Cardinals rising in NFC thanks to much-improved defense
By DAVID BRANDT AP Sports Writer
Kyler Murray had some big moments in his return to Texas, throwing a couple of touchdown passes and running for another score.
Even so, Arizona’s young quarterback knew he wasn’t the star of Monday night’s dominant 38-10 win over the Dallas Cowboys.
That honor belonged to the defense.
“They played great,” Murray said. “Great’s not even the word. I don’t even have a word for it.”
Arizona (4-2) looks like a legitimate factor in the NFC’s playoff race and one huge reason is the improvement of the defense. The group forced four turnovers against the Cowboys, constantly giving the Cardinals good field position that allowed them to pour on the points.
Now they’re preparing for an intriguing division game against the Seattle Seahawks (5-0), who are one of three remaining undefeated teams in the NFL. The Seahawks are coming off a bye week.
Arizona’s quality defense is a huge 180 from last season, when the Cardinals gave up the most total yards in the NFL. Second-year defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has orchestrated the turnaround, using new pieces such as defensive lineman Jordan Phillips and linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and Devon Kennard to solidify a group that already included standouts such as cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Budda Baker.
The Cardinals even appear in position to weather the loss of All-Pro linebacker Chandler Jones, who is out for the season after a biceps injury on Oct. 11.
“I couldn’t be more impressed with V.J. and that group of coaches and that group of players,” Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “The changes (GM Steve Keim) made personnel-wise, bringing in some really talented pieces. They’ve really come together quickly in a strange, strange season.”
Added Kingsbury: “You watch the way they’re playing, the physicality, they took the ball away four times last night. The way they’re flying around the football, having fun doing so, it’s a fun culture to be around.”
It was an encouraging first game for the team’s young linebackers while adjusting to life without Jones, who is one of the league’s top pass rushers and had 19 sacks last season. The Cardinals used a combination of players in Jones’ place, including Hasson Reddick and Dennis Gardeck. Reddick was especially good, finishing with two sacks.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Murray had an effective game but his passing accuracy wasn’t great against the Cowboys. He completed just 9 of 24 attempts and missed on a handful of throws he usually makes. He hit on a couple of big ones though, including an 80-yard touchdown to Christian Kirk.
The Cardinals have a lot of playmakers to pick from on offense and sometimes Kirk has been the odd man out this season. But Monday was proof he’s still a vital part of the team and can help stretch opposing defenses. The 80-yard touchdown catch was impressive — he snagged the ball on his fingertips while running at full speed and cruised downfield for the score.
TE Dan Arnold looked as if he might become a big part of the offense with an expanded role through the season’s first four games, but he hasn’t had a catch in two straight games.
The Cardinals appeared to come out of Monday’s game fairly healthy. Baker is still effective despite having thumb surgery a few weeks ago. S Chris Banjo (hamstring), LB Jordan Hicks (wrist) and LB Devon Kennard (calf) are all battling nagging injuries, but were able to contribute against the Cowboys.
261 — The number of rushing yards for the Cardinals, who continue to be one of the league’s most effective teams on the ground. Arizona averaged 7.5 yards per carry. Kenyan Drake had 20 carries for 164 yards and two touchdowns, including a 69-yard score in the fourth quarter.
The Cardinals get to see how they stack up against one of the NFL’s elite teams when they host the Seahawks. Murray would like to be a little more consistent in the passing game, but overall, Arizona is in a good spot. Now they’ll spend nearly a month at home with three games at State Farm Stadium wrapped around a bye week.
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