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Staying On Script: Cardinals Trying To Find First-Quarter Offense

Team knows it can't keep succumbing to early deficits

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray pivots from under center to run a play-action pass on the first play against the Rams last week.
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray pivots from under center to run a play-action pass on the first play against the Rams last week.

Kyler Murray set himself for the first play from scrimmage in a spot he rarely occupies – under center.

The Cardinals quarterback took the snap, turned to hand the ball off to running back James Conner, who was running left, until he pulled it back. Murray rolled out against the grain to hit tight end Zach Ertz for a seven-yard gain in a perfectly executed play-action pass, on a play against the Rams that the Rams often ran themselves.

So much was encapsulated into that play. Murray under center – "I'll do whatever it takes to win," the QB said about potentially being under center more – and the quick gainer to Ertz.

Just like it was scripted.

Most teams script out their first handful of offensive plays. But this season, through three games of slow starts, the script has been frustratingly flipped to the point where it hasn't worked. Not enough.

The first-quarter offensive woes are still about executing the right plays. Whether plays are scripted or called off the cuff, there still has to be a symbiosis between call and players. Thrown in is Murray's ability to change a play at the line of scrimmage if the defense dictates such.

"Some teams I've been on there has been a set, 'These are the first 10 or first 15 plays we're going to run,' " tight end Maxx Williams said. "Even here, there is a set of what Kliff wants to run early, so it helps in the studying. You know these plays are coming.

"But once you're in the game? You're not thinking, 'Oh this is the third play, what will be called?' When you say it's scripted, that's more about the coaches because they want to hit certain plays. For us (players) we are just hearing the call and then we have to execute."

Tight end Zach Ertz runs after the game-opening catch against the Rams on Sunday.
Tight end Zach Ertz runs after the game-opening catch against the Rams on Sunday.

Getting the plays together is collaborative, coach Kliff Kingsbury said.

"Different position coaches have different thoughts and different assignments as far as what area they specialize in," Kingsbury said. "Then we talk through it with the quarterbacks, see what they like, what they don't like and try to come to a good place with it."

"As a unit," Murray said, "we have an idea what is coming up."

But then also has to come the execution. The Cardinals script – which worked fine most of last season – has not paid off in three games. The team has yet to score in the first quarter.

Following the pass to Ertz, James Conner got a handoff out of the pistol formation and gained a yard. Then, on third-and-2, with wide receiver A.J. Green looking at one-on-one coverage – albeit against All-Pro Jalen Ramsey – the Cardinals tried a back-shoulder throw that was broken up.

Even TV analyst Mark Sanchez noted the one-on-one opportunity before the play, although he also noted the room pass catchers Ertz and Hollywood Brown were given on the other side of the field in first-down territory.

"(If) you get a first down, when you are in a rut or it feels the way it feels, you get that first down, not necessarily for me but for everyone, it's like a sigh of relief in a sense," Murray said. "Against the Raiders we got a first down (early) and then we stalled out the next set of plays, so …

"It's about putting the ball in the end zone. It's not about getting one first down, it's not about getting two first downs. Done that plenty of times and still haven't put the ball in the end zone."

Could more successful plays breed more confidence, however? Williams shook his head. The Cardinals already are playing with confidence, he said. It's the execution that is lacking, and the offense will find itself early in games.

"Could we have played better?" Williams said. "Sure. It's no time to panic. It's Week 4 of the NFL. There is a whole lot of football left to be played."

It'll start with the script at the beginning of Sunday's game in Carolina. Whatever is on the list, the Cardinals need to make work.

"I don't worry about plays," guard Will Hernandez said. "I literally just run what they call. I don't even think about that stuff."

Images of the Cardinals practicing at the Dignity Health Sports Complex before the Week 4 regular season matchup against the Carolina Panthers

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