By the numbers: The Cardinals’ search for offensive efficiency, balance

Sep 26, 2019, 11:10 AM | Updated: Sep 27, 2019, 10:07 am
Running back David Johnson #31 of the Arizona Cardinals scores a touchdown in the second half of th...
Running back David Johnson #31 of the Arizona Cardinals scores a touchdown in the second half of the NFL game against the Carolina Panthers at State Farm Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

It’s an NFL Twitter drinking game: take a sip anytime Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth says “RPO.”

Whether it is a true run-pass option between the quarterback and running back or simply a play-action pass isn’t the point here.

The point is that the play-action pass — faking a handoff to a running back — directly relates to the success rate of a passing play in the NFL, according to FiveThirtyEight.

What’s that got to do with the Arizona Cardinals?

Well, it’s complicated. And it comes down to two things: simultaneously using tight ends and adding play-action — and true RPOs — to improve the passing game.

Through three games under head coach Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona has gone with four wide receivers, one back and no tight end (10 personnel) 61% of the time, according to Sharp Football Stats. That number dropped from 64% after a Week 3 loss to the Carolina Panthers as Kingsbury deployed more tight end packages.

Kingsbury likes the 10 personnel grouping because he trusts his top four receivers: Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk, Damiere Byrd and KeeSean Johnson have earned the most snaps. The head coach also said the look leads to better spacing of the defense, making it easier for rookie quarterback Kyler Murray to see the field.

“I like matchups we can try to get from that and spreading the field,” Kingsbury said. “As a young quarterback, him being able to see things clearly pre-snap and go from there.”

It also forces the defense to find four capable cover men, while keeping the same package and up-tempoing opponents limits substitution possibilities.

FiveThirtyEight wondered after Week 1 if Arizona was hurting itself by lacking the deception that comes from using more blockers to complement fake handoffs that are part of Kingsbury’s offense.

Running more receiver routes, according to the data, does not necessarily lead to more offensive efficiency.

Based on success rate and EPA (expected points added) per play, the optimum number of receivers to send out into routes is three. NFL rules dictate that five receivers at most can report as eligible to catch a pass on any given play, so this finding would appear to support passing out of heavy sets with big tight ends staying home to help shore up the pass blocking. Or perhaps teams should keep a running back in the backfield to help chip rushing defenders. But it also could be that those heavier sets are effective because of the deception they afford via the play-action pass.

To find out, we broke out all plays by the number of receivers and then split the plays by play-action and non-play-action. When we look at the plays this way, we find that play-action accounts for all the efficiency we see from the plays with three or fewer receivers. When play-action snaps are removed, passes with three or fewer receivers have a negative expected value leaguewide.

So running more routes, having an extra blocker and adding the deception of a potential run is a solid formula for success. All obvious things.

Arizona moved somewhere closer toward having all three in Week 3. The Cardinals used tight ends more often and for the first time got Murray involved in the run game himself. He rushed eight times for 69 yards.

That said, the Cardinals have been searching for more run balance — that sets up the play-action after all.

They are 26th league-wide in both rushing yards per game (84.3) and total attempts (56).

So as Arizona approaches a Week 4 home game against the Seattle Seahawks, that’ll be the thing to watch: Do they continue trending more toward more 11 personnel with one back and one tight end?

Do Murray and running back David Johnson provide enough of a threat with the ground game to cause defenders to react to play-action?

Here are some of the numbers available to give a look at how the Cardinals are using their skill players with personnel packages through three weeks.


The Cardinals have played in 10 personnel 61% of the time, per Sharp Football Stats.


Arizona has accounted for 128 of 233 (55%) of NFL teams’ combined snaps in 10 personnel through Week 3, according to Sharp Football Stats. Easily, they use it more than any other team in the league.


According to Sharp Football Stats, the Cardinals have a success rate of 40% in 10 personnel. Success rate not only accounts for yards gained but down and distance as well. Sharp Football Stats calls a play successful if it “gains at least 40% of yards-to-go on first down, 60% of yards-to-go on second down and 100% of yards-to-go on third or fourth down.”


When using 11 personnel of three receivers, one back and one tight end, the Cardinals have had a success rate of 51%, which is tied for seventh-best in the NFL.


The Cardinals have used 11 personnel 26% of the time and on 55 total snaps, but 24 of those came last week. Tight ends Charles Clay (53 snaps) and Maxx Williams (49) have each played about a quarter of Arizona’s 220 total snaps.


According to Pro Football Focus’ grading system, Williams has especially brought a lot to the table. He has the team’s best overall offensive grade (87.3), best run-blocking grade (89.5) and best passing down grade (72.1). He also has the team’s fourth-best pass-blocking grade (75.4).


Murray is first in the NFL with 137 pass attempts through three games.


Murray is 30th by averaging 6.1 yards per pass attempt.


Arizona averages 4.5 yards per carry, 14th-best in the NFL, and Murray’s abilities have bumped an offense that is getting just 3.7 yards per rush by Johnson.

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