Each week this season, NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell will study the tape and provide his world-class analysis to the 33rd Team.
Among the biggest revelations through two weeks of the NFL season has been the success of the Arizona Cardinals, as third-year quarterback Kyler Murray has taken a meaningful leap in his overall play. The Cardinals have opened the season with wins over the Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings as Murray ranks among the top five in passing yards, yards per attempt and passing touchdowns. I’ve taken a look at Murray’s 2020 season and the first two weeks of 2021 in great detail. Below are my observations on Murray’s play this far into the season and the noticeable progression he’s made.
One of the most noticeable things that stood out watching Murray in 2020 was his ability to throw effectively off-balance. Developed most likely as a function of his lack of height, his capacity to deliver the ball while falling away is a crucial element to his game. He also showed a tendency to break down in the pocket at times where there was no significant pressure, and that hurt his play. This was possibly a function of his size and inability to gain a clear picture of the defense and the play at times. His ball placement remained erratic and inconsistent; improvement in his ball location was an element of his game that needed developing in order for him to ascend to the next level of quarterbacking. In 2020, the Cardinals passing game as a whole had no rhythmic feel on third-and-long. This was a result of both pass protection and Murray’s own tendency to break down prematurely in the pocket. With Murray leaving some throws on the field due to his tendency to leave the pocket too early, there were too many pass game concepts that were not executed within the demanded structure and timing.
Week 1 of this season saw Murray make a play that exhibited improvement in his pocket presence, ball placement and ability to execute on third-and-long. Facing a third-and-6 in the third quarter against the Titans, Murray found Christian Kirk for 22 yards. Arizona was in a 3×2 set with trips to the field and stacked twins to the boundary with Kirk aligned as the inside slot to the trips side. The Titans matched up with cover 1 lurk, a man-to-man concept with a single post safety and an underneath lurk defender who was also in position to be deployed as a spy on Murray. Kirk ran a crossing route from the field to the boundary with Titans safety Kevin Byard in tight man-to-man coverage. Murray got front-side pressure from edge rusher, Harold Landry, and comfortably slid to his left in the pocket to make the throw. Quarterbacks must feel pressure, instead of seeing it, to become efficient in the pocket. Here, Murray did not resort to his tendency to break down in the pocket when he didn’t need to. Instead, he took a subtle two steps to the left away from the pressure, stayed balanced, maintained his downfield vision and made an accurate throw with pace, touch and precise ball location. The result was a 22-yard play on a crucial third-and-6, a down and distance Murray had trouble with last season.
Arizona’s Week 2 victory against the Vikings came down to the very end, and Murray made a play late in the fourth quarter that showcased his arm talent and accuracy while putting the Cardinals in position for the eventual game-winning field goal. On fourth-and-5 with 6:12 left in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals were trailing 33-31. With the ball on their opponent’s 41-yard line, Arizona was not in field goal range and was forced to go for the first down. They lined up in 10 personnel (one running back, four wide receivers) with trips to the boundary and Hopkins as the lone receiver to the field. The Vikings countered with 0 blitz – an all-out pressure scheme with man-to-man coverage across the board and no deep safety.
Minnesota began to show its hand right before the snap, as safety Xavier Woods crept up toward the line of scrimmage; that was a 0-coverage indicator to Murray. Kirk was lined up as the number two receiver on the trips side with cornerback Mackensie Alexander in coverage. Alexander wasn’t expecting Kirk to run a vertical route; he was expecting the Vikings’ pressure to force Murray to get the ball out quickly. Kirk did an outstanding job tempoing his release — getting Alexander to anticipate the shorter route. Kirk then ran right by Alexander as Murray delivered a strong throw while falling away from pressure. The result was an explosive play and a new set of downs at Minnesota’s 6-yard line. This play was out of an empty set and Murray has been both efficient and explosive in those sets – he’s completed all 13 pass attempts for 173 yards and 2 touchdowns through the first two weeks of 2021.
While Murray’s special ability to make off-schedule, second-reaction plays is always a factor (such as his 77-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Rondale Moore against Minnesota), this is a skill that makes him spectacular but not necessarily consistent, and it’s consistency that is the hallmark of top QB play. His ascension to the next echelon of quarterbacking will be dependent on both his ability to stay poised in the pocket and hit NFL level throws from the pocket – as he’s shown in the first two weeks of this NFL season. His aptitude for second-reaction playmaking will not be enough; it needs to be the complement to proficiency and consistency in the pocket. Murray has shown improvement in this area of his game through the first two weeks of the NFL season As Murray further develops his ball placement and pocket composure, he will become an even better quarterback and raise the ceiling of the Arizona Cardinals in 2021 and beyond.
Aadit Mehta contributed to this story.