It's difficult to explain just how much better Arizona's offense has been this year. After being historically awful on that side of the ball last year, the Cardinals have been a slightly above average unit in Kliff Kingsbury's first year. That explanation really doesn't do justice to just how dramatic the improvement has been. It has been absolutely night and day according to the eye test and DVOA.
With the compliments out of the way, last Sunday vs. the Rams the offense looked awful. Not historically terrible like they did all last year, but just your run-of-the-mill bad NFL offense. They couldn't run, they couldn't protect, and they turned it over. Considering this is the last time I'll write about Arizona this year, it was a sour note on which to go out.
While Arizona struggled across the board, I thought the sacks were what really killed any chance they had. The Cardinals had too many drives derailed by negative plays in the passing game. Arizona gave up six sacks in all, and considering they only had 10 full drives (not counting running the clock out in the end and a two-play drive that ended in a pick), that means 60% of their drives were ended due to sacks essentially. And they gave up just about every kind of sack you can imagine.
This is the the most basic form of sack: the "get beat by an all-time great player" sack. These will happen. Aaron Donald (99) is absurdly good at football. He's strong, quick, and just so good with his hands. Look at him swipe both of left guard Justin Pugh's (67) hands down as he makes his move inside. He times it perfectly and then he's by the block by the time Pugh tries to reset his hands. Pugh's set and punch aren't bad here, it's just that Aaron Donald is a Hall of Famer.
One thing I will point out is that everyone on the internet loves play-action now more than ever, and for good reason -- play-action is effective. But a big drawback is that most good play-action schemes make it really tough to redirect protections because the protection has to be tied to the backfield action and look somewhat like a run. So if you want to always set your protection to a guy like Aaron Donald, that's easy enough to do on straight dropback passes: you see what side he's lined up on and send the offensive line that way at the line of scrimmage. But on play-action passes, if he's lined up opposite of the protection, you can't just flip it. Again, teams should still run more play-action, but that is a real drawback (particularly against truly great players) that is rarely mentioned.
This is sack is technically on tight end Charles Clay (85), but it's really on Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury. Clay's job is really difficult here. He has to come across the formation and pass-block an edge rusher who has all the space in the world (because the right tackle is selling the fake). If you're going to call for protection schemes like this, you have to have routes that are designed to get the ball out quickly. Maybe Murray needs to let that go to Larry Fitzgerald over the middle, but what he cannot do is hold onto it. Go to Fitz or throw it out of bounds, but this protection scheme isn't designed to hold onto it.
Remember how I said how easy it is to set your pass protection wherever you want on dropback passes? Well, apparently it's not that easy. I don't know who is setting the protection schemes -- my guess is it's veteran center A.Q. Shipley and not the rookie quarterback -- but it seems insane to me that Shipley is working away from Donald in a five-man protection scheme vs. this look. Normally you send the center towards whatever linebacker you think is most likely to come, but I think the math changes against a guy like Donald. I'd want as many bodies as possible working his way.
Right guard J.R. Sweezy (64) actually gets a helluvan initial punch on Donald. He pops him clean and widens Donald out of his lane. But Donald is as relentless at throwing pass-rush moves as I've ever seen and he comes back with a spin at the top of the rush to beat his man inside. Sweezy's initial punch is good, but he plays stiff and struggles to change directions as a result. He can't redirect back inside with Donald in time.
This was actually the first sack the Cardinals gave up in the game. Right tackle Justin Murray (71) just never really makes a stand. He starts kicking back and looks fine, but just keeps kicking and opening his hips. He never tries to sit down or really run the defensive end (Dante Fowler, 56) by the quarterback; instead he just keeps drifting away slowly. Just too mushy and unaggressive of a pass set.
Kyler Murray doesn't really help himself here either. It's tough on your tackles when your first instinct when there's pressure is to run straight backwards. Murray has had a solid rookie year, but his pocket awareness has a ways to go.
And that will put a pin on this Cardinals season as far as this column goes. It was much better than I thought it would be from an offensive line standpoint, but a little more boring than I hoped it could be. Still, it was a vast improvement from 2018, even if the record doesn't show it clearly.