ESPN’s Bowen explains how Air Raid offense translates to Cardinals

Jan 25, 2019, 9:37 AM | Updated: 4:34 pm
The Arizona Cardinals new head coach Kliff Kingsbury addresses the media, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, ...
The Arizona Cardinals new head coach Kliff Kingsbury addresses the media, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. The Arizona Cardinals introduced Kliff Kingsbury as their new coach a day after hiring the former Texas Tech coach in a bid to revitalize the worst offense in the NFL. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

How will he do it? What will be different? Why was Kliff Kingsbury that innovative a hire by the Arizona Cardinals?

ESPN’s Matt Bowen went to the tape to find out how the former Texas Tech head coach can translate his Air Raid offense to the NFL.

Before getting into the film, let’s get one thing out of the way: Arizona absolutely must upgrade its offensive talent, especially on the offensive line, where athleticism and agility will be required. That being said, here’s how Kingsbury’s concepts of the Air Raid can translate to the NFL, where many of them already exist.

It’s about misdirection, overloading and simplifying for the QB

Much of the criticism flung at the Cardinals during their 3-13 season involved the lack of creativity displayed by offensive coordinators Mike McCoy and Byron Leftwich. While Leftwich diversified an offense to some degree, the best NFL offenses this season notably used misdirection and jet sweeps by their best athletes to cause problems for defenses in the NFL.

Not only does that require a defense to communicate, giving it more chances to break down, but it forces the defense to cover sideline to sideline.

It also can sometimes overload one side of the field. That’s what we see in the clip below.

Imagine that jet sweep run by Christian Kirk, adding a fourth receiver to the right side of the field. Envision that it’s tight end Ricky Seals-Jones coming off the right side of the line and streaking up the middle.

That’s Larry Fitzgerald lining up in the right slot and creating havoc while crossing over the second left. Then there’s running back David Johnson coming out of the backfield and squatting down in the middle of a zone as defenders worry about Kirk going wide and Seals-Jones going up the middle.

Rosen’s job becomes relatively simple, writes Bowen.

From a passing-game standpoint, however, Kingsbury’s ability to design plays that occupy defenders in the route tree — giving the quarterback more defined reads — is a quick way to accelerate the learning curve for Rosen.

That means basic Hi-Lo concepts that allow Rosen to read intermediate defenders in zone coverage — no different from what Philip Rivers does with the Chargers — and empty sets that give Rosen a clear coverage read pre-snap. And it can be as simple as identifying split safety or single-high with Kingsbury’s Air Raid concepts.

Below is a similar formation to the clip above. The receiver on the right side of the field is split out wider to go deep rather than run a crossing route to the opposite side of the field, but he still has the same job — to get out of the way and take a defender with him.

Instead of the running back taking a route up the middle like the first clip, he instead runs a wide wheel route while the jet sweep man acts as a emergency bailout option behind him.

Want innovation or creativity? That is Kingsbury’s ability to flood one side of the field with receivers off jet motion. Get four strong to create an open window for Rosen. Or use the RPO (Run Pass Option) game with pulling linemen to generate an opposite-flow read for the second-level defenders. More power play-action and more misdirection can open up opportunities — and speed up the eyes for Rosen — to get the ball out.

There are more ways for the offense to create a pick-your-poison situation for the defense using a player in motion and the running back.

This time, a split look with two running backs begins with one of them moving before the snap and the other following. It gives the quarterback an easy read to a side of the field when the linebacker on that side hesitates, taking him out of coverage.

The opportunities to utilize both Johnson and backup running back Chase Edmonds in such formations will be there.

That play is also a good example of how Kingsbury’s Air Raid system puts a premium on agile linemen. The right guard and tackle pull to the left side for blocks, and perhaps that action plays a role in that linebacker thinking just for a second the play might be a run to the left — even though both backs go right.

Here’s how Bowman explains those guard-tackle pulls.

“GT” means the guard and tackle pull … Pull, kick out and give the running back a crease with some jet motion thrown into the mix to create some misdirection.

This could be a situation in which the Cardinals target both free agency and the draft to upgrade the offensive line, even potentially trading down from that No. 1 overall spot to land some more picks and a first-round offensive lineman.

A similar pull, though left-to-right, on the next play makes it appear like a quarterback sneak to the right.

While Rosen won’t be utilized quite to that extent, it’s a basic example of misdirection that allows for an easy screen to the running back the other way.

Consider that the Cardinals could use these same formations to run power zone with Johnson and the possibilities grow. The passing game should only be able to take advantage off those run calls.

Can Kingsbury’s system generate that type of high-level production again for Johnson given his versatile skill set? Based on what I see on tape, the answer is yes. We’re going to see Johnson as a receiver with a deep screen package, underneath concepts and quick, vertical throws to open windows.

Such a thing — getting Arizona’s best offensive weapon the ball — was the biggest missing piece to the Cardinals’ disappointing 2018 season. And while roster upgrades will dictate the success or failure of Kingsbury’s offense, this is why Arizona made the leap in hiring a man without a lick of NFL coaching experience.

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ESPN’s Bowen explains how Air Raid offense translates to Cardinals