Detroit Loss Exposed Flaws in Arizona's Offense
NFL Week 15 - Two teams have lost to the Detroit Lions this season. The first to fall was the Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota is not a terrible team, but they have some sort of ancient curse residing over their franchise that makes them more prone to losing these kinds of games. One would imagine that any other Lions win would have to be against one of the league's bottom-feeders. Instead, the Lions found a way to beat one of the league's best teams in the Arizona Cardinals.
The Cardinals had their fair share of problems on both sides of the ball. As injuries (J.J. Watt, Robert Alford) and questionable personnel decisions (Zaven Collins on the bench) accumulate, Arizona's defense has started to slip a little over the past couple of weeks. That all came to a head in their performance against Detroit, which ranks as their worst of the season by DVOA. Arizona's aggressive defense was bound to get them burned at some point, though, and many of the league's other top defenses have posted one or two of these stinkers as well.
What's more concerning with the Cardinals is what went on with their offense. With center Rodney Hudson (COVID) and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (sidelined with a knee injury at least until the playoffs) out of the lineup, the Cardinals were bound to fall short of their peak form, but it was worse than that against the Lions. The Cardinals, despite having an offensive head coach and an operation built entirely around the quarterback, did not look comfortable on offense whatsoever. Murray played one of his worst and most frantic games of the year, which was perhaps as much a product of still knocking off the rust from his ankle injury as it was how little the rest of the offense helped him out.
Murray does not need to second-guess himself on this play. He got the look he wanted. To the top of the screen, the Cardinals' two receivers switch releases with both players attacking vertically. The idea is to make this look like a post-wheel or curl-wheel combo to the defense. In that case, the slot defender's best course of action to defend the wheel in man-to-man is to take a high angle towards the sideline that ensures he can not be beaten over the top. That is exactly why the Cardinals allow the outside receiver to break this off outside and work back towards the sticks. While rolling out, Murray's first move is to direct his eyes right at Christian Kirk (13) working back to the sticks on the outside. Kirk is open, but Murray chooses not to pull the trigger. Murray then works back inside before frantically coming over to Kirk again, by which point it is too late to deliver Kirk the ball and Murray is forced into a useless checkdown.
Murray's interception later in the game was also a result of him passing over open receivers. The throw itself was poor as well, but Murray could have avoided it altogether if he had just gotten the ball out earlier to a different receiver.
Arizona is running what is most commonly known as Chip Kelly's Saints concept, which is a variation of Y-cross with a go route and a bubble route on the side the crosser is working towards at the top of the screen. The isolated route at the bottom can be anything from a post, dig, curl, etc., depending on however the offense wants to tag it. Like any other Y-cross concept, the point is to throw the crosser. It's open, but again, Murray does not pull the trigger. Antoine Wesley works to inside leverage of the cornerback when he should be staying outside leverage on this concept, so perhaps that cluttered Murray's vision of the area, but this throw to the crosser is still very much open if Murray delivers it inside the numbers. Murray instead tries to throw the back-side route late, but he leaves the ball too far inside and pays for his mistakes with a turnover.
Some of the Cardinals' offensive issues also boiled down to the absence of DeAndre Hopkins. It's not just that Hopkins is a great player; it's that the offense functions in part because Hopkins can always be a sort of safety blanket or "answer" when there may not be one otherwise. His ability to win one-on-one, regardless of route or situation, is something few other players have, and certainly something nobody else on the Cardinals roster has. Hopkins' absence was felt in Murray's process, as well as whenever the Cardinals tried to attack deep down the sideline.
Murray has to know what the weak safety is doing. The only reason Detroit would stay in two-high post-snap would be to get some sort of two-on-one against Wesley at the top of the screen by playing Cover-2 or some sort of bracket. That may happen against Hopkins, but against Wesley, surely Detroit wants to roll that safety down to either blitz or take the back out of the backfield to free up the linebacker to blitz. If that was Hopkins out wide, Murray may have been more inclined to confirm what kind of coverage he was getting back-side and bank on the one-on-one if he saw the safety leaving the area. Alas, Murray shows zero interest pre- or post-snap in throwing to Wesley at the sticks, which leads to him reading out a front side that Detroit muddied up well by dropping extra bodies off the line.
Whether or not a throw to Wesley would have converted there, who knows. It's also not necessarily wrong of Murray to assume Wesley is not as reliable as Hopkins in a one-on-one scenario. Hopkins being out there rather than Wesley could have changed the way Murray thought about that concept versus that coverage shell, though. Murray knows as well as anyone that Hopkins can win those one-on-one spots, and he wants to find him there when he can. Wesley is far less of a certainty, thus making Murray less inclined to seek out one-on-ones for him.
Later in the game, Murray did take the gamble on Wesley. On this fourth-and-medium, Arizona has a simple Ohio concept to the bottom of the screen. The outside receiver runs a go route and the slot receiver runs a short out route. This can be a great Cover-2 beater since it is difficult for the deep-half defender to get all the way over to the sideline. The Cardinals expose that exact coverage weakness with Wesley flying down the sideline here. Murray sees the defense bailing to Cover-2 and lets it rip to Wesley, as he should. However, Wesley fails to get both feet in bounds at the end, resulting in a turnover of downs for the Cardinals.
There is reason to criticize Murray's throw there too. In an ideal world, the ball lands one foot further down the field to lead Wesley directly into the end zone. Murray made a good throw that could have been even better. Hopkins would have made the catch on this throw as it is, though. Hopkins has long given Murray some room for error down the field and on the sideline because he can make those catches like it's nothing. Those kinds of plays are the difference between having a receiver in Hopkins who expands the offense's room for error versus a receiver who doesn't.
Arizona also made things hard on themselves with how they married their protections to their route concepts. In a few instances, the Cardinals tried to come up with answers to the Lions' blitz looks, but failed spectacularly.
The Lions spent a lot of this game with six defenders on the line to threaten the Cardinals' five-man protections. As discussed in last week's Film Room about the Dallas defense, one potential answer is to slide the entire line one way and leave a free edge rusher, which is what the Cardinals do here. It sounds scary, but the idea is that the offense will have a "hot" route— hitch, bubble, slant, speed-out, smoke, etc.— to replace the free rusher in that area. That should be especially true on third-and-3 when the offense does not need a big gain. The problem is that the Cardinals just run mesh with the two receivers outside working well past the sticks. Mesh is a reliable concept generally, but it does take time to develop, which means Murray was left with no immediate answer when the Lions brought all six players (initially, at least) and got an edge rusher running free.
Maybe that is on Kliff Kingsbury for not having a built-in answer on that down-and-distance. Maybe Murray, in Year 3, should have a better grasp of these things himself and be able to problem-solve. Maybe Hudson fixes this anyway if he was on the field. Either way, sacks where the quarterback has no real answer cannot happen, especially against defenses as bad as the Lions.
The good news is that Murray is generally better than this. It is likely that the combination of not having the offense's two best veteran players while Murray is still working back from his ankle injury is causing some added turbulence. Hudson also missed last week due to being on the COVID list, not due to a standard injury, so the Cardinals could get him back in the lineup soon and return to normal up front. None of that solves the Hopkins absence, but hopefully a few more weeks of practicing with the current receiving corps will have Murray and the Cardinals in a more comfortable position come January.