Preseason Week 2 Takeaways: Cardinals Offense Showing Early Signs of Concern
Friday's preseason slate was an intriguing one: it featured two playoff teams from a year ago, a defending conference champion and another team with aspirations of a postseason trip in 2021.
It wound up looking… a lot like preseason football. Kansas City's victory over the Arizona Cardinals won't get Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs any closer to a third straight Super Bowl. Washington's victory over the Cincinnati Bengals means about as much for their chances in the NFC East as their loss to the New England Patriots a week ago, which is to say absolutely nothing.
But that's not to say that nothing interesting happened Friday. A highly-drafted rookie continued to have a choppy summer. One team looked surprisingly good defensively. Another looked surprisingly bad offensively. A quasi-quarterback competition was seemingly settled. And a veteran defensive lineman was the star of the evening.
Let's take a look at the biggest takeaways from Friday's action, beginning with some red flags for the Redbirds.
The Arizona Offense Has Work to Do
Now, less than a half of football in a game that doesn't count is hardly cause to freak out and start banging on big red buttons.
But when a team's first-team offense looks absolutely putrid, it's cause for at least some concern.
And Arizona's offense was putrid against the Chiefs.
Playing behind an offensive line employing the "matador" technique, Kyler Murray had more sacks (two) than completions (one). Murray was 1-for-4 passing for two yards. The team gained a whopping 79 total yards in the first half, most of which came after Murray departed. Arizona rushed for just 21 yards in the first half, and the top two rushers were rookie wideout Rondale Moore and Murray.
Again, it's not Chicken Little time, at least not yet. Murray is an electrifying young signal-caller. The Cardinals have a nice RB tandem on paper of James Conner and Chase Edmonds and a wide receiver corps that includes DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk, A.J. Green and Moore. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury also wasn't breaking out the wrinkles and trick plays, either.
But games aren't played on paper, and Arizona's offensive line was a question mark entering the preseason.
If the Arizona offense isn't exponentially better in Tennessee on Sept. 12, the Cardinals will get rolled.
They also won't have a chance in a loaded NFC West.
Chiefs DL Chris Jones Headed for Career Year
In an effort to boost a pass rush that managed a so-so 31 sacks in 2020, the Kansas City Chiefs are playing defensive tackle Chris Jones on the outside more in 2021. Per John Dillon of Chiefs Wire, the two-time Pro Bowler admitted that the switch has been an adjustment.
"You can always get better at technique," Jones said. "I'm in a new position so it's more of a learning phase to me now, defensive end, I haven't played it since college, so just the whole position swap has been a learning phase to me. The play calling is a little different for me, having to drop, having to understand the offensive formations to react off of different plays, so I'm still learning."
Jones appears to be getting the hang of it.
For the second time in as many weeks, Jones logged a sack in Friday's 17-10 win over the Arizona Cardinals, coming off the edge to bring down Kyler Murray in the first quarter.
With defensive end Frank Clark nursing a hamstring injury and potentially facing a suspension after two offseason arrests and one felony weapons charge, it's all the more important that Jones anchor Kansas City's defensive line this season.
So far, he doesn't just look up to the task. He looks like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Chiefs Secondary Receivers Step Up vs. Cardinals
There's been no shortage of things written (and said) about the perceived lack of depth at wide receiver in Kansas City behind superstar Tyreek Hill. And as ESPN's Adam Teicher reported, youngster Mecole Hardman admitted that his third professional season was a pivotal one.
"It's probably one of my most important seasons," Hardman said. "I think it's up to me personally to do what I need to do and take advantage of every opportunity that's given to me and gain the trust of the coaches, the rest of the staff and Pat and my teammates and just show them I can be a viable asset every Sunday or whatever day we're playing on."
With Hill taking Friday's tilt against the Redbirds off, both Hardman and Byron Pringle had a chance to showcase their talents and make a case to be the team's No. 2 wideout.
Both young men stepped up, at least to an extent.
