After Further Review: Falcons defense now faces a one-of-a-kind Cardinals offense

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When the Atlanta Falcons face the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, they will see what is in many ways the NFL’s most radical offense.

The gap between college and professional football has been steadily narrowing throughout the past decade, and Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury is helping to close it. When the Cardinals hired Kingsbury this offseason and drafted quarterback Kyler Murray with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, they fully embraced the Air Raid scheme their new head coach planned to run.

Through the first five games, the vision Kingsbury has for Arizona’s offense has already begun to stand in contrast with the rest of the league.

According to Sharp Football Stats, Arizona has operated out of 10 personnel (one running back and four wide receivers) on 172 plays this season, which is far from NFL normal. In fact, Arizona operates in 10 personnel nearly 51 percent of the time. While the Cardinals have run 172 plays out of 10 personnel, the rest of the NFL combined has operated out of that personnel grouping 164 times. The Washington Redskins are the team with the second-highest amount of plays out of 10 personnel, and they’ve run that look just 31 times.

Imagine if a baseball team bunted every time a player was at bat, that’s the type of non-traditional approach Kingsbury and his Cardinals are taking. It’s not that other NFL teams aren’t doing some of what they are doing, it’s just that Arizona’s staple offense looks much closer to something you’d see on Saturdays than Sundays.

It’s not uncommon for NFL teams to rely heavily on a single personnel grouping. Most teams in the league operate out of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) for a majority of their offensive plays. The Los Angeles Rams have gained recognition under Sean McVay for pushing that personnel balance to the limit, running a whopping 89 percent of their plays out of 10 personnel in 2018.

The key difference, however, is that Kingsbury isn’t eschewing that traditional in-line tight end for an extra receiver. This fourth receiver spreads a defense out, allowing the Cardinals to attack that space in a variety of ways.

While the Air Raid offense is known first and foremost as a pass-oriented attack, it’s had a positive effect on the Cardinals’ run game. After ranking dead last in both rushing yards per game (83.9) and rushing yards per carry (3.78), the Cardinals are now 11th in rushing yards per game (126.8) and fourth in yards per carry (5.42).

The addition of Murray, who has carried the ball 28 times for 206 yards and two touchdowns, has obviously helped get things turned around, but starting running back David Johnson continues to be a very important part of this offense. And, unlike in years past, Johnson has a lot of room to run at times when he receives the ball. It’s worth noting that Johnson suffered a back injury against the Bengals. The first injury report of the week comes out on Wednesday.

Arizona also uses a lot of pre-snap motion, which is much more common throughout the NFL but can make things much easier on a quarterback and more difficult for defenses. Not only can the pre-snap motions identify man or zone coverages for Murray, but it can create just enough mental hesitation for a defender to create a crease to run through or a window to throw to.

It’s often receivers and tight ends who go in motion prior to the snap, but Johnson is a meaningful part of Arizona’s pre-snap strategy. Johnson, who has 24 catches for 247 yards and two touchdowns, is a talented receiver who can give defenses headaches while split out wide.

With Johnson factored in, defenses must account for the four receivers split out wide and a fifth receiving option coming out of the backfield on a majority of the Cardinals’ snaps.

The Falcons are coming off their worst defensive performance of the season and will need to be much more disciplined against the Cardinals. Like Houston, Arizona can hit any number of playmakers on a single play if the opportunity is there.

Atlanta slowed down Texans star DeAndre Hopkins, holding him to 88 yards on seven catches, but didn’t have an answer for Will Fuller, who caught 14 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns. The Cardinals have their own one-two punch in veteran Larry Fitzgerald and second-year speedster Christian Kirk.

Fitzgerald leads the Cardinals with 29 catches for 358 yards and two touchdowns, and Kirk is third on the team with 242 yards on 24 receptions. Kirk suffered an ankle sprain during the Cardinals’ loss to the Seahawks in Week 5 and sat out last week’s win against the Bengals, but Kingsbury has not closed the door on the receiver returning this weekend against the Falcons.

Both receivers have enjoyed success through the start of Kingsbury’s time with the Cardinals. Kirk has developed a quality connection with Murray, and Fitzgerald, who has long been one of the league’s most reliable targets despite a rotation of quarterbacks in Arizona, looks rejuvenated in 2019.

The final piece to the Cardinals’ offense is Murray. The former Heisman Trophy winner hasn’t set the league on fire as a rookie, but he’s been far from bad. And Murray possesses many of the same skills as Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who threw for 426 yards and five touchdowns and had a perfect 158.3 passer rating against the Falcons.

Like Watson, Murray isn’t overly quick to take off with the football. He often scrambles to buy time to throw the ball, forcing defenders to cover for much longer. Murray has completed 62.7 percent of his passes this season for 1,324 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions. The Cardinals used Murray as a runner a bit more during their 26-23 win against the Bengals, and he finished with 93 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.

Arizona’s offense has plenty of playmakers, and it seeks to create space and confusion among opposing defenses. The Cardinals also use tempo to further stress their opponents, and they’ve run their no-huddle offense on 33.6 percent of their plays this season, according to Sharp Football Stats, which is far and away the highest rate in the league.

After a poor performance in Houston, the Falcons will have to be locked in and ready to win their matchups against a speedy, up-tempo offense. Atlanta gave up too many big plays in Week 5, and Arizona is going to be looking to hit those explosive plays early and often.

The Cardinals’ Air-Raid style approach may not be The Greatest Show on Turf 2.0 just yet, but that’s largely been due to inconsistency rather than ineffectiveness. On any given play, they should not be taken lightly.

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