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Kliff Kingsbury’s lack of play action: Chicken or the Egg?

The Cardinals are one of the lowest utilizers of play-action, but how much of that is up to them and their offense?

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Cardinals thus far this season, have struggled offensively, to put it mildly.

At least...half of the time.

Arizona’s offense has been atrocious in the first half of games but has been exceptional to close out, and with that comes a slew of questions and analysis now that the first month of the season is complete:

This of course is in regards to one of the most effective means of generating big plays and offense in the NFL...the play-action pass.

There’s really only 4 things you can do in the league on offense in the game of football (some say 3, I go with 4):

  1. Run the ball
  2. Pass the ball
  3. Pretend to run and throw the ball aka Play-Action
  4. Pretend to throw and then run the ball (delayed handoffs, QB power from obvious passing/shotgun situations/end arounds to a half-back pass, etc).

The play-action pass is one of the best ways of generating big plays because the threat of a running play forces defenses to play it as such and often opens up a small window. In a league like the NFL where it’s a game of inches, that can mean life or death.

And when it’s come to the Cardinals, that’s been something that’s been missing from their offense this season:

It’s not unexpected, either. As Solak points out in his Breakdown of the Eagles play action rate and RPO heavy offense:

This is one of the reasons that the Cardinals don’t often go under center. To turn the back you can use a bootleg or a line behind the line of scrimmage but running a read-option (give or keep) it’s something else that Kliff’s offense is predicated on because it’s part of what keeps Kyler Murray able to run forward and not take on a lot of contact.

The Read-Option is most famous for being a driver of high-powered offenses in the early 2010’s, with Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick powering them to some fantastic seasons...and also some injuries.

So, what’s up with the Cardinals? Is it Kliff Kingsbury’s fault that they are amongst the lowest teams running play-action in the NFL? Does that put it all on him?

Not quite, in my opinion.

For starters, the Cardinals under Kingsbury had previously ranked among the league leaders in play action rate, as shown in this chart from Football Outsiders, they were 11th in 2019 in PA.

It’s not like we haven’t seen PA from under center before, it’s just been rare. There’s likely a different reason for it.

The slow starts & defensive struggles.

The Cardinals through the first 4 weeks of the season, had not had a single lead on the scoreboard for more than 1 second.

AZ has not gotten a FIRST DOWN on each of their opening drives more than their first drive vs. the Raiders...and they still punted on their first drive.

To contrast, Arizona gave up a touchdown on their first defensive drive twice, a FG against the Rams and only the hapless Panthers they forced a punt...and still ended up down in the first half.

I think that while there’s plenty of evidence that the Cardinals could run play-action more...we’ve seen how the team getting into a hole has drastically affected the game plan.

Kyler Murray has thrown the ball 59 and 48 times, both top 5 in stats for him, while the Cardinals’ usage of James Conner hasn’t been altered very much. He averaged just over 11 carries a game last year...and is on pace for the same this year.

What Arizona’s doing is they are getting in MORE plays than they have in years past, and a lot of that is due to Kingsbury passing more than ever and the team using quick, shorter passes and runs despite having less “hurry up” offense than many teams.

So Arizona’s getting in more plays...but they’re pass plays. It’s like Arizona’s not able to properly run their offense and is flipping quickly to a passing attack where they run the ball when it’s needed but don’t run a lot of play action.

What does that mean? Is it the chicken (defense gets them behind, so no PA) or the egg? (the lack of play action leads to a predictable offense which then gets them behind)

Well, I think I’d say that it’s both.

I think that the Cardinals need to make an approach that is able to put play action at the forefront of their game plan AND they need to find a way to manufacture a lead and be able to have a ground game that can force defenses into covering the run game and sets up play-action to take advantage.

We’ll see if they are able to adjust coming to the Eagles game this upcoming Sunday, and when Hopkins comes back.

Because until that spot, it stands to reason there could be a lot more pain with their #1 weapon missing.

Here’s hoping we don’t still think it’s all self-inflicted by then.