The 5: Biggest surprises during the Arizona Cardinals’ 9-2 run
Eleven weeks of NFL football are in the books for the Arizona Cardinals following Sunday’s 23-13 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
It’s been one heck of a stretch for Arizona, which sports the best record in the league at 9-2 as it heads into the bye week.
Getting to that mark has been a collective effort, with the Cardinals relying on a number of players to step up when their number has been called, whether it be due to injury, COVID-19 or some unforeseen circumstance.
Here’s a look at some of the more surprising standouts so far in 2021:
Let’s start with the obvious in running back James Conner.
The back has absolutely flourished in his first season with Arizona, rushing for 12 touchdowns through 11 games to go along with 555 yards on 146 carries.
He trails only Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor (13), who had a four-touchdown outburst in Week 11 for the most rushing scores across the league.
Conner’s made the most of his 20 targets, too, catching all but two for 173 yards and a touchdown. He’s averaging just under 10 yards per catch.
“Honestly, I thought he was more of a power downhill back just watching from far,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters after the team’s 31-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 9. “Then we got him here and I watched the route-running. He made some spectacular catches in training camp and he’s quick-twitch in his routes.
“He’s been above and beyond anything I think any of us could have expected and just the work ethic, the approach to the game each and every day, it’s phenomenal.”
Conner did all that while splitting snaps with Chase Edmonds before taking on the No. 1 running back gig lately after Edmonds suffered an injury.
Despite losing defensive lineman J.J. Watt and watching outside linebacker Chandler Jones miss a couple games after testing positive for COVID-19, the Cardinals defense, for the most part, held strong amid the adversity.
A big part of that was the play of linebacker Markus Golden, who was re-signed on a value deal this offseason after the team let fellow pass-rusher Haason Reddick walk in free agency.
Through 11 games, Golden paces the team in sacks with 10, tackles for losses with eight (tied with Jones) and forced fumbles with four. He is among eight NFL players who have double-digit sacks to this point.
With his 4th quarter sack of Russell Wilson, Markus Golden has 10.0 in '21 + 8.0 in the last 6 games.
This is Golden’s third career season with 10+ sacks and 2nd with Cardinals (12.5 in 2016). pic.twitter.com/wSFvS2MV67
— Mark Dalton (@CardsMarkD) November 22, 2021
In the two games Jones was forced out due to COVID-19, Golden notched four sacks, two tackles for losses, five QB hits and two forced fumbles.
And if his play isn’t enough, the energy and love he has for Arizona is unmatched.
“Really, I’m getting to play,” Golden said earlier this month about his fit in the defense. “That’s the one big thing. I’ve been in the system for awhile now. Last year when I got traded (from the New York Giants), I was coming from a whole different system. … Now that I’m in a system that I know the plays, I got to do a camp and it makes it a lot easier.
“That’s the type of player I am. If I know what I’m about to do and really got that confidence in what I’m doing because I’ve been practicing a lot, I’m able to move a little faster and I’m able to switch it up and add a little of my stuff in that can help me out because I know what to do and I know exactly where I need to be.”
Usually when a team’s starting quarterback goes down, the offense takes a big hit.
That hasn’t been the case with McCoy at the reins.
With starting quarterback Kyler Murray sidelined the past three games with a left ankle sprain, McCoy went 2-1, putting together two impressive showings in Weeks 9 and 11.
Over the two victories, McCoy completed 57 of his 70 passes (81.4%) for 577 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing 13 times for 41 yards.
In just three starts, McCoy has posted two of the top-10 passing completion percentages in Cardinals franchise history.
On top of his play, McCoy has been a trusted mentor to Murray inside the quarterbacks room.
With Malcolm Butler’s retirement just before the regular season kicked off, cornerback became a major area of concern for those watching from the outside.
From the inside, however, Arizona felt more than comfortable with Byron Murphy taking over as the team’s undisputed CB1.
Murphy has since ran with it, recording a career-high three interceptions, eight passes defensed and a forced fumble in 10 games played in 2021. He also returned one of his picks for a touchdown on his way to earning the NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 3.
“Super competitive,” Kingsbury said of Murphy back in September. “I’ve seen huge growth. When he first got here as a rookie, his head was spinning. I remember it was like his third game, and we had him try to cover Julio Jones and it was like a whole new world.
“Just to watch how he’s stepped up in all areas – professionalism, attention to detail. He’s now coaching up young players. His growth has been phenomenal. (Cornerbacks coach) Greg Williams does a great job with him, and (defensive coordinator Vance Joseph) does a great job with him. He’s really come a long way in a short time.”
Aside from being the team’s top option at corner — he can also slide inside to nickel — Murphy is also becoming much more of a leader to those around him, notably rookie CB Marco Wilson.
When tight end Maxx Williams went down with a season-ending knee injury five weeks into the season, it was unclear how the Cardinals would navigate the position for the rest of 2021.
Then general manager Steve Keim swung a big-time trade for household name and tight end Zach Ertz.
It didn’t take long for Ertz to pick up Kingsbury’s offense, recording a touchdown in his first action as a Cardinal in Week 7.
Week 11’s outing took the cake, though, with Ertz scoring a pair of touchdowns and adding 88 yards on eight catches.
He’s the first Cardinals tight end since Jackie Smith in 1963 to record at least eight receptions, 80 yards and two scores.
Across five games with Arizona, Ertz has caught 22 of his 29 targets for 269 yards and three touchdowns.
“Yeah, I think it’s the culmination of a lot of hard work from guys helping me out, from just trying to get into the playbook as much as possible, to the coaching staff trusting me,” Ertz told reporters Sunday.
“Obviously, my trust and comfort level, I feel, have gone up each and every week, and obviously the bye week is going to be big, and then hopefully going to get Kyler back is going to be a lot of fun.”