The marriage between Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray seems too good to be true.
Murray, an all-around superstar with second-to-none mobility and arm strength, paired with an offensive innovator from an air raid background; how could Arizona possibly pass that up?
Well, they almost did, as the Cardinals’ decision to hire Kingsbury, a sub-.500 coach at Texas Tech, wasn’t an easy sell for general manager Steve Keim with the higher-ups in the building.
Believe it or not, neither was drafting the 5-foot-10 Murray, who was a slam-dunk pick for evaluators but was an outside the box process.
There was still internal support for Josh Rosen, whom the team drafted tenth overall the year before, and Murray didn’t have the typical size for an NFL quarterback, which concerned some of the old-school scouts.
Keim sold ownership on Kingsbury and went with tape over measurables in drafting Murray first overall in 2019, trading away Rosen for a second-round pick. Ultimately, it’s turning out to be an easy decision.
Now Arizona (6-4) could put the final nail in New England’s (4-6) coffin on Sunday, and their quarterback decision could set a precedent for teams like the Jets and Giants moving forward.
As for the Patriots, Bill Belichick’s hopes of taking his team back to the playoffs for an 11 consecutive season are dwindling. At this point, they’re almost non-existent.
According to FiveThirtyEight, New England has an eight percent chance to make the postseason after last week’s loss to the Texans, begging the question of what should the approach be for the rest of the year? Tank? Try to win out? For now, Belichick isn’t pulling the plug.
Although the Pats failed once again in crunch time last week, their 32nd-ranked defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric is moving in the wrong direction while the offense improves.
Murray is dynamic, spelling another potential disaster defensively, but he’s still developing as a passer and isn’t on Deshaun Watson’s level from the pocket. Belichick might limit him if the Patriots keep him contained as a runner, which is easier said than done.
Offensively, the Pats will face a very balanced Cardinals defense that ranks in the top 15 in DVOA against both the pass and run. Still, there are always holes in any scheme.
Here’s a game plan for the Patriots as they attempt to run the table in the final six games of the year:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Despite the Jekyll and Hyde act, New England’s offense is finding itself over the last month.
Since Cam Newton fully recovered from COVID, the Patriots offense is third in the league in expected points added per play and fifth in success rate.
Among quarterbacks, Newton is 11th in EPA per play and ninth in completion percentage over expected in his last four starts. He’s playing good football, as we documented earlier this week.
The issues are related to execution in critical situations, such as the red zone, where they’re 24th in scoring efficiency, and game-winning drive attempts, where they’re 1-4. If the Patriots can clean up those two areas, they’re exceeding expectations on offense.
This week, New England will face Vance Joseph’s 3-4 scheme that features a heavy dosage of post-safety coverages with a few fast and aggressive playmakers at the second and third level of the defense.
Former Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones, one of the NFL’s elite pass-rushers, is on injured reserve, but rookie Isaiah Simmons and nickel/safety Budda Baker are disruptive.
Scariest player on the #Cardinals defense for the #Patriots might be safety Budda Baker. Aggressive, downhill striker both as a blitzer and in run support. Heck of a play to run the alley here and blow up the crack toss. pic.twitter.com/mSZgNMKMHZ
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) November 25, 2020
Baker, in particular, is a problem. He is a downhill filler against the run and is second among DBs in pass-rush snaps. DB blitzes have been a recurring issue all year for New England.
With limited weapons on the outside, teams are using their defensive backs to shoot gaps on run blitzes while also effectively confusing the Pats’ protection by walking safeties up to the line.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels needs to find a solution to combat aggressive defensive backs, or they’ll continue to haunt New England’s offense down the stretch.
As we mentioned, Joseph primarily runs a 3-4 scheme with the front usually one-gapping, meaning every defender on the line is responsible for a gap against the run.
Although the first-level defenders will one-gap, the linebacker level reads the blocking scheme before it makes a decision. Sometimes, they’ll trigger downhill to get double-teams off the interior D-Line. When there aren’t double-teams, they’ll read the ball carrier generally.
