As we have been for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Josh Carney and I will cover the opposing team’s offense. I will focus on scheme, Josh on the players.
Our first look at the Arizona Cardinals’ offense.
Alex’s Scheme Report
Cardinals Run Game
The leading rusher of the Arizona Cardinals? Not David Johnson. It’s Kyler Murray, who paces the group with 446 yards and four touchdowns. That’s partly due to him being their most stable run threat, staying healthy and not getting shuttled to the bench the way Johnson has but he’s a true run threat. Plenty of designed runs or chances for him to carry the football. Different than other mobile QBs like Russell Wilson, who only runs on scramble drills, or Baker Mayfield, who can beat you with his legs but rarely has a run designed for him. Not the case with Murray. New head coach Kliff Kingsbury isn’t being shy with him.
Ton of read option, just like you see in the college game. One less guy to block, reading the DE/OLB is how they take care of him, with Murray given the option to pull the ball out of the belly of the back and take off. Read is simple. If the unblocked man squeezes the back, keep the ball. If he contains, give the ball to the runner.
Kenyan Drake has taken over the lead role in the backfield after getting dealt from Miami more than a month ago. He’s averaging 13.5 carries per game, 4.5 yards per carry, while Johnson has taken a serious backseat. Just 10 carries his last four contests.
The run game has been a strength and what the Cardinals lean on. 41 carries of 10+ yards, tied for 10th most in football. Murray is responsible for 15 of those, again highlighting how serious of a threat he is, which is as many more than Alvin Kamara or Aaron Jones.
Their more traditional run game involves a good deal of power from the backside guard but again, the highlight and unique element of this offense is with the QB. Here’s a triple option with a give/keep/pitch options.
And here’s them running old-school QB power with Murray toting the rock.
Their offense is designed to put defenders in conflict, creating lose/lose situations, and forcing defenders to read the play, slowing them down and making them late to react to where the ball is going. Baltimore presents a similar challenge and the Steelers did as good a job containing Lamar Jackson as anyone but the Cardinals actually have a couple more wrinkles, even if the personnel isn’t quite as talented.
Some other offensive stats. They’ve been hit or miss in terms of output the last two months. Scored 25+ points in six of their last eight. Held under ten points in the other two, including just seven in last week’s 34-7 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Struggling on third down (34.6%, 22nd) and in the red zone (38.5%, 29th).
Cardinals Pass Game
Murray hasn’t suffered the pitfalls of plenty of rookie QBs. High completion rate, nearly 64%, though some of that is the efficient nature of the Cardinals’ scheme. Thrown 14 touchdowns to just six INTs this season. Over the last eight weeks, he has 10 passing TDs and just a pair of INTs, showing he’s able to take care of the football.
The area where he feels like a rookie? Sacks. 41 of them, more than any other QB in football. Been sacked at least twice in ten of his 12 starts. Offensive line isn’t great but like Devlin Hodges, there’s a tendency to drift backwards, get more depth than he should, and make life hard on his offensive tackles.
Larry Fitzgerald remains the #1 receiver, pacing the group with 61 catches and three touchdowns. Christian Kirk is second with 49 grabs. No receiver with more than 20 receptions are averaging 11 yards per reception, signaling a dink-and-dunk offense that again, looks to be efficient. Don’t worry a whole lot about their TEs either. Charles Clay is their leading receiver at the position but has only 15 catches this year. Rookie WR Andy Isabella is their true deep threat, averaging 25.7 yards on seven receptions with an 88 yard TD.
Ton of screens and run game alternatives. Murray’s given a lot of freedom at the LOS to put the offense in the right spot. They like this fake toss/screen on 1st and 10.
They like this post/wheel combination on 1st and 2nd down, too.
On 3rd down? Love to go with bunch sets to create picks and rubs for separation. Use Fitzgerald as the “point man” to get in everyone’s way for their other receivers to get open. Being able to communicate, work through trash, and use different coverages/box calls to deal with their bunch set will be important.
One last note. Have run one fake punt this season, a crazy-looking flea flicker pass by punter Andy Lee, a lame duck that was somehow caught. Came against Tampa Bay, 8:39 left in the 4th quarter, down 23-20, facing 4th and 10 on their own 36.
Josh’s Individual Report
It’s Cardinals week, Steelers fans!
Leading up to the start of the 2019 NFL regular season, a lot of talk surrounded the Arizona Cardinals, first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury, and first overall pick Kyler Murray as the Cardinals were set to show the league something it hadn’t seen in quite some time — if at all: the Air Raid Offense.
While the Cardinals have shown flashes offensively, it hasn’t been as consistent as Kingsbury, Murray and the front office would like at this point as Arizona comes in with the No. 23 offense in football and was really shutdown last week against the Los Angeles Rams in a 34-7 laugher that featured a pick-6 from Murray.
Much like the Cardinals’ offense, Murray’s rookie season has been up and down with plenty of highs and a good number of lows. His talent is quite evident on film as his arm is exceptionally strong and accurate, while his legs are quick and powerful, allowing him to be a real problem for defenses. Unfortunately for Murray, the blocking isn’t quite there up front and the talent around him isn’t up to snuff at this point.
That said, he makes a handful of wow plays every week with his arm and his legs.
His arm is largely what got him drafted first overall. While his stature is small, he has a whip for an arm and can sling the football all over the place with a flick of his wrist.
