DAN BICKLEY

What to watch in a potential breaking point for the Cardinals’ season

Oct 2, 2020, 6:32 AM | Updated: 7:31 am

The Cardinals are road favorites this weekend at Carolina. But they feel like a team at an early crossroads.

Are they special or pedestrian? Elite or just dangerous? Instant contenders or just another team of the future?

They are on the road, under pressure and under a microscope. They can atone for their loss to the Lions or further plummet down the list of NFL power rankings.

Here are the seven Cardinals to watch:

Kliff Kingsbury: The highly-regarded tactician/play-caller needs to get his offense rolling. No more excuses. No more experiments. No more works in progress. And for the love of Vince Lombardi, no more Chris Streveler replacing Kyler Murray on fourth down.

Every NFL head coach has endured COVID-19 challenges. Training camp was truncated and the preseason canceled. But we’re in October now. In Week 4 of a 16-game season. Kingsbury returns almost every starter from 2019, and the newcomer is DeAndre Hopkins, one of the best wide receivers in football. It’s time for a declaration. It’s time to hit the gas pedal.

In 19 games as head coach, Kingsbury’s Cardinals have posted 30 or more points just three times. That’s not good enough. That’s not why you were hired.

Kyler Murray: After electrifying the NFL in the first two weeks, the diminutive quarterback faced a Lions defense effectively Kyler-proofed. Detroit’s defensive line mush-rushed their way up the field, keeping Murray contained in the pocket. The back of the Lions’ defense was deployed in zone coverages, filling lanes, keeping their eyes on the quarterback at all times. The Lions forced Murray to beat them with his arm from the pocket. To play the position and not redefine the position. He failed badly.

Now comes his response. During his media session on Wednesday, Murray said he’d prefer to play from the pocket instead of running for his life all the time and creating chaos with his feet. He’s going to have to prove it.

Chandler Jones: One sack in three games. Not the start you expected from the NFL’s most disruptive pass rusher, a player with his sights set on Michael Strahan’s sack record.

The Cardinals defense will be playing hurt on Sunday. Budda Baker just had surgery. Chris Banjo is hurt. Byron Murphy Jr. is struggling. They need to put serious pressure on Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater before he can pick apart Arizona’s depleted secondary. And that starts with Jones.

Isaiah Simmons: Embarrassed in his NFL debut and yet to log more than 18 snaps in a game, Simmons might be an X-factor against the Panthers. He has been largely ineffective at inside linebacker, frequently exploited and easily confused. But he rose to prominence at Clemson because of his versatility, his 4.39 speed in the 40-yard dash and his 39-inch vertical jump. He might get a real shot on Sunday if he can effectively transition to safety.

Patrick Peterson: Since 2017, Peterson has more games missed for drug suspension (six) than interceptions (five). In 19 games under Vance Joseph, the Cardinals defense has created just seven interceptions. When it comes to predatory skills, the Cardinals are more pigeons than hawks.

Peterson is also in a contract year. He had his captaincy restored by his teammates. He is very lucky that Jimmy Garappolo bounced on a potential game-winning pass off his helmet in Santa Clara, or he might’ve cost the Cardinals a season-opening win against San Francisco.

It’s time for him to have an impact game when it matters, a game where he matters, and not just when opposing teams are playing out the string.

Kenyan Drake: Has dazzled in just two series in 2020, running out the clock in end-game possessions against San Francisco and Washington. The Cardinals need a lot more. They need the game-breaker who ran by and ran over defenders in 2019.

Larry Fitzgerald: After Sunday’s loss to the Lions, Kingsbury took the blame for the worst statistical start of Fitzgerald’s career. Kingsbury apologized, vowing to get Fitzgerald the ball more often on Sunday, effectively telling Carolina defense what’s coming on Sunday.

That’s not smart. That’s the sign of an inexperienced coach fearing the wrath of a legend, letting down the Valley’s most popular athlete, an athlete with a direct line to the owner.

Even worse, what if Fitzgerald doesn’t get open? What if Murray feels pressured to force the ball in Fitzgerald’s direction, just to make his bosses happy?

Let’s hope 2020 doesn’t pull the cruelest trick yet, rendering Fitzgerald ineffective just when things were getting interesting in Arizona.

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