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Sport Kliff Kingsbury’s offense has been better than anyone could have predicted

20:30  21 october  2019
20:30  21 october  2019 Source:   ftw.usatoday.com

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Even the most optimistic Kliff Kingsbury enthusiast could not have seen this coming. I would know. I was one of those people touting Kingsbury as the next offensive thinker whose ideas would change the NFL, but even I expected the Cardinals to be one of the worst teams in the league. Sure, the scheme would be good - or, at the very least, fun - but Arizona's roster was a barren wasteland, devoid of talent in the trenches and a true receiving threat on the outside.

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Seven weeks into the NFL season, I can confidently say I was wrong about that. The Cardinals, who climbed back to .500 on Sunday with a 27-21 win over the Giants, have not been one of the worst teams in the league; and while I was more right than wrong about the talent thing, Kingsbury's approach to calling plays has helped mitigate that enough to where Arizona has produced like an average NFL offense. Based on Expected Points Added, the Cardinals have had a better offense than the Patriots, Saints, Rams, Browns, Chargers and Eagles. As we all expected.

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Nobody is going to get excited about a 3-3-1 record and the league's 17th-ranked scoring offense, but those numbers are borderline miraculous considering where the Cardinals were before Kingsbury got his hands on the team.

Via Football Outsiders Almanac 2019:

The Cardinals offense finished last in the league in DVOA, and last in weighted DVOA. They were last on first down, second down, and third down. They were last in the first half of games and last in the second half. They were last at home and last on the road. They were last when the game was close and last in the rare event they had a big lead. They were last out of shotgun formations. They were next to last on running plays, when losing big, in late and close games, or with the quarterback under center. Weirdly, they were 12th in the red zone … but then they only ran 95 red zone plays, which was also next to last.

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This wasn't just a bad offense. It was a historically bad offense, and, outside of taking a 5-foot-9 quarterback with the first-overall pick, not much has changed in terms of offensive personnel. David Johnson, Chase Edmonds, Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk, the four leaders in offensive touches this season, were all in Arizona last year. The next four on the list are a sixth-round rookie (Keesean Johnson), a former UDFA who had 12 career catches before 2019 (Dameire Byrd) and two castoff tight ends (Charles Clay and Maxx Williams). The offensive line was remade in the offseason but remains abysmal, graded by Pro Football Focus as one of the worst this season.

All things considered, this offensive turnaround may be even more impressive than the one Sean McVay pulled off in Los Angeles after taking over for Jeff Fisher. McVay's scheme did a lot of heavy lifting, but the front office also did its part, remaking the receiving corps with the three new starters (Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp) and adding a Hall of Fame left tackle (Andrew Whitworth) to the offensive line.

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The Cardinals did upgrade the most important position on the roster with the drafting of Murray, but let's not act like he was some sure thing. There were plenty of experts out there who questioned whether his game would translate to this level, and it's worth noting that the Cardinals passing game has lagged far behind the running game so far this season - though it has performed better of late thanks to an easy schedule. But after Week 7, Arizona's run game ranked third in DVOA - jumping up a spot after racking up 156 rushing yards and three touchdowns in New York - while the pass game ranked 23rd. Kingsbury's scheme deserves most of the credit for the Cardinals offense being competent.

So how has Kinsbury done it?

The run game is a good place to start. Two weeks ago, the Cardinals led the NFL in running DVOA and currently rank third in Expected Points Added. Surprisingly, it's been the ground game that has carried this Air Raid attack during the first half of the season.

When an NFL team is running the football effectively, a good offensive line is usually the catalyst. Not in Arizona. No starter on the offensive line has a PFF run-blocking grade higher than 55.5 (out of 100). Instead of trying to overpower opposing fronts, the Cardinals have spread things out in an effort to create space for their runners, and it has worked.

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Arizona leads the league in 10 personnel usage (when there's one running back and no tight ends on the field), which has buoyed this run game by forcing defenses to take linebackers out of the game and defenders out of the box. Going into Sunday, the Cardinals led the league in rush attempts out of four-receiver sets with 44. And when I say led the league, I don't just mean the other 31 teams individually. I mean the lead the rest of the league COMBINED. The other 31 teams have totaled just 29 carries out of 10 personnel.