Based on their scheme, offenses have the most success on the ground by using quick traps or wham blocks that feast on aggressive defensive tackles.
Here, the center executes a great fold block one on the one-technique nose tackle that allows the left guard to trap block the three-technique as he flies up the field. Seahawks left guard Mike Iupati gets enough of no. 93 Trevon Coley and the right side climb immediately to the second-level to fit up to the linebackers, creating a nice hole for the ball carrier.
The Patriots love to run long traps with their guards, so those kinds of blocks are in their wheelhouse, or they could also use “wham” blocks.
In this play, the Lions use tight end T.J. Hockenson to “wham” the penetrating three-technique, allowing their center and right tackle to climb to the second level at the snap. The play design gets the Cardinals to overflow to the defenses left, and Adrian Peterson’s slip is the only reason this isn’t a longer gain.
Lastly, the Patriots have mostly gone away from quarterback runs outside of a few plays in recent weeks, and we haven’t seen a Week 1 repeat since the win over the Dolphins.
Still, the tape against Seattle and Russell Wilson this season shows a vulnerable defense on read-option plays in Arizona.
Here, the Seahawks ran inside zone read and reset the line of scrimmage. Instead of allowing Wilson to read the backside end, the Cardinals use an overhang player to the offenses left to contain Wilson. You’ll see the linebacker trigger down to get the double off on the right side, leaving the free safety responsible for filling at the second level of the defense. Baker is a little late to react this time, and the Seahawks gain 15 yards.
In their first matchup against Seattle, Wilson had the longest run of the season against the Cardinals defense, a 34-yarder on a GT counter-read scheme.
This time, the Seahawks get creative. First, they use orbit motion to occupy the weakside linebacker, with the defense likely scrape exchanging. Since the motion takes out the exchange, and the rest of the defense flows to the two pullers, Wilson goes out the backdoor untouched.
In one last example, the Seahawks used zone-read to catch Baker in a blitz. The Cardinals’ safety fires off the edge into the backfield at the snap and the zone-read action gives Wilson a quick answer by handing it to the back.
McDaniels took a lot of heat for going away from his potent rushing attack against the Texans, despite Houston’s focus on stopping the run that opened the door for Newton’s big passing day.
If the Cardinals go with a similar approach of loading the box, McDaniels needs to find ways to run the ball, or Arizona, who blitz the fifth-most in the league, will come after Newton.
Cam Newton leads all passers with at least 100 drop-backs in play-action frequency this season, with McDaniels dialing up play-action on 37.6 percent of Newton’s throws.
The Cardinals will likely load the box once again on Sunday, and if the Patriots can use play-action to slow down their pass rush and block the blitzes, Cam will have openings.
In this play, the Seahawks put Wilson under center out of 12 personnel to get eight in the box. The corners on islands on the outside bail at the snap, giving both receivers easy wins on squirrel routes, which the Pats will convert to stop-options or glance patterns.
Taking what we see in the first example, imagine Jakobi Meyers running a glance route against a bailing corner as he did in the win over the Ravens a few weeks ago.
In Week 3, the Lions had success throwing to tight end T.J. Hockenson off play-action. New England doesn’t have a tight end like Hockenson, but they’ll use their wide receivers instead or try to hit one big one to Ryan Izzo.
Here, Matt Patricia takes a page out of Josh McDaniels’s playbook to pull the backside guard, which gets the linebacker level to step into their run gaps, and Hockenson crosses behind them.
Once Hockenson caught the crosser, the Lions then complemented that with a corner route against Arizona’s single-high structures.
If the Cardinals bring heavy pressure from the secondary, look for McDaniels to move the pocket to buy Newton more time.
This time, Arizona brings a slot blitz off the left side, and the Seahawks time the rollout perfectly, giving Wilson extra time to make a throw along the sideline.
Newton spoke about his improving comfortability in the system but noted that it’s continued progress that will make him more aware of his outlets while under pressure.
As the Texans, Ravens, and Jets did recently, the Cardinals will certainly test that on Sunday.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury has an air-raid background, but what does that mean?
