COVID-19 means no fans, but Arizona Cardinals still fired up for home opener

When players look into the stands at State Farm Stadium Sunday this is what they will see: empty seats because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Arizona’s second test of the 2020 NFL regular season, and first in it’s own backyard, is set to be lacking many of the qualities that, typically, present a home-squad with a true home-field advantage.

When the Washington Football Team (1-0) arrives to duke it out with the Cardinals (1-0) at State Farm Stadium Sunday afternoon, the usually animated Red Sea will be missing. The jeers thrown mostly amicably between visiting and home fans will be inaudible. Sack dance imitations in the crowd, eagerly anticipated by star pass-rusher Chandler Jones, must be forgotten for the time being. And players on both teams will be tasked with feeding off their own malleable energy for the second time in as many weeks.

Still, detectable perks come from competing in familiar territory.

“We’re gonna miss the fans, but to be at home for a game is gonna be nice,” said starting left-guard Justin Pugh.

Staying in town subdues anxiety that stems from traveling, lets the team relax just a little bit longer in a comfortable environment and poses a challenge for every player and coach that will dress for Sunday’s 1:05 p.m. kickoff: prevent the opposition from spoiling the Cardinals’ home field advantage.

“It’s our turf. I feel like you ask anybody that, they want to protect their home field,” said quarterback Kyler Murray, noting there’s an inherent edge even without 60,000-plus fans in attendance.

And thanks to special-teamers Dennis Gardeck and Ezekiel Turner — who running back Chase Edmonds identified as two of the team’s most vocal personalities along the sideline — that edge should help alleviate the sound of silence and turn the Cardinals’ attention predominantly to execution.

Efficiency on the offensive side of the ball could spell out Sunday’s brewing action.

One of Arizona’s top priorities? Slowing down a resurgent Washington defensive line, anchored now by rookie phenom Chase Young, sizzling off an eight-sack team performance against the Philadelphia Eagles.

“We have our work cut out for us,” Pugh said. “Obviously, Philadelphia’s offensive line was banged up with some injuries, but it does not take away from what the Washington defensive line did.”

The nickname-less “Football Team” leaned heavily on it’s unabated pass-rush to claw back into a game that, at one stage, featured a 17-point Washington deficit. Seven defenders wound up tallying half a sack, or more, and laid a total of 15 blows on Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz.

By the time 60 minutes eclipsed, Washington prevailed in dominant fashion, 27-17. Young and blue-chip defensive end Ryan Kerrigan wreaked havoc from both ends of the line of scrimmage, logging a combined three-and-a-half sacks, three-and-a-half tackles for loss and four quarterback hits.

“They have eight guys who can get after the quarterback, and they’re relentless,” Pugh said, “we have to match their effort.”

It will help that Murray brings a vastly different skill-set to the table than Wentz. Although the latter has flashed salient maneuverability in the pocket — he’s not so much a threat beyond the tackle box as he is hard to grasp in the backfield — Murray possesses traits that magnify an opponent’s weaknesses.

“He’s almost like a running back with the football in his hands,” said three-time consecutive All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. “He’s trying to make a play, he’s trying to score, he’s not just trying to get the first down.”

It’s Murray’s instincts as a legitimate dual-threat passer and his hard-to-replicate movements that create the most trouble for defenses. Hopkins equates his style of running to a full-time ball carrier, but also acknowledges Murray boasts one of the best arms he’s had the privilege to play with during his eight-year NFL career.

That leaves preparing defenses with a slew of concerns, but none more principal than limiting Murray’s usage as a runner without sacrificing bodies in coverage.

The potential tradeoff is troublesome for Washington’s defense because whatever approach it takes, whatever methodology is utilized to slow down one facet of the Cardinals’ offense, Murray retains a way to make the opposition pay. It’s impossible schematically to eliminate both his arm and legs.

“Kyler’s going to get us out of some traditional sacks that probably most quarterbacks couldn’t,” Pugh said. “Not many people can go from zero to 100 like him, and there’s not a d-linemen in football that can catch him if he’s at full-speed.”

Even in slower gears, Murray makes life miserable for wannabe tacklers. In week one, he carried the football 13 times. On twelve of those instances, he remained unscathed, either scrambling out of bounds, sliding to safety or punching his ticket into the end zone. The lone time Murray endured contact on a run past the line of scrimmage, he was pulled down by his jersey.

“I don’t think any quarterback likes to get hit,” said Murray, adding his mind races whenever he abandons his post behind center, not because he’s overwhelmed, but rather because he is plotting his next move. “When I’m running, I’m trying to evade people and get as much yardage as I possibly can.”

His evasiveness and artistry when defenders seem to have him bottled up has quickly emerged as one of Murray’s top assets this season, but it’s not the only area of his game that has gripped his teammates’ conscious minds.

Murray is more in-sync with his responsibilities as a leader in the huddle this season. He’s not so much focused on the pace of play, as he is the efficiency of his performance. And, he’s more adept at making adjustments on the fly, in the heat of the moment, than he was during his rookie of the year campaign.

These strides are increasingly evident to Pugh, an eight-year veteran who has started each of his 87 career appearances — and blocked for Eli Manning for half a decade with the New York Giants. And they’ll be increasingly publicized over the next 15 games.

“This year, a lot of those things are starting to come second-nature to him, and he’s understanding how defenses are trying to attack him, and I think he’s able to adjust really nicely off that,” Pugh said about Murray. “I know if we don’t let anybody come at him head on, he’s going to make that first guy miss … and with the savvy that he’s starting to develop, he’s going to be a problem.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Rob Kleifield is an Arizona native who expects to graduate in December 2020 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Kleifield works as a digital reporter for Cronkite Sports. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism in May 2019 from the University of Arizona.