Cardinals run game stacked up with playoff-quality teams

Jan 12, 2020, 4:22 PM | Updated: Jan 13, 2020, 7:28 am
Arizona Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake (41) tries to elude Cleveland Browns free safety Damari...
Arizona Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake (41) tries to elude Cleveland Browns free safety Damarious Randall (23) and middle linebacker Joe Schobert (53) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Who says the run game is dead?

As much as the game has changed and passing has become the most important part of an offense, establishing the run game and being able to move the ball on the ground remains vital to most successful teams.

The NFL’s rushing leader in 2019, Derrick Henry, has shown this with the surprise Tennessee Titans, who over the weekend advanced to the AFC Championship game. But that’s not the only example. Five of the top six teams in rushing yards per game made the playoffs this season.

It’s no secret the Arizona Cardinals offense went through drastic reformation this season. The rushing numbers followed the same trend and, for fans looking for optimism, that could be seen as an indicator that the team is closer to becoming a playoff-caliber squad.

Arizona finished 10th in rushing yards per game. Seven of the teams ahead made the playoffs.

It was the Cardinals’ best finish in rushing yards per game since their 2015 season, when the team finished 13-3. Over the last two seasons, Arizona was atrocious on the ground, finishing No. 30 in 2017 and No. 32 in 2018.

As important as sheer number of yards are, situation matters. Analytics show Arizona passed that test with flying colors.

The Cardinals’ DVOA in yards-per-rush was second-best in the league, behind only Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens, according to Football Outsiders.

DVOA, which stands for defense-adjusted value over average, is calculated based on the down-and-distance of the play and how it compares to a league-average player or team. As Football Outsiders explains, situation matters: getting four yards on third-and-three matters more than four yards in a situation in which it would not have achieved a first down. Red zone plays also matter more.

According to this metric, Arizona’s yards per rush was 15.5% better than the average team.

In 2018, the Cardinals had the second-worst DVOA for yards-per-rush. It was 21.4% worse than league average.

To put it in layman’s terms: Arizona’s rushing game was very good in 2019, particularly in important situations, after being very bad in 2018.

It averaged just over 5.0 yards per carry, a franchise record that tied for second-best in the NFL this year behind the Ravens.

The Cardinals now have to figure out who’s going to lead it next year. Quarterback Kyler Murray had the second-most rushing yards at his position in the league, behind Jackson. That’s unquestionably beneficial.

But Kenyan Drake could command too hefty a contract this offseason for the Cardinals to commit to; David Johnson’s future with the team is in question with his salary the next two years. Chase Edmonds ran well for a few weeks, but after he got injured, Drake joined the corps and Edmonds was relegated to the sideline.

But such a dramatic turnaround from the 2018 rushing game to 2019, the offense looks like one that can match up against playoff-quality units as Murray and head coach Kliff Kingsbury continue to get accustomed to the NFL.

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