TEMPE, Ariz. — As Sunday’s game wore on, it was starting to become clear that the New England Patriots had figured out a way to slow down the Arizona Cardinals’ high-octane offense and — especially — quarterback Kyler Murray.
But the Patriots aren’t the only ones who have picked the lock on Murray and the Cardinals. They were following a blueprint that has been laid out the past few weeks.
During the past four games — in which the Cardinals have gone 1-3 and nearly 0-4 were it not for a Hail Mary against the Bills — teams have figured out how to defend the dynamic Murray using a combination of containment, blitzing and leaping defensive linemen. Coach Kliff Kingsbury has taken issue with the phrase “figuring out,” and Murray says it’s not an issue.
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“I don’t think I have to run for us to be successful,” Murray said after the Cardinals’ 20-17 loss to the Patriots. “I’m very confident about our running backs. It just is what it is. They chose to take me out of it. I’ve got to hand the ball off. I can’t control the ball after that. I’ve got to hand the ball off.”
But when Murray hands off, it’s a win for the defense. Murray has averaged 65.2 rushing yards during six Arizona victories. In losses, it’s down to 51.8. He ran for 15 yards two weeks ago in a loss to the Seahawks, in which he injured his right throwing shoulder in the first quarter, and 31 against the Patriots.
The Patriots keyed on Murray on “almost” all the Cardinals’ run plays, Kingsbury said.
“Obviously, the zone-read opportunities, they were just playing me,” Murray said. “Made me hand it off.
“My read is to hand it off if they play me and that’s what I had to do.”
Murray had one run for minus-2 yards on zone-reads Sunday, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Against Seattle, a week earlier, he had 1 yard on three zone-read runs. Kingsbury doesn’t think Murray’s lack of production on the ground has a “negative effect” on the Cardinals’ offense.Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray has been blitzed an average of 39% over the past four games when the Cardinals went 1-3 and nearly 0-4. In the first seven, he was blitzed 17%. AP Photo/Elise Amendola
“When we have to be great at the precision passing game, it’s just about us being more consistent in doing that — being on time with the ball, having the right depths of the routes,” Kingsbury said. “I think it’s just, you got to have more of a sense of urgency there when teams are gonna make us throw it and when we get in situations that we have to throw it.”
The Patriots followed a recent trend of blitzing Murray. They threw extra pressure on Murray on 35.9% of his dropbacks, the fourth straight week Murray has been blitzed more than 35%. Miami started the run, blitzing Murray on 46.9% of his dropbacks in their win. Buffalo followed that with blitzes on 42.5%. Seattle dipped to 34%.
Overall, Murray has been blitzed an average of 39% over the past four games. In the first seven, he was blitzed 17%.
On Sunday, Murray completed 6 of 11 passes with an interception and a sack against the blitz, giving him more interceptions (seven) than passing touchdowns (six) against the blitz for his career. He has thrown three of each against the blitz this season and has completed 63.3% of his passes against the blitz, ranked 15th in the NFL.
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Kingsbury doesn’t think facing more blitzes is a Cardinals’ issues. He sees it as a leaguewide trend with defenses trying to get the ball out of quarterbacks’ hands to prevent from making plays with their feet.
Another way the Patriots helped contain Murray was by having their defensive linemen consistently jump and wave their hands when Murray dropped back to pass. Murray has had 12 passes batted down this season, according to Pro Football Reference. That includes two Sunday, one of which led to his league-high third interception on passes tipped at the line of scrimmage.
Left guard Justin Pugh said one of those tips was by his man.
“We got to do a great job of when they jump, we got to dump them,” Pugh said. “And that’s something that we got to continue to do a better job at.
“I got to get my guy’s hands down and seeing how they’re gonna play us and adjust off that.”
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