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The 5: Factors behind Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald thriving early in 2019

Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald #11 of the Arizona Cardinals makes a reception against the Baltimore Ravens during the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on September 15, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Larry Fitzgerald will not throw people under the bus.

He won’t complain about former head coach Bruce Arians molding him into a slot receiver.

The Arizona Cardinals’ future Hall of Famer won’t criticize Arians’ successor, Steve Wilks, for hiring and firing offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and then asking Byron Leftwich to replace McCoy midseason last year. Doing so would throw Fitzgerald’s teammates under the bus, too.

So when the 36-year-old receiver has an opportunity to publicly explain why he has topped 100 receiving yards in each of his first two games in 2019, he’s not going to explicitly say why.

“I just do what I’m coached to do, to go line up where I’m asked to line up, play where I’m asked to play,” Fitzgerald said.

“Honestly every coach has different philosophies and things and I just try to make myself indispensable by doing what I’m supposed to do and making the plays I’m supposed to make.”

Still, what’s gone on this year that’s make him look like the Fitzgerald of old?

1. Explosive plays

In the first two games under first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury, Fitzgerald has thrived as a deep ball threat.

Twice in Week 1 against Detroit, he caught contested passes of more than 40 yards as Arizona rallied and tied the Lions in overtime. His first of those — a diving grab early in the fourth quarter with the Cardinals down 24-6 — became an obvious turning point in the game.

“I think any players can really do that if they make a great play,” said Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, whose team faces Arizona on Sunday. “When a guy like Larry Fitzgerald makes the play, rises up the way he does, there’s almost something majestic about it that everybody goes, ‘Alright, alright. Our guy is coming through. Let’s go.'”

On Sunday against the Ravens, Fitzgerald added a trio of explosive plays. On two of those, he had significant space to pile up yards after the catch because he was so wide open playing in Kingsbury’s more spread offense.

Overall, Arizona is second in the NFL with four plays of 40 yards or more — all thanks to Fitzgerald.

2. Target volume

All-in-all, Fitzgerald has 13 catches for 217 yards this year.

Part of the reason: He’s tied for third in the NFL with 24 targets through Week 2.

“He’s earned that right,” Kingsbury said. “Anytime he’s out there, defenses have to respect him and know where he’s at and whether it’s underneath stuff or down the field, he’s going to make plays.”

At an average of 11.1 targeted air yards, Fitzgerald is not relegated to being just a long-ball threat this year. Look at receiving charts, and it’s clear the volume and the diversity loom large in his big numbers so far in 2019.

Arizona has a run-pass ratio of 94 to 34.

There are other outside factors at play, too.

3. The quarterback-coach combo

Rookie quarterback Kyler Murray has been accurate when looking Fitzgerald on the deep ball.

The No. 1 pick has made it clear he’s leaned on Fitzgerald early on.

“I think every young quarterback needs a security blanket, him being that guy for me,” Murray said after Week 1. “He knows what he’s seeing out there; he’s seen it a lot, and he can still run around. He can still run. Whether you think he can or not, he’s going to be there, so I can count on him, and that helps me out a lot.”

It helps, too, that Murray is throwing the ball a ton and is doing so with more four-receiver groupings than any other NFL team by a wide margin.

The Cardinals indeed have spread the field out with heavy four-receiver groupings.

“Guys are getting opportunities,” Fitzgerald said, noting that Christian Kirk, KeeSean Johnson and Damiere Byrd are on pace for productive years.

“Everybody is getting their shots. (Kingsbury) does a great job of getting everyone involved.”

4. Time to get down the field

It’s still a TBD situation regarding the Cardinals offensive line.

It lost starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert for the year and after giving waiver-wire addition Justin Murray his first two NFL starts to begin the year, the competition remains open for recent free agent signing Jordan Mills to take the starting role.

Still, the line has performed adequately — much better compared to the past two years.

Consider Kyler Murray’s mobility and practice time spent working on scramble drills, and the Cardinals have afforded their receivers more time to break away from coverage and get down the field.

5. It-factor

If we want to look beyond stats in determining Fitzgerald’s early success, just read Kyler Murray’s concise comment from after the Week 1 tie against the Lions.

“Man’s still got it,” the rookie said.

Fitzgerald is still doing what he has his entire career. Playing like a Hall of Famer.

“You get around him, you see the plays he can make on the football, the work ethic, what he puts into it. We knew he could be a big part of this offense,” Kingsbury said.

“He has a lot of trust in his hands and his body control and his ability to position himself to make those plays. He wants us to trust him and give him a chance on some of those 50-50 balls.”

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