No Kliff, no problem: Short-handed Cardinals don’t blink vs. Browns

Oct 17, 2021, 6:35 PM | Updated: Oct 18, 2021, 11:45 am

Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals throws a touch down pass to DeAndre Hopkins #10 (not pictu...

Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals throws a touch down pass to DeAndre Hopkins #10 (not pictured) during the third quarter against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 17, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

(Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

There were more than a few question marks surrounding the Arizona Cardinals as they entered a Week 6 matchup with the Cleveland Browns, beginning with the offense.

With head coach Kliff Kingsbury testing positive for COVID-19 the Friday before the game — along with quarterbacks coach Cam Turner — how exactly would Arizona look with the football in its hands?

The answer came in the form of a 37-14 shellacking, headlined by a four-touchdown effort from quarterback Kyler Murray.

“I think once we got the news [of Kingsbury and Turner testing positive for COVID-19] it was more so just the opportunity [it presented the team],” Murray told reporters after the game. “Kinda exciting to go prove ourselves on the road against a great team.

“I think you could feel the energy before the game. All week at practice it was a great week. Coming on the road, us versus them and it was a great game.”

Behind a group coaching effort, the Cardinals offense put up 352 total yards and 24 first downs in the win. It outrushed Cleveland’s vaunted run game 144 to 73 and converted 8 of its 15 third-down conversions behind assistant wide receivers coach Spencer Whipple’s play-calling.

“Kliff obviously with his offense has coaches coaching like he would call it, so we didn’t miss a beat offensively,” defensive coordinator and acting head coach Vance Joseph told reporters. “It was aggressive, it was the way Kliff would call a game. … Nothing was different from the first five weeks.”

But while Arizona put up at least 31 points for the fifth time this season, miscues were still there.

Compounding the team’s COVID-19 situation was Rodney Hudson’s move to the injured reserve Saturday, meaning he’ll miss at least the next three games with a back issue. That left Max Garcia to serve as the team’s primary center with Hudson on the shelf.

That was reflected in the first quarter when Garcia had a wild snap while Murray was checking out of a play. Ball security would remain an issue as the game wore on, as Murray lost the handle three more times. Luckily for Arizona, Murray’s four fumbles were recovered.

Even with a slippery football, Whipple didn’t fret, keeping the foot on the gas offensively.

“He was calm, cool the whole game, didn’t panic,” Murray said. “We made him right. Whenever he called it aggressively, we had all the faith, we were behind him — regardless of what he called we were gonna go out there and execute.

“Obviously that’s a great defense, a great team that are gonna make plays. We had a lot of plays that I felt like we left out there. But they’re gonna make plays because they’re a great team so it is what it is.”

And as much as the offense stepped up in light of Kingsbury’s absence, the defense wasn’t quite at 100%, either.

In what started with Chandler Jones testing positive for the coronavirus ended with fellow defenders Zach Allen and Corey Peters also being placed on the COVID-19 list this week, forcing Joseph to utilize his depth.

The defense didn’t miss a beat, with Markus Golden picking up a pair of sacks and holding a Browns offense that put up 42 points last week to just 14 points on Sunday, tied for a season low. But even more impressive was the team’s fourth-down success rate for a second straight week, allowing just one conversion on four tries throughout the game. That paired well with a 3-for-10 third-down conversion rate and three takeaways on the day.

“Obviously it’s been a rough week, losing our head coach and a couple guys to COVID,” Joseph said. “It’s been an up and down week but our leaders were great all week. No one wavered, no one blinked. The staff didn’t blink. Every day it was bad news and no one blinked. Not one time, even Saturday morning at practice when the players knew Kliff was down for the game. There was no worries. It was really excitement to go play a really good football team and the boys performed. This staff is amazing.”

With the win, the Cardinals move to 6-0 on the year and represent the last undefeated team in the NFL. This victory should taste that much sweeter knowing the situation the team was in, although the coronavirus cloud still lingers overhead.

“I think everyone’s nervous about the COVID issues,” Joseph said. “It’s a moving target. … I’m surprised it wasn’t even more. … We’ll see what the league gives us this week as far as protocols. But again, it speaks to our young guys and reserve players who can step up and play in these moments. But everyone’s dealing with this.”

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No Kliff, no problem: Short-handed Cardinals don’t blink vs. Browns