After an impressive debut, Washington’s defensive line faces a difficult encore. The Cardinals’ offense is mostly healthy, it moves at warp speed to tire out the defense, and it’s led by one of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks, Kyler Murray. The No. 1 draft pick in 2019 showed his dual-threat dynamism last week by throwing for 230 yards, rushing for 91 and totaling two touchdowns in a 24-20 road upset of the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers.
“He gives me anxiety,” Washington Coach Ron Rivera said.
Murray is a pointed challenge for Washington. He just sliced up a 49ers defensive line that was seen as a model for how Washington built its group in depth and talent, and he is coached by Kliff Kingsbury, one of the game’s top offensive minds. San Francisco’s line got to Murray for two sacks, but how the Cardinals overcame it might provide a peek at their blueprint against Washington.
First, the Cardinals prioritized short, quick passes. Murray held the ball for an average of 2.42 seconds per throw, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the seventh-fastest mark in Week 1. Also, 28 of his 40 passing attempts (70 percent) were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. The Cardinals scaled this approach — their 78 plays tied for second most in the league in Week 1 — to wear down the 49ers.
Those numbers illustrate the strategy; these show how it worked: As the defensive linemen appeared more fatigued, Murray started using his legs more, and he gained 90 of his 91 rushing yards in the second half. These weren’t on designed runs or bootleg bailouts, either. Murray saw his receivers blanketed, found a hole in the pocket and took off. By the fourth quarter, the 49ers’ line seemed gassed as Murray led two long scoring drives — one nine plays, the other 14 — to pull off the upset.
For Washington, this approach challenges its prized depth on the defensive line. Rivera has emphasized he wants to rotate linemen to keep them fresh, and it worked against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1. Every key lineman played between 78 percent (Chase Young) and 22 percent (Tim Settle) of the snaps. This week, Rivera stressed the importance of keeping Murray in the pocket, and the pass coverage must hold up against two elite wide receivers. But the key for the line figures to be whether it can keep pace with an offensive style best described as a marathon of sprints.
Don’t get too excited about the offense just yet. There were reasons to believe Washington’s unit wasn’t as far along as its 27 points suggested last week — for example, all five scoring drives started in Philadelphia territory — and Rivera further wet-blanketed it this week.
“We’ve got a ways to go,” he said. “You probably really won’t see it or get a feel for [the offense] until really next season.”
The team’s “biggest concern” is youth at wide receiver, Rivera added. Washington’s wide receiving corps — headlined by second-year standout Terry McLaurin and journeyman Dontrelle Inman — stands in stark contrast to the Cardinals’ elite talent of DeAndre Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald. Inman is Washington’s only receiver on the active roster with more than two years of experience.
Still, this matchup gives Washington a chance to learn more about itself. Rivera thought first-year offensive coordinator Scott Turner was “stretching” early last week before he settled in, and this week the focus will intensify on his play-calling and quarterback Dwayne Haskins’s patience. The offense must find a rhythm earlier than it did against the Eagles.
Washington must slow two of the NFL’s best wide receivers in recent years. Fitzgerald is in his 17th season and Hopkins is still adjusting to his new team, but the two wideouts remain dangerous — and large parts of the Cardinals’ game plan. The pair accounted for 21 of Murray’s 40 targets last week — Hopkins had 16 — and both ranked in the top quarter in receiver separation per route, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
The entire unit will test a Washington secondary that intercepted two passes in Week 1. The plus for Washington is it might get back top cornerback Kendall Fuller, who missed the opener with a calf injury. If so, it will be up to the starting rotation of Fuller, Ronald Darby and Jimmy Moreland in the slot to slow the Cardinals’ roll.
Injury report: Washington’s linebacker corps could be thin. Backup middle linebacker Cole Holcomb was ruled out Friday because of a knee injury, and outside linebacker Thomas Davis Sr. was listed as questionable with a calf injury. Davis was inactive for the opener against the Eagles. If Davis can’t go again, Washington would have only four healthy linebackers and might look to call up Jared Norris or Donald Payne from the practice squad.
Although Fuller practiced in full Friday, he was listed as questionable. His return would be significant as defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio devises a plan for covering Arizona’s elite wide receivers. “Based on things that we want to do with our coverages, when you have a guy like [Fuller] out there and you have him shadowing players, he’s a special guy,” Rivera said.
The Cardinals will be without starting center Mason Cole (hamstring) and No. 2 tight end Maxx Williams (ankle). Reserve linebacker Kylie Fitts (wrist) and reserve lineman Josh Jones (ankle) are questionable. Arizona placed starting strong safety Jalen Thompson on injured reserve this week. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph told reporters that Thompson’s best trait is open-field tackling, so he needed Thompson’s replacements — Chris Banjo and Deionte Thompson — to replicate that.
LB Cole Holcomb
CB Kendall Fuller
LB Thomas Davis Sr.
C Mason Cole
LB Kylie Fitts
TE Maxx Williams
OL Josh Jones
S Jalen Thompson
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