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Giants vs. Cardinals: Arizona’s offense presents unique challenge for Giants’ defense

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Don’t overlook the Arizona Cardinals

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

When the New York Giants take on the Arizona Cardinals this Sunday they will be facing one of the most unique threats in the NFL.

The hiring of Kliff Kingsbury was met with skepticism in light of Chip Kelly’s quick exit from the NFL after the fanfare with which he was greeted when hired by the Philadelphia Eagles. There is a certain amount of disdain with which NFL purists view college football, but there is much more to what the Air Raid does than just be gimmicky or passing all the time.

This isn’t the place to really dig into what the Air Raid and “Spread Coast” offenses do and how they attack defenses. But if you’re curious about where the system comes from and how they operate, this is a fantastic primer:

Predictably, considering the extent of their rebuild, the Cardinals got off to a slow start this season. But their offense is picking up momentum as the season approaches the midway point. They aren’t “there” yet from a personnel perspective, but the Cardinals’ offense is becoming one which all defenses need to take seriously.

Despite getting off to a slow start, Arizona has scored on 41.8 percent of its offensive possessions, which is fourth in the NFL and well above the league average of 34.8 percent.

Stats at a glance

Keys To The Game

Matching up on offense

When a team builds a defense, they are first trying to counter what they see most commonly in their division, and then what they will see most commonly around the league. That is why “multiple” one-gap fronts which blur the lines between 3-4 and 4-3 and nickel packages have come into vogue on defense. They are aggressive enough to disrupt offenses while also having the coverage players to match up against 11-personnel packages.

The Cardinals first caught my attention back while prepping for the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings and New England Patriots feature some of the highest rates of two-back sets in the NFL and some of the lowest rates of 11-personnel. The Cardinals, however, feature the lowest rate of 11-personnel in the NFL — not because they favor tight ends or running backs, but because they feature by far the highest number of snaps in 10-personnel. How often do they use it? They use a four-wide package more than the other 31 teams in the NFL put together.

This puts defenses into a couple of different binds.

1 - It forces them to ask the question of whether their fourth cornerback is capable of matching up against the Cardinals’ fourth receiver or their running back.

If the defense uses a dime package to match up with the receivers — an NFL defense’s natural inclination — it leaves smaller personnel on the field to defend against the run.

If the Cardinals spread the defense out, the defense is forced to defend the run using a light box, which automatically makes running plays more effective.

2 - If the defense looks to adhere to NFL dogma and “defend the run,” they are going to be forced to match a linebacker or safety up with a receiver the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, or perhaps David Johnson in the run game. That is a matchup any offense will take at any time.

This is a similar problem with which the Los Angeles Rams confronted the NFL last year, and similar to what the Patriots and 49ers do with their heavy sets (but coming from the other direction), but it is taken to an extreme the NFL hasn’t really seen before, at least not since the heyday of Kurt Warner and the Rams.

The secondary has been an issue for the Giants this season, and Arizona’s passing game will not only challenge their starters, but it will challenge their depth as well. If they use their four-receiver sets at the 33-50 percent rate they have used throughout the season, it will likely mean that the Giants could (finally) be forced to play Julian Love, especially with Corey Ballentine in the concussion protocol.

But as the article linked above notes, there is much more to this offense than a four-wide set.

They also swing to the other extreme and use a relatively high rate of 20-personnel, putting running backs David Johnson and Chase Edmunds on the field at the same time. Both of these backs are very capable runners, taking advantage of the spacing created by the Cardinals use of receivers. They are also solid pass protectors as well as dangerous receivers in their own right. The Cardinals change formation, alignment, and personnel, freely and often, so the Giants will need to be prepared to be flexible with own

Defending the whole field

Kingsbury brings more to the NFL than his perfectly coiffed hair. He has brought his Air Raid sensibilities to the NFL, and Kingsbury’s offense attacks in ways which NFL defenses aren’t used to dealing.

