An Analytical Look at Where Cardinals Offense Went Awry

The Arizona Cardinals offense went downhill quickly after a stretch of 30-point performances.
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How did an offense with Pro Bowl quarterback Kyler Murray and an All-Pro second-team wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, finish the season outside the top 10 in net yards and net points per possession?

The Arizona Cardinals scored 30 or more points in five straight games after a Week 10 win over the eventual 13-3 Buffalo Bills. Their last offensive play was the "Hail Murray" to get the victory, and which set up Arizona as a contender for the NFC West crown. 

During the remaining seven games of the regular season, they averaged 20.6 points. 

They scored the fifth-fewest points in the league over the final three weeks, “the playoffs” as several Cardinals players called them.

In turn, the Cardinals lost five of their final seven games to fall out of the playoff picture, despite the defense mostly stepping up during that time.

Overall, the Cardinals offense was a major improvement from Year 1 of head coach Kliff Kingsbury's oversight in 2019 to this past season, but down the stretch, it did not perform well enough to warrant a playoff berth. 

There are several reasons why they had to watch the Chicago Bears play in the Nickelodeon game on Sunday from home. For one, negative plays too often moved the ball backward. The Cardinals led the league in penalties, and they had key giveaways in inopportune times and missed kicks that could have made a difference.

However, their offensive tendencies were also figured out eventually, and failing to adjust late in the season was a downfall that could be as big a culprit as any other.

Kingsbury said routinely during postgame pressers in which Arizona lost that they did not execute, and that he did not call a strong enough game. Even in big wins, the players commented they had not reached their peak, that they felt like there was another gear. When they lost, rhythm was a word used a lot for what was lacking.

When opponents keyed on Murray’s ability to run, the Cardinals offense struggled. He said multiple times that he doesn’t need to run to win games, but considering the Cardinals plan when he wasn’t picking up chunks on the ground, he evidently did. They were 0-3 when he didn’t reach 20 rushing yards and 2-4 when he ran for under 30.

First downs

On first down, the Cardinals handed the ball off up the middle. 

They had the sixth-highest run percentage on first-and-10 and running back Kenyan Drake got the carry 46 percent of the time, per Sharp Football Stats. Also, 53 percent of the team carries on first down were inside the guards up the middle.

Arizona Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake (41) carries the ball against the Seattle Seahawks during the first half at CenturyLink Field. Arizona won 27-13.

This worked efficiently in the first 10 weeks of the season, as they were 14th in the NFL in success rate running the ball on first down, per Sharp. Over their last seven games, they were 21st. Up the middle, they went from 4.6 yards per carry in weeks 1-11 to 3.5 for the rest of the year.

Overall, the Cardinals were 16th in the league in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) on rushes on first down, per Football Outsiders.

Part of the danger of Murray is that he can pull the ball back on an option and burn edge rushers to the outside. Once defenses figured out how to contain him, putting spies on the outside, they loaded up the box on first downs to stuff the run up the middle. 

Drake was stuffed the second-most times in the NFL, per the Washington Post, and the Cardinals were 26th in stuff rate, an indictment on run design, interior line play and the running backs.

They ran the ball up the middle on 65 percent of rushes, fourth-most in the league, yet on yards per rush they were 18th, per Sharp.

There were more effective play calls that were under utilized. Tossing the ball to running back Chase Edmonds was successful five out of five times, drawing the defense in and having an outlet in Edmonds to get the ball out quickly. Arizona didn’t use the flat very often this season.

Arizona Cardinals running back Chase Edmonds (29) carries the ball against the New York Jets during the second half at MetLife Stadium.

Murray was effective on first-down deep shots. His passer rating was 156 down the left side and 126 on the right when he threw beyond 15 yards. Overall, he completed 20 of 33 of these passes. The Cardinals did not call much play-action, but this could have been one adjustment made. In play-action, Murray's passer rating improved and he still carried the ball for 5.5 yards per rush.

