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Amid all the persistent debate about the future of Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (not here, of course), there is another offensive player that arguably has more at stake in the final four games of the regular season: wide receiver Hollywood Brown.
Acquired in a draft-day trade from the Baltimore Ravens in 2022, the Cardinals quickly exercised the fifth-year option for 2023 on his rookie contract. That made his salary for this season $13.413 million and also means he could become an unrestricted free agent on March 13, 2024.
Although there have been rumblings that discussions on a potential new contract had begun, that was before Brown suffered a heel injury early in the Week 12 game against the Houston Texans.
Prior to Murray’s season debut the week before against the Atlanta Falcons, Brown had 42 receptions for 440 yards and four touchdowns in eight games with Joshua Dobbs at quarterback and one with rookie Clayton Tune.
In the ensuing four games, he has only nine catches (on 24 targets) for 134 yards and no touchdowns. Of the 134, 28 came on his only reception against the Falcons.
In the game against the Texans, he was targeted seven times and caught five for 43 yards (8.6 average). The next week against the Rams, while playing 87 percent of the snaps, it was similar with seven receptions on nine targets for 60 yards (also an 8.6 average).
However, in the marathon game in Pittsburgh after not practicing all week, Brown was barely on the field in the second half and played 53 percent of the snaps with no catches on three targets.
“I’m one of the only guys that plays through injuries so I’m taking pride in that,” Brown said this week while acknowledging it simply wasn’t possible against the Steelers.
Saying that “the weather delays killed me,” he noted how the injury affects “stopping and starting, cutting. I played through the Rams, couldn’t really play through the Steelers, so hoping God can get me through this game and I’ll do more things.”
He said of the Pittsburgh game, “That was hard for me. I had to know that me being out there was doing no good for the team. So I just got out of the game and tried to get healthy.”
This week, Brown did not practice Wednesday and was limited Thursday and Friday, leading to a questionable status for Sunday’s game against the 49ers.
He said Thursday, “I’m trying to fight to play. The bye week helped me. This week, just at it, working and been progressing. Day-to-day, it’s getting better.”
He is expected to play, but the question becomes how long he can last and how effective he will be.
Although having disappointing results could affect his next contract, whether it’s with the Cardinals or another team, he said, “It’s frustrating as far as production-wise, but really, I’m focused on the direction of the team. We’re getting better each week. We all believe in what we’re doing, we believe in where we can go.
“For me, it’s just about putting it on tape. I feel like I’ve been putting it on the tape even though the production hasn’t been there. For me, I’m in a good space mentally, so I’m good.”
Coach Jonathan Gannon said this week, “When we find him, he normally catches it. He’s made plays for us throughout the year. In the passing game, he’s one of the guys that the ball goes through. We look forward to him making explosive plays, making plays for us.”
However, while joking that he hadn’t had a bruised heel since eighth grade, Gannon knows that “it’s painful. There’s been a management of that; trying to practice and then play. There’s not a lot of things you can do for where it’s at. He’s grinding through it. He wants to be out there. He wants to practice; he wants to play, so we got to be smart, though.”
There likely won’t be a particularly active and lucrative free-agent market for an undersized (5-foot-9) receiver coming off an injury unless he can somehow light it up in the final four games. Two of those are potential cold-weather games in Chicago and Philadelphia.
The franchise tag for wide receivers in 2023 was $19.743 million and overthecap.com projects it to be $21.664 million in 2024, so that would be a non-starter for the Cardinals.
The tag counts against the cap when the league year begins and is guaranteed once the player signs it.
It’s not out of the question that the good friend of Murray might sign a reasonable, guaranteed 1-year deal that includes significant incentives and then hope Murray having a full offseason will enable him to cash in the following year when he will be 28.
As Murray said Wednesday, “They’ve got great players all over the field. Rotating out defensive linemen on the field. They’ve got a ton of guys over there, more than probably anybody in the league. Since I got into the league, it’s been like that.
“I’m not going to say I’m used to it, but we’ve got to be ready for a war. I know they’re not going to come in here and take us lightly, especially after the last game we played them pretty good.”
