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Rams defense to bring new challenge for Cardinals, Kyler Murray

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, right, is sacked by Los Angeles Rams defensive end Michael Brockers during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

As the importance of Kyler Murray’s rushing abilities gets put further under the microscope, the Arizona Cardinals must deal with a relative unknown: A Los Angeles Rams defense under new leadership but with the same star players.

Things still revolve around defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who this Sunday at State Farm Stadium will threaten to take away a between-the-tackles rushing attack that hasn’t been consistent this year. That’s bad news if the Rams copy what the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots have done to contain Murray the ground threat over the past two weeks.

Meanwhile in the passing game, it’s quite possible Los Angeles will plaster cornerback Jalen Ramsey on No. 1 Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

Individual matchups aside, the Rams defensive unit is a formidable one ranking sixth in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). It’s top-five in passing yards per game, rushing yards per game and points per game.

“The new defensive coordinator (Brandon Staley), I think he’s done a great job with that group, running a completely new scheme, but they’re playing really hard, playing really fast, playing at a high level on defense,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said Wednesday.

“It’s going to be a challenge … They’re making great second half adjustments, which to me is a sign of a great coach. And so we’re going to have to find a way because we know they’re going to score.”

Murray’s rushing abilities remain the focus of Arizona’s fans against Staley’s 3-4 scheme.

But the Cardinals still see teams going all-in on keeping Murray in the pocket turning in their favor. That’s if they can clean things up.

“Like I said (after the game) … I don’t feel like I have to be able to run to be successful. I know that’s not the case,” Murray said. “If they make me hand the ball off, I have to hand the ball off. Other than that, man, if we eliminate shooting ourselves in the foot, we have a good chance of winning the game.”

“If they want to take me away, that’s fine as far as the run game goes. Like I said, I’m going to hand the ball off to my guys. I got faith in all of them, the O-line. Like I said, we just got to be better from top to bottom.”

Last week against the Patriots, Murray threw for 170 yards on 23-of-34 passing with an interception coming on a batted down pass. He’s rushed just five times in each of the past two games for a total of 46 yards.

The Rams would like him to stay cooped up in the pocket with Donald threatening to beat double-teams. While Staley told Los Angeles reporters the Rams might not put a spy on the quarterback — most spies are slower than Murray, he reasoned — Rams safety John Johnson compared the Arizona signal-caller to a roadrunner.

Point being, Los Angeles is still taking Murray seriously.

The Cardinals second-year quarterback enters Sunday’s game against the Rams potentially in a similar situation to last season’s finale. Then, a hamstring injury limited him to the pocket.

Even when healthy — granted against a defense led by Wade Phillips last year — Murray rushed four times for just 28 yards in his first meeting against the Rams as a rookie and just two times for no gain in the Week 17 end to 2019.

The good news that backs Murray’s assessment about the lack of urgency for him to scoot: The pocket is a place he has succeeded as a passer in the league so far. This year, he’s a top-eight quarterback in the pocket and bottom-three among 32 starters when throwing outside of it in terms of passing grade.

That, of course, doesn’t account for his rushing abilities when he scrambles.

Does he need to break runs more often to help the Cardinals win? At least a little bit? Sometimes?

“I think he’s evolving just like our offense is and adjusting to different things defenses are doing,” Kingsbury said. “I said it at the end of that game (against the Patriots), he’s going to do everything he can to help us win the game. That game last week, drove us down for a tying score and had us in position for a field goal that unfortunately didn’t go through.

“So his job as our quarterback is to do whatever it takes to help us win the games, whether that’s run it or throw it, and I think for the most part this season, he’s played at an extremely high level and will continue to do that and continue to take what the defense gives him.”

Extra points

— The Cardinals have a plan if their quarterback room is struck by the coronavirus as was the Denver Broncos, who lost all of their signal-callers and started practice squad receiver Kendall Hinton only because he played quarterback in college.

Kingsbury would not reveal what that plan is and who would quarterback the team if Murray, Chris Streveler and Brett Hundley were all placed on the COVID-19 reserve.

“There’s a number of contingency plans as far as emergency goes. I’m not going to get into specifics on that,” Kingsbury said. “We would cross that bridge when we got there and have a good answer — as good of an answer as you can have.”

— While receiver and special teamer Trent Sherfield was taken off the COVID-19 reserve list Wednesday, receiver Larry Fitzgerald and safety Deionte Thompson remain sidelined due to the virus and the NFL’s contact tracing policies.

“It sounds like Deionte will be back really soon and not sure on Fitz just yet,” Kingsbury added. “He’s still working on those protocols but it was good to have Trent back out there today. He’s one of our special teams aces and we definitely missed him last Sunday.”


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