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What’s Stopping the Cardinals Offense From Finding Its Groove?

Kliff Kingsbury, Kyler Murray, and DeAndre Hopkins—it should be a recipe for fireworks. But Arizona has had a below-average group in 2020.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Two years ago, when the Cardinals plucked Kliff Kingsbury from the college ranks—just one month after the former Texas Tech coach had agreed to become USC’s offensive coordinator—there was an expectation that the Air Raid disciple could immediately turn Arizona into one of the NFL’s most dynamic offenses. It took some time, but by the end of Kingsbury’s first season, the Cardinals offense appeared to have the makings of a potentially top unit, with their Rookie of the Year quarterback, Kyler Murray, finding his groove and capping his first campaign with a 325-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Rams. Then, this offseason, Arizona added All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the mix, stoking even more excitement for what Kingsbury’s offense could accomplish in his second year.

The initial returns were promising. Four weeks into the campaign, though, the fireworks have not fired as frequently as hoped. After jumping to a 2-0 start, the Cardinals have fallen to 2-2. Their offense, energized by Murray’s arm and legs through the first two weeks, has since looked flat—according to Warren Sharp’s database, Arizona ranks 29th in explosive pass rate, with just nine total such plays that go for at least 16 yards through the air. The Cardinals offense ranks 25th in DVOA, 19th in points, and 16th in yards. Kingsbury tried his best to identify his squad’s problems following a 31-21 loss to the Panthers on Sunday, shouldering blame for the offense’s faltering and acknowledging that his team hasn’t found its footing.

“I just think it’s a number of things [that are causing us problems] as we work through some things as an offense,” Kingsbury said. “We’re not as efficient of an offense yet as we were towards the end [of last year]. We’re trying to figure ourselves out, what we are, what our identity is. We’re still a work in progress.”

The vertical passing game was expected to be an integral part of Arizona’s offensive identity this year. Hopkins, who provides a sure-handed presence in the intermediate part of the field, was expected to open things downfield for other Cardinals receivers and take advantage of Murray, who was coming off a campaign in which he was one of the league’s best deep passers. There have been flashes of Murray’s willingness to throw deep in spots through the season’s outset. It was present Week 2 against Washington, as Murray attempted six passes 20 yards or more downfield, connecting on two for a combined 103 yards, including this 54-yard strike to Andy Isabella.

Nonetheless, the Cardinals have been inconsistent in pushing the ball downfield. Murray entered Week 5 with the seventh-lowest completed average air yards (4.9, tied with Derek Carr), according to Next Gen Stats. His intended average air yards of 7.7 through four games ranks near the middle of the pack of qualified passers. Neither mark, however, is far off of where he ranked in those categories last season; he averaged 5.1 completed air yards and 7.1 intended average air yards, which each ranked eighth lowest in the league.

Against the Panthers, Murray virtually never attacked Carolina’s coverage downfield. Murray finished the loss 24-for-31 with 133 yards and three touchdowns. The scores look good on paper, but his measly 4.3 yards per attempt prevented the offense from achieving much. It’s just not often you’ll see a quarterback record fewer than 150 yards on more than 30 attempts.

NFL Next Gen Stats

Panthers coach Matt Rhule, whose staffs at Baylor had to scheme against both Kingsbury (Texas Tech) and Murray (Oklahoma) in the past, seemed prepared to deal with the duo Sunday. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s unit played plenty of off-zone coverage and often deployed deep safety shells, seeming content with preventing Murray and Arizona’s receivers from beating them deep. They also did a good job of sticking receivers who did catch the ball short, as well as marking targets within the intermediate zones of the field.

As a result, the Cardinals’ passing game featured more passes near the line of scrimmage than typical; Murray went 9-for-9 on passes at or behind the line of scrimmage, totaling just 2 yards, per Next Gen Stats. Murray attempted a season-low eight passes that traveled 10 yards or more against Carolina. Hopkins recorded seven catches for just 41 yards Sunday, and the Panthers were content to let Arizona have short gains.

“Yeah, that’s uh … I’m not sure,” Kingsbury responded when asked why Arizona’s passing game was so horizontal Sunday. “That’s the only answer. We didn’t have a good enough plan in place to make the plays down the field that we would’ve liked to. That falls on me. Gotta call better plays when they’re taking certain things away.”

Opponents have done a good job so far of taking away Murray’s options, aside from Hopkins. The veteran has accounted for 46 targets (34 percent of the team’s total targets) this season, more than fellow wideouts Larry Fitzgerald (18 targets), Christian Kirk (14), and Isabella (10) combined. Isabella, the team’s second-leading receiver, has recorded eight catches for 117 yards and two TDs; Fitzgerald has 14 receptions for 88 yards (6.3 yards per catch), and Kirk has six catches for 76 yards. It’s been tough sledding getting the Cardinals’ other playmakers involved.

Thus far, Murray has been considerably less aggressive in trying to thread passes to receivers who are closely marked. Next Gen Stats’ aggressiveness percentage tracks the amount of passing attempts a quarterback makes that are into tight coverage, where there is a defender within a yard of the receiver at the time of completion or incompletion. Only 9 percent of Murray’s attempts have occurred in such a scenario, the third-lowest rate among qualified passers this season, and the mark is down from 14 percent in that category last season.

Murray could stand to try more aggressive passes, considering that he hasn’t been awfully inaccurate. Per NGS, Murray’s completion rate of 68.8 percent is 2.9 percent higher than expected. However, some of Murray’s most inaccurate throws have been very costly, such as this interception against Washington that set up the Football Team with possession inside the red zone.

Murray has scored 11 total TDs this season, but he’s thrown five interceptions and has fumbled the ball away once. Those turnovers have sometimes been a result of poor offensive line play, which has hampered more than just the passing game. According to Pro Football Focus, the Cardinals’ offensive line ranks 22nd in pass blocking (65.8) and is 31st in run blocking (48.3). It explains why Arizona running backs Kenyan Drake (3.8 yards per carry) and Chase Edmonds (3.7) have been mostly ineffective as ballcarriers. Kingsbury emphasized his desire for his squad to be able to run the ball, and it’s reflected in his play-calling. The Cardinals entered Week 5 rushing the ball at the 12th-highest frequency, per Sharp’s database.

“We haven’t hit our stride offensively, it’s pretty evident,” Kingsbury said. “We have to do a better job coaching and playing, and I think we will as we move forward.”

An efficient rushing attack could certainly help the Cardinals improve. Murray, who leads the league with 8.3 yards per carry, has helped Arizona rank sixth in explosive runs, per Sharp’s data. But until the passing game gets going, it will continue to be difficult for the Cardinals to find much success.

“We just haven’t hit that rhythm,” Kingsbury said. “Haven’t been in sync like we’d like to in the passing game.”

Perhaps unlocking the deep ball could be the key. The question is whether the Cardinals have the playmakers to do so. Isabella has been solid, but Kirk, a former second-round pick, has not contributed in the vertical passing game as expected. At 37, Fitzgerald is well beyond his days of stretching opposing defenses, and Hopkins is averaging just 10.2 yards per catch. Opponents such as Carolina have been able to deploy deep zone coverages and prevent big plays, while Detroit managed to effectively use man coverage to contain Arizona’s passing game. The situation leaves the Cardinals in a fairly familiar situation to where they were when they hired Kingsbury: needing to shift their identity. Based on the season’s start, determining what that identity is could continue to take more time than desired.