Arizona Cardinals 2020 Team Study

Offense

Kyler Murray brings a unique set of talents to the field. I don’t know if there is an official measure of quickness, but my eyes tell me he is the quickest quarterback in the league. When pass rushers give him any kind of angle to escape, he is out of the pocket and playing backyard ball. If someone is open downfield, he will get them the ball accurately. And if not, he will usually pick up some yards scrambling.

The problem for Arizona is that backyard ball has never been a consistently successful formula for offensive success in the NFL. The Cardinals offense ranked 22nd last year despite Murray’s talents because he was not able to sit in the pocket, read defenses, run through progressions, and hit receivers on routes. The offense involved mostly immediate short passes or plays where Murray scrambled and hoped for a defensive breakdown.

The likely problem was that Kliff Kingsbury does not know how to scheme an NFL offense. But it’s also possible that he schemed Arizona’s offense around Murray’s limitations. Early in the season against the worst defense in the league (Detroit), the Cardinals tried a more traditional approach where Murray threw from the pocket to receivers on routes. Unfortunately he stared down his receivers throughout the game, leading to three interceptions and two other near-interceptions in a 26-23 loss. Maybe Murray just had a bad game. But maybe Kingsbury saw this performance and decided to build the offense around Murray’s limitations as a pocket passer.

In Kingbury’s scheme, Murray threw quick-hitter passes without much depth. Arizona’s ADOT (7.8) ranked 20th in the NFL, but even that number was inflated. Most NFL teams with a low ADOT had a high percentage of passes to running backs. Running back targets have such a low average depth (usually around 0-1 yard) and bring down a team’s raw ADOT. But like most good rushing quarterbacks, Murray preferred to scramble than to dump off to running backs. Only 6 NFL teams had a sub-8.0 ADOT and threw fewer than 18% of their team’s targets to running backs: the Bears, Cardinals, Cowboys, Giants, Steelers, and Rams. Not an auspicious set of offenses.

Shorter quarterbacks can succeed in the NFL. But Murray’s height (5′ 10″) undoubtedly contributed to his struggles as a pocket passer. He had more passes batted at the line of scrimmage (14) than any other NFL quarterback in 2020, despite not throwing from the pocket frequently. As a result, the Cardinals were unable to just outmatch and methodically beat bad defenses with their superior talent. They outperformed relative to competition against stronger defenses but underperformed against weaker defenses.

*Omitted Week 17 due to Kyler Murray’s injury

This chart tracks Arizona’s offensive Adjusted Rating ranking each opponent by its season-long defensive rank. The Cardinals played close to or above their season average against all the good defenses they faced. No defense was strong enough to eliminate Murray for an entire game. On the other hand, all 3 of Arizona’s worst performances came against the NFL’s weakest defenses: DET (-1.12), NE (-0.77), and CAR (-1.37). These scores reflect Arizona’s performance relative to other teams against those defenses. When your best offense emerges when the play breaks down, opponent defensive strength does not dictate your productivity.

The Cardinals also performed well offensively against teams that liked to blitz. Unlike most quarterbacks, Murray was quicker than the players sent in to blitz. This negated the purpose of blitzing (to get quick pressure) and opened up blown coverage opportunities for Murray to take advantage downfield. Although he was not proficient at hitting receivers on tight routes, he was excellent at taking advantage of blown coverage.

This chart tracks Arizona’s offensive Adjusted Rating against each opponent ranked by their tendency to blitz. The Cardinals outperformed against blitz-heavy teams like MIA (+1.01), who ranked 2nd in the NFL in blitz percentage. But every bad game came against teams who blitzed less frequently – the Rams (-0.47), Patriots (-0.77), Panthers (-1.37), and Lions (-1.12). Note that both Dallas and Philadelphia had defensive injuries against Arizona that helped the Cardinals perform better in those games.

