Even if you liked the Cardinals and every move they’ve made since 2019, how could you not like the moves by the Rams, Seahawks, and 49ers even more, especially given the historical records of each franchise and Arizona’s penchant for disappointment?
Now it could be the rest of the NFC West that ends up disappointed.
Three games into the season, the Cardinals are 3-0 with a quarterback who was not only the Heisman in 2018, not only the first overall pick in 2019, and not only the most exciting player in the NFL through three weeks — sometimes I also forget that this dude was a top-10 pick in the MLB draft too.
It’s in part thanks to that baseball arm that Murray has thrown for 1,005 yards and averaged 9.9 yards per attempt to open the season, scoring 10 total touchdowns and using that stolen base speed to avoid sacks and rush for however many yards his team may need on a given day.
Oh, and the Cards also have DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt, Chandler Jones, Budda Baker, A.J. Green, D.J. Humphries, Rodney Hudson, and a cache of young players who could be the next generation of “great” in the NFC West.
For the most part, the national narrative will support a Cardinals upset over the Rams on Sunday because Arizona has been more hapless than the other three teams in the division over the last .... well, always ... but also because it seems that every Arizona game brings excitement and surprises thanks to a young cast of draft talent and veteran castoffs from other franchises looking for something to prove.
They will need to bring everything they have this Sunday against a Rams team that also has something to prove, plus homefield advantage.
Here’s everything you need to know about the 2021 Cardinals.
2020 record: 8-8
Playoffs: Week 17 loss to Rams cost Cards a wild card berth
Head coach: Kliff Kingsbury (Year 3, 16-18-1)
Offensive Philosophy: “Air Raid meets whatever Kyler wants”
The current reigning Super Bowl-winning head coach was fired by the Cardinals in 2018 and replaced by Steve Wilks. That season, they went 3-13 and ranked 32nd in scoring with Josh Rosen at QB. Then Wilks was fired and replaced by Kingsbury, who had just been fired by Texas Tech. The team drafted Kyler Murray in 2019 and improved to 16th in scoring, then slight improvement in 2020 to get to 13th, and through three games this season the Cardinals have scored the most points.
Some of that has to do with the progress made by Kingsbury as a coach and Murray as a quarterback, but plenty of it has to do with a defense that ranks second in turnovers forced.
Changes on Offense from 2020:
C - Mason Cole to Rodney Hudson
WR - Larry Fitzgerald to A.J. Green
RB - Kenyan Drake to James Conner
RG - J.R. Sweezy to Justin Murray
QB - Good Kyler to Great Kyler
What to expect from Arizona’s offense:
The thing about the air raid offense is that when it would reach a new program, the fans had to be patient because it could take years before the team was adequately talented to run it and to get everyone to buy into it. With the growth of Murray and the development of the offensive line, the third-year quarterback is on a tear to begin the season and now Arizona also seems to have the weapons capable of keeping them scoring 34 points per game.
Last season, Murray only had three games all season in which he averaged more than 8.0 yards per attempt. This season, he’s averaged over 9.0 yards per attempt in all three games. Murray has also completed over 80-percent of his attempts and passed over 300 yards in each of the last two games. He has also rushed for a touchdown in every game so far.
The Cards have scored at least 31 in every game. Compare that to Murray’s rookie season in 2019, when Arizona had two 30-point games all year.
One thing with Kyler is the interceptions. He has four already this season.
Perhaps the biggest thing that Larry Fitzgerald could do to help the Cardinals this season was to step aside. Rookie Rondale Moore has caught 13 of 15 targets for 183 yards already with two broken tackles.
Christian Kirk has caught 15 of 17 targets for 239 yards and two touchdowns, which used to be a whole season for Christian Kirk. A.J. Green has the only two drops on the entire team this season, but he’s still caught 10 passes for 181 yards. When DeAndre Hopkins is fourth in receiving yards on your team, something’s either horribly right or horribly wrong.
Perhaps the biggest move was replacing Cole with Hudson, a player who wasn’t thought to have lost a step from his dominance at center with the Raiders and right now Arizona is happy.
Plenty of running
There’s actually plenty of running in an air raid offense. James Conner and Chase Edmonds have combined for 66 carries, 257 yards, and Arizona is 11th in rushing attempts. Edmonds has also caught 16 of 17 targets. Expect plenty of high percentage throws to those players, the key will be having the linebackers and playmakers like Jalen Ramsey capable of running them down.
