Arizona Cardinals Recap - Week 9: Zane-Be Gone-Zalez
Updated: Nov 16, 2020
What a way to lose. A less than ideal situation, down by three, on the 31 yard line. A kicker trots out to the field, coming off a game where he took down an undefeated team on a 48 yarder. Now, he's called upon again, to send the ball one extra yard. He takes his steps and gets set up. The holder looks back to the kicker, waiting for his nod. The holder turns his head back towards the snapper and flashes his hand. The snapper sends the ball back as fast as he can. Snap is good...hold is good...kick is...short. With a minute and 54 seconds left on the clock, the Dolphins get a first down and chew the rest of it off.
Two games in a row, Kliff Kingsbury got soft and called a field goal with not only a good amount of time left on the clock, but also with an offense that was driving. Props to the Dolphins, who can be a scary team, for capitalizing on the Cardinals mistakes and giving us a gut check loss. But in reality, this game isn't on Kliff. And even if Week 7's thriller versus the Seattle Seahawks doesn't go in our favor, it still wouldn't be Kliff's fault. There has been one constant on our team this year who has been unable to step up to the plate in clutch situations. There has been one player who consistently has worried Cardinals fans for the past two seasons. If you haven't guessed by now, it's our sometimes-absolute-cannon-for-a-leg-and-other-times-marshmallow-of-an-athlete professional kicker, the one and only: Zane Gonzalez.
Photo: Sports Illustrated
During his time in Arizona, Zane has been anything but spectacular. Since arriving halfway through 2018, he has a field goal percentage of 83%, which is just below the league average of 84%. Of his missed 10 missed field goals since the midway point of 2018, three of them have been in game tying situations (two misses in Week 1 against the 49ers and one miss in Week 9 against the Dolphins), and one was to win the game (Week 7 against the Seahawks in OT). On the flip side, he has only made two game winners in that same time frame (One for our first win in 2019 against the Bengals, and another in Week 7 against the Seahawks thanks to an Isaiah Simmons interception). More on Isaiah Simmons later; I cannot sit back and continue to watch the Cardinals have a subpar kicking game since the gruesome miss of Chandler Catanzaro against the Patriots in Week 1 of the 2016 season. It feels as if, since that game, Arizona kickers have struggled to hone in and win ball games. Don't get me wrong, Zane is a good kicker, but I would be hesitant to call upon him to kick the game winner in the Super Bowl.
Although kicking is a key issue for the Cardinals this year, there is only one free agent who has a field goal percentage higher than Zane's since 2018: Greg Joseph. Greg, who has a field goal percentage of 85%, has only hit one game winner and has not played since 2018. Notable names like Adam Vinatieri, Stephen Hauschka, Mike Nugent, and others, have hit less than 80% of their attempts since 2018. It's slim pickings for the Cardinals, but using a practice squad spot to keep the pressure on Zane would be an ideal option going forward.
Kicking Stats Source: Pro Football Reference
Moving on from the atrocity of kicking in the NFL, let's break down some of my key takeaways in this weeks addition of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly:
*Feel free to read the remainder blog, I put key points at the top of each topic to make it easier to follow.*
Kyler Murray is a legitimate MVP candidate
D-Hop is still the best receiver in the league
The Offensive Line continues to eat
Photo: Sports Illustrated
Kyler Murray has been the heart and soul of our offense since he arrived in Year 1. This week, he continued that trend by completing almost 81% of his passes, throwing 3 TDs, rushing for a TD, all while throwing for 283 yards, rushing for 106 yards, and posting a 150.5 passer rating. As great as this game was, this is nothing new for Kyler. In just a season and a half, he has joined an exclusive club of dual threat QBs. For his rookie season, he joined Cam Newton as the only rookie QBs to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 500 yards. This past week, Kyler became the only quarterback ever to throw for 5,000 yards and 30 TDs while rushing for 1,000 yards and 10 TDs in 24 career starts. This season alone, Kyler has thrown for over 2,000 yards and has 16 TD passes, while rushing for over 500 yards (1 yard short of his total from last season) and 8 TDs (double last season's total). He is currently on pace to become to first QB to ever pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards. So far this season, on fourth down, Kyler is 5 for 6 on conversions (two passing, three rushing). In addition, he has brought the Cardinals from being the 4th worst red zone offense in 2019, to the 5th best red zone offense in 2020, throwing for 11 TDs and rushing for 8 TDs from inside the opponent's 20 yard line. The only other players above him in the MVP race are Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes.
Stats from this past week would tell you differently, but Deandre Hopkins is still that dude. Yes, 3 catches for 30 yards is nothing to be impressed with, but he was working Xavien Howard and Byron Jones all day long. D-Hop drew three pass interference calls from Howard on 3rd down passes, pushing the Cards down field on key drives. Despite this performance, D-Hop and Kyler have been a match made in heaven. Hopkins is currently tied for 3rd in receptions with 60, 5th in yards with 734 and tied for 2nd in first downs with 39. Yes, his touchdown numbers aren't great (3 so far on the season), but he's one of the best route runners in the league, from slants, to corners, to go routes. Even with his incredible production, he is still only 8 games in with Kyler, they will only grow as the season continues and will be a deadly tag team for years to come.
The most improved unit on the Cardinals is the offensive line, by FAR. After being ranked in the bottom 10 for their play in 2019, according Football Outsiders, the Cardinals have turned the offensive line around and are now one of the best squads in the NFL. This unit has allowed only 10 sacks on the season, tied for 2nd in the league, and have allowed a run stuff rate of just 16%, 5th in the league. Sunday was no different. Besides a strip sack and a fourth down stop, the Cardinals offensive line came to bat. They opened up holes for Murray and Chase Edmonds to run through all game, while giving Kyler ample time in the pocket to make smart decisions with the football; leading to his elite 150.5 passer rating. I would attribute a good chunk of the offensive dominance over the course of this season to the improvement and overall health of our offensive line. I am excited to see how they play throughout the remainder of this season; hopefully Josh Jones will get it together and not get beat on a critical 4th down. More on that later.