Unsurprisingly, the Cardinals relied heavily on DeAndre Hopkins. And I don’t blame them. He is the best receiver in the NFL. But this reliance on one offensive player caused some problems when a defense was able to limit his opportunities.

More Hopkins = More Wins

 GamesPass Yds Per GameHopkins Rec. Yds Per GameHopkins %
Wins8292.4119.841.0%
Losses8217.156.125.8%

The Cardinals were far more successful when they focused their offense on Hopkins. Hopkins has been remarkably durable during his NFL career, missing only 2 games in 8 seasons. There is no reason to think he will struggle with injury. But if he did, that could present serious problems for this offense.

Arizona’s lacking run game also revealed poor offensive coaching. In the NFL, mobile quarterbacks typically enhance their running backs because defenders have to play on their heels on every rushing play, covering both the running back and the quarterback on a potential keeper. Despite Murray’s excellent rushing ability and fairly talented running backs, the Cardinals were mediocre running the ball outside of Murray.

RB Production Where QB Ran for 800+ Yards Since 2000

 Rush Yds (QB)Rush Yds (RB)YPC (RB)
Jackson ('19)1,2062,0165.10
Vick ('06)1,0391,8794.65
Jackson ('20)1,0051,8875.21
Vick ('04)9021,6154.38
Griffin ('14)8491,7014.75
Murray ('20)8191,4054.16
Griffin ('12)8151,3654.25

Obviously Murray has talent. But this coaching staff may not have what it takes to turn that into success. Maybe if they improve the offensive line and give Murray more time, he might be able to grow as a pocket passer. But I’m skeptical. By the end of his career, we’ll know whether Kingsbury was holding him back or whether he just lacked the tools to be an elite NFL quarterback. For now, it’s hard to place trust in this offense.

Defense

Arizona’s 15th-ranked defense flew around the field in 2020 with reckless abandon. They looked like they were having fun, taking gambles, and making big hits. Going into the season I had low expectations for this defense but they emerged with good talent and finished with a positive Adjusted Rating. Emerging players like Haason Reddick and Budda Baker stepped up, while stud corner Patrick Peterson also did his part.

The Cardinals executed an aggressive defense that ranked 4th in blitz rate and secured the 4th highest sack total in the NFL. But these gambles defensively came at the cost of reliable tackling. They allowed the 9th highest yards per carry to opposing runners and the 7th most yards after the catch to opposing pass catchers.

This aggressive style worked particularly well against the NFL’s worst starting quarterbacks. They played solid defensive games against the likes of Dwayne Haskins (+0.35), Andy Dalton (+0.34), Cam Newton (+1.14), an injured Daniel Jones who was replaced by Colt McCoy (+1.39), and John Wolford (+0.79). These quarterbacks were unable to capitalize on the mistakes the Cardinals made defensively. This worked out for Arizona, who played an extremely favorable schedule in terms of opposing quarterbacks. They played only three games against top-14 quarterbacks (in terms of QBR or Passer Rating) and thirteen games against quarterbacks outside the top 14.

Patrick Peterson had a somewhat disappointing 2020 by his elite standards. But he played better than people give him credit for. A good #1 cornerback elevates his team’s play against opposing offenses that rely on a stud wide receiver. Offenses with two stud wide receivers or a more balanced attack are less disrupted by a strong cornerback who can play single coverage and create defensive advantages elsewhere.

On the season, the Cardinals played 3 games against teams with only one 1,000-yard WR and 3 games against teams with two 1,000-yard WRs. Their performance in these games shows they were much stronger against teams focused on one wide receiver.

