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Playing in Slot has Kirk Contributing Big Plays

Cardinals fourth-year receiver Christian Kirk has put up eye-opening numbers in the first three games of the season playing mostly in the slot.

The numbers confirm what our eyes have been telling us about the production of wide receiver Christian Kirk in the first three games of the 2021 season.

His 15 total receptions for 239 yards (15.9 average) and two touchdowns only tell part of the story.

*Eleven of the 15 catches have gone for first downs with four coming on third down and two on fourth. His two touchdowns were on third-down plays in the season-opening victory over the Tennessee Titans.

*Five of the plays for first downs have led to touchdowns by other players with two of those on third down. One of the fourth-down conversions went for 35 yards and led to the game-winning field goal over the Minnesota Vikings.

*His four third-down receptions have totaled 78 yards (19.5 average) and his 15.9-yard overall average is third in the NFL among players with at least 13 catches.

*A 5-yard play Sunday against Jacksonville on first down snapped a streak of eight consecutive receptions that resulted in first downs.

*Finally, nine of his catches have been for 11 yards or more with four from 11-to-19 yards, three from 20-29 and two of 30 or more yards.

Of utmost significance is that most of the success has come from the slot where he played in college at Texas A&M. That has been a topic of conversation throughout training camp and into the regular season and was made possible by the signing of wide receiver A.J. Green.

Sunday, Kirk (104) and Green (112) had 100 or more receiving yards, which was only the second time in the last five seasons the Cardinals had more than one player do that in the same game. The only other in those five seasons was on Sept. 15, 2019, when Kirk had 114 yards and Larry Fitzgerald had 104.

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Kirk said Tuesday, “Playing inside is something that's basically muscle memory for me; like the back of my hand. It just feels natural because I've been doing it for so long.”

Tracking the arc of his career that began as a second-round pick in 2018, Kirk said, “(When) I first got into the league and I got moved outside, it was just one of those things where, I could do it, but I still had to learn a lot of different things, a lot of different nuances. When you're playing in a different position, yeah, you're playing wide receiver, but the slot is a totally different position then playing outside and so there's just different things and nuances and things that you get comfortable with that come with experience.

“Unfortunately, there's some experience that you have to learn that turned out negatively. I've been able to have some success outside as well. It feels good to be able to learn, from playing outside to be able to feel comfortable out there and then to be able to come back inside and play at a high level as well.”

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Christian Kirk (13) runs for a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys in the second quarter at AT&T Stadium.

Earlier this season, he said of playing the slot, “I don’t really have to think in there. I understand the concepts, understand what’s trying to be done and how to manipulate different coverages and zones and so it’s just easier for me in there.”

After the Week 2 win over the Vikings, head coach Kliff Kingsbury said, “I just think he feels healthy and he feels confident. We’ve been able to play him more inside which is where I’ve always felt like he excelled even when he was at Texas A&M. He can do a lot of damage in there. He’s more than capable of playing outside and can play at a high level outside. But he just looks really confident playing inside and had two huge catches yesterday that really helped win the game for us.”

General manager Steve Keim agreed during a recent appearance on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM when he mentioned Kirk and rookie Rondale Moore. “The goal in this business is to cater to player strengths,” Keim said. “Both of those players, whether it’s their size and their movement skills and their ability to run routes with explosiveness, you’d like to have them inside and that’s where they can flourish.”

Kingsbury noted Kirk’s health, which forced him to miss nine games in his first three seasons.

Kirk said, “I’ve been through a lot through the injuries and just missing games and questioning a lot of different things. Playing this sport, there’s a lot you have to go through and battle mentally. It may not seem like that from the outside, but there is.”

He can only hope the slot will help keep him on the field and producing at a high level in what is the final year of his rookie contract.

Asked about that situation recently, he said, “It is just one of those things where I’m taking one game at a time and just trying to keep it as one of those things that I focus on after the season.”