How the Cardinals should attack the final 5 games
Dec 2, 2022, 8:35 AM | Updated: Dec 5, 2022, 4:12 pm
(Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)
The Arizona Cardinals face a harsh reality when they return from the bye week on Monday.
On the outside looking in on the playoff picture and holding the slimmest of chances at securing a berth at this rate — 1% to be exact — it’s on Arizona to try to salvage something out of this season that it can hang its hat on heading into the offseason.
You don’t play the game of football to lose, but with little hope of turning the season around, it’s time to turn the page and look to the future, regardless of what that means for the win-loss column.
Here is what I am curious to see out the 2022 Cardinals down the home stretch of the season:
K1 the rest of the way
(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
I get wanting to keep your franchise quarterback out of harm’s way with playoffs not in the cards, but that shouldn’t be the case when it comes to quarterback Kyler Murray.
On top of his regression in Year 4, the sideline back-and-forths with his head coach and teammates and outside chatter questioning his abilities and overall motives (looking at you, Patrick Peterson), Murray hasn’t had a roller coaster of a season. Sitting any of the remaining games while healthy would only add to the chatter that has followed the QB. Unnecessary criticism that can be avoided.
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury said Murray would have gotten in a fist fight with him if he was held out another week from to the QB’s hamstring injury. That needs to be the same energy the rest of the way regardless of the NFL standings.
Safety Budda Baker is the unquestioned leader on defense. His determination to play through a high ankle sprain provided even more backing in that regard.
That needs to be Murray’s mentality over the final five weeks of play, and improved production with him currently posting career lows in passer rating and QBR would obviously lend reason for optimism about his future after signing a massive contract in the offseason.
Keep experimenting with Hollywood and Hop
The Cardinals got their first real glimpse of Hollywood Brown, DeAndre Hopkins and Murray on the field together in last week’s loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
Combining for 133 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches (14 targets), the duo paced Arizona’s pass catchers. It was a decent first showing for the pairing, though, there’s obviously a few things that need cleaned up and fixed.
The biggest thing I want to see is how creative Kingsbury can get with those two — and potentially Rondale Moore — over the next five games.
All three can line up anywhere on the field, giving the head coach more than enough space to mix things up in an offense that has underwhelmed this season.
Move them around and further build that chemistry with Murray.
With veteran Zach Ertz sidelined for the year due to a knee injury, rookie tight end Trey McBride has a legit chance to wrap up his first NFL season on a high note.
Now, replicating Ertz’s game is no small feat — he still holds the team lead for receiving touchdowns (four), is third in receptions (47) and fourth in yards (406) — but getting something out of the tight end spot will provide another wrinkle the offense hasn’t seen since Week 10.
And with Maxx Williams still dealing with the lingering effects of his season-ending knee injury last year on top of the lack of playing time both he and Stephen Anderson are seeing with Ertz out, all signs point to McBride taking on a bigger role. As he should, given his second-round price tag and the athleticism to impact games.
Kingsbury isn’t oblivious to the lack of production at TE since Ertz went down, acknowledging the impact he has on the offense as a whole.
“I think the more (Brown and Hopkins) together you can see that it can cause some problems for the defense,” Kingsbury said Monday. “Zach Ertz, he’s a big part of working the middle. He’s a guy who is kind of a fail safe for this offense. That’s one that with those two guys and the speed they play with around him could have been a real weapon.
“Watching Hollywood run and take the top off things, and then DeAndre goes for that underneath stuff, it could be a good weapon for us moving forward. There’s no doubt.”
So far this season, McBride has eight starts under his belt but has been used more as a blocker. In his first eight games as a Cardinal, he had just three catches resulting in 24 yards, all of which came in a Week 4 win over the Carolina Panthers.
With Ertz out, McBride has seen an uptick in targets, reeling in eight catches over the past three weeks.
“He’s just growing into it right now,” Kingsbury said. “We see some real flashes at practice where you know he’s going to be a very good player in this league. Sometimes in the games, it seems a little sped up for him, but that’s all rookies. The more reps he gets with Zach being out, I think it’s going to continue to help him, and you’ll start to see some of those flashes as the season winds down.”
The more reps the better for McBride.
Let Sanders and Thomas hunt
Speaking of rookies who should get more run over the remaining five games, outside linebackers Myjai Sanders and Cameron Thomas are two more obvious candidates.
This season, Sanders has seen at least 20 snaps in a game just three times, with a season-high 29 reps coming his way against the Los Angeles Chargers last week. He also earned his first NFL start in the Week 12 loss.
Thomas on the other hand has just two 20-snap outings under his belt in 2022 and has yet to start.
Rookie ED Cameron Thomas needs more snaps for the Cardinals. He’s flashed on tape when given opportunities.
Plus, the rush package of Thomas, Allen, Watt, & Golden has some promise. #BirdCityFootball pic.twitter.com/rSJ8IbVdSX
— Full-Time Dame 💰 (@DP_NFL) November 30, 2022
Despite the low snap counts, though, both Sanders and Thomas have managed to flash their abilities, with the pair recording two sacks, two tackles for loss and two passes defensed each. They also recorded seven QB hits combined.
In terms of Arizona’s outside linebackers, Sanders and Thomas pace the room, with Markus Golden and Dennis Gardeck largely ineffective this season.
NO DOUBT ABOUT IT MYJAI 😤@MyjaiSanders x #BirdCityFootball pic.twitter.com/iDDkBZtL8m
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) November 13, 2022
Obviously, Golden and Gardeck need their playing time, but getting Sanders and Thomas 30-plus snaps in each of the final five games could pay dividends for a team that is in need of an improved pass rush heading into next season.
Figure out what you have at OL and RB
With how things have transpired over the year and where they are headed, Arizona’s offensive line will likely look a whole lot different when training camp rolls back around next year.
Center Rodney Hudson and left guard Justin Pugh appear at the end of their careers, each dealing with lengthy injury issues this season. Right guard Will Hernandez is on a one-year deal and has spent time on the IR, right tackle Kelvin Beachum is an unrestricted free agent after this season and the team’s only healthy opening-day starter. Left tackle D.J. Humphries is suffering from a back injury that cut his season to eight games.
The OL will obviously need some revamping, whether that is through the draft, free agency or trade market, but there are also in-house options that could use a closer look.
Two names that come to mind are rookie Lecitus Smith and Josh Jones.
Jones has moved to left tackle and held up well enough after playing right tackle and right guard in his first couple of seasons in the NFL.
After thinking he wouldn’t touch the field as a rookie, Smith has picked up two starts in Weeks 10 and 11 and filled in for most of the team’s Week 9 tilt in place of the injured Hernandez.
Oddly enough, though, Smith was held without an offensive snap this past week, with the starting OL playing 100% of the available reps.
If Arizona really wants to see what Smith can bring to the table, getting him back in mix down in the trenches is key.
Running back Keaontay Ingram and potentially veteran Darrel Williams, depending on his injury status, are two other names the Cardinals should take a closer look at on the offensive side of things.
After Eno Benjamin’s surprise release midseason, Ingram has been moved into the No. 2 RB role, although he’s seen no more than five carries in a single game since getting the backup nod.
Williams hasn’t played since Week 8 with a hip issue that placed him on the IR. Before going down, he was largely a nonfactor in the offense with Conner and Benjamin taking the bulk of the carries.
With the resume he brought over from the Kansas City Chiefs and his low price tag, the veteran could be an option moving forward. It’ll just come down to what he shows the team the rest of the season, and if he can make it back cleanly from the injury.