2021 offensive ranks
Pass attempts: 19th
Rushing attempts: 11th
Net yards per pass attempt: 2nd
Passing touchdowns: 5th
Rushing yards: 10th
Yards per carry: 19th
Rushing touchdowns: 2nd
Points per drive: 4th
DVOA: 8th (7th in passing, 10th in rushing)
Offensive “strength of schedule”: 30th by DVOA*
*Essentially, FootballOutsiders is saying that last season the Cardinals have faced an “easy” schedule of defenses in the NFL by average DVOA.
It is notable to point out that the Cards might not have faced a defense as good as LA’s yet.
Offensive Depth Chart
DC: Vance Joseph
When Joseph was a defensive coordinator for one season prior to being hired by the Denver Broncos to be head coach, his Dolphins ranked 29th in yards allowed. When Kingsbury hired in him 2019, Arizona ranked 32nd in yards allowed. But they’ve shown significant improvement, especially against the pass.
Changes on Defense:
RDE - Jordan Phillips to J.J. Watt
OLB - Haason Reddick to promoting Isaiah Simmons
ILB - De’Vondre Campbell to Zaven Collins
CB - Patrick Peterson to Robert Alford
CB - Dre Kirkpatrick to promoting Byron Murphy
What to expect from Arizona’s defense:
Will the Cardinals have the most improved defense of 2021? Honestly, they didn’t have that far up to travel, having ranked 10th in DVOA in 2020, and 12th in points allowed. But with the additions of Watt and Alford, plus the development of some recent draft picks, Arizona might go from having an adequate defense for Kyler to having one of the scariest “attacks” on that side of the ball in the league.
Chand needs a hand
Don’t be fooled by the fact that Chandler Jones had five sacks in Week 1 but zero in the two games since; Jones has three QB hits in each of the last two games and he ranks second in the NFL in pressures behind Maxx Crosby. What has been kind of surprising is that former teammate Haason Reddick is actually cruising right now for the Panthers — Reddick is fourth in pressures — and so far I don’t think Arizona has had a “number two pass rusher” step up.
Markus Golden might have two sacks, but those are his only QB hits on the season. J.J. Watt has five pressures, but zero sacks and two missed tackles.
By’ By’ birdie
Patrick Peterson was once the centerpiece of the Cardinals defense, but the secondary has taken flight this season without him after he leave in free agency for the Vikings. Byron Murphy had two interceptions in Week 3 and the former second round corner (pick 33, so Murphy is that close to being a first rounder) might be looking ahead to his breakout campaign.
But it’s Alford, the veteran corner from the Falcons (making him buddies with Raheem Morris), who has been the shutdown player in the early going this season and those two plus rookie Marco Wilson could be what makes Arizona much stronger in the secondary than what they were with PP.
The future at linebacker
The Cards drafted linebacker Isaiah Simmons with the eighth pick in 2020, then linebacker Zaven Collins with the 16th pick in 2021. There’s kind of an obsession there for GM Steve Keim with regards to uber-athletic and talented linebackers in the middle of his defense.
So far it seems like coaches haven’t gotten the most out of Simmons as a pass rusher, as he has only created five pressures in his career so far despite often being sent on a blitz. He might excel in coverage against some of LA’s great receiving weapons though.
The rookie Collins has played in 75 snaps over the first three games, making six tackles and deflecting two passes. Some viewed Collins as the top linebacker in a class with Micah Parsons and Jamin Davis, and the Rams will get their first look on Sunday.
2021 Defensive Ranks
Points Allowed: 11th
Yards Allowed: 11th
Turnovers Forced: 2nd
Net Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 6th
Passing Touchdowns Allowed: 14th
Rushing Yards Allowed: 29th
Yards Per Carry Allowed: 31st
Rushing Touchdowns Allowed: 10th
Points Per Drive Allowed: 8th
DVOA: 6th (3rd against pass, 19th against run)
Defensive “strength of schedule” rank: 24th (average difficulty)
K - Matt Prater is 4-of-6 and 13-of-13 on extra points
P - Andy Lee is averaging 51.5 yards per punt in the early goign
KR - Rookie Rondale Moore is the “Tutu” of the Cards and he has seven punts for 70 yards — Arizona is using Moore a lot more than LA is using Tutu
What happened in Week 1?
Cards eat through the Titans 38-13, with Chandler Jones sacking Ryan Tannehill five times, in large thanks to a dead performance by Taylor Lewan.
What happened in Week 2?
Kyler leads AZ on a comeback victory over the Vikings, when Minnesota kicker Greg Joseph missed a 37-yard field goal as time expired.
What happened in Week 3?
Despite Jacksonville taking an early lead, a pick-six off of Trevor Lawrence helped spark AZ to a 31-19 win over the Jags.