Fast start vs. Bears will be crucial to Cardinals' offense with Murray, Hopkins returning

Bob McManaman
Arizona Republic

When an NFL team gets to welcome back its star quarterback and prized No.1 wide receiver after they missed three straight games due to injury and are coming off a bye week following an extra period of rest, there can’t be any negatives connected to it, right?

Well, maybe there could be at least one.

Kyler Murray (sprained ankle) and DeAndre Hopkins (strained hamstring) will have gone 37 consecutive days between games if they take the field this Sunday in Chicago against the Bears, which is the plan, but that extended time off could predictably lead to a sluggish start by the offense.

If that happens and the Cardinals (9-2) falter early, stumble and somehow lose to the Bears (4-7), imagine the implications as it relates to Arizona’s quest for securing the No.1 seed in the NFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Asked how the Cardinals can avoid such a fate, coach Kliff Kingsbury said getting Murray and Hopkins back in the first place is the perfect cure.

“Just have them out there, that should help – two of the best players in the league,” he said. “Hopefully, they can pick up where they left off. That’s always a concern, getting adjusted to the speed of the game. We’ll once again have quite a few good-on-good reps this week so they can feel that speed and hopefully come out and play at a high level.

Jun 2, 2021; Tempe, Arizona, USA;  Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (10) during voluntary Organized Team Activities at Dignity Health Training Facility.

“It’ll be an adjustment period for them.”

By “good-on-good,” Kingsbury was referring to the Cardinals’ first-team offense regularly getting a decent amount of scrimmage work in practice against the Cardinals’ first-team defense, something Kingsbury installed during his first season with the team three years ago. Other teams do it as well and it’s an impactful way to help sharpen a team’s game-week preparation by the best going against the best.

Murray and Hopkins were limited participants in practice on Wednesday, but when it comes to their talent level and competitiveness, there should be no concerns about either player being able to perform at his best upon their return. So says running back James Conner, who has seen enough out of both men in his first season with the team to know better.

“I trust their preparation. They’re pros,” Conner said. “I know over the bye week they did what they needed to do and I know what they’re going to do this week to be ready, to be prepared, so I don’t worry about Hop or K1 at all. I know that they’re going to perform come Sunday.”

Though it’s natural to assume the Cardinals’ offense might struggle to find a rhythm and get on a roll early at Soldier Field just because of the excessive time off by Murray and Hopkins, there are some reasons for optimism that it won’t.

In seven of their first 11 games, the Cardinals have led after the first quarter of play and in eight of those games they’ve also led at halftime. When it comes to their first three offensive possessions in games, the Cardinals have failed to score points only twice – during their 31-5 rout of the Houston Texans in Week 7 when it didn’t matter and in their 34-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 10 when it did.

In all other games, they’ve accounted for 13 touchdowns and three field goals in their first three possessions. On the occasions when they didn’t score in their first three possessions, they punted 12 times, lost two fumbles, thrown an interception and took a safety in addition to turning the ball over on downs one time.

Overall, those are some healthy numbers and indicate a productive and opportunistic offense that rarely comes out of the gates looking flat and lost. But how sure are they that they can keep that up with their starting quarterback and top receiver being out of the lineup so long?

If the start of Wednesday’s practice is any indication, Murray said things should get rolling pretty quickly on Sunday.

“The first couple of live reps felt like I’ve been doing it the past four weeks,” he said.

Asked if there could be an adjustment period not with him necessarily returning, but other players around him on offense re-establishing a timing and rhythm, Murray said, “Maybe. Maybe offensive line-wise with the cadence and stuff like that. Drops, depth of drops. If we’re trying to get technical, yeah, maybe. But I don’t think so. These guys have been around me for a long time so it should be an easy transition.”

Getting off to a quick start, however, will be important.

“I think it’ll be huge,” Murray said. “In any game you look to go in and start fast. That’s a big part of being a great football team is starting fast. So yeah, it’ll be good for us.”

Another mitigating circumstance the Cardinals may have to overcome is the weather. Forecasts for Sunday in Chicago call for midday temperatures in the low 40’s with high winds and a 50-percent chance of showers. Those conditions could have an impact on Murray and the passing game.

Should that be the case, Conner said the Cardinals can rely on him to get things going. He’s played in bad weather many times, having spent his first four NFL seasons in Pittsburgh, and he’s confident he can provide the necessary spark in the running game.

“I’ve just got to bring it,” he said. “It’s going to be one of those games, cold weather. I’m used to it, been there and done that. It’s just another opportunity, that’s what we’re looking at it as. I’m going to try to be as physical as I can out there and get that juice going in the running game. Hopefully, that will help get the team going. I’ve just got to bring it.”

No matter how the Cardinals start on Sunday, it’s how they finish that counts. That includes this game and the other five left to play after it. To that end of things, Murray reminded everyone the Cardinals are sitting pretty and more than ready and capable of finishing what they started.

“We’re 9-2, we have the best record in the league,” he said. “Obviously, none of that matters. We’ve got to keep going. I’m excited where we are as a team. The guys are happy to be back, we’re fresh off a bye, had a good Thanksgiving. So like I said, I like where we’re at.”

Have an opinion on the Arizona Cardinals? Reach McManaman at bob.mcmanaman@arizonarepublic.com and follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac. Listen to him live on Fox Sports 910-AM every Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 on Calling All Sports with Roc and Manuch. 

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