First impressions: Murray shines, Cardinals defense iffy vs. Chargers
GLENDALE, Ariz. — No injuries, productive work and a win. The Arizona Cardinals’ preseason opener checked all the boxes Thursday at State Farm Stadium, while head coach Kliff Kingsbury earned his first win as an NFL coach.
“Winning always means something,” Kingsbury said after Arizona defeated the Los Angeles Chargers, 17-13.
Then there’s that Kyler Murray guy.
The rookie and No. 1 pick debuted nearly flawlessly, leading Arizona on a 10-play, 33-yard drive that sputtered on a few errors that didn’t appear to be his fault.
Murray said he felt comfortable seeing another NFL defense in front of him for the first time. And though he took his first hit and faced would-be tacklers, he appeared no worse for the wear.
“I was comfortable,” Murray said. “We practice against 1s every day. It wasn’t too fast — I know it’s not regular season yet, but like I said, I felt pretty relaxed, pretty comfortable.”
Here’s a rundown of what stood out from Week 1 of the preseason, from Murray’s success to a scary first series by the Cardinals defense.
QB Kyler Murray
Murray completed 6-of-7 passes for 44 yards, his only incompletion coming on a caught pass by KeeSean Johnson that was ruled illegal touching after the receiver stepped out of bounds prior to making the grab.
The rookie quarterback was also self-aware about the preseason gravity of the situation, giving himself up on his last snap, when a Chargers pass-rush got by tackles D.J. Humphries and Marcus Gilbert, who each got beat off the line. Kingsbury said that play appeared to be a snap-count miscommunication.
Backup quarterback Brett Hundley also looked strong, completing 10 of 14 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown that sealed a drive in the final two minutes before halftime. Hundley added a 14-yard run.
Overall, Arizona’s four quarterbacks went 23-of-32 for 206 yards (6.8 yards per attempt) without Kingsbury trying to dial up deep balls or confusing pre-snap motions. Very vanilla, indeed.
In the run game, the Cardinals rushed 25 times for 83 yards (3.3 yards per carry), 13 of those runs coming in the fourth quarter. Arizona entered the fourth throwing it 28 times to just 12 rushes. Perhaps that’s by design to keep running back David Johnson and Chase Edmonds fresh.
WR Trent Sherfield
The second-year pro recorded a perfectly-timed special teams tackle as a gunner but also caught two passes on the opening drive from Murray. Then came his diving 22-yard reception along the left sideline for a touchdown on Hundley’s throw just before the intermission.
Sherfield (four catches for 44 yards) and Damiere Byrd (three receptions for 17 yards) looked strong as the first-team receivers next to Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald.
K Zane Gonzalez
Gonzalez, who had a sketchy performance in the team scrimmage last Saturday, hit a 55-yard field goal and his two extra points
“He drilled it. Like I said all along, he’s had a fantastic training camp. That’s what we’ve seen at practice each and every day,” Kingsbury said.
Among the notable young players who had big nights:
— Undrafted Wheaton College safety Tyler Sigler picked off a pass and returned it 52 yards.
— Undrafted running back Wes Hills out of Slippery Rock University scored a seven-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter to put Arizona ahead 17-7. He led the Cardinals with eight carries for 37 yards.
— Second-year cornerback Chris Jones continued to play well. He made three tackles and broke up a pass.
— 2019 seventh-round choice Michael Dogbe, a defensive end out of Temple, flashed with three second-half tackles and a quarterback hit, however.
The run defense
Arizona’s linebackers might not be to blame, but there were concerning gaps that the Chargers easily attacked at the second level against the first and second teams. Middle linebacker Jordan Hicks made a strip and fumble recovery at the goal line after Los Angeles gashed the Cardinals on the first drive of the night, going 73 yards on eight plays.
Fellow starting inside linebacker Dennis Gardeck, who led the team with seven tackles, appeared out of sync to begin but playing beyond the first team reps steadied himself later on.
“(Los Angeles threw in) a lot more perimeter stuff. I was a little amped up and ready to get downhill and that wasn’t the kind of game they were trying to play,” Gardeck admitted afterward. “Get back on the sideline, talked to my coaches — improvise, adapt and overcome. There’s a lot of stuff I have to clean up.”
Gardeck and Hicks both said the run defense needs to improve, while Kingsbury said he would need to review the tape to make any judgments on the defensive issues of the first team.
“There’s growing pains right now. That’s what the preseason’s for,” Hicks said.
The three rookie wideouts had their issues. Second-round pick Andy Isabella (knee) sat out completely but is expected back on the field in the coming week, while KeeSean Johnson and Hakeem Butler had their hiccups.
Johnson’s stepping out before making a catch played a role in Arizona’s first drive dying, while Butler dropped his first target as he sat down in a soft zone and couldn’t reel in an on-target pass.
On defense, third-round pick Zach Allen didn’t show up in the box score.
Cornerback and nickelback Byron Murphy was in a walking boot with a soft tissue injury to his foot. Kingsbury expects him to return in short order.
Offensive line play
The sample size was small, and there was only one egregious mistake by the offensive line.
Along with the sack allowed, the line nearly gave up another when Murray rolled out and escaped from a Chargers defender before completing one pass.
All eyes will be on the offensive line throughout camp as Murray is expected to play more next week, according to Kingsbury.
“I felt comfortable back there other than the (sack) … stuff’s going to happen, stuff’s going to break down,” Murray said. “Fortunately enough, I have the ability to make people miss and make things happen with my feet. I feel pretty comfortable back there.”
WRs Kevin White and Pharoh Cooper
There’s no doubt leaders in the clubhouse when it comes to the receiving competition.
Byrd and Sherfield not only earned first-team reps but each made two catches on balls thrown by Murray. That duo had recently been earning first-team time, but seeing it in the game — and come with success — gives them an edge ahead of fellow competitors Kevin White and Pharoh Cooper. Those four are likely fighting for two spots with three rookies expected to make the roster.
White, by the way, missed an opportunity to keep up. He missed Tuesday’s practice and the game with a hamstring issue that Kingsbury said hopefully will be resolved “sooner than later.”
Cooper caught two balls for 24 yards but hasn’t gotten the same opportunities as the younger players to run with the first unit.