ARI Defense v. 1 or 2 Stud WRs

TeamWRs with 1,000+ YardsARI Def. Adj. Rating
BUFDiggs+1.08
WASMcLaurin+0.35
DALCooper+0.34
CARMoore/Anderson-1.30
SEAMetcalf/Lockett-0.76
SEAMetcalf/Lockett-0.51

Granted, some of these stud wide receivers still put up stats against the Cardinals. McLaurin had 7 for 125, Cooper had 7 for 79, and Diggs had 10 for 93. All three scored a touchdown. Although Peterson didn’t shut them down completely, he was good enough to cover these receivers without help. Teams without a stud cornerback typically had to double-team these receivers, leaving holes in the rest of the defense. For those who prefer charts, here is Arizona’s defensive Adjusted Rating in games against 1 Stud WR v. 2 Stud WRs (adding Detroit to the “1 Stud WR” category because they played with Golladay and adding the Rams to the “2 Stud WR” category since Woods and Kupp were both on the cusp of 1,000 yards).

Some Arizona fans were disappointed in Peterson and are not overly concerned with him moving on this offseason. But I think it’s a huge loss. In addition, Reddick’s departure creates a gap in the middle. The Cardinals will need to fill these gaps with equally aggressive players to have a shot at defensive success in 2021, particularly because their schedule looks much tougher. In addition to playing Wilson twice, they will have to face Rodgers, Tannehill, Mayfield, Stafford (twice), and potentially Watson, Trevor Lawrence, and whoever the 49ers draft at number 3 overall.

The Cardinals looked to be building a strong emerging defense in 2020. They have lost some key players already but have also signed newcomers J.J. Watt and Malcolm Butler. Perhaps these more experienced players can provide some leadership to this defense and help it continue its upward trend.

Putting it All Together

Betting Takeaways

  • The Cardinals are overrated heading into the offseason. They faced a relatively easy schedule in 2020 and things get much tougher in 2021. With the 49ers healthy and the Rams making a huge upgrade at quarterback, the NFC West looks like the NFL’s strongest division.
  • Kliff Kingsbury is likely not an NFL-caliber head coach. With the schedule heating up, key defensive departures, and offense that will likely continue to stagnate without a better scheme, fade Arizona in 2021.
  • Until they implement an offense that can consistently beat bad defenses, Arizona will underperform against bad defenses but will likely still compete against good defenses when the plays break down.
  • If Arizona loses either Murray or Hopkins to an injury, this offense will likely be one of the worst in the NFL.
  • Defensive predictions are tough to come by with Reddick and Peterson departing, but expect aggressive blitzing and missed tackles. This likely means Arizona will underperform against the best offenses and outperform against bad defenses, particularly bad quarterbacks.

Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways

  • Murray posted gaudy fantasy statistics in 2021. But drafting him at cost presents several major risks. First, his style can lead to injury as we saw at the end of 2020. He is not a big quarterback and does take hits. In addition, the lack of offensive consistency and creativity can lead to serious regression. And finally, the schedule is brutal. Much better quarterback options exist that are either more reliable (Mahomes, Jackson, Allen, etc.) or better value (Herbert, Wilson, etc.).
  • DeAndre Hopkins is an absolute stud. That’s all I have to say about that.
  • Do not put confidence in the Cardinals running backs, as they are not heavily used and are not efficient. Unless they upgrade the offensive line and/or offensive scheme in 2021, there is no reason to think this will improve. Murray also steals touchdowns near the goal line.
  • Receivers abused Arizona in 2020. Confidently play receivers against Arizona in DFS and bet Overs on receiving yard props for studs.

Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year

In Week 16, Arizona faced off against the 49ers in a huge matchup. My Ratings predicted San Francisco was an outright stronger team than Arizona, yet the Niners were 5 point underdogs. In addition, George Kittle was returning for San Francisco and I expected him to spark the offense. The Cardinals matched up poorly on defense, as the 49ers lacked a stud wide receiver to focus on and implemented an offensive scheme that thrived on defensive mistakes. Meanwhile, I predicted the offense to be fairly average against an underrated 49ers defense. I didn’t know if the 49ers would win, but getting them as 5-point underdogs was a no-brainer. I slammed SF +5 and they won outright, 20-12.

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