Climbing the charts
That’s what tight end Trey McBride will be doing in Sunday’s game.
With 56 receptions, he needs one to break a tie with Zach Ertz and Hall of Famer Jackie Smith for the most by a tight end in a season in franchise history. Ertz did it two seasons ago, Smith in 1967.
McBride’s 610 yards currently ranks seventh in club history and Smith holds all six spots ahead of him.
With 78 yards, he will pass Smith’s 648 in 1965 (on 41 receptions/15.8 average), 657 in 1964 (47 catches/14.0) and 687 in 1970 (37 receptions/18.0).
Next in his sights will be 789 in 1968 (49 catches/16.5) and 810 in 1966 (45 catches/18.0). Likely out of reach this year or any year is the 1,205 yards Smith compiled in his 56-catch season when he averaged 21.5 yards. For his career, Smith had 480 receptions for 7,918 yards, a 16.5-yard average.
McBride said it’s “remarkable” that Smith’s record was set nearly 60 years ago and added, “It’s really cool to be a part of that, to have the opportunity to hopefully break that record. It’s very cool,” McBride said. “There’s been a lot of great tight ends that have played, there’s some good ones here and hopefully we can get those records out of there and start ’em fresh.”
Asked how much he knows about Smith, McBride said, “Now that they’ve brought it up a few times, I started looking into it. I looked into him and he was a heckuva player. Explosive. Obviously, it’s very cool to be mentioned with guys like that.”
Meanwhile, McBride is glad to be developing a rapport with Murray.
“Sometimes I feel like when Kyler gives me an opportunity, I feel like I can win more often than not,” he said. “So he keeps giving me the opportunity to catch balls. I keep doing it for him and everything will continue to play out.
“Right now, I just feel comfortable out there. I feel like a lot of things are mismatches. I feel like Kyler’s trusting me to be in the right place at the right time. It’s not really a mismatch, I just think more so (offensive coordinator Drew Petzing) is calling great plays and putting us in position to make plays.”
Murray said of McBride, “He’s got a unique skillset. I think he’s super athletic. I think he’s sneaky athletic compared to a lot of guys. They might not look at Trey and be like, ‘Oh, this guy is super athletic.’ Me being around him and seeing how he works and who he is as an athlete, he is athletic, and he can catch the ball with the best of them.
“I think people are starting to see that now, so next year it may not be a surprise. We expect that, he expects it and we keep him going. It’s all confidence from there on out and he’s gaining it rapidly.”
McBride laughed when asked this week about his reaction after some important plays.
He said, “I’m just an animated player. I’m an emotional guy. I love this game. And when I’m out there, I make a big play, sometimes I can’t control myself. I just freakin’ geek out. I don’t know what the heck, I just go crazy sometimes. So I don’t know what goes on in my head. Sometimes I just start going crazy.
“Even Kyler is like, ‘Dude, you gotta chill out.’ He’ll tell me in the huddle, ‘Trey, come on man, settle down.’ But I just love having fun, man. And when I’m out there making plays, energy, you know that juice. Some of the guys tell me how fired up they get seeing me like that. So as long as I can bring other guys with me, get everyone pumped up, that’s my main job.”
As for jumping over would-be tacklers, McBride said, “That’s something that just kinda comes to your mind. I don’t really ever think about that either. That’s just instinct. A lot of those guys try to tackle me at the ankles, so every once in a while I’ll get crazy and jump. But my coach (Ben Steele) wasn’t very happy when I did that last time, so I’ll try to stay on my feet more.”
The Cardinals’ offensive line has been mostly stable this season except for left guard where four players have started. Elijah Wilkinson started the first six games, but then was placed on reserve/injured because of a neck injury. Since then, Trystan Colon and Carter O’Donnell each started three games, while Dennis Daley started one.
Wilkinson was designated for return and began practicing during the week before the Steelers game. Saturday, he was activated from IR and after being listed as fully practicing Friday, could be the starter Sunday with Colon, who played every offensive snap against Pittsburgh, ready if needed.
