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Ground and Pound?

What Offense Works Best for the Cardinals’ Current Personnel?

NCAA Football: Arizona Cardinals Rookie Minicamp Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I would give the Cardinals’ new head coach, Steve Wilks, an A for everything he has done and said to elevate the skill and hopes of this year’s team. GM Steve Keim recently said that he believes that the Cardinals “hit it out of the park” with their hiring of Wilks. From what I have seen and heard, thus far I completely concur.

Of course, we have to see what kind of a game manager Wilks is as a head coach and whether his weekly game preparations and in-game adjustments are effective.

I am also extremely curious to see just how faithful Wilks will be to his mantra that “the best 11 guys will play.” Some new head coaches tend to cater to the veterans on the team, which is understandable. But, if Wilks is good to his word, we may see some surprises in the starting lineups and the 53 man roster decisions.

The one thing that Wilks has insisted that I question is his intention to pound the rock on offense as a priority. Not that I question this as a good strategy---it’s just that the Cardinals’ current RB personnel is mostly comprised of all-purpose runners who are what I would call “bouncers” and not “bangers.”

To run the “ground and pound” you need a classic RB banger---one who will hit the hole hard and punishes would-be tacklers by lowering the shoulder. For example, I immediately knew in the pre-season of 2016 that the Cowboys’ rookie RB Zeke Elliott was a stud banger when in a pre-season game he lowered his shoulder on the Seahawks’ SS Kam Chancellor and knocked him twice on his butt. In doing so, Elliott sent a message to NFL defenses that he is going to initiate the contact and do the punishing, not the other way around.

In looking at Lindy’s 2018 Pro Football ratings for “Ground Based RBs #1s”---no Cardinal is ranked. Elliot is #1; Leonard Fournette is #2; Jordan Howard is #3; Jay Ajayi is #4.

Lindy’s has David Johnson listed at the #4 All-Purpose RB #1s behind Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy and Todd Gurley. As we all know, a healthy David Johnson could be at the top of this list by January.

However, even though the Cardinals have done the smart thing by adding a FB to the running game, can anyone picture David Johnson running between the tackles over and over in a ground and pound attack? He’s not that guy. Even worse, the Cardinals would be risking losing him to injury again if he is going to be asked to take that kind of pounding, especially when he is not a RB who initiates contact. Johnson deflects contact and he’s elite at it…but between the tackles that’s a tough task to pull off. Between the tackles, more often than not, the RB’s have to take on the linebacker’s head on. There’s no escaping it.

Is Chase Edmonds a banger? His college tape suggests his strength is in his wiggle and ability to bounce away from defenders. T.J. Logan? D.J. Foster?

The only banger on the roster is Elijaah Penny. Yes, the Eli Penny who does not get a lot of love from some of the fans on this board. Why? Because isn’t the least bit flashy. He runs with no wiggle. But---he is a textbook banger. In his start versus the Redskins he ran 10 times for 45 yards and on two occasions he lowered his shoulder and knocked one of the fiercest alley storming safeties, D.J. Swearinger, on his butt twice.

You might recall that in the Cardinals’ 2015 Week 16 38-8 trouncing of the Packers it was Swearinger who early in the game stormed the alley and put a ball-jarring licking on RB James Shields which caused the turnover that set the tone for the game.

The problem right now for Penny is that he has been switched to FB and is currently #2 on the depth chart behind UFA signee Derrick Coleman. Penny recently expressed his frustration about not running the ball in practice. This season he is supremely motivated by the fact that the Seahawks drafted his brother Rashaad in the 1st round. Rashaad is a gifted all-purpose runner, no question. But, if it’s one thing Eli still has over his brother---it’s his punishing style between the tackles.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Eli Penny be the starting RB. However, I do feel very strongly that Penny could be the workhorse Mike McCoy can turn to at certain points in games when you want to run the clock and grind out drives, particularly late in the games with leads. It helps too that in his career (31/124/4.0 ave./2 TD) he has never fumbled the ball.

Penny doesn’t fumble because his low pad level allows him to protect the ball. The principal reason why David Johnson has fumbled the ball 11 times is his upright running style, which too often leaves the ball exposed to strips.

What the Cardinals need to do, in my opinion, is play to the strengths of David Johnson and Chase Edmonds---which means running a Chip Kelly type of numbers game in their play calling. Now there’s another name that might rankle the fans, but did you know that much of the Patriots’ offense is predicated on Chip Kelly’s “numbers game” offensive principles? Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniel laud Kelly ever chance they get for his influence in their offensive designs.

If the defense overloads the box, the numbers favor the defense versus the run---but it leaves the secondary vulnerable to the pass. This would present the perfect times for play action or drop back passes. The time to run the ball is when the offense has the numbers in their favor. RPOs (a Chip Kelly staple) have become so popular because they put the defense in no man’s land, meaning they can’t load the box and yet they can’t over-commit the pass coverage for fearing of giving up chunk yards on the ground.

In conclusion, with the Cardinals’ current offensive personnel it would be wise for Steve Wilks to put his trust in Mike McCoy to take what the defense gives them. The good news is that McCoy is enamored with Patriots’ style of offense (per Chip Kelly’s numbers game) and McCoy has two talented and smart QBs in Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen who can, as they say, “paint by the numbers.”