Arizona Cardinals offense is built to pass vertically and run horizontally

GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 09: Running back David Johnson #31 of the Arizona Cardinals runs onto the field during introductions to the NFL game against the Washington Redskins at State Farm Stadium on September 9, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 09: Running back David Johnson #31 of the Arizona Cardinals runs onto the field during introductions to the NFL game against the Washington Redskins at State Farm Stadium on September 9, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

The Arizona Cardinals have all the weapons necessary to pass the ball vertically and run horizontally.

Nine long months ago Mike McCoy led a dink and dunk, predictable offense that featured a genuinely awful power run-game. His offense was historically bad and led to his mid-season firing. Luckily, Arizona Cardinals fans won’t have to endure the play of an inefficient, conservative offense anymore, as their roster moves and hiring of Kliff Kingsbury indicate.

Before talking about the roster build, it should be noted what Kingsbury’s scheme will look like. His Air Raid system is very close to the Mike Leach roots that employ mesh, crossing, stick, flood, vertical, and RPO concepts for most of their passing sets. But, Kingsbury’s offense may be more aggressive than his mentor’s.

One of the key parts to Kingsbury’s offense is the five-wide formations and often use of four-vertical concepts. His offense is about as aggressive as a ten-year-old playing “Madden.” There is a deep-threat route every single play, and he’s not afraid to go-big or go-home.

As for the run game, his offense utilizes the outside zone scheme out of the shotgun. For offensive linemen, this means less running behind the line of scrimmage (angle blocking), and more running to set points laterally. As for running backs, this offense does best with agile, elusive backs with the vision and patience to get out of sticky situations. Kingsbury also incorporates many swings, screens, and tosses to his backs.

To describe his offense simply; it’s aggressive but meticulously calculated. Although it doesn’t ride on certain player types in general, his offense thrives with these type of players;

  • A quarterback with the ability to read his surroundings and scan the field quickly and concisely. Arm strength is less prioritized than accuracy and anticipation.
  • A running back that’s quick with their feet can run routes and has sufficient hands. Quickness is more important than power.
  • Outside receiver’s that can run a full, vertical route-tree. Hands aren’t as important as speed and YAC ability.
  • Inside receivers that can churn out YAC, can run a full route tree, and ideally, have speed and toughness to be a threat in the middle of the field.
  • In Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, tight ends are non-existent. Instead, they have FB/TE hybrids that play at or behind the line of scrimmage and are ideally fit blockers.
  • Offensive linemen don’t have to be as good at anchoring because it’s a quick, shotgun offense, but agility is a plus in the run game. You need at least sufficient linemen because of the large number of pass sets.

With Kingsbury’s scheme and skill-position needs in mind, there’s noticeable importance placed on faster receivers that feast down the field. Luckily, the Cardinals have added players exactly for that offense.

In the draft, the team picked up three rookie receivers; Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler, and KeeSean Johnson. Their 40-yard-dash times are 4.31, 4.48, and 4.60 seconds, respectively. Though each player has a different athletic profile and build than each other, all found their most success in college down the field, explicitly running vertically.

The 5-foot-9 Isabella ranks second in the class in deep reception yards with 705, per Pro Football Focus, and is 11th in receptions with 14. The 6-foot-5 Butler ranks first in both categories with 721 yards on 19 catches. Standing at 6-foot-1, Johnson ranks ninth in yards with 541 and eighth in receptions with 15.

Although each receiver has different methods for their success down the field (Isabella; speed, Butler; height and speed, Johnson; route-running and consistent play), they all appear to be good options for Kingsbury’s offense that will depend on just that. However, the fits don’t stop with the draft class.

Second-year receivers Christian Kirk and Trent Sherfield both found success downfield during their rookie years. Free-agent addition Kevin White has found a head-turning amount of success as a vertical threat in a very similar Dana Holgerson Air Raid. Chad Williams, Damiere Byrd, and Pharoh Cooper may be long shots to the make the 53-man roster, but each brings speed to the table.

As for Larry Fitzgerald, the surefire Hall of Famer (cough, Max Kellerman), shouldn’t have any trouble fitting in. But the perfect fits don’t end at the wide receivers. All four of the tight ends contending to make the roster (Charles Clay, Caleb Wilson, Maxx Williams, Ricky Seals-Jones) each are able of being deep-threats. Even if Kingsbury may not use them much, it’s nice to know.

As for the pairing in the backfield, the duo of Kyler Murray and David Johnson should prove to be dynamic. Murray, as you may know, has the ideal game and understanding for the Air Raid, and is in the offense that will thrive with his ability to read the field, mobility, mega-strong arm, anticipation, and accuracy.

Murray’s comfort in the Air Raid is well-documented, but Johnson’s isn’t. I’ll put this in layman’s terms; David Johnson may benefit the most from Kingsbury’s pass-happy Air Raid. Not only because he has the game to perfectly fit outside zone/shotgun running (elusive, fast, and great vision/patience), but because his abilities as a pass-catcher will be used and exhausted.

Johnson may have had a rough past two seasons as a rusher, but he’s continued to be amongst the elite pass-catching NFL backs. He can be used in the backfield on swings and screens to take advantage of open space, but he can also be used as a pure receiver. In his record-setting 2016 2,000 all-scrimmage yard season, he saw 35% of his routes run as a receiver out-wide, per PFF.  But in 2018, just 11.5% were out-wide. His production, in turn, took a dip.

Using the history of Kingsbury’s offense as an indicator and blending it with the Cardinals roster build, and you have an offense built to be explosive, pass vertically, and run horizontally. Though the line needs some work, there may not be a better group of skill positions players (maybe the Browns or Chiefs) built to run Kingsbury’s dynamic Air Raid offense.

Next. Have the Arizona Cardinals found Patrick Peterson’s heir apparent?. dark

For more grades, advanced statistics and more at Pro Football Focus, subscribe
to PFF’s EDGE or ELITE subscriptions at