Meanwhile, for the first time this season, the Cardinals did not elevate any players from the practice squad. With wide receivers Brown and Michael Wilson both questionable, but expected to play, there isn’t much behind them if there are any setbacks. The other active receivers will be Rondale Moore, Greg Dortch and Zach Pascal.
Behind enemy lines
When you are a team like the Cardinals in a building phase of a roster with a first-year general manager (Monti Ossenfort), first-year head coach (Jonathan Gannon) and first-time coordinators (Drew Petzing on offense, Nick Rallis on defense), it can be a daunting task to take on the San Francisco 49ers, winners of five consecutive games and sitting with a 10-3 record to lead the NFC West and tied with the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens for the best mark in the NFL.
The 49ers are the standard that the Cardinals and each division team is working to reach. For the second time this season, the Cardinals will find out Sunday how they measure up.
There are many reasons why the 49ers are 10-3 in 2023 and have won 20 of their last 23 regular-season games. There is talent throughout a roster put together by general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan.
The only games the 49ers have lost this season came when running back Christian McCaffrey was affected by an oblique injury and they were without left tackle Trent Williams and versatile wide receiver Deebo Samuel.
Since Williams and Samuel returned, and McCaffrey got healthy, the 49ers have won five consecutive games by a combined score of 162-65 (19.4 per game). They scored only 17 points in each of the three losses, while accumulating 30-plus in eight of the 10 wins. In their 10-game win streak to conclude the 2022 season, they reached at least 30 in seven games.
The 49ers are equally dominant in both halves, outscoring teams by 88 points in the first two quarters (201-113) and by 87 in the final two (179-92). By quarter, they have outscored teams by only 33 in the first and 23 in the third, but then 55 in the second and 64 in the final 15 minutes.
So, Jonathan Gannon, are the 49ers the standard by which the NFC West and the league are judged?
He said, “Every team’s different. I think what you’re asking is; I think is, they’re a consistent winner and they’re always knocking on the door. They put themselves in a position to have a chance to play meaningful football in late January so by that standard, yeah, that’s what you’re looking for. You want to be playing meaningful games in January and you want to earn the right to play more games than 17.
“Obviously, since John and Kyle have been there, they’ve built it the right way. They had a couple of down years just to start, but then they got it going and they’re a really good football team. Their record shows it. When you watch the tape, all three phases jump out to you. They’ve got good players, they’re well-coached and they win games so that’s what everybody in the NFL is trying to do.”
Asked the same question, Cardinals safety Budda Baker said, “They’re a great team. They’ve been a great team for a while. And that’s something we want to be. Just an all-around great team that plays hard-nosed football in all facets of the game. They’re sitting high with their record, one of the best teams in the league, if not the best, so of course we wanna be there, but we’re gonna take it step-by-step, day-by-day trying to continue to get better within ourselves and we’ll take it from there.”
While the defense is outstanding, San Francisco’s offense is difficult to defend with weapons everywhere.
Said defensive coordinator Nick Rallis, “They’re hitting on all cylinders with the run game, pass game, their screen game. They can do a lot of different things with a lot of different people. They do a good job of spreading the ball around, they do a good job of moving people around. It is hard to pinpoint, ‘Hey let’s just take this away and make them be one-dimensional.’
“Well, they’re going to beat you with that with whatever way they’re one-dimensional. So, you have to have a holistic approach and be able to stop the run game, stop the pass game, get them into third downs, get them off on third downs. It takes a complete game to compete with these guys. They’re explosive whether that’s pushing the ball down the field or catch and run. It shows up all over the tape.”
It’s what makes the quarterback “matchup” Sunday so intriguing: Murray, the first overall pick in the draft in 2019, and Brock Purdy, the last selection (Mr. Irrelevant) in 2022. He’s certainly not irrelevant now.
Purdy comes home
It’s been well-documented that Purdy excelled at Perry High School in Gilbert, Ariz., and then played at Iowa State.
