The Arizona Cardinals haven’t opened a season with three straight wins since 2015. The 3-0 start that season helped lead them to an NFC West title and their most recent playoff appearance.
Arizona will hope to earn that illustrious 3-0 record this week against the winless Jacksonville Jaguars. Following a fortunate victory last week, the Cardinals are alert to the fact that on any given week a desperate opponent can win. The question then is what strengths can be implemented more and which weaknesses will hopefully dissolve.
There may be no better symbolism for this Cardinals offense than quarterback Kyler Murray evading multiple defenders, back-pedaling, throwing off his back foot and achieving an unfathomable touchdown. Opposing pass rushers are left stunned as all their effort in the chase was for nothing due to the random improvisation of Murray.
But it is just a mirage of chaos. Once Murray extends the play with his legs, there is organization somewhere in the scrambling. In the few days of practice the Cardinals have each week, they practice one scramble drill with the starters.
“We have areas we’re supposed to get to, we have techniques on how to separate and how to get open,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “It's not as helter-skelter as it appears.”
As the NFL itself embraces mobile playmaking QBs, creating structure in randomness is becoming a priority. Kingsbury views the “off-schedule play” as the hardest play to defend so it only makes sense to utilize the scheme that makes it the hardest for opposing defenses.
“Sometimes stuff breaks down and you have to be able to make plays and that's why we practice it,” Murray said. “The guys know where they need to be each play."
Murray has been practicing scramble plays since high school and his baseball experience has allowed him to achieve accurate throws across his body. Against the Jaguars, it is no doubt Murray will escape the pocket at one point and make a throw down field. But somewhere in the outcome is a formula. His receivers will know where they need to be and offensive linemen will know to keep blocking.
But before everyone becomes too enamored with the success of the scramble play, just know, it can’t happen all the time.
“You don’t want to live that way,” Kingsbury said. “But when it arises; to have the ability to have some semblance of a plan and be where you should be so the quarterback knows where your going to be and be able to separate, it can be a weapon.”
Stop the Run
The Cardinals run defense has been a tale of two different games. In their season opener, they held bruising Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry to 58 yards. The following week Dalvin Cook slashed his way to 131 yards for the Minnesota Vikings. It’s no surprise that Cook's performance almost pushed Arizona to their first loss of the season.
For Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, stopping the run game coincides with stopping Jaguars rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
“Stopping the run game early for a young quarterback is critical for us; it makes them one dimensional,” Joseph said.
Against the Vikings, the Arizona defense allowed Cook to earn 6-yards per carry. The inability to halt the run caused Joseph's play-calling to be a mix of stopping the pass and run, a balance that Joseph views as impossible to maintain.
When the Cardinals prevented Henry from pounding down the field, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill was held to 212 yards, with one touchdown and an interception. But due to a productive performance from their running back, the Vikings saw Kirk Cousins pass for 244 yards with three touchdowns.
One upside for Arizona is that the Jaguars seem to do most of the work for opposing defenses, as their last two games have been fairly one-dimensional. The Jaguars are dead last in rush attempts this season and their 32 attempts netted them 151 yards with no rushing touchdowns.
Despite the lack of run production, the Jaguars have a talented player in running back James Robinson. Last season, Robinson ran for over 1,000 yards. If Jacksonville decides to run the ball this week, the Cardinals will have to be alert.
Wide receiver Rondale Moore has been hyped since training camp. In Week 2, he backed up the hype with seven receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown. It was an impressive outing for the rookie.
Moore benefits from a dynamic wide receiver room consisting of DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green and Christian Kirk. The amount of weapons on the field is difficult to maintain for opposing defenses. The focus on proven stars like Hopkins and Green have allowed slot receivers like Moore and Kirk to shine.
This week, Hopkins is heading into Sunday as a game-day-decision with a rib injury. If the Cardinals are without their star receiver, Moore will truly be able to showcase his talent or be met with a staunch defense.
Hopkins doesn’t miss many games and if the former Houston Texan can make it on the field it could be another field day for Moore.