You do not have to study film to know quarterback Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals offense gave the NFL’s second-ranked defense all it could handle on Sunday. However, having examined the tape, it’s more clear as to how the first-year coach and rookie signal-caller were able to have success, nearly pulling off the upset.
Just 21 minutes into the game, the Cardinals held a 16-0 advantage over the 8-1 San Francisco 49ers, thanks in part to the Cardinals offense coming away with points on three of their first four possessions.
A deeper dive reveals a solid strategy revolving around the rookie quarterback, Kyler Murray. More importantly, the former first-round pick would do an excellent job of executing the gameplan.
With the 49ers defense allowing a mere 14.3 points per contest, head coach Kliff Kingsbury knew keeping ahead of the chains would be paramount, hence going away from predictable 1st down runs that often result in 2nd and long situations.
In most circumstances, gaining less than five yards on first down puts you behind the chains. So, to stay ahead, as it’s dubbed, one would need to gain five or more yards.
Why not throw the football, then?
More teams throw on first down today than they ever have. However, the 49ers are currently tied for the most sacks by an NFL defense, making it more precarious to drop back, especially early in the down and distance. Plus, Murray was effective, gaining 54 yards and scoring one touchdown on first down runs.
Not to say Murray wasn’t or isn’t effective throwing from the pocket. He’s quite competent in that area. Take this critical 3rd & 11 play ten minutes into the first quarter. The substantial gain into 49ers’ territory ultimately leads to the Cardinal’s first touchdown of the game and a double-digit lead.
The lack of aggression in the passing game was by design. Kingsbury believed the likelihood of the Cardinals’ offensive line holding up to the 49ers pass rush in obvious passing situations was bleak. This led to the Cardinals’ early-down strategy. With that said, Murray wasn’t the cause for concern as he proved capable of performing some magic in these instances, as you saw above.
That’s not to say Kingsbury wouldn’t go to the air on early downs from time to time. As NFL’s Next Gen Stats indicate, Murray was relegated to designed screens and quick reads to eliminate the pass rush. While proven to be a successful strategy, Murray’s strengths as a dual-threat quarterback were weakened.
According to Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM), Murray ranked 24th among qualified quarterbacks for Week 11’s game against San Francisco. His 14.93 would be his 5th lowest grade of 2019, roughly five percent below his season average.
Yes, the film provides further proof that Murray indeed had little to do with the overall production of the Cardinals offense. However, I’d argue that his impact was limited by playcalling and strategy dictated by his coach, his opponent, and the lack of talent at the other ten positions.
While unspectacular, Murray did his job on Sunday.
By design, Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, analytically speaking, was disastrous against the 49ers. For Week 11, Murray’s average intended air yards were worst among qualified passers (4.0) while his average completed air yards (2.7) were only better than Tom Brady’s (2.6).
Murray would also take little to no risk. This, too, was by design as Murray instead completed a high percentage (72.7%) of his attempts, albeit mostly short, quick passes.
Let me say that Kyler Murray was the right choice for the Cardinals and head coach Kliff Kingsbury. The often-maligned franchise from Tempe, Arizona, selected Murray with their first overall pick back in the 2019 NFL draft. Since arriving, Murray has shown improvement and a skill-set capable of wreaking havoc in today’s NFL (see Lamar Jackson).
However, Murray is the building block. He’s the foundation of which the future of the Cardinals is being built. It’s no secret that on Sunday, the Cardinals were not limited because of Murray, but instead, Murray was limited because of the Cardinals.
The offense found success when Murray ran on early downs. By throwing quick, precise passes to players in space, the offense limited the top pass-rushing defense to one sack in the first half. But it wasn’t sustainable.
The Cardinals’ defense would be battered, and ultimately the Cardinals offense was relegated to standing on the sideline for much of the second half. There’s no way you win with your best player out of the game.
Shane G. Tyler is the Film Room Content Director and writer for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter @SugaShane15.