I hope …

The changes made in the offense last week continue. There’s every reason to believe they will.

Most significant was how wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was utilized, which was markedly different than in the past when he lined up almost exclusively on the left side of the formation.

According to Pro Football Focus, Hopkins lined up in the slot on 44 percent of his 61 snaps against the Saints. In the 26 previous games with the Cardinals, he never played more than 12 percent there. He lined up outside or in the slot on both the left and right side of the formation last Thursday.

Although coach Kliff Kingsbury claimed how he lines up will depend on the game plan, it’s difficult to imagine that plan won’t continue.

While adding that “we’re going to see how we can utilize Robbie (Anderson), as well as these other pieces we have,” he also acknowledged, “we just got to keep being creative in ways that we use all these weapons we have and making sure we’re doing things they do well.”

Wide receiver Rondale Moore was often on the outside when Hopkins was in the slot and Greg Dortch returned to more of a prominent role in the slot with A.J. Green not playing.

“Every time he’s out there, he tends to make a play,” Kingsbury said of Dortch. “He’s fearless and keeps getting better and better. It’s a crowded wide receiver room, there’s no doubt, and you got to earn every rep you get, but he’s a guy I think all coaches and players believe in at this point.”

In addition, the Cardinals huddled up more and the normally frenetic pace of the offense was slowed down.

Kingsbury said, “I think it helped, having some new pieces in there. There’s no doubt we wanted to slow things down and be able to identify where everybody’s supposed to go. You saw at times we burned some timeouts getting late in the play clock, which we knew would be an issue for the first time actually doing it. So I felt like it was a positive I think being able to change up some more fast-paced stuff and get in the huddle will help us moving forward.”

Quarterback Kyler Murray said after the game, “Tonight was different. We huddled up, so we would not have any pre-snap penalties and all of those mistakes we had been making. I mean we won, so I have to give the benefits to my guys, especially since (Hopkins) hasn’t been playing with us. Getting Robbie in there. Billy (Price) was the new center tonight. We were trying to get everybody on the same page and I thought we did well.”

I wonder …

If the return of Hopkins and addition of Anderson can lead to more big plays by the Cardinals offense. Their presence could also create more opportunities for Moore.

Coach Kliff Kingsbury sure hopes so.

“I think from an offensive perspective, the big plays are way down,” Kingsbury said. “I think that’s an area we got to try and manufacture more of. Getting (Hopkins) back is going to help — you saw what he was able to do (last Thursday) — but we got to be able to make some bigger plays down the field.”

As for Anderson, Kingsbury noted, “We know he can run. Now, it’s about fitting it into our offense. He’s a guy who can take the top off (a defense) and has really elite level speed and we felt like we needed that piece when Hollywood (Brown) went down. I’m excited to see what he does with another week under his belt.”

In seven games, the Cardinals have only 19 plays of 20 or more yards in the passing game, including three of 30 or more: tight end Zach Ertz, 32; Moore, 31 and Dortch, 30. Brown, who is out with a foot injury, has eight, followed by Moore and Dortch with three; Ertz with two and running backs James Conner, Eno Benjamin and Keaontay Ingram with one.

In the running game, Benjamin had a rush for 45 yards against New Orleans, while Murray has runs of 42 and 21 yards and running back Darrel Williams has one for 30 this season.

Only two of the 23 were for touchdowns with Brown scoring from 25 and 23 yards.

Cardinals opponents have 28 plays of 20 or more yards and nine of 30 or more. The Saints had plays of 64, 53 (touchdown) and 41 yards for 158 of the 494 they totaled in Week 7.

I know …

That an overlooked positive of the offense in the first seven games of the season has been ball security. The Cardinals have only five turnovers and that includes one lost fumble. The latter came on what would have been a first-down run by Murray against Seattle, but he had the ball knocked out before he could slide.

When the lack of turnovers was mentioned to Kingsbury, he said, “Yeah, thank God. It’s the only thing that’s kept us in it with how we’ve sputtered at times offensively. We’ve at least protected the ball. And then limited penalties for the most part as well. I think those two areas have given us a chance to at least hang in.”

I hope …

Kingsbury is correct when he believes the troubles the team has experienced in the first two months of the season will lead to a strong finish in the second half.

Everything is still up for grabs in the NFC with only five teams having winning records after seven weeks and the Seahawks in first place in the NFC West with a 4-3 record, one game ahead of the Cardinals. No teams in the NFC South have a winning record.

Following the win over the Saints, Kingsbury said, “I like what I’m seeing. I think a lot of the adversity has helped us kind of build some character throughout the first seven weeks and hopefully that’s on display moving forward. But we had a different look in our eye out there on Thursday and hopefully that continues.”

No one needs to be reminded that the Cardinals were 7-0 at this time last season, but won only four of their last 10 games.

