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Did the Cardinals’ tempo gas the Lions? Here’s what we do know

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) tries to elude Detroit Lions defensive end Mike Daniels (96) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — One worry about Kliff Kingsbury’s college-to-NFL offense was time of possession.

Quick three-and-outs by a pass-heavy offense might wear on the Arizona Cardinals’ own defense. To an extent, it even wore on the offense Sunday in a Week 1 tie with the Detroit Lions.

But for a game at least, the quick tempo that worried many went in Arizona’s favor, even though the Cardinals had three three-and-outs within their first four possessions and two more to begin the second half.

“I think they were just tired,” Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray said of why the Cardinals rallied from 18 points down in an eventual 27-all tie. “I know (Lions defensive lineman Damon) Harrison wasn’t on the field a lot. Him not playing a lot of the preseason a lot or at all, tempo can get to them.

“I think that’s what kind of helped us out later in the game.”

That remains to be seen. The Lions didn’t play the fatigue card after the game.

“They just started making a couple plays,” Detroit linebacker Devon Kennard said. “We weren’t able to nip it in the bud. We knew they had a lot of talent on offense so we’re not surprised that they were going to make some plays at some point.”

What’s clear is this: Murray thrived when he wasn’t pressured and as he finally got into a rhythm — the tempo helped with that. Kingsbury’s postgame comments taking the blame for the ugly start was notable.

With two Monday Night Football games to play in Week 1, Murray leads the NFL with 89 snaps, although a full overtime period is a main reason for it. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford ended up one snap behind him as the Lions held the ball 39:23 to Arizona’s 30:37 time of possession.

Advantage Arizona, somehow?

The 17-3 first half in Detroit’s favor and 24-10 second half advantage by the Cardinals would suggest that was the case.

When the Lions’ talented defensive line was running around like this for much of the game, it added up.

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell detailed just how that pass-rush by Detroit changed throughout the game, and how it helped Murray.

Through the first three quarters, Murray was pressured on 26% of his dropbacks. During the fourth quarter and overtime, he was pressured on just 10% of them. When Murray was pressured, he went 1-of-6 for 0 yards with a horrific pick, five sacks and a Total QBR of 0.1. When Murray wasn’t pressured, the former Oklahoma star went 28-of-48 for 309 yards with two touchdowns and a Total QBR of 76.6. Throw in a blocked punt to set up a short field and you get a comeback.

There’s an argument to be made that it wasn’t tempo which hurt the pass-rush. Maybe Detroit adjusted its defense to sit back and pass-rush less.

Whatever the case may be, Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald saw a noticeable difference in the Lions as the game grew old.

“I saw later in the game, Detroit’s linemen, they kind of stopped rushing almost,” Fitzgerald said. “They just started getting in lanes. I was watching them on replays. They were getting in their gaps and looking to knock down balls. Teams are going to probably do that, keep (Murray) in the pocket, try to contain him.”

But that wasn’t even the case in the first half.

One of the batted balls came as a Lions defensive lineman avoided engaging the Arizona offensive line completely, leaving his hands free to reach up for a pass bat-down.

The Cardinals expect to see more teams keeping Murray in the pocket. As Barnwell’s statistics indicated, Arizona will be happy if teams let Murray sit in the backfield.

“That gives him more time in the pocket. That gives him more time to be able to assess what’s going on, what teams are doing to us, the coverages, the shells,” Fitzgerald said. “We got to run good routes and get separation for him. I think you saw that later in the second half, we were able to do it.”

Arguably, the Lions growing fatigued — if that was truly the case — might be a Week 1 anomaly. Detroit, like Arizona, hardly played its starters in the preseason. Maybe they’re not yet in game shape.

Maybe it was head coach Matt Patricia calling a more conservative defense.

If it was a result of the up-tempo Cardinals offense, there remains curiosity if Kingsbury will be playing with a double-edged sword.

“Running 88 plays is tough, especially in preseason … I only played one game,” Cardinals left guard Justin Pugh said. “I bet a lot of their guys only had one game under their belt.”

What’s clear, though, is that Murray thrived in the pocket with more time. Batted down passes or not.

“Hats off to them, can’t do anything about it,” Murray said. “Guys are open and if I’m throwing the ball to them and they bat it down, good job.”

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