At the core of his philosophy is the desire for a balanced offense. But Kingsbury views “balance” very differently than how the NFL typically has. Balance on offense is generally talked about in the NFL as a proportion of passing plays to running plays, with a 50-50 or 60-40 split being perceived as “ideal.” But for many college programs, “balance” is viewed as weighing short plays against deep plays, and horizontal plays against vertical plays. They want to force opposing teams to defend the whole field, from sideline to sideline, from the line of scrimmage to the back of the end zone.

In keeping with that, Arizona has weaponized spacing like few others in the NFL.

By spreading defenses thin, Arizona is able to create opportunities downfield, as well as use route concepts to open up passing windows against man or zone coverage. As mentioned above, by forcing defenses into smaller packages then cranking up the tempo, they are able to create lanes in the running game — and Arizona loves the outside zone run. Those not only stress the defensive front horizontally, but create multiple cutback lanes from which running backs can choose before getting into a sparsely populated second level.

Even when they deploy Johnson, Edmunds, or both, as a wide receiver and empty the backfield, they aren’t without a running threat thanks to Kyler Murray’s electric athleticism. Murray’s 242 yards rushing is second among NFL quarterbacks.

The NFL is slowly coming around to the idea that versatility and speed are good things on defense, with “tweeners” like Telvin Smith or Derwin James not just having a role on a modern defense, but thriving.

As a safety/linebacker hybrid players, Jabrill Peppers figures to be one of the most important figures in the Giants’ defense this week. His athleticism and range will be vital to dealing with the spread concepts the Cardinals will be employing in the short and intermediate range. As mentioned above, Love could be pressed into action as either a fourth corner, but he could also be a second free safety to help take the pressure off of Antoine Bethea and hide his limited athleticism.

Finding the signal in the noise

The Cardinals’ offense is actually pretty simple for their own players. Routes aren’t complex and plays are structured in a way to create quick, easy reads for the quarterback.

But from the other team’s perspective, they throw so much eye-candy and chaff that the defense can struggle to know what is going on.

Arizona’s plays frequently involve offensive motion, whether it can be as simple as a running back going from one side of the quarterback to the other to something like jet motion from a receiver. Not only can this help expose the defense’s intentions before the snap — something all offenses try to do — but it also puts more possibilities in the mind of the defense.

Also, Kingsbury is already very skilled at scripting and sequencing plays.

For instance, the Cardinals used Andy Isabella on jet sweeps twice early in the second quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals Neither was particularly effective, picking up 5 and 6 yards respectively. But closer to the end of the half they used jet motion again, this time handing the ball to Edmunds going up the middle. Enough defenders were drawn out of position that the run picked up 9 yards on first down.

Earlier in that game Arizona called several wide receiver screens to the outside, getting the ball out of Murray’s hand quickly and getting decent gains fairly easily. Later in the game Murray threw what appeared to be another receiver screen, but this time the receiver waited until the defense committed to defending the screen and threw the ball back to Murray — who was running a screen himself.

The Giants’ defense isn’t just going to have to play fast and cover a lot of ground, they will have to — somehow — remain disciplined in the face of everything Arizona will throw at them while also trying to disrupt behind the line of scrimmage.

Offense needs to pull its weight

Finally, the offense is going to have to pull its weight this game. The last two games the Giants’ offense has scored 10 and 7 points, respectively. Granted, that was against two great defenses in Minnesota and New England, but they are going to need to help out their defense with points and time to rest.

The Giants’ defense was on the field for just less than 40 minutes of game time and 83 snaps against the Patriots. That is far more than coaches typically plan for and what players condition themselves to endure.

The Cardinals have run 405 plays so far this year, the third-most in the NFL. The Giants’ defense has to do its part to keep them from getting into rhythm and stringing drives together, but the offense also needs to do its part. For the most part the offense has struggled to convert on third down, nor have they been productive scoring outside of their game against Tampa Bay. If the Giants don’t want their defense to be run ragged by Arizona’s offense, they will need to play complementary football.