The Arizona Cardinals made a big move this offseason. They fired their head coach after only a single season, but instead of replacing him with a young offensive NFL assistant (like the Bengals) or a veteran NFL defensive coordinator (like the Broncos) they looked to the college ranks.
Even amongst college coaches, Kliff Kingsbury was an odd hire. Kingsbury had just been named offensive coordinator at USC after being fired as head coach at his alma mater Texas Tech with a career record of 35-40.
The Cardinals evidently were not concerned with wins and losses (read that again and really think about it.) They were interested in redefining their team with an exciting new offensive scheme and while Kingsbury’s Air Raid system gave them exactly what they were looking for. Essentially in hiring Kingsbury they were less concerned with the young head coach and more excited about the over-priced/low-flight-risk offensive coordinator.
So they hired Kingsbury, drafted Kyler Murray, and dealt Josh Rosen looking to completely redefine themselves.
Of course, there are a couple of issues with all of this. First, many components of the Air Raid offense have been visible in the NFL for years. That is part of the reason why the New England Patriots were able to have so much success with Wes Welker, who played in the Air Raid at Texas Tech with Kingsbury as his quarterback. So how innovative is it to bring the NFL an offense that is already there?
The other issue is that what they are doing in Glendale is not the pure Air Raid. It is more of a college spread offense with better use of personnel.
But let’s not focus on what the Cardinals’ offense is not. Let’s take a look at what they are. They are a team that is going to try to throw the ball, but the Bengals should be more concerned about them running it.
The Cardinals will look to throw the ball, but they are not as heavily reliant on Air Raid concepts like four verticals and mesh as you might expect. They run a pretty diverse passing game and often mirror routes on either side of the formation.
They also love the empty backset. Empty can put a defense in a bind. It can force a team to put more defenders outside of the box, and when the quarterback is a running threat like Murray, this can be a problem.
Above the Cardinals motion a back out of the backfield and get into an empty set. More than that, they get into quads (four receivers spread out on one side of the ball). In zone coverage, this can be even more difficult to match up with than when going against traditional 3x2 empty sets.
The Bengals have had some issues with their alignment so far this season and will need to be able to matchup with empty multiple times throughout this game, accounting for five wide receivers and a mobile quarterback. This is a tall task.
They will also have to adjust on the fly when the Cardinals motion to empty as they did above. Motion has caused some issues for the Bengals linebackers already this season. It has created open gaps and resulted in players not being ready at the snap. This could be lethal for the Bengals this weekend.
The play above is not an empty set, but Murray shows off his athletic ability on the draw. This could be a big problem for the Bengals, especially given their lack of athleticism at linebacker.
Just think about the plays that the Steelers ran out of the Wildcat on Monday night and in your mind replace Jaylen Samuels with Murray. Yikes!
As I said earlier, the Cardinals offense resembles a college spread offense. In the run game, we will see things that are already common in the NFL, like jet sweeps and of course the zone read.
In the clip above, Murray shows his athleticism as he keeps the ball and makes the defender responsible for him pay for taking a poor angle.
The Bengals would be best served to have their defensive ends play the quarterback, which will give him a give read most of the time. The other 10 plays can worry about rallying to David Johnson or Chase Edmonds. Edmonds has been productive on a limited number of carries, but Johnson has averaged only 3.7 yards per carry this season. The Bengals want the ball out of Murray’s hands.
Of course, the zone read is not always just the zone read. Teams often use bubbles, swings, and stops to turn it into a triple option or just get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands.
That is what they did in the clip above. Murray first reads the defensive end. When he crashed down in pursuit of the running back, Murray kept the ball and ran towards the edge. The invert player, lined up with slot receiver Christian Kirk, started towards Murray giving the Cardinals a two-on-one advantage on the edge. Kirk worked out to block the cornerback while Michael Crabtree took a step back to catch the pass from Murray.
The play is poorly executed and the defense does a good job rallying to the football, but it illustrates why a defense cannot focus all of its energy on Murray when he runs the ball.
The Bengals must see this like a triple option and play sound assignment football or they will give up big plays.
The Cardinals do some other interesting things in their running game, like putting three backs in the backfield, but one play that could really hurt the Bengals is the sally reverse. This is a play that is commonly used by triple option teams and has been adapted by Kingsbury for the bunch formation. It is actually very similar to a play the Steelers ran last week where they faked a jet sweep and threw a shovel pass.
The widest player in the bunch, Andy Isabella, goes in jet motion. Murray fakes the hand off to him over-the-top and gives the ball to the tightest player in the bunch, Kirk, underneath. Murray and the back continue in the opposite direction, creating a bit of misdirection.
The Bengals have struggled with their edge and particularly their backside edge. Expect the Cardinals to install this play into their game plan after watching the Bengals get torched on cutbacks against the 49ers.
For the second week in a row, the Bengals come in looking for their first win against another winless opponent. The Cardinals are not very good on defense, but the Bengals offense has also had their struggles and will be without playmaker John Ross III.
The defense needs to be near perfect if the Bengals hope to get the victory this weekend. Murray has the potential to make a big play any time he touches the ball so the Bengals must be sound and disciplined.