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Before Panthers turned up pressure, Kyler Murray had Cardinals cooking

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) throws against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — There was no slow start by the Arizona Cardinals this Sunday.

Their Week 3 matchup against an 0-2 Carolina Panthers team without starting quarterback Cam Newton felt promising for the Cardinals to earn their first win. Less than a quarter in, a potential success story was brewing for an offense hampered by mistakes and red zone issues through an 0-1-1 start to the year.

Before things fell apart in a 38-20 loss at State Farm Stadium, rookie quarterback Kyler Murray led Arizona on a 14-play, 74-yard drive to put a touchdown on the board with 4:30 to play in the first quarter.

The drive had a little bit of everything.

Murray faked a handoff to running back David Johnson and ran around the opposite end on a designed keeper, putting him in an open field against just a single defensive back.

Plays later, he pulled it and ran up a vacated middle of the field for a big gain.

Johnson even burst up the middle for 15 more yards, a sign that maybe his quiet Week 2 wasn’t a harbinger of bad things to come.

And at the Panthers 1-yard line on third down, Arizona brought in two tight ends but split them out wide on the right side of the field with Larry Fitzgerald. They were there to block for Fitzgerald, who caught a screen pass and scored.

“When we can run the football and mix it up with some play-action and do different things, we’re a lot better,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said.

Arizona looked promising after one offensive possession, which itself was set up by a Chandler Jones strip-sack of Carolina’s backup quarterback, Kyle Allen.

Less and less, the rest of the afternoon went Arizona’s way.

Murray finished 30-for-43 for 173 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. On the ground, he led Arizona with eight carries for 69 yards.

He entered the day with only six carries for 17 yards through two games.

On Sunday, his 4.0 yards per pass attempt came as the Panthers remained content to sit back in their zone.

Although Arizona moved the ball well through the first three quarters, Carolina failed to give up big plays — those that had kept the Cardinals in a tie with the Detroit Lions and a loss to the Baltimore Ravens so far this season.

“Even though they were not letting us get behind them, we did whatever we wanted to, pretty much,” Murray said. “Complementary football, we have to be better at it.”

The Cardinals had prepared for this. They expected they’d have to dink-and-dunk their ways to points, and it appeared to be working as Arizona and Carolina traded turns scoring through the third quarter.

But the Panthers led 28-20 heading to the fourth after their running back, Christian McCaffrey, broke up the middle for a 76-yard touchdown. Two plays later, Murray followed by throwing an errant pass — Larry Fitzgerald took the blame for not getting his head turned faster — that was intercepted by the Panthers’ Donte Jackson.

“They don’t believe that you can go seven, eight, nine or 10 plays in a row without making a penalty, without dropping the ball or without doing something wrong to beat yourself,” Fitzgerald said.

From Murray’s first turnover, Carolina needed to go just 22 yards for a touchdown that gave Arizona a two-possession deficit. The Panthers could pin their ears back and blitz Murray for the entire fourth quarter, keeping Arizona from threatening to rally.

Murray finished the evening having taken eight sacks and threw a fourth-quarter pick on a forced pass that didn’t get over a defender.

“Sack numbers can be misleading, but obviously we have to do a better job of keeping him upright,” left guard Justin Pugh said. “I think if we can stay ahead of the chains and not hurt ourselves or put ourselves in bad situations — we were in that whole fourth quarter, second-and-long, third-and-long.”

And for the third week in a row, the Cardinals’ offense was summed up like this: great for a quarter or three, but putrid against the blitz.

Extra points

— Cardinals kicker Zane Gonzalez remained perfect on the season on nine field goal attempts. He hit from 34 and 47 yards out against the Panthers.

— Arizona finished the loss averaging 3.4 yards per play. Though the Cardinals had won time of possession and total plays while going 9-of-17 on third downs, they produced just 248 total yards with a near-even split on runs versus passes.

— Fitzgerald’s five catches for 36 yards brought him five away from passing tight end Tony Gonzalez for second on the NFL’s career receptions list. Gonzalez’s mark, which trails only Jerry Rice’s 1,549, is set at 1,325.

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