Running back Eno Benjamin, who ended up eight yards short of a 100-yard rushing game against New Orleans, said the team has consistently maintained “an optimistic outlook. When you look at it, last year the 49ers had I think a 3-5 record going into Week 9. They were just able to get it clicking at the right moment, so I think there’s always been that optimistic feeling that we can get on a roll.”

He was correct about the 49ers in 2021. San Francisco fell to 3-5 after losing to the Cardinals at home, 31-17 (with Colt McCoy at quarterback) on Nov. 7. They then won seven of their last nine with two wins over the Rams and one at Cincinnati to finish 10-7 and in the playoffs after which they defeated Dallas and Green Bay on the road before losing to the Rams in the NFC Championship Game.

Benjamin said Kingsbury has emphasized that, saying, “Those are things in team meetings that he’s brought up. Just teams and records over the weeks and how they’ve made a push for the playoffs and it’s all about doing it at the right time and clicking it up.”

I wonder …

How long the Cardinals will have to stick with Rodrigo Blankenship as the kicker with Matt Prater still working to return from a right hip injury.

When Kingsbury was asked how close Prater is to kicking again, he said, “He’s getting better. Once again, we’ve got to get him out there, have him kick and see how he feels towards the end of the week, but I think if Prater can’t go, we’ll stay with what we’ve got.”

Blankenship replaced Matt Ammendola for the game against New Orleans and while he did miss an extra point, which he said was because his pre-kick routine was thrown off, somewhat overlooked was when he opened the scoring for the Cardinals with a 50-yard field goal early in the first quarter. It was as if a sigh of relief was evident not only with the team but everyone watching.

“It was good to see,” Kingsbury said. “He kicked really well during the week, so it was nice to see him get one and I think we have confidence in what he can do based on the small sample size that we’ve seen so far.”

I know …

That all the talk about Kingsbury giving up play-calling was a lot of wasted breath.

He fueled the speculation when asked about the possibility of that happening after the Week 6 loss to the Seahawks.

He said, “I’m open to anything that helps us win and score more points. We’re going to see where everything goes, but yeah, whatever it takes to win, I’m all for.”

He had to say that. After all, what would have been the reaction had he said, “No way. I’m the play-caller and that’s the way it is?”

Play-callers usually get the brunt of the criticism when an offense struggles, but most of the time plays don’t work because of breakdowns in execution.

Did Packers coach Matt LaFleur suddenly become a bad play-caller this season? Or Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich? Giants coach Brian Daboll is now everyone’s favorite to possibly be coach of the year, but how would the team be doing without a healthy Saquon Barkley at running back?

The truth is game plans are implemented based on the talent available. Anyone with eyes could see how much was different for the Cardinals against New Orleans with Hopkins back on the field.

Kingsbury acknowledged the obvious when he said, “If you look at the numbers when he’s played and when he hasn’t, its pretty dramatic. Defenses have to play you differently; they just do. The run game opens up when they’re rolling another guy to him. It just sets things up for other people because they always have to know where he’s at.”

The Quotebook

Benjamin on playing with attitude and how he approaches the game with toughness: “I have a tattoo on my chest of a lion. I feel like I always have the heart of a lion. That determination. No matter if someone is bigger, faster stronger than me, I definitely feel like I’m going to take myself nine of 10 times with that determination, drive and will.”

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com


Howard Balzer is in his 47th year covering professional football as a writer, editor and broadcaster and has covered 41 Super Bowls. His connection with pro football began in 1976 with College and Pro Football Newsweekly, and since then he has been a featured columnist for The Sporting News, Pro Football Weekly, USA Today Sports Weekly and The Sports Xchange. Balzer moved to St. Louis in 1978 to work for The Sporting News, where he became Pro Football Editor in 1979. He was an analyst on ESPN's initial broadcast of the NFL Draft in 1980 and continued in that role through 1988. He has won seven writing awards in the Professional Football Writers of America competition, won an Emmy for commentaries on KPLR-TV in St. Louis in 1986 and was nominated for an Emmy in 1988 and 1990. He was named the 2016 winner of the Bob Broeg Media Award presented by the St. Louis/Tom Lombardo Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. The award is for enthusiasm, integrity, professionalism and devotion to the game of football and is reserved for individuals whose contributions to football in the St. Louis area have made a significant difference. Balzer was an officer (secretary and secretary/treasurer) for the Professional Football Writers of America for 33 years and was inducted into the St. Louis Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. Balzer relocated to the Phoenix area in 2020 as the publisher of the FanNation AllCardinals site and is now the Cardinals reporter for PHNX. He is entering his 19th year as one of 49 voting members on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is also on the Hall's Seniors Committee. He is the co-host of the weekly Pro Football Hall of Fame radio show on SiriusXM NFL Radio and is a part-time host at ArizonaSports 98.7 FM.