With his rushing statistics spiking, Kyler Murray should continue to utilize his legs in different personnel to elevate the Arizona Cardinals offense.
The Arizona Cardinals had no outside expectations of making the playoffs this season. They had a first-time NFL head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, with a less than .500 winning percentage in college that inherited one of the worst rosters in the league and a rookie quarterback who has been fully committed to football for less than a year in Kyler Murray.
Arizona isn’t supposed to be good this season, and they’re not, but are improving. Six games into the season, the Cardinals are 2-3-1 record and have won consecutive games after beating the Atlanta Falcons, 34-33. with the seventh worst point differential in the NFL. Their defense ranks 28th in points allowed per game, but has been without Patrick Peterson, who returns after this week from a six-game suspension, but even can’t mask the lack of talent around him.
But the defense isn’t what generated excitement this offseason. It was Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense invading the NFL meshed with the perfect quarterback to run his system in Kyler Murray. We haven’t seen this version of the spread, no-huddle offense in the NFL, and, in terms of scheme, the Air Raid has been fully initiated.
Nobody runs as much no-huddle than Arizona, who has run 142 no-huddle plays this season. That equates to 27.10 percent of Arizona’s offensive plays, and nearly doubles the Los Angeles Rams no-huddle plays (73 plays) who rank second in the NFL, according to NFLsavant.
They run 10-personnel, one running back, four wide-receivers, on 45 percent of their snaps, which equates to 185 of their plays, and is 152 more than the Washington Redskins, who are second in the league in terms of deploying 10-personnel, according to Sharp Football.
They’re throwing the ball on 63.95 percent of their plays (ninth-most in the NFL), and Murray is getting the ball out of his hands in 2.62 seconds from the time the ball is snapped. All of these factor into the Air Raid’s principles, and are great ways to mask a struggling offensive line, something Arizona has dealt with and will have to handle all season.
Despite all of this, the Cardinals rank 17th in points per game, despite racking up the ninth most yards per game in the NFL through five weeks. They have no problem moving the ball up the field on opponents, but are 31st in the NFL in touchdown percentage in the redzone, finding the endzone on only 37.5 percent of their possessions.
This is a problem of the field shrinking, and the frequent wide receiver screens and quick-hitting slants and curls being inefficient due to lack of spacing. On top of this, their offensive line struggles to create running lanes for running back David Johnson despite spreading teams out. But they are figuring out how to be efficient by using different formations and finding balance when the field shrinks.
Arizona scored touchdowns on three of their four redzone trips against Atlanta, only settling for a field goal when the time was winding down at halftime. In their last three games, they’ve scaled their passing attempts back to 54.08 percent and had the top ranked rushing offense through five weeks, according to Football Outsiders DVOA.
There’s no doubt Murray is a unique thrower, capable of throwing off his backfoot, on the run and has an ultra-quick release on top of having silky touch down the field. With all of this arm talent, his legs remain the key to unlocking this offense. All of this was on display in his 340 passing yards and three touchdown performance against Atlanta.
Murray had six total rushing attempts in his first two NFL games, but has seen that number spike to eight, four, 10 and 11 over the last four games, including two rushing touchdowns over that span. Kingsbury is calling more designed runs for him, including dialing up read-options for him on third down and shorts.
In a Week 3 loss to the Carolina Panthers, Murray converted two third-and-shorts by keeping on read-options, and totaled eight carries for 69 yards in that game.
In their Week 5 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Kyler ran 10 times for 93 yards. Kingsbury is starting to seek out ways to utilize Murray’s running ability, and called multiple read-options, QB draws, a throw-back QB screen and a bootleg on fourth-and-two from the 6-yard line that resulted in a touchdown where he shook two defenders on his way into the endzone.
He capped off his impressive game with a 24-yard scamper when the defense turned their back on him, which resulted in him taking off and setting up the game-winning field goal for Arizona.
Against Atlanta, Murray converted a QB-sneak on third-and-one, had a couple long scrambles and sealed the game with on a third-and-five with under two minutes left by using his quickness to get the five yards on a play action bootleg that was run all the way.
Murray is second among quarterbacks in rushing yards with 242 yards. He’s 222 yards behind Lamar Jackson, but has carried the ball 27 fewer times, and Jackson is on pace to break the quarterback record for most rushing yards in a season. Murray doesn’t look to run-first, and he shouldn’t since he boasts an insanely accurate and talented arm, but his legs will help in the passing game.
This rushing ability opens up the entire offense. As defenses start to hone in on his rushing threat, the read-option holes will open up for David Johnson and Chase Edmunds. That half-second of hesitation from defenders is all ball carriers need to get the step needed.
His scrambling ability creates passing lanes as his defenses crash to stop him from running and he simply throws the ball to an open receiver. These counters to whatever the defense throws his way maximize his success and this offense’s potential as a whole as both Murray and Kingsbury grow in comfort in the NFL.
Another change has been Kingsbury’s willingness to adapt his scheme and not run 11-personnel exclusively. He has 11-personnel on 45 percent of his plays, giving Maxx Williams, who caught a touchdown on a beautiful throwback against Atlanta, and Charles Clay more playing time.
To further show this switch to utilizing more tight ends, Arizona has deployed 12-personnel (two tight ends, two wide receivers, one running back) 21 percent of their plays compared to only 18 percent in 10-personnel. Injuries to their receivers is one reason for this, but using more formations keeps defenses on edge and the fact the Cardinals can run or throw out of every personnel group gives them advantages in terms of matchups.
It’s long been said that running quarterbacks are putting themselves in position to get injure themselves by getting hit more frequently, but a Sharp Football article by Nate Weller says that designed runs have resulted in the fewest injury rate to quarterbacks since 2017. Topping the list is knockdowns, followed by scrambles and sacks, which shows that when the quarterback knows for certain he’s carrying the ball, he is more inclined to slide or get out of bounds.
Murray is very smart in terms of sliding to limit hits or using his quickness to get out of bounds. He understands that getting down or out of bounds and not straining for that extra yard is more important than absorbing a hit to put his small frame at risk for injury.
That same Sharp Football piece hits on the success of quarterback runs as well. Designed QB runs have the highest success rate on short yardages and is the only type of running that results in positive percentage, which is a percent of plays with a positive Expected Points Added per Attempt, or EPA/A which puts “value on down and distance as well as field position”, as defined by a Pinnacle article.
In short, QB runs are under used throughout the NFL, and Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury are slowly starting to call for more runs and enable Murray’s unique rushing ability. The Cardinals may not win a lot of games this season, but that isn’t necessarily their focus. They’re testing out this rookie QB-coach marriage, and like all successful marriages, finding out what works takes time, and Kyler’s legs are what will make this offense reach its’ peak.