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Path To Redemption: Cardinals Offensive Line Finds Its Footing

Center A.Q. Shipley (left), guard Justin Pugh (74) and tackle D.J. Humphries (74) go to clear a hole for running back Chase Edmonds (29) at the outset of a play Sunday against the Giants.
Center A.Q. Shipley (left), guard Justin Pugh (74) and tackle D.J. Humphries (74) go to clear a hole for running back Chase Edmonds (29) at the outset of a play Sunday against the Giants.

A.Q. Shipley stood in the Cardinals’ locker room, watching a cell phone video of Chase Edmonds’ third touchdown run in New York a couple of days earlier.

Former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz had tweeted out a breakdown of the play, in the middle of which Shipley made a key block before he was broadsided by former teammate and Giants linebacker Markus Golden, who was fruitlessly trying to get to Edmonds.

The center watched himself lying on the ground, head turned up, watching Edmonds reach the end zone.

“Markus killed me,” Shipley said.

Such is the price Shipley and his offensive line mates are willing to pay if it means a 22-yard touchdown run. It’s the kind of production the group – Shipley, left tackle D.J. Humphries, left guard Justin Pugh, right guard J.R. Sweezy and late-to-the-party right tackle Justin Murray – insisted they could have if they were just out there together.

Seven games into the season, the offensive line has been better than most had been willing to expect.

General Manager Steve Keim insisted a rebuilt line – including getting Shipley, Humphries and Pugh back from knee injuries that put all three on season-ending injured reserve last season, signing Sweezy as a free agent and trading for right tackle Marcus Gilbert – was going to vastly improve the injury-riddled version of the past two seasons.

Then Gilbert suffered a season-ended ACL tear in practice two days before the opener, forcing Murray in the lineup. There were growing pains in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s new offense and with a rookie quarterback. But the Cards have settled into their five-man unit, Kingsbury has evolved to use the tight end more (helping keep defenses off balance) and the run game has flourished.

The offensive line isn’t looking for headlines. But pride in the production is hard to miss.

“I don’t know so much about redemption,” Humphries said. “It just feels good to be playing well and winning and being part of the reason why we are winning, as opposed to being a part of the reason why we lost.”

Sweezy spent the first four years of his career in the NFC West starting for the Seahawks, and after two years in Tampa, went back to Seattle last year before coming to Arizona. He’s the new one – save for Murray – given the holdovers of Humphries, Pugh and Shipley.

Even coming in fresh, last year’s troubles – offensive line and otherwise – are hard to escape.

“I have been constantly told about last year through different things,” Sweezy said. “Everybody is super relieved that is in the past is what it sounds and feels like to me. We’re making strides in the right direction.”

Every single one of the five have been through issues. The injuries got Pugh, Shipley and Humphries. Sweezy missed a whole season in Tampa with injuries. And Murray had been released six times in the NFL – and holding off Justin Mills in a right tackle battle after Gilbert’s injury – before settling in.

“I love seeing guys overcome adversity,” offensive line coach Sean Kugler said.

The Cardinals are 11th in rushing offense and third in FootballOutsiders.com’s rushing efficiency rankings. Early in the season, quarterback Kyler Murray was taking sacks at a record rate, but the Cardinals have surrendered only three during the current three-game win streak as Murray learns on the job and the line learns how to operate better in the offense. The arrival of Kugler has also made a difference.

No one is proclaiming the Cardinals have the best line in the league, especially those playing on it. The quintet does believe it has earned respect.

I definitely feel like we’ve been bashed by people that don’t know anything about football,” Pugh said. “We’re an easy target. I’m glad we’re headed in the right direction, but we have some good defenses coming up. Our work is cut out for us.”

Sweezy tries to block out any media talk in general. Pugh obviously has paid attention. So too has Humphries, who noted that holdovers like he, Pugh and Shipley can’t help but be aware of the narrative of the Cardinals’ line over the last few seasons.

“We are being appreciated more and it’s cool for the guys who have just gotten here, to establish that as the identity now, with a new coach,” Humphries said. “But for the people that have been here, (criticism) is something that has still resonated. For me, I remember all those articles, I remember all those questions, I remember all the statistics, this percentage, that percentage, where we rank, I remember all that (expletive).

“For us to be on the other side of it, it’s huge. It gives you a different type of bravado, and when you get in front of people that want to talk, it’s a different convo. Because you might have some questions for me, and I remember what you said last year. I answer with a different type of aggression, because you said it couldn’t be done, and it’s happening. I would like to look you in your eye when I tell you that, so you can feel my energy.”

The offensive line (from left): RT Justin Murray, RG J.R. Sweezy, C A.Q. Shipley, LG Justin Pugh and LT D.J. Humphries.
The offensive line (from left): RT Justin Murray, RG J.R. Sweezy, C A.Q. Shipley, LG Justin Pugh and LT D.J. Humphries.

Offensive lines are usually a tight-knit bunch. Call it the nature of the position, call it an us-against-the-world situation that almost every line faces at some point. Call it the reality that, in everyone’s mind, the five players are almost always considered as a group.

But Kugler said his current incarnation up front is as close as any he’s ever coached, and to a man, the players agree.

“It’s the perfect mix of dudes in our room,” Humphries said.

Humphries is the loudest, holding court with colorful quotes and the one who has his own radio show – hosting the “Big Red Rage” every Thursday night. Pugh is the thoughtful one, as prone to advocate for players learning how to manage their finances or defending offensive linemen around the league as much as breaking down an opponent’s defensive line. Sweezy is the defensive lineman-turned-offensive, laid back until postgame, when he politely asks reporters to let him calm down from the on-field battle he just went through before answering questions. Murray is the quiet one. Shipley is the sage veteran.

“The hardest thing the last couple of years, by week 12 you’re on your fourth guard, your third tackle,” Shipley said of the offensive line’s revolving door. “This is one of the better groups I’ve been around. It’s funny, we’re five completely different people, but we all kind of get each other, laugh at everybody’s differences and different jokes. That only helps you play better on Sunday. The closer you are off the field, the better you are on the field.”

The chemistry was in cement with Gilbert, another veteran who bonded well up until his injury. That crushed Kugler, who was the coach in Pittsburgh when the Steelers drafted Gilbert and saw Gilbert excelling in Kingsbury’s offense (Gilbert, rehabbing, still often is interacting with his teammates in the locker room.)

Murray, claimed off waivers from the Raiders, has managed to prove himself as a replacement.

“They welcomed me as soon as I got in the door,” Murray said. “I kind to stick to myself. On game day, I’m laser-locked in. It’s my first year getting this much playing time, so I’m trying to make the most of it.”

Shipley said every once in a while, he’ll catch Murray listening to one of Shipley’s stories and laughing.

“I’m like, ‘OK, I like this guy. He laughs at my jokes.’ Doesn’t say much, but when he laughs at my jokes, I like him,” Shipley said.

The entire room of linemen is close, Sweezy said. That’s a tell when it comes to success.

“We make it fun,” Sweezy said. “We work our butts off, but we have fun doing it – in the meeting room, in the locker room, on the field. And when we’re having fun, we’re usually doing things right. That’s when we know we’re thriving.”

Images from practice at the Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center

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