In hard-fought win, Cardinals show young core is learning

NFL

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP)The Arizona Cardinals earned a hard-fought, road win on Sunday over a veteran team, using clutch plays throughout the second half and stepping up in the biggest moments against a division rival.

In other words, the exact kind of game Arizona would have lost last season.

But with second-year quarterback Kyler Murray growing up fast, second-year coach Kliff Kingsbury more comfortable with his team’s identity and a rebuilt defense, the Cardinals pulled off a 24-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers and showed they could be a factor in the NFC West race.

”It just feels different,” Murray said after the win. ”I felt like we would come out on top and we did. I think that’s just a testament to our team, sticking to it, facing adversity today that we haven’t been able to face all camp with no preseason. I’m proud of the way that guys fought today. I think they did a heck of a job.”

Murray immediately found a connection with newly acquired receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who caught a career-high 14 passes for 151 yards. Hopkins, a three-time All-Pro, was the team’s marquee addition of the offseason, coming to Arizona in a blockbuster trade with the Houston Texans.

”He’s just got that feel,” Murray said. ”He’s had a great career, he was great in college, he’s always been great. There’s a reason for that. He’s just got a knack for being open. Even when he’s not open, he can catch anything.”

Arizona’s defense looked much improved after giving up the most total yards in the NFL last season. Safety Budda Baker, who made the Pro Bowl last year and recently signed a $59 million, four-year extension, made a team-high 15 tackles.

New additions De’Vondre Campbell and Dre Kirkpartick played well and second-year cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. played stellar pass defense in the final minute as the 49ers tried to rally for the win.

”It’s a great thing,” Baker said. ”The 49ers are a great team, division opponent, division champion, went to the Super Bowl, and it’s a great start for us to get the W week one.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Murray’s dual-threat growth. The quarterback had 100 yards rushing against the 49ers before a couple of late kneel-downs to run out the clock pushed him back to 91 for the game. He scored on a 22-yard touchdown run and was smart about when he’d throw the ball and when he was ready to tuck and run.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

There’s no reason to panic, but rookie linebacker Isaiah Simmons looked like – you guessed it – a rookie during an up-and-down performance against the 49ers. San Francisco took a 10-0 lead early on Raheem Mostert’s 76-yard catch and run for a touchdown. Replays showed Simmons was at least partially to blame, scrambling to cover a hole that was wide open over the middle of the field.

But the No. 8 overall pick also had some good moments, and Kingsbury is excited about his potential at multiple positions.

”Isaiah was in his first game, obviously, and it was moving pretty fast for him to start,” Kingsbury said. ”I thought he settled in as the game went on. There’s going to be some growing pains early in the season.”

STOCK UP

Safety Chris Banjo. The 30-year-old journeyman has been a backup and special teams player for most of his career, but when starter Jalen Thompson went down with an ankle injury on the game’s first drive, Banjo was ready. He made six total tackles and proved he can be a competent replacement in the event that Thompson can’t return next week.

STOCK DOWN

Receiver Christian Kirk. With so many good offensive players, there’s probably going to be someone who doesn’t get the ball much each week. In Week 1, that player was Kirk, who was targeted five times but had just one catch for zero yards. Kirk had 68 catches for 709 yards and three touchdowns last season despite missing three games, but the arrival of Hopkins might make it hard to have those numbers in 2020.

INJURED

Thompson (ankle) and starting center Mason Cole (hamstring) left the game early on Sunday. Kingsbury said both were still being evaluated on Monday but the coach was hopeful they wouldn’t miss too much time.

KEY NUMBERS

224 and 180. Kingsbury has a reputation as a pass-happy coach, but the Cardinals are at their best when they’re balanced. Against the 49ers, they had 224 yards passing and 180 yards rushing, a pretty good mix.

NEXT STEPS

The Cardinals have a chance to really get some momentum with two straight home games against the Washington Football Team and the Detroit Lions.

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