Film Study: How the Giants Defense Can Keep Pace with the Cardinals' Use of "10 Personnel"

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Pflum

Even in an era of growth and innovation on the offensive side of the ball, the New York Giants face an uncommon challenge in the Arizona Cardinals' offense.

Thanks to the salary cap implications of getting production from young quarterbacks early in their careers, the NFL is seeing a surge of college concepts invading the NFL such as the read-option, run-pass option plays, spread concepts, and air raid concepts, all of which have seen a spike in the popularity of each in recent years.

Combined with NFL coaches' eternal search for a schematic edge over their competition and the growing acceptance of analytics in front offices, we are seeing a variety of unique offenses in the NFL. 

From the 49ers and Patriots and their use of two-back sets as passing formations to the Rams' use of 11-personnel as a running formation, and the Baltimore Ravens' offense built around the rare athleticism of Lamar Jackson and Marquise Brown, offenses continue to sprint ahead of defenses.

But the Arizona Cardinals bring something else entirely to the field.

When Kliff Kingsbury was hired to be Arizona's new head coach, he brought with him the high-powered offense he ran at Texas Tech and promptly drafted Oklahoma stand-out Kyler Murray to run it. 

Most will simply refer to Kingsbury's offense as an “Air Raid” and be done with it, but it isn't a pure Air Raid system as is run by coaches like Mike Leach at Washington State. 

It's probably more accurate to refer to Kingsbury's offense as a “Spread Coast," which combined a good dose of Spread and Air Raid sensibilities with some definite “West Coast” influences from Kingsbury's time in the NFL.

The Giants are somewhat lucky in facing Arizona's offense coming off the “mini-bye” thanks to their Thursday night game in New England. 

The offense run by the Cardinals could be particularly jarring for a team that has spent the previous two weeks preparing for the heavy two-back sets used by the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots, so the extra time certainly has been put to good use by the coaching staff to get the Giants ready for what's to come this weekend.

The Cardinals have a remarkably low number of snaps in the NFL's standard 11-personnel package, similar to the Vikings and Patriots. 

But where those teams favor very high rates of two-back sets, the Cardinals don't call 11-personnel (3-receiver sets) because they have been calling 10-personnel or 4-receiver sets.

In fact, Arizona has run more 4-wide sets (32%) than the rest of the NFL put together, according to Sharp Football Stats.

Though they haven't run it as frequently over the last two games as they did earlier in the season, their use of the 4-receiver sets still needs to be accounted for. 

That's why we're going to take this opportunity to take a closer look at that personnel set and how they use it to put defenses in a few different personnel and schematic binds.

First, we'll take a look at what it looks like in practice and the options it can give the Cardinals in the passing game.

Cardinals Film Study
Image via NFL game Pass; Diagram by C. Pflum

The Cardinals come out in their 10-personnel package, with four receivers and a running back. 

The Bengals appear to be in a classic Cover-2 defense with their nickel personnel on the field. Just before the snap, quarterback Kyler Murray motions the running back from his left to his right. 

It's a subtle motion, but the lack of adjustment by the defense hints that the Bengals are indeed running a zone defense--which they are.

In a move to confuse the rookie quarterback, the Bengals line up in a Cover-2 look but are actually playing a Cover-3 Buzz, and the safeties will sprint down to cover the intermediate area of the field while the middle linebacker sprints back to cover the deep middle of the field.

Unfortunately for the Bengals, the variation of the sail concept the Cardinals have called is effective against a number of coverages, including Cover-3. 

The Cardinals use a three-level read to stress the defense both vertically and horizontally, creating a big void in which receiver Larry Fitzgerald catches the ball. 

By running this out of a four-receiver set, Arizona is able to put more speed on the field than we would normally see with a tight end running one of those routes. 

The result is that their receivers are able to find open field before the post-snap coverage rotation is able to get into place and Murray has easy reads at all three levels and is able to complete the 23-yard pass before the pressure gets to him.

Defending Kyler Murray

Kyler Murray, and how head coach Kliff Kingsbury can use him, poses a whole different set of problems for a defense. 

Most of the discussion about him is centered on his ability to extend plays or run the read-option, but Arizona has many more options with him. That was put on display in one particularly jarring play against the Bengals.

The Cardinals once again use a 4-receiver look to spread the Bengals' defense out and concentrate defenders on the strong side of the offense. 

They called several wide receiver screens earlier in the game and this looked like another one on first and 10. 

Instead, the receiver throws the back to Murray in what winds up being a screen to the left side of the field. It is a decision rarely (if ever) seen at the NFL level and takes advantage of Murray's rare athleticism in a unique circumstance.

If the play had been a bit better timed and the throw a bit better, this could have gone for much more than five yards. The only defense against a play like this is discipline on the part of the defense.

How The Giants Can Respond

There is much more to the Cardinals' offense than these two plays, and it would be a mistake to overlook them or view them as a gimmick. 

It is very possible that we will see things we have only rarely seen at the NFL level and they will attack the Giants' defense in ways it might not be able to handle well.

If they use their 4-wide package, it will force the Giants into a personnel bind. 

Both the Giants' linebackers and secondary have been vulnerable in coverage this year, and their base nickel set could see them matching a linebacker up on a receiver like Larry Fitzgerald or a running back like David Johnson or Chase Edmunds – both of whom are very dangerous receivers.

They could try to play a lighter personnel package such as a dime look with six defensive backs on the field. That comes with concerns as their depth is young and unproven. But it also has a couple of potential upsides.

There basically isn't any tape of the Giants' defense with Julian Love on the field, which would give the Giants an edge and an element of surprise. He is an unknown quantity as the Giants try to convert the former cornerback to safety, and therefore offenses don't know his tendencies. 

Also, having a safety/corner hybrid on the field with a safety/linebacker hybrid like Jabrill Peppers could give the Giants the speed, range, and versatility it needs to deal with Arizona's spread looks.

The Giants' best option is upfront where they must try to win the line of scrimmage quickly. 

The Cardinals' offensive line has been poor outside of the play of former Giant Justin Pugh, and while their speed as a whole has been able to offset that liability, it doesn't completely neutralize it. 

Murray has been sacked 21 times this season and hit even more. He has a rare ability to scramble and attack nearly any part of the field while throwing off-base, but pressure affects every quarterback. In the first play detailed, Murray is only just able to get the pass off before being hit.

Pressing the Cardinals' receivers at the line of scrimmage is difficult as they like to stack them and scheme free releases, but if the Giants are able to remain aggressive at the line of scrimmage, they might be able to disrupt Arizona's timing enough that they can get to Murray before he is able to extend the play or get the pass off.

The Giants' defense is going to have its work cut out for it, and their offense is going to have to put points of their own on the board. That being said, this should be a winnable game for the Giants if they are able to play disciplined and complementary football. 

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