Murray said, “I’m sure he had a huge chip on his shoulder being the last pick. Obviously, me and him being in the Big 12 together I know what he’s capable of. Seeing him and playing against him, but other people may not. With him being at Iowa State, nobody’s watching Iowa State on TV for the most part.
“They’re not a nationally televised team all the time, so you never know. I’ve known what he’s capable of so to see what he’s doing; obviously they’re a great team. Got nothing but respect for what he’s doing.”
“Really good player,” Gannon understated. “He plays at a high level, gets the ball out quick, good decision making, accurate, he can make all the throws, runs the offense. He is in your top echelon of people. Look at their record and look at his numbers. It is what it is.”
The numbers: Purdy is first in the NFL in passer rating (116.2), completion percentage (70.2), average per attempt (9.90) and touchdown percentage, while being second in touchdown passes (25) and third in passing yards (3,553).
He also has a fourth-quarter rating of 117.9, which is best in the NFL. On 75 pass attempts, he is averaging 10.19 per attempt and has eight touchdowns to three interceptions. Overall, five of his seven interceptions were in the three losses.
On third down, his 103.8 rating is sixth-best in the league and he averaged 8.45 yards per attempt.
Purdy is the fourth quarterback in NFL history with a completion percentage of 70 or higher in seven consecutive games within a season in NFL history, joining Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Montana (eight consecutive in 1989), Drew Brees (seven in 2016) and Sam Bradford (seven in 2016).
His 12 career games with a passer rating of 110 or higher is tied with Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino (12 games) for the third-most by a player in his first two seasons in NFL history. Only Russell Wilson (14) and Justin Herbert (13) have more.
Run, Christian run
McCaffrey is the definition of a complete running back. He leads the league in rushing yards (1,177) and yards from scrimmage (1,614), while scoring 17 touchdowns (12 rushing).
Rallis said, “He’s got receiver skills; out of the backfield or split out wide. When he’s out wide, he’s a high-level receiver. So, it’s not just this guy out of the backfield is an issue. No, when you split this guy out, this guy’s got a route tree that can win one-on-ones versus DBs. He is a complete running back. Elite runner, elite pass-catcher and he can pass-pro.”
Added Baker, “A lot of other running backs in the league aren’t playing receiver, aren’t playing X sometimes, Z receiver, slot he’s an all-around back, a guy who can be a first-down, second-down running back, but also third down come out the backfield. They even line him out at various receivers at times.”
The numbers: McCaffrey has 10,096 scrimmage yards and 77 scrimmage touchdowns in 88 career games and is the sixth player in the Super Bowl era with at least 10,000 scrimmage yards and 75 scrimmage touchdowns in his first 90 career games, joining Pro Football Hall of Famers Marcus Allen, Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson along with Adrian Peterson, who will be Hall-of-Fame eligible in 2027.
McCaffrey has also been the league’s leading rusher every week this season and is currently 253 yards ahead of the next closest player, Raheem Mostert of the Miami Dolphins.
He will likely become the first player in 28 years and only the fourth since the 1970 merger to lead the NFL in rushing yards after every week of a full season. And in three of those instances, the player either won a Super Bowl or won Associated Press Most Valuable Player honors.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith in 1995 led the Cowboys to a Super Bowl XXX victory, Pro Football Hall of Famer Walter Payton in 1977 earned MVP and Pro Football Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson in 1973 earned MVP. That year, in a 14-game season, Simpson became the first player to rush for at least 2,000 yards (2,003). Simpson also led wire-to-wire in 1975.
In his 14th season, Williams shows no signs of slippage. Said Gannon, “He does a really good job in the run and pass game. Super athletic and strong. He’s one of the top-tier guys in the world, but yeah, you’ve just got to know what he likes to do when he is cutting you off, when he is reaching you, when he is pounding down on you and then in the pass game, how he likes to set. He changes up his sets. He’s got all the tools that he needs, so you’ve got to have a good plan when we go up against him.”
Williams leads an offensive line that gives opponents extreme challenges and Rallis explained why.