Typically, an air raid system operates with four wide receivers on the field and hardly ever goes under center or runs the football, relatively speaking, of course.
However, Kingsbury hasn’t gone full air raid. Most of his offense is out of 11 personnel while sprinkling in two tight ends, and the Cardinals run the ball the eighth-most in the league.
Mississippi State’s Mike Leach is somewhere screaming at Kliff for running the ball so much.
Although the Cardinals aren’t an all-in air raid scheme, Kingsbury still implements unique receiver and offensive line splits, a screen game, draws, RPOs, empty and spread formations. Plus, his zone-read designs with Kyler Murray are some of the best in the NFL.
Arizona, especially in the red zone, uses Murray’s mobility at a league-leading clip, and he’s got a cannon with DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk on the other end of those passes.
Kyler Murray is pretty, pretty, pretty fast pic.twitter.com/tNSAI8I4Um
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) November 23, 2020
The Patriots will have their hands full with this scheme, and Murray, who combines excellent straight-line speed with even better elusiveness as a runner in the open field.
Nobody expected the Cardinals to run the football as much as they do, ranking fifth in the NFL in rush DVOA through ten games this season.
“The zone read is a big play for them,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told CLNS Media.
“They also have a variety of scheme plays and other plays that go with that – some of the plays that go with the zone read, but then they have another series of plays that are probably game plan specific that they use against certain teams or certain looks that they pick out. And the quarterback obviously is a big part of the running game.”
Kinsbury and Kyler have a few different ways of running zone read, both of which give Murray lead blockers by using their tight ends on unique blocks and motions from various alignments.
Here’s a typical zone-read from the Cards where they pair “escort” motion from the wideout and an “arc” block out of the backfield to lead the way for Kyler, which is very Ravens-like.
Arizona also has their own twists on zone-read, mainly a blocking scheme out of 12-personnel where they align two tight ends on the same side of the formation. Those tight ends then pop out as lead blockers for Murray, presenting a convoy upfield for the Cardinals quarterback.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) November 18, 2020
The Patriots shut down Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ option-heavy rushing attack by unleashing rookie safety Kyle Dugger and veteran Adrian Phillips as slot defenders responsible for setting the edge against the quarterback.
Murray is electric on designed quarterback runs and scrambles, but the Patriots have a blueprint of sorts from the win over Baltimore.
THE COVERAGE-HEAVY GAME PLAN
What I’m about to say won’t be popular with the Kyler stans, but the fact is the second-year quarterback is still developing as a passer from the pocket.
Murray makes some terrific throws, and his arm talent is superb, but he’s not the processor or manipulator that Deshaun Watson is for the Texans.
Entering Week 12, Murray is 16th among 40 qualified quarterbacks in Pro Football Focus’s passing grade due to sometimes spotty short and intermediate accuracy and timing.
Murray is also 32nd among 40 qualified passers in percentage of throws into tight windows, a testament to Kingsbury designing easy passes for him and inconsistencies with pushing the ball downfield.
If the Patriots force Murray to beat them from the pocket, he’s capable of making some great plays, but I’m willing to bet he can’t consistently hit tight-window throws as Watson did.
As much as it irks Patriots fans, the seven and eight-man coverages that Watson picked apart with pinpoint accuracy will probably work against a less consistent thrower in Murray.
Here’s one example against a similar scheme in Detroit with Matt Patricia. The Lions fall off into a cover-three zone, and Murray is reading out the trips side. Instead of throwing at the top of his drop, or moving the zone defense first, Murray stares down Larry Fitzgerald in the slot, and old friend Jamie Collins jumps it for an interception.
The Seahawks are a base cover-three defense, and Murray made some great throws but missed open receivers due to a lack of anticipation.
By playing zone to keep eyes on Murray, Seattle was also able to use line stunts and other schemes to create pressure with four rushers.
In this play, the Cardinals run a vertical route from the inside receiver to Murray’s left, clearing out the coverage for a crosser by the backside receiver. Hopkins is open on the crosser, but Murray doesn’t pull the trigger, and the rush gets home.
Along with missing open receivers, Murray also had some errant throws into closing or tight windows.
