How Murray and Cardinals Outdueled Rams
You know that this town isn't big enough
Not big enough for both of us!
This town isn't big enough
Not big enough for both of us
And I ain't gonna leave!
This is exactly what I imagined Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals told the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday in their battle to be the class of the NFC West, and possibly the entire NFL. The Rams and Cardinals both entered the game at 3-0, and they came into the weekend third and fourth in our team DVOA rankings. This was a legit matchup between two supercharged offenses and teams looking to make an early claim on a division that's always tough. It's like when two gunslingers would stand off in the Old West. The paces were measured off, the countdown began, and the battle to see who blinked first began.
Well, the Rams blinked first. In fact, they blinked a lot. The Cardinals flew by the Rams 37-20 behind another stellar performance by Murray, who is cementing himself as the early leader in the MVP race. What has intrigued me so far about this Cardinals team is how nothing much has changed schematically. Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury still runs his version of the Air Raid, which attacks space and relies heavily on curls and stop routes, and now he has added more screens to the mix. Steven Ruiz of The Ringer pointed this out after their Week 1 victory over Tennessee, but this Cardinals team has gotten a lot better simply because Kyler Murray has gotten so much better within structure. This was on display against a Rams team that was supposed to be built to limit explosive plays.
Take this touchdown in the second quarter for example. The Rams are playing quarters coverage to the trips side of the field, and the Cardinals run Christian Kirk on a corner and Maxx Williams on a seam route. This takes the play-side safety away, but leaves Murray throwing the ball between the dropping linebacker and safety coming over. The anticipation and touch shown here by Murray demonstrate the kind of plays he was not making last year. He has excelled so much without doing the normal Kyler stuff (such as making linebackers look like six-year-olds).
Where the Cardinals' offense as a whole has improved is on third down, however. Last year, the Cardinals finished 28th on third and fourth downs with a DVOA of -19.4%. Against the Rams? The Cardinals finished with a DVOA of 138.9%. This is the gunslinger showing up in Arizona's most crucial moments.
The Cardinals are executing a lot better on these pivotal downs, and they continued to do so against L.A. This is a third-and-2 late in the game. Empty formation, and they go after Rams cornerback David Long, who has the unfortunate assignment of being the Rams' other corner. Murray knows that he's getting one-on-one with his receiver A.J. Green going up against Long. Pitch-and-catch, first down, move the chains.
So in the battle between the two top guns in the NFC West, the Cardinals stood tall.
Where the Game Swung
|2||10:44||1||10||+15.0%||S.Michel rush for no gain, M.Golden forced fumble, B.Baker recovery||Turnover|
|1||5:58||3||6||+13.0%||K.Murray 41-yard TD to A.Green||TD|
|2||10:49||2||13||+7.8%||K.Murray 14-yard TD to M.Williams||TD|
|2||1:10||3||14||+7.4%||K.Murray to R.Moore for gain of 16||First down|
|2||9:40||3||16||+7.1%||K.Murray scrambles for gain of 18||First down|
The biggest takeaway from this I see is Kyler Murray essentially saying "Alright pinhead, your time is up" to the Rams defense. Murray dominated the second quarter, the third-and-16 scramble essentially being just Murray doing what he does best: improvising and being better than the other 11 guys against him. It's why he's the MVP through four games. The Cardinals scored touchdowns after both of those third-and-long conversions. The Rams have to be better in those situations.
By the DVOA
|Team||Offense VOA||Defense VOA||Special Teams DVOA||Total VOA|
And this week, with opponent adjustments...
|Team||Offense DVOA||Defense DVOA||Special Teams DVOA||Total DVOA|
Is There a New Sheriff In the NFC West?
I'm super intrigued by the Cardinals' 4-0 start. The offense looks like it's reaching new heights under the growth (no pun intended) of Kyler Murray, and the defense is playing lights-out to start the season. I think their later success relies on Murray's health, however. Murray is the straw that stirs the drink for this Cardinals offense; so much of Kingsbury's scheme relies on the quarterback's legs both in the run and pass game. If Murray is slowed down by even a bit like he was in 2020, we could see this team pit out like they did last year.
Even more concerning is the Cardinals' upcoming schedule; they'll face San Francisco twice along with tilts against Green Bay, Carolina, and Seattle, all before Thanksgiving. Murray will have to continue to shoot straight for the Cardinals to continue to reign at the top of the NFC West.