In the first half of Friday's game (otherwise known as the part that actually matters), Pringle pulled in four of his five targets for 63 yards. Hardman, who appeared to be Patrick Mahomes' primary read in the early going, caught four passes for 38 yards with a touchdown grab from backup Chad Henne.
Demarcus Robinson's odds of seizing that No. 2 role took a hit though—in the first 30 minutes he had just two catches for 10 yards on six looks.
Hardman's explosiveness appears to give him the edge in this competition, but Pringle isn't making it an easy decision for Andy Reid.
Drops Continue to Be an Issue for Bengals WR Ja'Marr Chase
Cincinnati Bengals rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase has made some impressive catches on the practice field this summer. But he has also struggled with dropping passes. Per James Rapien of All Bengals, Cincinnati head coach Zac Taylor indicated that isn't concerned by the apparent lapses in concentration by the fifth overall pick:
"I'm not concerned about that [drops]. We want him to catch the football, there's no question about that, but again, we just want to see progress everyday in all areas and I have seen him make progress as a receiver for what we're looking for. Again, we don't wanna drop the football, but he's starting to make more plays for us and we're heading in the right direction there."
That tune could be set to change, though. Drops on the practice field are one thing. But in the first quarter against Washington on Friday, Chase dropped an easily catchable throw on third down that would have extended the drive.
It's still early. And no one is suggesting the Bengals panic. But Chase was drafted to be a difference-maker in 2021.
He can't be if he doesn't catch the ball.
Cincinnati's Defense Continues to Surprise...in a Good Way
With Joe Burrow watching the game from the sidelines Friday, it's not exactly a stunner that Cincinnati's first-team offense didn't do much against Washington.
It was, however, a bit surprising to see Cincinnati's first-team defense continue to play well after a solid showing in limited action against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the opener.
Cincinnati's front four consistently controlled the line of scrimmage against Washington, putting pressure on both Ryan Fitzpatrick and Taylor Heinicke. Edge-rusher Sam Hubbard notched a pair of QB hits and a sack. Second-year middle linebacker Logan Wilson tallied three tackles and forced a fumble. And Cincinnati's new-look secondary held Fitzpatrick to just 7-of-13 passing and a passer rating of 77.7.
Mind you, this came after the Bengals allowed just 159 total yards against the Buccaneers—a far cry from the 389.2 yards per game (26th in the league) they allowed in 2020.
As Kelsey Conway reported for the Cincinnati Enquirer, Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said earlier this week that eliminating big plays and forcing turnovers were priorities in 2021.
"If you get turnovers and eliminate explosive plays in the pass game and the run game, you're going to be successful," Anarumo said.
For the most part, so far, so good.
There Is No Quarterback Controversy in Washington
It has long been assumed that the Washington Football Team signed veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to be the team's starter. But head coach Ron Rivera has made it clear that Fitzpatrick wouldn't just be handed the job. He would need to compete with Taylor Heinicke.
"It's going to be a good competition," Rivera said in June, per ESPN's John Keim. "I look forward to it. It's going to push our football team and make our football team better. I just feel that going into this knowing we have a proven guy there that has the ability to lead us, but again, we have a guy in Taylor that shows us he can do it. They are going to compete, they are going to push, and I'm looking forward to it."
If there ever was a competition, it's over, and Fitzpatrick didn't even to play well to end it.
Against the Bengals, Fitzpatrick was OK but not much more than that. He completed seven of his 13 pass attempts for 96 yards. But the 38-year-old led the Washington offense on a pair of good-looking drives against a surprisingly game Bengals defense and didn't turn the ball over.
The 28-year-old Heinicke was more efficient as a passer. He missed on just two of 13 attempts. But those 11 completions went for a whopping 80 yards. His M.O. was the same throughout the game, whether it was against starters or scrubs: roll out, run around and then either dump it short or take off. He was the dean of dink-and-dunk.
Heinicke will always have that magical start against Tampa in last year's playoffs. But he's not in the same league as Fitzpatrick as a passer, and if Washington is going to repeat as the NFC East champion, it has to be able to challenge defenses vertically.