This time, the Cardinals run a dagger concept to the trips side with two inside vertical routes clearing out the coverage for DeAndre Hopkins’s deep dig route. The Seahawks use a T/E stunt to get pressure in Murray’s face, and the throw is on time but behind Hopkins.
Although the Patriots can force misses by Murray with tight coverage, getting pressure on him without blitz will be critical, something they couldn’t do against the Texans.
Arizona’s offensive line has improved in pass protection to third in the league in pass-blocking efficiency this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Murray has good numbers against the blitz, but his passing metrics plummet while he’s under pressure, meaning the most successful strategy is getting home without blitzing and slowing down his process with coverage disguises.
For the Patriots, it’s a big if, but if they can pressure Murray with four and play tight coverage with seven, they can limit Arizona’s passing game.
THE ZERO BLITZ STRATEGY
My original thought was that Belichick would choose coverage over pass rush to make Murray beat him with his arm, but then the head coach said something interesting on Wednesday.
“The more players you rush, the less space he has to escape in. If you rush four against five linemen, there’s really six gaps you’re defending with four people. If you rush five, then it’s six gaps to five people. If you rush six, then you can theoretically take care of all the gaps,” the Patriots head coach said.
Murray handles the blitz well based on the numbers, but there are advantages to blitzing in containing him as a runner and hurrying him into mistakes.
In Week 9, the Dolphins blitzed Murray 20 times. Although he had his wins, so did the defense, including a fumble-six. In the play, the Dolphins put six defenders on the line of scrimmage to cover all the gaps Belichick referred to above, giving Murray nowhere to escape. When the center and right guard step to block them, Kyle Van Noy and Brandon Jones pop out into “hot” zones over the middle. Murray tries to roll out to his right to buy more time with the unblocked rusher coming off the left side but runs right into Emmanuel Ogbah and fumbles.
Eventually, Murray figured out Brian Flores’s zero blitzes and had some highlight-reel plays against them in the second half. But Belichick could pick his spots on Sunday.
1. Pats CB Stephon Gilmore vs. Cardinals WR DeAndre Hopkins: Gilmore went on 98.5 on Wednesday and said that he’d be shadowing Hopkins this week, no surprise. Last season, the two went toe-to-toe with each getting wins, and Hopkins finished the game with four catches for 47 yards against Gilmore in coverage. Not bad matching up with arguably the best receiver in the NFL. With all the attention on Murray, the Pats desperately need a throwback game from Gilmore on Hopkins this week.
2. Pats QB Cam Newton/OL vs. the blitz: as we mentioned, the Cardinals have the fifth-highest blitz rate in the NFL and love to blitz their safeties as well. The Pats did okay against the Jets and Ravens blitz-happy defenses, but it was a disaster in Houston. They’ll need a much better effort on Sunday when it comes to blocking blitzers, and for Newton, finding his outlets.
3. Pats DL Lawrence Guy vs. Cardinals Interior OL: again, a lot of attention in the running game will be on Murray. With Dugger and others accounting for the quarterback, the interior of the Pats D-Line needs to shut down Arizona’s running backs. Defending a zone-read is like defending two runs: one group on the QB, one group on the running back. The group on the running backs needs to do their jobs too.
4. Pats Interior OL vs. Cardinals Interior DL: on paper, this is a mismatch that heavily favors the Patriots, and that’s how it needs to play out on Sunday. New England needs its interior trio to move bodies on the line of scrimmage to have a consistent running game. David Andrews, Joe Thuney, and Shaq Mason should have their way against a short-handed Cardinals defensive line.
5. Pats WRs Damiere Byrd/Jakobi Meyers vs. Cardinals CBs Patrick Peterson/Byron Murphy: the Patriots might’ve found something with their wide receiver duo, which would be huge for the team moving forward. Peterson is no longer at his peak and is having a terrible season by his standards, so Byrd could have some success. Murphy is a scrappy slot corner, but Meyers has a size advantage. The Cardinals’ pass coverage and the Pats passing game are moving in opposite directions, so hopefully, they’ll have the upper-hand here.