardinals are attempting to put teams away. Sunday’s fourth quarter against the Vikings was a cruel reminder that Kingsbury and company still don’t have a refined ability to eat clock en route to a win.

Far too often, the Cardinal offense instead proceeds with a demoralizing 3-n-out before giving way to Vance Joseph’s defense to save them.

Imagine a unit that saw a combination of both Edmonds and Conner in the backfield wearing down the likes of LA, Seattle and San Francisco late in games.

The Cardinals are called a lot of things offensively but “will breakers” is not one of them.

Personnel is not an excuse, as the team sports one of the more talented offensive lines (when healthy) in the NFL. Edmonds and Conner are the ideal backfield for 2021, given both their skill sets and salary cap commitments.

I’m not naive to suggest Kingsbury should all but abandon his “air raid” roots. But it may be wise to take out some offensive insurance in the form of a consistent rushing attack.

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