Big plays are nice, but Cardinals are fine taking their time down the field

Oct 20, 2016, 4:34 PM | Updated: 10:21 pm

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (31) crosses the goal line for a touchdown against the...

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (31) crosses the goal line for a touchdown against the New York Jets during the first half of an NFL football game, Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Almost from the moment he was hired to be the team’s head coach in January 2013, Bruce Arians has made it clear his goal was to have a high-powered, big-play offense.

“We have six home runs on the play sheet every week, and we’re not coming home with any bullets left in the gun,” he said back on Jan. 18, 2013. “We want to run the football, we want to be balanced. But we’re going to take our shots up the field.

“You have to have chunk plays. It’s hard to dink and dunk the football in the National Football League for 80 yards; you’ve got to get chunk plays.”

Last season was the pinnacle of that style of offense. In 2015, the Cardinals finished with the No. 1 overall offense in the NFL in terms of yards, with 6,533, and were second in passing yards behind only run-averse New Orleans. Their 8.5 yards per passing attempt paced the league, and their aerial attack was both effective and a joy to watch.

Six games into the 2016 season, they are ninth in the league in total yards but 18th in passing yards per game and 25th in yards per passing attempt, at 6.7.

Last year’s Cardinals, these are not.

With David Johnson leading the way, the last two games especially have seen the Cardinals run more of a run-based offense. Part of that may have been due to circumstance — in San Francisco, they faced a league-worst rushing defense and had backup QB Drew Stanton on the field — but last week against the New York Jets, they were facing a top run defense and had starter Carson Palmer back.

One of the Cardinals’ four scoring drives in the 28-3 win over the Jets was quick — Johnson needed just one play to race 58 yards for a touchdown — but the other three were long. Very long.

The Cardinals had scoring drives of 11, 14 and 14 plays, showing a side to their offense that no one really knew they had but Arians is comfortable with as the play-caller.

“Oh, heck yeah,” the coach said Tuesday. “That’s the easy way to do it. You’d still like to get a chunk. It’s hard to go without a 20-yard gain, to go 80 yards, so very pleased when you can twice without a big chunk.”

Instead of taking chunks, the offense was instead nibbling through its meal, and finished with a perfect balance of 35 running plays and 35 passing plays.

“Yeah, that’s what you’re always striving for,” Arians said of that ratio. “At the end of the year, you like to add them up. If it’s 3,000 plays, it’s 1,500, so it’s always 50-50. It doesn’t always fall that way. Sometimes at the end of the game, you catch up with runs because you’re trying to kill clock. If you’re behind, you’re obviously throwing it. For the first three quarters, you’d love to stay balanced.”

Based on Arians’ track record, and his proud “no risk-it, no biscuit” philosophy, that may be a tad difficult to believe. But when asked if that is the kind of offense his team will have to play the rest of this season, he responded by saying it’s the way they want to do it.

“It’s always been the way we wanted to play,” he said. “Run the football and play-action and take whatever’s there. But, we really haven’t changed our philosophy at all.”

According to receiver Larry Fitzgerald, that actually falls in line with the way Arians has always done things.

“I think he just understands — we understand — the kind of players (we have),” he said. “Coach Arians, he doesn’t say ‘this is my system, you need to fit into my system.’ He tailors what he does in his creativity around the talent of the players as he has.

“If you can do something really well, he’s going to put you in a position for you to do what you do well. He’s never going to put you in a place where you’re not comfortable or you can’t play fast and execute your assignment. He has a great understanding of what guys are able to do and puts them in successful places, and that’s a great attribute to have.”

So while the philosophy may not be different, the execution of it seems to be. With the deep ball being tough to come by so far, the Cardinals have slowly turned to passes that are closer to the line of scrimmage. They are safer, of course, and more likely to be completed. With that supplementing a quality run game, the Cardinals have been able to move the football.

“It’s what we want to do,” Palmer said. “I think it’s what everybody wants to do: you run the ball and you go play-action and take your shots. There hasn’t been a ton of it. I think the main thing is we’ve gotten so much better in the run game. We’re doing such a good job up front, regardless of who’s kind of filtered in with injuries. But, we’ve improved in the run game dramatically.”

In theory, an improved running game should benefit the passing game because as defenses commit more resources to stopping Johnson there should be more opportunities down the field for Palmer and the team’s receivers. Even with that in mind, Palmer noted how an offense can’t just go play-action and throw the ball down the field.

“Every offense in this league is trying to take advantage of what the defense is giving them and not force things, especially against a defense that we’re playing Sunday night,” he said, referring to the Seattle Seahawks. “You’ll get behind quick.”

Palmer admitted it’s a bit difficult moving down the field like they have been, because of course everybody loves the home run ball. However, he said completions are completions, and no matter how the team’s offense works, as long as it is then everything is OK. Besides, he said, the longer the offense is on the field the more tired the opposing defense gets.

“Whether it’s a two-yard, or 12-yard, or 5-yard (pass), when defenders have to run and tackle somebody, it wears you out defensively,” he said. “It’s demoralizing when you get lots of completions, and there’s the ability to miss tackles, which is something we do really well.”

Offense is offense, and no matter how a team moves the ball and scores points, the important thing is that it does each of those things. Entering Week 7, the Cardinals are 10th in the NFL in both yards and points per game, so while they have not been as great as last year, they have not been bad, either.

They’ve just been different, though Arians does not believe the team’s offensive personality has undergone a makeover.

“No, we’ve always wanted to run it,” he said. “We haven’t been always been able to. With the running back situation, we’re able to run the football and that makes it a whole lot easier, especially on the quarterback. But no, the philosophy hasn’t changed. We’re still who we are.”

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Big plays are nice, but Cardinals are fine taking their time down the field