Spears: Emphasis on pocket-passing key for Cardinals’ Kyler Murray

Feb 5, 2021, 4:01 PM | Updated: 4:08 pm

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) passes under pressure from Seattle Seahawks' Rasheem...

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) passes under pressure from Seattle Seahawks' Rasheem Green, right, during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

There’s no doubt that Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray’s dual-threat ability makes him a problem for opposing NFL defenses.

Through the first nine games of the season, it was on full display with 27 touchdowns (17 passing, 10 rushing) and 2,979 total yards, 604 of which came on the ground. His play helped the Cardinals secure a 6-3 record.

From there on out was a whole different story.

Reaggravating a shoulder issue early on in Week 11 against the Seattle Seahawks, the explosiveness as a runner wasn’t the same for Murray. In the final seven games, he scored just one rushing touchdown to go along with 215 yards.

The lack of rushing success from the QB was coincidently shown through the team’s 2-5 finish to the season.

The downturn in the team’s offense, and subsequently its record, stood out the most when ESPN’s Marcus Spears looks back on Arizona’s season.

“What concerned me this year was when Kyler’s athleticism was compromised the offense looked so anemic,” Spears told Arizona Sports’ Doug & Wolf on Thursday. “It looked off-kilter, it didn’t look like it had any rhythm and we all know his ability to be athletic and improvise and create outside of the normal frame of an offensive play call. It’s what takes that team to another dimension offensively.

“We all know injury is a possibility, we all know that throughout the ebbs and flows of a season, but just the inability to overcome it I think was my issue.

“You saw some things come together but we all know this is a quarterback-driven league,” Spears added. “One of the main things I’ll be looking at going into next season is has there been an emphasis on Kyler operating from the pocket. That doesn’t mean Kyler Murray becomes a pocket-passing quarterback.”

With defenses garnering more tape and getting a better understanding of Murray’s athleticism, Spears believes fine-tuning his pocket passing is the only way to answer back. When a defense won’t let you improvise outside of the pocket, you have to evolve with the game.

In 2020, Murray was excellent at making defenses pay by extending plays with his legs. But when he hung in the pocket under pressure, the QB was much more human. In 172 drop backs under pressure, Murray completed just 54 of his 121 pass attempts (44.6%) for 721 yards and five touchdowns. Pro Football Focus graded him out at 56.6 when under pressure, compared to 73.6 when he was blitzed.

It’s not entirely on Murray’s shoulders, however.

“Before Kyler Murray was drafted I didn’t think it would work. Just because we have never seen a player of that stature have the amount of success outside of Russell Wilson being surrounded by that defense and that run game,” Spears said. “People fail to talk about all that when they compare Russ to Kyler.

“Kliff tried to run the football a little bit more towards the latter part of the season. Defensively, it was some up and down, on and off. … I think you add players there. I think getting Chandler back is going to change the dynamic of what they can do as far as getting teams off the field on third down. His injury was huge.”

Jones’ torn biceps injury was a devastating blow for a defense looking to take that next step under second-year defensive coordinator Vance Joseph.

Despite the pass-rusher’s absence, along with countless injuries to other defenders throughout the season, the unit still succeeded in moving the needle in a positive direction behind linebacker Haason Reddick’s stellar 12.5-sack year.

His future with the team remains murky, though, with the linebacker set to hit free agency after the Cardinals declined his fifth-year contract option last offseason.

As for the running game, questions marks lie there as well with starting running back Kenyan Drake, who tests free agency after signing a transition tag following the 2019 season. Backup Chase Edmonds is locked in through 2021, which is good news. Drake nearly had 1,000 yards and added 10 touchdowns in 15 games, while Edmonds ended with 850 scrimmage yards and five total scores.

It remains to be seen how the Cardinals will attack the offseason with multiple holes on both sides of the football. Murray can provide Arizona with at least one solid constant with continued progression as an NFL passer in Year 3.

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