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Cardinals, Kyler Murray Have Come Far As Rematch With Lions Looms

Debut of QB, Kingsbury was memorable in 2019 opener

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (left) in his NFL debut against the Lions to open the 2019 season and (right) running upfield last week in a win against Washington.
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (left) in his NFL debut against the Lions to open the 2019 season and (right) running upfield last week in a win against Washington.

Kyler Murray was miserable through part of it. Kliff Kingsbury acknowledged much later that the play was bad enough he had concern he could be fired. The defense was patchwork after an offseason and training camp of turmoil.

The debut of the Kliff and Kyler era of the Cardinals couldn't have been rougher, in that long-ago season opener of 2019 at State Farm Stadium.

"It was a tough day," Murray said with a small smile Wednesday, recalling back to that improbable tie. "It just felt ugly all day."

What better way, though, than to measure just how far the Cardinals have come over what will be the past 19 games when Detroit visits Sunday, Lions-then to Lions-now?

"Offensively we didn't have a great feel for what we could do or be," Kingsbury said. "Hopefully we've made big strides since then."

The Lions built a 24-6 lead as Murray looked far from a savior taken with the No. 1 overall pick. He didn't look like he does, even now. He only ran the ball three times that day, for 13 yards, looking little like the offensive dynamo everyone saw in college.

His rush attempts equaled the number of times current teammate Devon Kennard – then with the Lions – sacked him that day, three of the five times Murray was sacked.

"I think Kyler was just getting his feet wet," Kennard said. "He's on a totally different level now."

Comfort is the level Murray has found, especially running the ball. He’s been electric the first two games of the season, a prong of his game the Lions did not see a year ago. The Lions dealt with David Johnson in 2019, not Kenyan Drake, the latter of whom is a much better fit for the offense Kingsbury has developed. The Cards certainly didn't have a receiver like DeAndre Hopkins either, although Larry Fitzgerald shined that day with eight catches for 113 yards, including a bomb to jumpstart the comeback and another deep throw that looked like it'd lead to a win.

Defensively, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was great – 385 yards and three touchdowns – as the Cards tried to figure out life without top two cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Robert Alford and stripped of key defensive lineman Darius Philon, who had been released in camp.

They didn't have the depth in either of those units, nor at inside linebacker. All those personnel groups are improved, one of the reasons the Cardinals lead the NFL in third-down defense thus far.

"Everybody has certainly gotten more comfortable," defensive tackle Corey Peters said. "We have developed a little bit of an identity of how we want to attack things, understanding how we want to play off of one another … (and) those things are the most difficult because you can only learn them with reps. We're in a much better situation.

"Obviously we still have a long way to go, but I am excited to see kind of the difference where we are (from last year.)"

When Kingsbury talks about what the Cardinals could do better offensively, when Murray says there has been a lot left on the field, they are talking specifics of 2020. But it has a flavor from that 2019 opener.

The offense, in particular, is different. Kingsbury leaned on the run more; his 10 personnel looks faded significantly after that first month. The Cardinals, with their additional weapons, are better than the team that played the Lions that day, but even that offense found something, eventually forcing an improbable overtime.

"Last year, it felt like we were trying to figure it out on the run, going out there seeing what would work, what wouldn't work," Murray said. "We didn't really know."

Kingsbury said the teams are so different, there isn't too much that can be taken from watching the video, although he probably remembers the emotion of his first game -- "I was thinking, 'I can't believe I just bought that house,' " Kingsbury recalled early this offseason, potential revisionist history that would have decimated the best viral content of the NFL draft.

Defensively, the Cards are better against the tight end, which also ruined them a season ago, and have a better plan for Stafford. Murray isn't taking the unnecessary sacks he was that day. He's smarter overall with his throws. The Cardinals are also 2-0, with tangible proof of their improvements.

"Right now we obviously are in a lot more control of what is going on," Murray said. "Everybody is more comfortable. It's night and day."

Images from practice at the Dignity Health Training Center heading into Sunday's Week 3 matchup against the Lions.