TEMPE, Ariz. — Quarterback Kyler Murray took the snap from shotgun, deep in Arizona Cardinals‘ territory in the second quarter of Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans. The Titans brought five against the Cardinals’ five offensive linemen, and it didn’t take long for Tennessee outside linebacker Harold Landry III to beat Arizona right tackle Kelvin Beachum, forcing Murray out of the pocket.
Then Murray not only showed how hard he is to defend, but how demoralizing he can be to defenders.
Murray evaded Landry to the right, running about a yard outside the far hashmark before stopping on a dime and cutting back inside. He reversed field, sprinting through a mosh pit of linemen — unscathed — to the area outside the opposite numbers where Titans defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons started to close in. Murray planted his right foot and began backpedaling, causing Simmons to fall. He then gathered himself, patted the ball with his left hand, and completed an 18-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Rondale Moore.
In all, Murray covered 43.5 yards, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, toying with the defense over nine seconds. It wasn’t the first time.
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“They’re pissed,” said Cardinals left tackle D.J. Humphries about what he sees from defenders after Murray scrambles out of a sack. “Ninety-eight [Simmons], he’s running all over the field trying to give his best effort to get Kyler and Kyler just stops on a dime and flicks the ball over his head, and you could just see on his face just like, ‘I just did everything I could to keep this guy, he just dropped the ball and it went right over my head.’
“I can see it in their face a lot of times. They’re trying so hard, they just can’t get him. So, it’s that part that is definitely fun.”
Through three games Murray ranks third in the league in passing yards and completion percentage thanks in large part to his elusiveness. His biggest test will be Sunday when the undefeated Cardinals travel to play the undefeated Los Angeles Rams (4:05 p.m. ET, Fox). L.A. boasts defensive super stars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, but Murray is his own kind of special. Titans linebacker Bud Dupree called corralling Murray “frustrating” and Dupree’s coach, Mike Vrabel, just shrugged.
“If you can tell me a way to prepare for five guys chasing after one, with five guys blocking — you know what I mean? What are you going to do?” Vrabel said. “… We can try and prepare and we can chase a jitterbug around in practice and think that, but he made a play.”
Murray did it again a week later against the Minnesota Vikings.
Within about a second of taking a shotgun snap with 1:46 left in the second quarter, Minnesota defensive ends Stephen Weatherly, who rushed untouched, and Danielle Hunter had blown by the Cardinals’ tackles, and were closing in on Murray. He spun away from Weatherly and rolled out to his left. Soon, he was in a dead sprint away from Hunter, running as fast as 16.26 mph, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, as linebacker Eric Kendricks closed in from the front. When Murray got just outside the numbers, without setting his feet, he opened his torso downfield and launched a pass that traveled 45.6 yards in the air to a wide-open Moore, who did the rest, sprinting to the end zone to close out a 77-yard touchdown.
In all, Murray covered 29.4 yards, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
KYLER MURRAY IS ELECTRIC. #AZCardinals
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“It’s horrible for a defensive lineman because you get so close to him,” Vikings defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson said.
Vikings co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson feels good when Hunter is closing in on a quarterback “99% of the time.” Murray is the other 1%.
“If I’ve got D running free at a quarterback, I’m putting my money on it that D is going to hop that guy down,” Patterson said. “He outran D, so that’s one of those deals where you’ve got to tip your hat to the guy that made the play.”
When Murray escapes the pocket looking to throw, the field may appear chaotic, but it’s actually somewhat organized. It’s the scramble drill in real time and it’s something the Cardinals practice usually once a week. Every receiver has an area they need to get to if Murray breaks loose. Murray, himself, has been doing some version of it his whole football career which dates back to grade school but he’s been practicing it in an organized manner since high school.
“It’s all reactions, all instincts,” Murray said. “Getting out of there, understanding what concept we had on, understanding where my guys are when I do scramble. We work on scramble drills every week, so I’m glad it’s starting to pay off.”
Over the past two seasons, coach Kliff Kingsbury has emphasized the need for receivers to continue running, getting to open areas of the field, and for linemen to keep blocking. He pointed to some of the best quarterbacks in the league — Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson — continuing to make things happen in the “second phase” of plays.
Now Murray is doing that.
“The hardest thing in football to defend is a broken play,” Kingsbury said. “It’s hard to hold up in coverage when guys are running around and going every which way. We talk about, ‘Hey, light up whenever he gets out of the pocket wideouts, and O-line never stop protecting because when he’s out on the perimeter he can be dangerous for us.'”
When Murray scrambles out of the pocket, the receivers start feeling a sense of urgency, wide receiver Christian Kirk said. From there, their job is to separate from their coverage and get open.
“We have techniques of how to separate, how to get open,” Kingsbury said. “It’s not just as helter-skelter as it appears.”
But Murray making a defender miss is step one and that impresses Kingsbury.
“At this level these guys are unbelievable,” Kingsbury said. “The athletes that play defensive end and on the defensive line now are incredible. If you’re able to do that, that’s just a whole different level of athleticism.”
Even once a player escapes the rush, they need to make an accurate pass on the run, which is where Murray channels years of playing baseball for help. Against Minnesota, he was on the run and threw the pass to Moore with his right arm as he was rolling out left like a second baseman turning a double play.
“Just all the body angles and arm angles, being able to contort and do all that type of stuff, for sure,” Murray said. “A lot of guys in the locker room haven’t played multiple sports, as far as baseball. They ask me ‘How do you do that?’ It’s just something I’ve always done my whole life. It’s nothing new.”
Having a quarterback who can capitalize on broken plays makes the Cardinals’ second-ranked offense difficult to stop. Kingsbury doesn’t want to rely on it all the time but admits it can be a weapon. Everyone, he said, outside of Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady is doing it.
Some quarterbacks, like Murray, are just better at it.
“He’s like a Jedi-ninja, so it doesn’t even count,” Kingsbury said. “It’s a big part of the game. We rep it, we practice it, and we’ve had some huge plays off of it so far.”
ESPN Minnesota Vikings reporter Courtney Cronin and Tennessee Titans reporter Turron Davenport contributed.