Covid-Hit Arizona Cardinals Win War of Attrition Against Beat-Up Cleveland Browns

Cardinals

The Arizona Cardinals are flying, but Week Six brought the undefeated Cardinals their first major speedbump, ahead of a tough clash with the Cleveland Browns. Covid-19 knocked head coach Kliff Kingsbury out of the game early in the week after a positive test. Quarterbacks coach Cam Turner, star pass rusher Chandler Jones, and defensive linemen Corey Peters and Zach Allen also missed the added 17th game to Arizona’s schedule. Facing a banged-up Browns squad, already missing their best offensive player in Nick Chubb, the Cardinals headed East for what promised to be a war of attrition in Cleveland.

With a rudimentary plan in place, the Cardinals survived early struggles and amassed a significant lead. The Browns might have had a moment there at the half with a converted Hail Mary, but with Baker Mayfield hurting and Kareem Hunt knocked out of the game in the second half, the Browns could not keep pace offensively. Demonstrating their depth in both number and experience, the Cardinals ultimately sailed past the battered Browns to remain undefeated in 2021.

Covid-Hit Arizona Cardinals Win War of Attrition Against Beat-Up Cleveland Browns

Group Effort, On and Off The Field

For some, Kliff Kingsbury has been Coach of the Year through these first six weeks. His playcalling has been innovative and effective, and his game management has improved dramatically. The absence of their head coach was a huge loss for the Cardinals, but the group that split his duties did an excellent job in his stead. Run game coordinator Sean Kugler and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph both took on added responsibilities. However, the effort from assistant wide receivers coach Spencer Whipple, and backup quarterback Colt McCoy, is worthy of significant praise. Whipple and McCoy played the roles usually occupied by Kingsbury and Turner and provided an excellent environment for Kyler Murray to thrive.

Arizona’s offense has been one of the best in the league. For the most part, they looked like it on Sunday. Yet, although they scored on every first-half possession, it was far from fluid. Arizona burned two timeouts before the end of the first quarter as Murray adjusted to the unusual sideline situation. With Max Garcia in at center, there were some miscommunications on the field. Some bad snaps and hand-offs led to fumbles, but the Cardinals retained the ball and built an unassailable lead early.

Winning The War of Attrition on Offense

The Browns quite literally fell apart on Sunday. Already bruised heading in, with their best offensive weapon missing in Chubb, as well as both starting tackles, Cleveland saw both Mayfield and Hunt go down; Hunt couldn’t finish the game. Kevin Stefanski’s multiple-run scheme is the core of Cleveland’s offense, but with less than 80 yards overall on the ground, the understaffed rushing attack was largely ineffective. It was a war of attrition, and the Browns crumbled first.

Mayfield had a mixed bag. He threw well in spurts, particularly to Donovan Peoples-Jones, who had over 100 yards receiving. However, two turnovers on consecutive drives were damning for Mayfield, compounding his struggles throughout the day. Another of Cleveland’s walking wounded, Mayfield’s shoulder briefly knocked him out of the game, and he stepped out in garbage time to preserve what little health he had.

The Cardinals were healthier on offense than the Browns, but procedurally they were shaken up. Therein, the poise shown by Murray throughout the game was all the more impressive. The Browns attempted to follow the path set out by the San Francisco 49ers by keeping Murray in the pocket, and they did get him a few times. Yet Murray threw for four touchdowns as the pocket passer he’s always said he is; DeAndre Hopkins is the primary benefactor.

Murray spread the ball around, hit his open guys, and had an all-around quality game. Yet, amid the turbulence of Arizona’s covid situation, Murray’s underrated ability to run the offense ruled the day. Arizona ran the play clock way down frequently, not because of miscommunication, but because Murray repeatedly checked plays at the line of scrimmage and exploited what he saw in Cleveland’s defense. Checking into a run play for Chase Edmonds against a two-high safety look saw the Browns concede their biggest rush of the year. Pieces were missing on both sides, but Murray won the game with both mind and body.

Cardinals Continue To Dominate Up Front

Last week, Arizona’s men in the trenches had their best game of the year against the 49ers. Heading into Cleveland, though, the unit was gashed by Covid diagnoses, losing Jones, Peters, and Allen. Fortunately, without Chubb and eventually, without Hunt, Cleveland’s ground game wasn’t as potent as it once projected.  Bottling the run game and terrorizing Mayfield, the Cardinals had some standout performers up front against the Browns.

J.J. Watt had a breakout showing against the 49ers and rolled into Cleveland with a head of steam. Deputizing as an edge rusher in Jones’ absence, Watt was a force against all facets of Cleveland’s offense. Over backup tackles, Watt looked like the 3x DPOY he is. He has been effective all season, but in recent weeks, he’s also been productive. His first Cardinals sack combined with a forced fumble for a dominant day against the Browns. Cleveland couldn’t block him, and he told the crowd as much, very loudly.

Perhaps Arizona’s most consistently underrated defensive player, Markus Golden, had himself a day against the Browns as well. Arguably Arizona’s primary pass rusher with Jones out, Golden totaled two sacks, demonstrated his ‘Junkyard Dog’ tenacity in hunting Mayfield, and even popped up in pass coverage in what was a solid outing for one of the fan favorites in Arizona.

Cleveland projected to be a test for the Cardinals when the schedule came out, but the admittedly understaffed Browns struggled. Arizona quelled their issues quickly and squeezed the life out of any comeback on both sides of the ball. 6-0. On to Houston.

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