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GM Steve Keim, analytics agree: O-line play makes Cardinals a contender

Offensive guard Justin Pugh #67 of the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL game against the Detroit Lions at State Farm Stadium on September 27, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. The Lions defeated the Cardinals 26-23. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Defensively, the Arizona Cardinals have benefitted from offseason personnel upgrades.

Offensively, the passing game hasn’t been as dynamic as expected in quarterback Kyler Murray’s second year. Running back Kenyan Drake and the wide receivers not named DeAndre Hopkins haven’t been consistent in their production over a 4-2 start, either.

Offensive line play might be the biggest reason why the Cardinals look like contenders six games into the season. Coming off a 38-10 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Monday, general manager Steve Keim remains optimistic that the passing game will come around.

“I think (the opponents) get paid, too, and there are times when other parts of your team have to step up,” Keim told Arizona Sports’ Doug & Wolf on Friday.

“Kudos to our offensive line. Those guys have played fantastic and I think all season have played extremely well. Justin Pugh has played as good as I’ve seen him play, (D.J. Humphries) is playing really good, Mason (Cole) is playing excellent football and then I thought Justin Murray has stepped in for (J.R.) Sweezy and played really, really good football. No doubt (offensive line coach) Sean Kugler should get a lot of credit for that.”

Analytics would agree with the GM.

Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, writing for ESPN, listed the Cardinals as one of 12 Super Bowl LV contenders. Their biggest strength?

It might be their unheralded offensive line, especially when it comes to run blocking. The Cardinals rank second in rushing DVOA behind the Rams and lead the league with 4.27 average yards before contact. No other offense is above 3.66. The Cardinals rank third in both pass block win rate and run block win rate. Sports Info Solutions puts four of the five Cardinals linemen among the league’s top 40 linemen in its “Total Points Earned” metric, including left guard Justin Pugh, who is tied for second in the league.

Arizona has the 10th-best overall DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) through six games of a relatively easy schedule that becomes more challenging starting this Sunday against the 5-0 Seattle Seahawks.

What could be either troubling or promising is that the analytics for the passing game haven’t been there. Schatz called that aspect the biggest weakness for Arizona.

The Cardinals rank only 18th in pass offense DVOA (which includes scrambles) and Murray is 21st in individual passing DVOA (which does not). Murray is struggling in particular on third downs, where Arizona ranks just 28th in passing DVOA.

Kyler Murray has the 22nd-best passer rating in the NFL, having completed 66% of his throws for 1,487 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions.

It’s his 51 rushes for 370 yards and six touchdowns that have helped him match expectations, however.

According to Pro Football Focus, Murray has tallied 34 designed runs for 181 yards (5.3 yards per carry), adding a dynamic to the offense. Yet 17 off-script scrambles for 189 yards (11.1 yards per carry) have changed the complexion of games in the Cardinals’ favor.

Murray suggested after the Dallas game — he rushed 10 times for 74 yards — that fatigue from running played a factor in some of his missed throws. He went 9-for-24 for 188 yards and two touchdowns against the Cowboys.

How he manages that will be something to follow moving forward.

Keim, for what it’s worth, remains unworried about Murray’s lack of consistency as a passer.

“I don’t think it was his best game last week and there were some mechanical flaws, but I have zero concerns over his accuracy,” the general manager said.

“You can’t put a value on what he did with his feet and his ability to eat up angles on the perimeter and how he can demoralize a defense on 3rd-and-10-plus when he can scramble and get a first down.”

Phillips Law Group

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