TEMPE, Ariz. – The Atlanta Falcons are looking for any way to get one of the NFL’s worst pass rushes going, whether it’s with a four-man rush, stunting or sending blitzes.
Their task gets a little more complicated this weekend.
In facing the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, the Falcons not only need to find a way to pressure quarterback Kyler Murray but also to keep tabs on him when he tucks the ball and runs.
“You’ve got to balance it,” Atlanta linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “At times, you’ve got to pressure him and make him feel uncomfortable. At times, you’ve got to devote a guy to potentially spy on him, at times you’ve got to go into max coverage from the standpoint they do have so much spread, so much space out there. A little bit of all that.”
Among the Falcons’ many faults during a 1-4 start to the season is the lack of a pass rush.
Atlanta enters Sunday’s game with five sacks, tied with the Dolphins and Broncos for worst in the NFL. The Falcons have none in the past two weeks and they hit Deshaun Watson one time in last week’s 52-32 loss at Houston.
Instead of heading home after the loss to the Texans, the Falcons headed further west to practice at Arizona State’s football facility. The early arrival was designed as a bonding experience, but also a chance to get a head start on figuring out how to slow Murray and Arizona’s quick-hitting offense.
“It’s really a challenge to see some of the unique things that he brings based on his feet,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “A lot of people can run a read-option, but it’s definitely different when somebody who has real gas is back there.”
The Cardinals used the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft on Murray, the Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma, hoping he’d be a good fit for first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense.
Kingsbury sort of eased Murray into his rookie season, limiting the number of designed runs as he got acclimated to the NFL game. The designed runs have increased the past few games and Murray ran for 93 yards – with 253 passing – in last week’s 26-23 win over Cincinnati, the most by a Cardinals quarterback since 1958 and third-most in franchise history.
Murray is the first player in NFL history with at least 1,300 yards passing and 200 yards rushing in his first five career games. He already has two of the top six single-game rushing totals by a quarterback in franchise history and his 206 yards rushing are 107 short of the franchise record.
“I don’t think there’s any (quarterbacks) like him,” Falcons linebacker Deion Jones said. “He’s fast. He’s short, but he’s moving around a lot and they have a lot of movement plays where he’s moving around, but he’s got the ball and it’s something you’ve got to account for.”
Murray may be mobile, but he’s not uncatchable.
Teams that have had success against Arizona have been able to pressure Murray into sacks and mistakes, like the eight-sack, one-interception performance he had against Seattle’s defense in a 27-10 Seattle win on Sept. 22.
Arizona has allowed 21 sacks, third-most behind the Jets (23) and Titans (22), so the Falcons know Murray can been caught.
“We have to be prepared for both versions of that offense, when he drops back and is traditional and the times where they do have the designed runs, we have to account for that as well,” Ulbrich said.
How the Falcons handle Murray and the Cardinals will go a long way in determining whether they turn around a difficult season or keep spiraling downward.
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