Second downs

When Arizona faced a second-and-3 or less, the Cardinals ran the ball 69 percent of the time during the first 10 weeks and found success on 82 percent of those plays. These were primarily handoffs to Drake. From Weeks 11-17, defenses knew this was coming, yet Arizona continued to run the ball 76 percent of the time in those situations, per Sharp. The success rate dropped to 42 percent, meaning that third down was more common than picking up a first on second-and-short.

On second-down rushes, the Cardinals DVOA was 26th, ahead of only Pittsburgh, Miami, Cincinnati, Atlanta, the New York Jets and Houston.

On third downs, Arizona was 22nd in the league in conversion percentage, second-to-last over the final three weeks.

Same formations

The Cardinals also did not vary their looks too often either. They ran standard 11, 12 or 10 personnel 96 percent of the time, and didn’t change for essentially the entire season. They ran 12 personnel more often than all but just two other teams.

Despite having two running backs with very different skillsets, Drake and Edmonds hardly saw the field at the same time. Prime run-blocking tight end Maxx Williams being hurt for half of the season possibly hurt their ability to run in 12 personnel. 

They also set up in the shotgun 91.1 percent of the time, second-most only behind Baltimore. This led to a substantially higher number of run-pass-option plays than play-action. But, their inability to set up under center in goal-to-go situations may have hurt their chances of punching the ball in.

Red zone

Inside the 10-yard line, Murray was one of the league’s most lethal rushers, scoring on six of 12 tries, tied for fifth-best percentage in the league. Drake was not, but got significantly more attempts. He scored on nine of 34 tries (26.5 percent), per Sharp. 

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Yet, Arizona’s most popular play inside the 3-yard line was a handoff to Drake. From between 4-7 yards out, the most popular play was also a handoff to Drake. This is largely due to the amount of zone reads called in this area in 2020. After a while, defenses were weary and loaded up front, having eyes on Murray while clogging any lanes for Drake.

In red-zone rushes, the Cardinals DVOA was 20th in the league.

Over the first 10 weeks, the Cardinals were a top-five red-zone team. Over the final three weeks, they were bottom 11 and they dropped to 10th in the NFL for the season.

Rushing evaluation

As an overall rushing team, the Cardinals were fifth in the league in DVOA for the first 10 weeks. For the rest of the season, they were 26th. Drake finished 30th in the league in DVOA and 26th in success rate by Football Outsiders.

This is also seen in Sharp’s explosive plays stats. The Cardinals had the most explosive running plays in the NFL in the first 10 weeks, and the 14th most in the final seven.

Drake and Edmonds weren’t too far off in offensive snaps. Drake played 54.4 percent and Edmonds 46.5 percent. However, Drake carried the ball on 39 percent of his snaps while Edmonds got the handoff on 18 percent. 

Carries Distribution

% of offensive snapsCarries% of snaps with a carry

Kenyan Drake 

54.4%

239

38.9%

Chase Edmonds

46.5%

97

18.4%

When Drake was on the field on first downs, it became easy for the defense to conclude what was going to happen. The interior line didn’t open up enough holes and Drake said himself his patience wasn’t where it needed to be to overcome that. 

Drake had a rough year breaking through contact, too, and he was 42nd among rushers in the league in yards after contact, per CBS.

One area that did change this year was tempo. In the first nine games, Arizona ran over 28 no-huddle plays per game. In the final seven weeks, that number dropped to 23. The success rate dropped from 53 percent to 46 percent, likely due to Murray’s rushing numbers declining and the run game stalling. 

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) is pursued by Los Angeles Rams outside linebacker Leonard Floyd (54) in the first quarter at SoFi Stadium. The Rams defeated the Cardinals 18-7.

In most respects, the Cardinals offense was significantly more formidable in 2020 than in recent years past. They increased their points and yards while Murray made a jump from his rookie season. 

But, their rushing efficiency decreased, especially down the stretch, which diminished their ability to find the "rhythm" they always sought.