GREEN BAY, Wis. – Given the amount of talent on the Green Bay Packers’ reserve lists and the dominance of the Arizona Cardinals, there are plenty of reasons to worry about the outcome of Thursday night’s game. Here are three.
1. Kyler Murray Is a ‘Different Animal’
After spending last season as teammates with Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, linebacker De’Vondre Campbell knows the challenge that awaits.
“K1, he’s a different animal,” Campbell said. “His scrambling ability is just a little bit different than the guys we’ve played over the past two weeks. I got to practice against him every day last year for a year straight, so I understand what type of player he is and I understand what we’re going up against.”
What they’re up against is a quarterback with better running ability than they’ve faced – and struggled against. In Week 6, Chicago rookie Justin Fields ran six times for 43 yards. Last week, Washington’s Tyler Heinicke had almost that many on one play, his 36-yard dash highlighting his 10 runs for 95 yards.
Those two quarterbacks are excellent athletes. That’s especially true of Fields, who ran his 40 in 4.46 seconds. While Murray didn’t run a 40 before the 2019 draft, a scout at the time figured Murray would be in the mid-4.3s. Coupled with an elite throwing arm that prevents defenses from attacking Murray outside the pocket, the MVP front-runner poses enormous problems.
“Kyler Murray is probably a little bit faster than (Heinicke),” safety Adrian Amos said with a smile on Tuesday. “That’s something that we have to stop. That’s something that we have to be aware of, in the back end, for extended plays, got to let the front handle him with him getting out of the pocket. But there’s going to be plays when you’ve got a mobile quarterback like that, there’s going to be plays when he gets loose, there’s going to be plays when he gets outside the pocket. It’s up to us to contain him as best we can and then eliminate those big plays.”
Entering Week 8, Green Bay has allowed 238 rushing yards to quarterbacks – only 3 yards less than last-ranked Kansas City.
Murray hasn’t run much this season. After piling up 819 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns and 52 first downs in 16 games last season, Murray is on a 17-game pace of 306 yards, seven touchdowns and 24 first downs. His 2.9-yard average is less than half last year’s 6.2. But that ability to run and move the chains is always there to be used when needed – say, a key third-and-6 if it’s a close game in the fourth quarter.
It will be up to the pass rushers to say in their lane and keep him in the pocket, and the defensive backs to keep their head on a swivel. That, of course, is easier said than done.
“We’ve got to make sure we try to keep him in the pocket,” fill-in defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said. “He’s going to make some plays. The biggest thing we can’t do is get discouraged because he makes a run or two. We can’t give up big plays over our heads. The biggest thing we’ve got to do is make sure we contain him in the rush and we can’t be afraid to go get him.”
2. Options, Options, Options
Complicating matters is Murray has an abundance of talent in the passing game. Five players have at least 24 receptions. All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins leads the way with 33 receptions for 420 yards and seven touchdowns. Unlike Green Bay, which has been reliant on its All-Pro receiver, Davante Adams, Hopkins doesn’t have to be the focal point.
Christian Kirk, a second-round pick in 2018, has 30 receptions for 408 yards and four touchdowns. He’s caught 83.3 percent of his targets, including 27-of-31 (87.1 percent) from the slot. At 5-foot-11, he’s got 4.47 speed. Rondale Moore, a second-round pick in this year’s draft, has 26 receptions for 303 yards and one touchdown. He’s caught 83.9 percent of his targets, including 17-of-22 (77.3 percent) from the slot. At 5-foot-8, he ran his 40 in a blistering 4.28 seconds. That game-breaking speed showed up with his 77-yard touchdown. A.J. Green, a 33-year-old, seven-time Pro Bowler in Cincinnati whose career was derailed by injuries, has caught 24 passes for 406 yards and three scores in his first season with the Cardinals. He’s caught 68.6 percent of his targets.
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And that’s just the receivers. The Cardinals acquired three-time Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz from the Eagles a couple weeks ago. In his Arizona debut, he caught three passes for 66 yards with a 47-yard touchdown. Running back Chase Edmonds has 27 receptions and is averaging 5.8 yards per rushing attempt.
The Packers’ improving defense would have been tested under the best of circumstances. But without All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander and Pro Bowl outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, the Packers aren’t at full strength to tackle this challenge. The potential return of outside linebacker Preston Smith and cornerback Kevin King would help, but Eric Stokes is going to need to play the game of his life if he’s matched on Hopkins and slot corner Chandon Sullivan will need to play the game of his life to handle the speed of Kirk and Moore.
“You’ve got two guys that are excellent outside,” Gray said of Hopkins and Green. “Both of them deserve to be No. 1s and they have been No. 1s on their team. Then you put (Kirk) in, who has the speed to do what he needs to do. And then you’ve got another a young kid from Purdue (Moore) and he runs faster than all of them. The thing that’s been working for us is rush and coverage. We’ve got to make sure that we do the right things that’s going to keep Murray in the pocket, the D-line has to get after him and then guys on the back end, we’ve got to cover a little bit longer than we’re used to.”
3. The Davante Adams Factor
Unless Adams beats COVID in record time, the Packers will be without the man who powers the passing game.
Looking beyond the obvious – Adams is a one-man wrecking ball – there are two big worries.
One, with the presumptive absence of Adams, Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, can anyone get open before the Cardinals pass rush arrives? Arizona suffered a big loss with J.J. Watt’s shoulder injury. He’s third among interior defenders in pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Even without Watt, the Cardinals can get after the quarterback.
Chandler Jones ranks third among active defenders with 102 career sacks. He had five sacks and two forced fumbles in Week 1, none the next four weeks and missed the last two games with COVID. In 2019, he had 19 sacks and a league-high eight forced fumbles. He’ll mostly face left tackle Elgton Jenkins.
It's not Jones who leads the team in sacks, though. It’s Markus Golden. He’s got six sacks and a league-leading four forced fumbles. He’s coming off back-to-back games of two sacks and one forced fumble. He’ll mostly face right tackle Billy Turner.
The ball-stripping talents of Jones and Golden can turn a game in an instant, just like Green Bay’s Rashan Gary did last week. Impressively, Aaron Rodgers hasn’t fumbled, but he also hasn’t performed well when pressured.
It will be up to Randall Cobb, Equanimeous St. Brown, Amari Rodgers and Robert Tonyan to get open in a hurry. Of course, the Cardinals and the top-ranked scoring defense in the NFL know the Packers will rely on quick passes and plan accordingly.
“We have guys who can win one-on-one matchups,” Rodgers said. “If we have to go with some of the young guys, there won’t be any different expectations.”
Two, can the Packers run the ball to compensate? To limit Adams, teams have been playing with two deep safeties. Without Adams, one of those safeties presumably will move toward the line of scrimmage in an effort to take away the Aaron Jones- and AJ Dillon- led running game. Green Bay hasn’t run the ball consistently well even with Adams on the field, ranking 19th with 4.15 yards per carry and accomplishing almost nothing last week against Washington.
Arizona is 31st with 4.97 yards per carry. However, that might be fool’s gold. In the four games from Week 2 through Week 5, the Cardinals allowed 152.5 rushing yards per game and 5.69 yards per rush. The last two games against Cleveland and Houston, the Cardinals allowed 57.5 rushing yards per game and 3.38 yards per carry.