This is the first installment of my weekly Opponent Scout series, where I’ll break down the Kansas City Chiefs’ upcoming opponent by examining their strengths and weaknesses, their tendencies and how those things affect the matchup.
For the season’s first game, Kansas City is on the road to play the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday afternoon. Here’s everything you need to know about the Chiefs’ first opponent:
The Arizona Cardinals are in their fourth year under head coach Kliff Kingsbury — and the third year with starting quarterback Kyler Murray. They have a 17-13 record with Murray taking the snaps. In 2021, they earned the NFC’s fifth playoff seed with an 11-6 finish.
Last season, the Cardinals finished 11th in total points and 8th in total yards, relying on a high-volume running game more than a high quantity of dropbacks. They had the league’s seventh-most rushing attempts and the third-most rushing touchdowns (23). Arizona’s passing offense was efficient as a complement, finishing with the league’s fourth-highest yards per attempt rate (7.8). The unit finished 15th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric for total offense.
On defense, Arizona allowed the 11th-fewest total points and total yards; they ranked in the middle of the league in yards allowed per play. The unit’s success was driven by its defensive playmakers: Arizona ranked seventh with 27 turnovers and the fifth-highest percentage of drives ending in turnovers. The Cardinals’ defense finished 6th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric for total defense.
The centerpiece of Arizona’s offense is quarterback Kyler Murray. On any given play, he has the ability to make an impossible throw or an incredible scramble. Throughout 2021, he had the highest percentage of his passing attempts qualify as Big-Time Throws, which is PFF’s metric of tracking a really impressive pass. At the same time, only four quarterbacks had more rushes of 10 or more yards — and Murray averaged 7.5 yards per scramble.
You'll see a lot of contain rushing from the #Chiefs DEs on Sunday, or blitzes that are more for keeping Murray from escaping outside the pocket than sacking him— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 8, 2022
Murray avg'd 7.5 yds/scramble last year, constantly taking advantage of a rush scheme that doesn't prioritize contain pic.twitter.com/AxJPRxZsqC
The Chiefs will need to play it smart with their pass-rushing plan. You won’t see as many stunts that involve the furthest-outside rusher crashing inside. As we see in these examples, Murray is smart enough to understand when he can win that edge, knowing he can easily gain 10 or more yards.
The Chiefs’ defensive ends will likely play lots of contain rushing, hoping the interior rush can crush the pocket in front of Murray. So this will be something to remember if it appears that the ends aren’t going all-out for a sack. We may also see this affect the way blitzers fly in from the edge.
The pass rush has an enormous responsibility to make Murray uncomfortable — because if he has the time, he can dice up Kansas City’s new secondary. His star wideout DeAndre Hopkins will miss Sunday’s game with a suspension, but players like former Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Marquise Brown, second-year wideout Rondale Moore and veteran A.J. Green can all offer different things that Murray can weaponize.
The Arizona defensive line is now without veteran Chandler Jones, who signed with the Las Vegas Raiders this offseason. They also have injuries to the front’s other two studs: defensive ends Markus Golden and J.J. Watt. Golden led the team with 11 sacks last year, but the former Missouri Tiger is dealing with a toe injury.
The front will be the most appetizing place for Kansas City to attack, because Arizona’s back seven is full of quality players.
Only 2 safeties blitzed more than Arizona's Budda Baker did last year (PFF).— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 8, 2022
It's not wise to blitz a lot vs. Mahomes, but Baker will be involved in the chances they do take. He's good at disguising them late into the cadence pic.twitter.com/19Ja5KY0M5
Safety Budda Baker is one of the league’s best playmakers — and also one of the most-utilized blitzers at his position; only two safeties rushed the passer more than he did in 2021. Baker succeeds by doing a great job disguising the blitz late into the cadence — and then making sure his blitz impacts the play, whether it’s by tipping pass or getting a hand on the quarterback.
While safety blitzes may not be the smartest strategy against the Chiefs’ offense, we may see them if the Cardinals have trouble getting after Mahomes with their defensive front.
But the thing that will be the most interesting to see is how Arizona handles tight end Travis Kelce. We can expect that this season, defenses will sell out to take him away — because they know Mahomes is (by far) the most comfortable when he is targeting his star tight end. At times last year, linebacker Isiah Simmons was tasked with covering opposing tight ends; it’s possible that we’ll see Simmons and a defensive back bracketing Kelce in many of the game’s crucial snaps.
Finally... nickel cornerback Byron Murphy will be an X-factor in this matchup. Primarily playing as a slot cornerback last season, he nabbed four interceptions, forced a fumble and defended eight passes.
The bottom line
The Chiefs’ pass rush is one of the biggest storylines to watch as the defensive unit begins its season — and the pass rushers will begin with a big test. Sacks would be nice, but the most important part of their job will be collapsing the pocket from the front — making it tough for Murray to pick apart the defensive coverage — and keeping him from escaping it.
With the injuries the Cardinals are facing, the Kansas City offense has a chance to dominate the matchup up front. Leaning on the ground game is one way to take advantage, but the offense should also be able to trust its pass protection . This means that head coach Andy Reid can feel good about calling longer-developing pass plays — and quarterback Patrick Mahomes will be able to read the secondary, hoping to avoid the unit’s big playmakers.