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Scheme and execution: Cardinals aim to fix red zone woes vs. Bengals

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals looks at his play sheet in front of quarterback Kyler Murray #1 before action against the Seattle Seahawks at State Farm Stadium on September 29, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Reason for optimism regarding the Arizona Cardinals’ offense is there because, well, they’ve been there.

There is the red zone, and that’s where offensive play-callers make their money.

First-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury has not proven himself in those situations through four weeks of 2019, and he’s been the first to admit it.

“It starts with me and play design, scheme and making sure we’re doing things that can be effective, first and foremost,” he said. “Then just execution and not trying to do too much. Just do your job — completions down there are a big deal, and we’ve just been a little bit off for most of the season.”

Against an 0-4 Cincinnati Bengals team on the road this week, the also-winless Cardinals feel like it’s now or never to break through.

“Going into this one, obviously, everyone feels like it’s a must win,” rookie quarterback Kyler Murray said. “Every game is a must win, but this one especially just because it’s the next one. We haven’t won a game yet, so everyone feels like that.”

It’s not that Arizona’s offense is as putrid as it was last year, when it was 32nd in the NFL in yards per game (242) and points per game (14.1).

At 326 yards per outing and scoring 18.5 points per game this year, it’s not a whole lot better. The Cardinals’ 1.53 points per drive is still sixth-worst in the league.

The optimism appears here: Arizona is actually tied for seventh in the NFL with 14 red zone appearances.

The Cardinals, however, have only scored touchdowns on five of those trips inside the opponent 20-yard line. That percentage of touchdowns in the red zone is third-worst.

“We as players just have to be able to execute more efficiently,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “This is not that complicated. We just have to be able to make the plays that are available to us. When we start doing that on a consistent basis, we’ll start scoring more times when we get down in the red zone — ’cause our concepts are great.

“We’ll just get off schedule. A sack here or an incompletion there. Just stupid things we can control ourselves. We’re not far. It has to start here. We can’t spot games in this division. We got to get going.”

Could Arizona run the ball more?

Murray is tied for fifth in the league with 23 passing attempts inside the 20 and tied for fourth with 12 attempts inside the 10-yard line. He’s completing just 53% of those passes overall.

Meanwhile, starting running back David Johnson has just six carries in the red zone, and only one was between the 10 or 20 yard lines.

Asked if the Cardinals might turn more to the running game, Kingsbury as usual didn’t lend to many hints: “That could be it. At this point, we’re going to look at everything.”

Still, in Kingsbury’s offense, quick-hit passes to the perimeter are viewed in the same light as running plays. Executing those might be difficult on a reduced depth of the field.

But it’s also true that missed throws, drops and sacks have bit the Cardinals at the worst times.

Arizona is in the middle-rung of the league in terms of penalties assessed overall, but 13 of 29 have been of the pre-snap variety.

For Murray, taking an NFL-high 20 sacks has been his biggest issue. A number could be blamed on him for trying to make plays rather than knowing, as Kingsbury likes to say, “when the party’s over.”

“I’ve been able to move around, stand in there, scramble. (The speed of defenders is) a lot faster, but at the same time, I think coming in and starting right away has helped me out a lot,” Murray said.

“It’s just unfortunate some of the sloppy play. That’s been our issue the past four games, but I know it’s all a process. I think we’ve gotten better each and every game. It’s just one thing here or there that we continue to fail at. I think if we put it all together, we have a good chance to win.”


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