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Kliff’s too cute: Coach takes blame for Cardinals’ slow start in tie

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals looks on from the sideline during the first quarter of a preseason National Football League game against the Denver Broncos at Broncos Stadium at Mile High on August 29, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals could only muster three first downs in the first half.

They began a Week 1 matchup against the Detroit Lions with a Kyler Murray interception wedged between three three-and-outs in the first quarter.

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s debut as NFL play-caller looked way too familiar for Arizona fans who’d watched the team put an equally embarrassing half of football together just a year ago, when Steve Wilks’ Cardinals flopped with a 24-6 season-opening loss to Washington.

Instead of an 18-point loss like last year, Sunday’s game became an 18-point rally for an eventual 27-27 overtime tie with the Lions.

Trailing 24-6 as the fourth quarter began, rookie quarterback Kyler Murray found Larry Fitzgerald for a 41-yard strike to set up the third Zane Gonzalez field goal make of the day. The result felt like a lost opportunity for a momentum shift, bringing a sleepy State Farm Stadium to life for the first time in the tie.

Turns out, it was the beginning of a rally that was nearly enough to overcome an ugly start to the season.

It was Kingsbury who took the blame — and in a way the credit — for the game shifting in Arizona’s favor as the offense woke up in an inspiring rally.

“I did a poor job early trying to be too cute, over-creative,” Kingsbury said. “I think sometimes when you have all summer to draw stuff up, you kind of get out of your comfort zone. I think it affected our quarterback early.

“Being down 18 in your first start, finding a way to get back, I mean, that’s impressive,” the coach added. “I got to do a better job early in the game getting (Murray) comfortable and getting him in a groove.”

Murray’s first half: 6-of-16 for 41 yards with three sacks taken and an interception as Arizona trailed 17-3.

The second: 18-of-28 for 183 yards, two touchdowns and no picks.

“We just got to execute better at the end of the day. It’s not any one person’s fault,” Murray said. “I think we just started doing what we were good at, being — I don’t want to say simple but just running our stuff and just going, going fast. I think that opened everything up.”

Murray noticed in the second half that the tempo took 350-pound Lions nose tackle Damon Harrison out of the mix more often. He thought Arizona’s pace wore on its opponent.

Fitzgerald saw a change in Detroit’s pass-rush. The Lions were staying in lanes and not out-right bull-rushing the Cardinals offensive line, attempting to keep Murray in the pocket and hoping to bat down his passes.

Add it up, and Murray closed with 308 yards through the air on 29-of-54 passing. On the ground, Arizona put up 112 rushing yards with an average of 4.9 yards per carry.

For the offense, the late rally led to at least a little confidence heading into a road game against the Baltimore Ravens next week.

“That would’ve been terrible if we didn’t do anything at all,” Murray said. “The fact that we can kind of feel decent about what happened, third and fourth quarter, I feel like it’s something we can build on going forward.”

And speaking of the offense opening up, the four- and five-receiver personnel groupings got Arizona’s certified best players involved.

David Johnson caught a 27-yard touchdown pass with six minutes left in the fourth quarter to pull the Cardinals within a possession, 24-16. He had just 18 carries for 82 yards, a promising 4.6 yard per carry. Johnson added 55 receiving yards on six catches, including the touchdown.

Fitzgerald finished with eight catches and 113 yards with a score. Most of those yards came off two deep shots, the first of which he felt changed the feel of the game.

“It was bad before that,” Fitzgerald added. “But I said it earlier in the week, the first game is the most difficult to play. Everything is speculative.”

Kingsbury now knows just how too much speculation can hurt as a play-caller. He called his first NFL game a “learning experience.”

“It was three quarters of the worst offense I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “And it’s my fault.”

Extra points

— Seven Arizona players caught a ball from Murray on Sunday. That’s with the Cardinals deciding to open the year with expected contributor Michael Crabtree on the inactive list as he continues to get into football shape and learn the offense.

— We have answers about the special teams return men. Rookie receiver Andy Isabella returned four kicks for 82 yards, including a 32-yard long run-back. Christian Kirk acted as punt return man.

— Gonzalez went a perfect 4-for-4 on the day with field goal makes of 20, 28, 34 and 42 yards.

— With starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert out with a knee injury, recent waiver-wire pickup Justin Murray started in his place.

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