With that whip of an arm, the accuracy is startlingly great.
This throw by Murray is one of my favorite throws of the year from any quarterback in the league this year.
He’s falling away from the throw to protect himself from the hit and drops an absolute dime between two defenders to his receiver 50 yards down the field. That’s incredible arm strength and touch on the deep ball.
His arm is going to stretch the Steelers vertically on Sunday, should his offensive line hold up long enough and Kingsbury dial up some deep shots, but what the Cardinals really want to do as of late is stretch the defense horizontally, opening up lanes while looking to get guys in space one-on-one against defenders.
Coming off of a season-worst tackling performance, that could be serious trouble for the Steelers.
In the red zone in Week 11 against the San Francisco 49ers, the Cardinals did that quite a bit.
I liked Pharoh Cooper quite a bit coming out of South Carolina, but he simply hasn’t been able to catch on with a team long enough to make an impact as a receiver and returner. He’s getting a chance now with Arizona and playing well.
Against the Niners, Cooper won easily in space here, which is his MO.
Look for the Cardinals to try and do this a ton against the Steelers on Sunday, spreading them out to try and let athletes win in space against a team that has struggled to tackle in recent weeks.
It won’t just be receivers and running backs put in space either. Murray is so darn dangerous with his legs. He adds another element to this offense that many defenses can’t match.
San Francisco has a great defense with a ton of speed. They couldn’t really control Murray’s speed and vision as a runner.
Both of those runs above are read options designed to get Murray on the perimeter against slower athletes, giving him a chance to rip off some big runs.
The first run is a miss from standout linebacker Fred Warner, leading to a 21-yard run. The second run is a 22-yard touchdown in which Murray destroys any semblance of an angle by safety Jaquiski Tartt. I cringe watching both runs because I can see Steelers defenders slow to react, miss a tackle and Murray is in the end zone.
Hopefully they reenact a similar plan used against Lamar Jackson in Week 4, slowing him down as a runner, forcing him to try and win from the pocket.
Aside from Murray and an emerging player like Cooper, the Cardinals are still tried and true with Larry Fitzgerald, who continues to get it done in the league as a slot receiver.
A lot of what Fitzgerald does with Murray is timing routes designed to be one read for Murray, allowing him to get rid of the ball quickly. That includes quick slants and skinny posts, much like you see him from Fitzgerald that results in 18 yards. Again, spread the defense out and let your guys win in space.
Christian Kirk is the most targeted wide receiver on this team and has come on strong for the Cardinals in the last month or so. He’s a strong route runner and has the ability to separate in tight, but nothing has really jumped off film in the last couple of games that I’ve watched. They’ll move him all over the place to try and get matchup issues.
At running back, it’s been a revolving door for the Cardinals. David Johnson was expected to be a superstar this year, but he simply can’t stay healthy, and when he’s on the field he’s simply not producing.
Chase Edmonds flashed for a few weeks, but he’s hurt, which led to the trade for Kenyan Drake.
Drake has been pretty solid for Arizona since coming over in the trade, but there’s not enough there for the Cardinals to be a balanced attack, leaning on Drake as a workhorse.
That said, the Steelers saw him once this year. He has the ability to hit the home run and is a tough cover out of the backfield as a receiver.
At tight end, it’s a quiet, yet experienced group. Charles Clay has been in the league forever and quietly produces every year, while Maxx Williams hasn’t done much this year. Darrell Daniels and Dan Arnold back up the two veterans for Arizona, but neither is a real receiving threat at this point.
Up front, there’s not a big name in the group, but they have shown the ability to keep Murray upright and clean; it’s just not consistent though. At one point this season Pro Football Focus had the offensive line as a top-10 pass blocking unit.
Here’s how I expect them to line up left to right on Sunday:
LT – DJ Humphries
LG — Justin Pugh
C — A.Q. Shipley
RG — J.R. Sweezy
RT — Justin Murray
To be quite honest, I had no idea who Justin Murray was until I started watching Cardinals film. He’s a below-average tackle that gives up far too many pressures. TJ Watt should eat on Sunday.
Humphries is a really solid tackle at this point, while Pugh and Sweezy are veteran guards who will at least hold up in pass protection.
A.Q. Shipley is a personal favorite though, dating back to his time at Penn State. I loved that guy under Joe Paterno, so it’s been great to see him reach a milestone of 100 games in the NFL. I always wanted him to stick in the league with the Steelers, but I’m glad to see him starting and excelling in Arizona.
On special teams, kicker Zane Gonzalez has been super solid for the Cardinals this year, missing just 3 field goal attempts all season. He’s also missed just one extra point attempt.
He doesn’t have a massive leg, but he’s accurate and has great mechanics, all of which helped him win the Lou Groza Award in college at Arizona State University.
Punter Andy Lee continues to punt a well at the age of 37, averaging just over 48 yards a punt. Sixteen of his 48 punts have been pinned down inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Not bad for an old guy.
Cooper is the kick returner for the Cardinals, averaging 23.2 yards per return. It’s not a great unit, but Cooper does have a 39-yard return on the year. Pittsburgh could even see rookie receiver Andy Isabella back there on Sunday too.
Cooper and Kirk split duties as punt returners, so that’ll be something to keep an eye on. Both were elite returners in college, but neither has really gotten going on punt returns. Let’s hope that continues on Sunday.