Andy Isabella Kick Return Fumble (almost)
Isaiah Simmons not getting more playing time
Kliff Kingsbury calling too conservatively
Photo: Arizona Republic
Andy Isabella has made the most of his opportunities. The second year receiver has 13 receptions for 164 yards and 2 TDs on the season; pretty solid for a packed wide receiver group. Andy's speed is no joke either, which he's put on display multiple times throughout his career. This led to the decision to have him return kicks for this game. On his second opportunity to field a kickoff, he nearly lost a fumble on a rather avoidable hit. Although the Cardinals ultimately kept the ball, this leaves fans questioning whether we can trust Andy going forward. Yes, it's only one play, but it was in a situation where we are losing, and Andy hasn't produced like another second round, 64th overall pick, stud receiver from the 2019 draft (I'm looking at you Steve Keim).
Isaiah Simmons is finally seeing the field more. After playing only 5 snaps on Sunday Night Football in Week 7 and making the game changing play, he came out and played on 32 defensive snaps, the most of his young career. He tallied 3 tackles and was avoided when the ball was being thrown. He had a good game, so what's the problem? He's a top 10 defensive draft choice and hasn't had an opportunity to showcase his skills effectively. I would be less worried, but we've seen this happen before with Deone Bucannon. Deone, a safety drafted in the first round in 2014, played multiple positions his rookie year until landing at linebacker in his second season. He would stay here for years to come and has had a "bust" career. Isaiah may not work in our defense the way we want to, as we already have an incredible box safety in the form of Budda Baker. Ideally, Isaiah could play over the top in the early downs, and then crank down as a nickel back or edge rusher on third down; similar to what he did at Clemson when he dominated opposing offenses. Time will tell, but Isaiah needs more playing time if we want to see him blossom and become a generational defensive talent.
Kliff has had a history of aggressive play calling. As stated earlier, however, he has toned this down and it is going to cost us games. The "Air Raid" style doesn't send out the punt or field goal unit on fourth and short. They either plow right ahead, or trust your QB to make a play; which is what Kyler has done all year long. In Week 7, he sent out the field goal unit with a little more than 3 minutes to go in overtime on SECOND DOWN. You could feel it in the air that Zane, or any kicker for that matter, was going to miss in that situation. Kliff needs to get his act together and get back to the gutsy play calling that we saw all game long from him.
Kyler Murray is too loose with the ball
Josh Jones wrecked by Zach Sieler on crucial 4th down
Zane Gonzalez comes up short
Photo: Associated Press
Kyler, as great as he has played, has also made some bonehead plays by being careless with the ball. He has already fumbled three times and has lost two of them this year, all on scrambles. In Week 3, he threw three picks, two of which to underwhelming rookie cornerback Jeff Okudah. Last week was no exception of poor awareness. Emmanuel Ogbah, one of the most underrated hybrid defensive lineman (can either play edge rusher in a 4-3 or a 3 tech in a 3-4) in the league, chased down Kyler from behind and knocked the ball free, allowing Shaq Lawson, another greatly underrated pass rusher, to scoop and score for Miami's second straight week with a defensive touchdown. This changed the course of the game and, ultimately, gave the Dolphins the edge over the Cardinals. If Kyler wants that MVP trophy, he needs to cut down the costly turnovers and make smarter decisions with the ball.
Josh Jones is awkward to talk about. Many analysts had him pegged as being a first round draft choice, some even had him as the third offensive lineman off the board. When he fell to the Cardinals in the third round, I thought it was a total steal. It felt similar to when Maurice Hurst fell to the Raiders in the sixth round of the 2018 draft. Since joining the Cardinals, he has been backing up both the left and right tackle spots, while being used in our "six offensive lineman" sets. He has been pretty average, opening up holes on some plays and letting up stuffs on other plays, leading him to a 47.8 grade by Pro Football Focus. On a crucial fourth down, he had the worst play of his career so far. Zach Sieler, a backup defensive tackle, engaged Jones and drove him two yards back, causing Edmonds to bounce the ball outside where he was corralled by Sieler and company. This gave the Dolphins solid field position that lead to a field goal for Jason Sanders, who has had an impressive season. He has hit 20 consecutive field goals, a Dolphins record. If Josh Jones wants to find a spot on this offensive line, he needs to bear down and punish the man across from him.
I don't think I need to dive into number 3. Refer to paragraphs 1 through 4 at the beginning of this blog.
Kyler Murray Stat Source: The Football Database
One player I did not mention throughout this article is Christian Kirk. He has established himself as the #2 receiver in our offense, posting 246 yards and 5 TDs in the past three games. If I was happier with the team's performance, he would have gotten the MVP award for the game (when we win, players get awards, when we lose, get better). Nevertheless, he has been absolutely balling and will definitely be getting more and more touches as the season goes on.
Photo: Sports Illustrated
The Cardinals are playing the best football they have in the past five years. An NFC Championship appearance in the 2016 playoffs, to the worst team in football in 2018, is no easy task. I criticized the Cards when we drafted a first round QB in 2 consecutive drafts. Our first round draft picks over the previous 15 years have been abysmal, for the most part. And yet, with all of these setbacks, we are finally in a position to make a push. Losing Chandler Jones for the season will definitely hurt our chances, but we will continue to fight for every yard and compete with anyone we play. Watch out for the Cardinals over the next three to five years, Kyler and Kliff are gonna take the league by storm.