Film Study: Cardinals’ Kirk can be a star with Kingsbury

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Christian Kirk’s second NFL season had been underwhelming through Week 9.

Kirk battled an ankle injury, missing three games, and entered Sunday averaging just 9.7 yards per reception, without a touchdown. The lack of explosive plays was notable, as many pigeonholed Kirk as purely a slot wideout coming out of Texas A&M last year, questioning his ability to win vertically and outside.

But the former second-round pick erupted on Sunday at Tampa Bay. With only three career TDs in 18 previous games, he scored on three consecutive catches — among his six grabs for 138 yards — to power the Cardinals’ near-upset of the Bucs.

Those plays showcased not only Kirk’s explosiveness, but also why he fits so well in Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense.

Kirk’s 33-yard score late in the first half came on a Mills concept, designed to attack Cover-4. The Bucs played Cover-6 (Cover-2 to one side, Cover-4 to the other), and the concept perfectly exploited the Cover-4 side.

Tight end Charles Clay ran directly at safety Jordan Whitehead and sat, occupying him to leave Kirk alone outside with cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting. After briefly angling outside, Kirk stemmed inside Murphy-Bunting — who expected help from Whitehead — and accelerated away on a skinny post.

The Bucs handled it poorly, but Kirk’s burst gave Murphy-Bunting no chance to recover, and Kyler Murray made a great throw.

Kirk’s 69-yard score came on a lock screen, a fake bubble screen where receivers simulate blocking before releasing vertically. He was outside again, and with the Cardinals using no-huddle tempo, cornerback Ryan Smith was late aligning over him.

Lock screens usually go to the slot receiver because he’s more likely to face zone defenders — whose eyes are on the QB (and thus more affected by the fake) — but Larry Fitzgerald was covered by a linebacker and a safety from another Cover-4 look.

No matter. Kirk torched Smith and gave Murray a huge window outside. With a few shuffle steps to fake a block, Kirk got Smith to peek just for a moment toward the backfield, then blistered up the sideline, catching Murray’s throw in stride.

Again, Kingsbury’s design gave Kirk a slight head start, and he turned on the afterburners to make it count.

Kirk’s 40-yard dash at the 2018 combine (4.47 seconds) was unspectacular, but he’s certainly explosive. He has great short area burst — both laterally and straight-line acceleration — and is extremely fluid at all speeds, allowing for seamless change of direction.

After showing he can fly outside, Kirk moved back to the slot for his third score. Kingsbury exploited Cover-4 yet again, putting Kirk to the inside slot of trips in an empty formation and getting him matched on rookie linebacker Devin White.

Kirk used the craftiness he showed in college on a double move, hesitating in front of White before breaking up the seam behind him. White admirably fought to recover, tipping a low throw from Murray. But Kirk, with ample separation, caught it easily for a 15-yard TD.

Kirk also had a few catches on speed outs versus soft zones, but his day could have been even bigger. Kingsbury tried to spring him on a throwback/leak concept, but Murray and the O-line sold the play fake poorly, and White sniffed it out. Kirk later drew an 18-yard pass-interference penalty on fourth-and-5, despite Murray’s throw being way inside.

Sunday was an outlier by the numbers for Kirk, but it was hardly a fluke. He had narrowly missed some splash plays the last two weeks.

A few great yards-after-catch opportunities went begging in Weeks 8 and 9, including a clever throwback screen — featuring Kirk coming off jet motion — in New Orleans, and a poor miss from Murray on a wide-open slant with room to run against the 49ers.

Also in New Orleans, Kingsbury featured Kirk on a Mills concept vs. Cover-4, but Saints safety Vonn Bell mugged the wideout before he could come free on the post. Referees missed the hold, but Kirk got open off-schedule later in the play, only for Murray to underthrow him, preventing a 30-plus-yard gain.

Murray is still getting used to NFL pockets and the arm angles and platforms they demand, resulting in ball-placement inconsistency, but his arm talent and accuracy should win out. Kirk will benefit greatly as Murray stabilizes.

He also should continue to profit from Kingsbury’s scheme, which uses extensive four-WR sets and can deploy him in so many ways. Despite other mouths to feed, Kingsbury has made a concerted effort to draw up plays for Kirk each game, and those should only increase moving forward.

–By David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media