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What to expect when the Cardinals have the ball

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Joined by Blake Murphy from Revenge of the Birds

Arizona Cardinals v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers are on the road Thursday night to face the Arizona Cardinals. Today we’re joined by Blake Murphy from Revenge of the Birds to discuss what we can expect to see when Kyler Murray is on the field.


The Cardinals offense has for lack of a better phrase been a work in progress this season with various looks in spreading the ball around.

Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray let the matchups or even box numbers dictate play calls and coverage and work to call plays designed to exploit some of those coverages on tape through a combination of a power run game, quick passes, and some designed misdirection plays.

Murray is by nature a quarterback who doesn’t like turning the ball over and really doesn’t like taking hits, while Kingsbury has found the team’s best offensive success not with his 10 personnel looks but rather out of two-tight ends or two running back sets, which have allowed for better protection for the rookie, and a focus on not forcing bad plays or getting into a negative game script like 3rd and long.

In short, to paint a complete picture, Arizona’s goal is to set up the team in a positive script on first and second down, allowing them on 3rd down to spread teams out in short down and distance and then run the ball against a lightbox. Then if/when teams load the box (or play expecting the pass), they can utilize play-action to find mismatches down the field, using Murray’s arm or his legs to extend and find the open man or simply bait the defense into giving up chunk plays.

The biggest issue, however, is that due to the nature of Arizona’s talent level and the youthful aspect of their quarterback and team, they struggle when getting off that game script, they’re almost solely dependent on Kyler’s legs to extend and make plays as they don’t have the receivers to win one-on-one matchups, and there are times when Murray’s “hero ball” instincts can come back to bite him in taking a sack in trying to make a big play happen or will take a check down and live to fight another down.

In the red zone, the team also seems to struggle to convert opportunities, either through not being able to effectively run the ball or not having a real redone threat, so a lot of play calls this year have been short of the pylon. As a result, the team’s best red-zone threats have been Murray’s legs or being able to hand the ball off rather than the passing game.


Blake has a good point about personnel, and I’d be surprised if we saw a heavy amount of 10 personnel on the field for the Cardinals Thursday Night. When you create that type of space for the 49ers, you are playing into the hands of the defense. Space creates an opportunity for the defensive line. Opportunity equals sacks. With having 12 personnel, which are two tight ends and two receivers on the field, you keep the 49ers in their base defense. San Francisco has been dominant in its nickel and dime packages this season. They’ve been plenty good in their base defense, but if there is a way to exploit the Niners, it’s when there is a third linebacker on the field. Even then, the 49ers have been stingy at giving up yards.

The 49ers are going to do what they do on defense, no matter who is on the field. Against Arizona, I expect Robert Saleh to make the Cardinals prove that they can run the ball. David Johnson and Chase Edmonds are out, which means Arizona is thin at running back. Newcomer Kenyan Drake is more of a receiving threat. The Cardinals don’t get much of a push up front with their offensive line, and that won’t change Thursday Night. Kliff Kingsbury told reporters Tuesday he would throw the ball every down if that’s what it took to win. Perhaps that’s what we see tonight? Probably not. The last thing you want to do against the best defensive line in the country is to let them pin their ears back every play.

This will be the 49ers’ first test against a true mobile quarterback. Baker Mayfield can move around a little bit, but Kyler Murray can legitimately run away from defenders and extend plays. You’ll see Murray scramble to one side of the field, only to throw it all the way back across the field for a 20+ yard gain. San Francisco will need to be more disciplined than ever. If they can keep Murray in the pocket and make him play within the structure of Arizona’s offense, it should be another game where the offense that is going up against the Niners defense is going three and out the majority of the time.

If not, Arizona will make their plays, but as Blake mentioned, there is not a ton of talent on offense. Teams struggle to move the ball in general against San Francisco. Arizona is 18th in yards per drive. Their issue is once they reach the red zone, the Cardinals have no identity. Arizona is dead last in the NFL when it comes to scoring touchdowns in the red zone. If you can’t punch it in when you’re close against this defense, you don’t stand a chance over four quarters.