“They’re unique with what they do,” he said. “I don’t think anyone does it quite like them. Maybe Miami with how they can manipulate points with the different combinations they can have on the front side or their outside zones, how do they deploy their personnel. How they motion pre-snap. It gets to all the same concepts, but it looks different to you as a defense. All those things combined; buying angles, making all the blocks look the same whether it’s gap scheme, inside zone, outside zone; it all complements very well.
“It’s design; it’s the highest level of run-game design in the world, so there’s a lot of challenges that they present through that. They have answers built in with everything that they do, so whatever you give ‘em, they’re gonna say, ‘Hey, this is our answer’ and they have their check list of what they wanna get to. But it is elite in the run game and then the pass game is very well-structured and I think you see the result of that with the skill players that they have.”
Rallis said Purdy is the key to that and no one should underestimate him or minimize his impact.
“(He’s) a quarterback that knows how to process and get the ball out,” Rallis noted. “Kyle Shanahan knows how to attack coverage and he’s attacking coverage within every play and that quarterback knows that’s the coverage I got and he’s taking it.
“The ball’s out on time, the ball’s accurate, the routes are run very well and if it’s not that coverage they want, he knows how to get to his progressions, get the ball out, puts the ball on a spot where it’s not catch-tackle, but it’s catch-run because of the accuracy with which he places the football to his underneath options, his check-down options, his over-the-ball options. So, very well structured and it’s being executed at a high level right now.”
Those have been the case for the 49ers all season and it’s reflected in their average of 14.0 yards per completion and 9.81 per attempt. There are only two other teams in the NFL higher than 12 (Houston 13.1 and Miami 12.3). The Cardinals are at 9.7 and are one of four teams under 10 (N.Y. Jets 9.9, New England 9.7 and N.Y. Giants 9.4).
In yards per pass attempt, the next team after the 49ers is Miami at 8.60 and Houston at 8.15. Only 10 teams are higher than 7.0. The Cardinals at 5.98 are one of four teams under 6.00: N.Y. Jets 5.98, Cleveland 5.80, Carolina 5.38.
In the Week 4 game between the Cardinals and 49ers, San Francisco had 14 first-down plays for 165 yards (11.8 average) in the first half and nine went for first downs. They finished the game with an average of 9.3 as 271 of their 395 yards were on first down. Of their 53 plays, 29 were on first down and they reached third down only five times.
The 49ers entered that game fifth in the league with a 6.63-yard average on first down. They are now first at 7.45. The Cardinals are 28th on first-down defense, allowing 6.09 yards per play. On offense, the Cardinals are 22nd at 4.95 and San Francisco is seventh on first-down defense at 4.85.
Control the tempo
The Cardinals goal has to be to somehow keep the ball away from the 49ers. That’s a tall task against a defense that is seventh overall and first against the run. While they rank 16th in passing yards allowed, they are fifth in yards per pass attempt. Having leads creates yards against that usually don’t affect the outcome.
The 49ers are also first in the NFL with a plus-11 turnover margin and have 23 takeaways, 12 of which are a league-leading 17 interceptions. Murray has a current streak of 91 attempts without a pick.
Petzing said it’s simple execution that will determine whether the Cardinals will be productive on offense.
“Their scheme is not overly complicated,” he said. “We know what they’re going to do, they know what they’re gonna do and they do it at such a high level. So, well-coached, obviously the talent is there, so a lot of this game is going to come down to execution in the run game. Sustaining blocks and making guys miss in the passing game. Pass protection, decision-making, all the things that go into that. But it is definitely an execution type of game.”
One plus for the Cardinals might be that defensive tackles Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave are out with injuries.
Nick and Fred
Two standouts to watch are defensive end Nick Bosa and linebacker Fred Warner.
Bosa was the second overall pick in the 2019 draft, one spot after Murray was selected. They each won the Rookie of the Year award that season, Murray obviously on offense and Bosa on defense.
Asked if there is a natural rivalry with Bosa, Murray said, “No. I respect Nick a lot. I love to go against great players. Us coming in together, I think that’s pretty cool. I think we both take pride in that. It’s a special deal to be in the NFL, so to be able to go against these guys . . . We’ve both been in the same organization for a long time. Hopefully, we’ll continue to be here even longer and go against each other for the rest of our time here. I wouldn’t say it’s rivalry though. I don’t look at it like that.”