The result? About 64.4% of Arizona's runs have been against boxes featuring six or fewer defenders, which leads the league by over 10%. The Cardinals have run against five or fewer box defenders 11.6% of the time. Only two other teams have a rate higher than 5%. I'll let FiveThirtyEight's Josh Hermsmeyer explain why that's significant:

[I]f all you know about a running play in the NFL is the approximate field position of a team and the number of defenders near the line of scrimmage, you're able to predict the leaguewide yards per carry with an extraordinarily high degree of accuracy: 96 percent of yards-per-carry totals are explained by the offense's field position and the number of men the opponent has in the box. How many defenders are in the box is almost certainly the most important factor in determining rushing success in football, so it follows that we should try to account for it.

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It's not just the spread formations boosting the Cardinals' run game. Kingbsury has attached QB reads and run-pass options to almost all of his runs, which further manipulates numbers in the box. And for those of you ready to scream "Chip Kelly" right now, stop: His run game featured about three or four run concepts; Kingsbury throws two or three new wrinkles at defenses every week. Just look at Chase Edmonds three rushing touchdowns against the Giants.

The first came on a pin-and-pull zone play featuring jet action right after the Cardinals had run a jet sweep…
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The second was a delayed draw out of a pistol formation with a "sniffer" tight end. Murra may have also had the option the throw the quick out to Fitzgerald in the slot if the Giants stacked the box. This is straight out of the Big 12…
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The third was another pin-and-pull zone but with a QB read and the backside tackle and center pulling…
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Arizona has the most diverse run game in the NFL right now and I'm not sure it's even close.

Kingsbury's passing game, meanwhile, is still going through some growing pains. Mostly due to the aforementioned lack of talent. Before Byrd's return to the lineup, the receiving corps lacked speed. Kirk has struggled playing on the outside as the team's No. 1. Fitzgerald is still reliable in the slot but can't separate. And none of the rookie receivers have been able to earn consistent playing time. On top of that, Kingsbury's red-zone play-calling and screen game have been among the worst in the league.

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Things have improved over this three-game winning streak, however, as Kingsbury has found creative ways to produce big plays. One way he's done it: Taking advantage of David Johnson's receiving ability, which is something the previous staff did not do nearly enough. In 2018, Johnson was targeted 10 times while lined up in the slot. Going into Week 7, Johnson had already been targeted 10 times out of the slot and was leading the league in total EPA on those plays. Kingsbury really started to ramp up his usage of slot fades to Johnson against the Bengals, when the dual-threat back caught two for big gains in Arizona's first win of the season.
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The game-winning touchdown against the Falcons came on the same concept.
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Along with running staple Air Raid concepts like "Mesh" and "Four Verts," Kingsbury has added elements to his passing game that help his diminutive quarterback better see the field. You don't typically see designed rollouts from the gun on Sundays, but those designs have been fruitful for the Cardinals this season. Murray is second in the league on shotgun rollout passes with 13. Only two other quarterbacks have attempted more than 10, Patrick Mahomes (19) and Lamar Jackson (11). Murray is the only one who has produced a positive EPA on those throws, averaging 0.49 EPA per dropback. He threw a 20-yard touchdown last week on one of those plays after the Falcons forgot to cover Maxx Williams leaking out the backside.
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Kingsbury has found interesting ways to protect Murray on those plays. NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger lauded the Ravens for this nifty protection that got Lamar Jackson out on the edge against Seattle…

But the Cardinals had actually done that a few times the previous week.
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We're already starting to see Kingsbury influence other teams around the league. That didn't take too long. And if his offense continues to produce, you could start to see more of his concepts pop up around the league.

It's going to take more than a few wins against bad teams before Kingsbury starts to get recognition for the minor miracles he's pulling off in the desert, but when/if the Cardinals provide him with more pieces to work with - a true No. 1 receiver and a couple offensive linemen capable of blocking on the move would be a nice start - there's no telling how good this offense could be.

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This might legitimately be the best thing we’ve ever heard from Mr. Harlan. That’s saying a whole heck of a lot.Job well-done.Related slideshow: Yardbarker's NFL Week 9 game-by-game analysis, grades (Provided by Yardbarker) 1/16 SLIDES © Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports BALTIMORE 37, NEW ENGLAND 20 PATRIOTS (8-1): Baltimore’s masterfully crafted misdirection game vexed New England’s defense, which had obviously not faced anything like this unique offense. The Patriots, who had allowed 85.3 rushing yards per game (fourth in the NFL), gave up more rushing yards Sunday (210) than they had in five years.

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