ARIZONA CARDINALS

Cardinals offensive line finally getting positive recognition

Oct 19, 2019, 6:35 AM | Updated: 11:33 am
Running back David Johnson #31 of the Arizona Cardinals celebrates a touchdown with offensive guard...
Running back David Johnson #31 of the Arizona Cardinals celebrates a touchdown with offensive guard Justin Pugh #67 in the first half of the NFL game against the Atlanta Falcons at State Farm Stadium on October 13, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Pro Football Focus currently ranks the offensive line of the Arizona Cardinals as the second-worst in the NFL when it comes to run-blocking.

That sentence probably makes Justin Pugh’s blood boil, because it reminds of a tangent Arizona’s left guard went on less than a month ago, just after Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray took eight sacks in a loss to the Carolina Panthers.

“If I say something bad about Pro Football Focus, it’s going to affect my rating next week,” Pugh said in late September. “I’m going to say it anyways. They don’t know scheme. At the end of the day if we run a misdirection — we do things in our offense that not a lot of teams do — Pro Football Focus has no idea.”

To his point, PFF’s run-blocking grade looks silly because of this: Arizona currently averages 5.0 yards per carry, tied for fifth-best in the NFL.

It helps that Murray is second in the NFL by averaging 6.1 yards per carry.

But there are more than a few reasons to be encouraged about the offensive line as a whole. The Cardinals’ pass-blocking grade is ninth-best, according to PFF, and the offensive line gave up no sacks a week ago against the Atlanta Falcons.

In fact, by most metrics available on Football Outsiders, the position group led by offensive line coach Sean Kugler is pretty damn good. From a low percentages of run stuffs allowed, to a relatively low sack rate, the Arizona O-line is exceeding outside expectations.

Finally, it’s getting a little love from those metrics (aside from that pesky PFF run-blocking grade).

All along this season, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim has been fed up with the criticism lobbed at the offensive line, which came into 2019 with more injury concerns on top of performance concerns.

“They’re a group that has been ridiculed in the media and has taken a lot of shots, and to me those are people who haven’t watched the tape,” Keim told Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. “This past week, (right tackle) Justin Murray played his best game as a pro, Justin Pugh his best game as a Cardinal and did an extremely good job against Grady Jarrett, who is one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL.

“(Center) A.Q. has been consistent, (right guard J.R.) Sweezy has been really good, physical. And then (left tackle) D.J. Humphries has played his best ball this year. So I think those guys have done a fantastic job and I think it starts with Sean Kugler, who in my opinion is one of the best line coaches in the NFL.”

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury has repeatedly taken the blame for putting Arizona’s offense behind the sticks in the first four games of the year.

He’s admitted to leaning on Kugler, who has college head-coaching experience and years of offensive-line specific work in the pros. Kingsbury has also credited tight ends coach Steve Heiden and running backs coach James Saxon for helping him quickly manipulate the running game of his Air Raid offense to fit the NFL — and specifically his Cardinals.

“I think we put them in some tough spots — or I put them in some tough spots early — when we became a dropback team when we got behind in some of those games. That was all me,” Kingsbury said Friday. “I think we’re all getting this feel for each other and how this offense operates. I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we can be.”

It matters most that the Cardinals have gained trust in Kingsbury through two wins in a row, no matter those victories coming against two struggling teams in the Bengals and Falcons.

“You can see from Week 1 to Week 7 our offense has evolved quite a bit. It’s more than just the players,” Shipley said. “(Kingsbury has) got to figure out the NFL game, and I think he’s done that a lot quicker than most. I think he’s one of the most creative, smart coaches I’ve ever been around.”

The start to the year was a reminder that the patch-work coaching staff Keim helped assemble would need time to familiarize with one another.

It’s helped a great deal that Kingsbury has lobbed credit all around his staff and used self-deprecating humor about his own input in the decision-making. There has been no ego from the head coach.

The entire building has created a culture of asking questions and listening, then making changes on the fly.

“You looks at Kugs … you look at what he did (as head coach) at UTEP, he ran the ball 60 times a game. Then he comes here and it’s wide open. You have to be (adaptable). I’m the same way. I grew up under the B.A. (Bruce Arians) system but this stuff’s awesome stuff. You become open to it, you pick it up like a sponge and we all kind of evolve together.

“Coming in this offseason, it kind of introduced a new vigor … now you’re kind of forced to think outside the box and do some different things. It’s pretty awesome from week to week to see what (Kingsbury has) got in store.”

QUOTE OF THE DAY

“Loved him as a player, I’d love to go to the club with him. He’s one of those guys. He’s going to have fun wherever he’s at and he’s an absolute beast on the field.” — Kingsbury on how he viewed San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa after meeting with him during preparation for the 2019 NFL Draft

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