Bosa said about Murray, “I think he looks great moving around and I think he’s actually playing this scheme better than the previous regime there. He’s kind of sitting in the pocket and playing quarterback more. Then obviously the run game and the scrambles, he’s an added element there. (He’s) just a one-of-one type of athlete.”
As for Warner, when asked the problems he presents for offenses, Gannon said, “I wouldn’t say a problem. I would say he is a really good player. Diagnosis and not to minimize Fred, but I think their entire unit, just like the offense, is why guys stand out. He makes a bunch of plays because of the D-line. He knows that the ball is going to have to get spit out.
“In the run game, there’s penetration and things like that, but I think he’s a really fast processor. He can play sideline-to-sideline, he’ll thump you in the run game and in coverage. I don’t know if there’s a better coverage linebacker than him right now, whether it’s zone or pattern match or man-to-man. He can blitz. He’s the full package.”
Murray on what stands out about Petzing’s coaching style: “I think he’s relatable to everybody. Not only that, but just the attention to detail. I’ve said that a million times, but his attention to detail is amazing. He could break it down for somebody that’s never played football in their life, so he makes it easy on not only me, but everybody else since we’re all trying to be in the same accord.
“In this game, if one person is off, it can mess the whole thing up. He coaches it well to the point where there’s really no gray area around it and if there is, you can get it fixed.”
Rallis on whether he appreciates what the 49ers can do on offense or if he thinks, “I hate this crap.”: “Both. This division has really good offensive minds including Drew, but I don’t have to go against Drew outside of practice. I do like that a lot because it makes myself better, makes the coaching staff better, makes our players have to prepare and improve their game to go against not just good schemes, but really good players.
“This division is filled with offensive weapons and good offensive lines and that challenges you. It’s stressful, but if you love to compete, you love those opportunities.”
Gannon on the stress the 49ers offense puts on defenses: “A lot. You’ve got to defend them all, but we’ve got to understand that within the call, what the call is taking away and what you’re willing to give up. We’ve got to play to those strengths and weaknesses too. Hopefully minimize some of the weaknesses if they find it, but there are certain calls that are going to get called. We have to understand why those are getting called and what those are supposed to take away. We need to execute those.”
Gannon on if McCaffrey’s presence is the key for the 49ers’ ability to hit passes downfield: “I don’t know if it’s that. They’re a unit. The strength of them is the unit. We talked about it today, they’re very physical, they’re violent, they play for 60 minutes, and they bring it for 60 minutes. There are no lulls in effort and hitting and I truthfully think that it’s actually kind of cool to see and watch that they’re about the team, man.
“They don’t care who gets touches, who scores, who has a big game. They just want to win and that’s pretty cool to see. That’s why they’re where they’re at right now. They’re unselfish and when they get their chances, they make plays. I don’t know if there’s one key guy. I think they’re all key guys. The strength is the unit.”
Shanahan on the way the Cardinals are different from the Week 4 game: “They’re doing the exact same stuff. They’re just better at everything. I’ve got a lot of respect of how they’ve done this year. I thought they were real tough at the beginning of the year. I thought we had to play flawless on offense to beat them, but that was a real tight game. Since then they have how many ever games it is, nine more games of reps. They’re playing very hard, they’re playing together.
“They’ve added some really good players, especially Budda who they didn’t have. I think they’ve always been real talented on special teams. They’ve also gotten a very great talented quarterback back. They remind me a lot of us our first year where we started out 0-9 and finished 6-10. I think everything they’re doing is the right way and I think they’re a real tough football team.”
Shanahan on similarities defending the running threat of Murray compared to Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts: “They’re different. I mean, he’s still a huge threat to run every time, but there’s a little different style in how they play and stuff. He is a problem. We all know how fast and quick he is and no matter what you do in coverage, if you give him those open gaps, he’s going to get 15 faster than anybody.”
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