Cardinals Red-Zone Success Night and Day from Last Season

Howard Balzer

The 2019 season was one to forget when the subject was red-zone production for the Cardinals' offense. However, 2020 is shaping up as one to remember if the first six games are an indication of things to come.

Last season, the Cardinals ranked 29th in the NFL, scoring touchdowns on only 24 of 53 red-zone trips (45.3 percent). They had 23 red-zone field goals, the most in the league and kicker Zane Gonzalez made 12 of 12 attempts from between 20 and 29 yards.

This season has seen a drastic turnaround. On 20 trips to the red zone, the Cardinals have scored 16 touchdowns and kicked four field goals. Only two of those have been from 20-29-yards.

Notably, the 53 trips in 2019 and 20 this year each compute to 3.3 per game.

They are one of only five teams to score every time in the red zone, joining Kansas City, the L.A. Chargers, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, and their 80 percent touchdown rate is second in the league. Meanwhile, this week’s opponent, Seattle, is No. 1 in the league in the category. The Seahawks have also scored 16 touchdowns, but on 18 attempts (88.9 percent).

That could be one of the deciding factors in the game, especially with the Cardinals ranked second in the NFL, allowing only 10 touchdowns in 24 trips (41.7 percent). On five of the 24, the opponent failed to score.

Offensively, the Cardinals have been perfect in four games against San Francisco (2-for-2), Detroit (3-for-3), Carolina (3-for-3) and the N.Y. Jets (2-for-2). Against Washington, they were 3-for-6 and Monday night against Dallas 3-for-4.

The non-touchdown against the Cowboys came in the fourth quarter with the score 28-3 and snapped a streak of 11 consecutive red-zone touchdowns. That was the franchise’s longest streak in one season since 1981, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“It’s a combination of things,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said of this season’s early success. “I do think that the emphasis we put on it after really struggling there last year; we thought it cost us games last year, not being able to convert touchdowns. And so, that was the heavy emphasis all through training camp, all through the offseason, the virtual training we did.

“And then Kyler's making plays. And he's not taking negative plays. There's not any sacks in the red zone. We're staying on schedule, and guys are executing at a high level when we get down there.”

Actually, Murray was sacked once, but for just one lost yard against Washington, and a field goal was the result. Also of note is that there have been no red-zone penalties since there were three in the win over the Football Team and one of those, false start, was in the possession where Murray was sacked.

Running back Kenyan Drake, who has three of the eight red-zone rushing touchdowns (quarterback Kyler Murray has the other five), said, “It's something we definitely pride ourself on. Coach has done a great job from the top down to really put us in the best situation to score touchdowns. And obviously, with a dynamic weapon like we have in K1; he does a great job in being the athlete that he is to ad lib and get in the end zone any way possible. And then also find our other weapons to take advantage of what we have.”

Murray has nine rushes in red-zone possessions for 66 yards. The team has rushed 29 times for 111 yards (3.8 average).

The balance has also been impressive with eight rushing scores and eight passing. Murray has completed 14 of 18 passes for 76 yards and those eight touchdowns for a passer rating of 123.8. He has spread those scoring throws around with two each to wide receivers Andy Isabella, Christian Kirk and running back Chase Edmonds and one to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and tight end Jordan Thomas.

Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll talked about how each team’s red-zone success is helped by the versatility of their quarterbacks. Seattle ranked ninth in the league last season with a 63.3 percent touchdown rate, which was only 3.9 percentage points behind second-place Baltimore.

“Both quarterbacks (Murray and Russell Wilson) are so mobile that they cause all of the problems running the ball, but then (can) move to find receivers and get a second shot at plays,” Carroll said on a conference call Wednesday. “That's where it really helps and inexperienced guys don't handle that well, don't necessarily take advantage of it. But, obviously, Russell has done that for years. And Kyle is just such a natural. He's causing all kinds of problems.”

Murray said the improvement from 2019 to now is simple.

“Practice,” he said. “Year 2, everybody is more comfortable. Attention to detail. All those things. Last year, we were kind of just learning it; not as comfortable with everything. This year we've had plenty of time to see it through meetings, through zoom, go out and run it. Rep it, walk-through it. When you get the reps, it's hard not to execute it. Year 2 in the system, everybody knows what to do. And I think that's just a recipe for success.

“The defense has to account for my legs, as well as being able to throw the ball down there. So I think it just puts the defense in a bind. It's tough to deal with.”

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