Kliff Kingsbury’s offense is going to radically alter the Cardinals defense too
It’ll be a referendum on the air raid system. In Kliff Kingsbury, the Arizona Cardinals hope they found their Sean McVay. McVay is a hotshot young coach seen at the vanguard of offensive innovation in the NFL. He inherited a second-year quarterback and immediately upgraded him to one of the league’s best. With promising quarterback Josh Rosen heading into year two, Kingsbury could use him to push offensive football forward yet again at the highest level. Ya know, that whole “copycat league” thing? The Cardinals have seen the power of McVay up close and personal. The Rams are a division rival that have blasted Arizona in four games under McVay by a combined score of 130-25 (with two shutouts). The Rams have scored 30 or more points each time, and that includes doing so twice against a 2017 Arizona defense that was one of the best in the league by weighted DVOA. Kingsbury’s defensive coordinator hire will be the most important piece of his coaching staff in Arizona. It’s not just because Kingsbury will call the plays and be responsible for incorporating air raid principles on offense. It’s because the type of offense Kingsbury is bringing with him is uniquely stressful on defenses. It’s not just opposing defenses which feel the strain — Arizona’s will too. When you choose to go the air raid route, it’s about much more than just an offensive system. It’s a total team buy-in from day one, or this thing will be kneecapped before training camp. The defensive mindset changes when the offense goes to this philosophy. Defensive football is still judged by a standard of how many yards are given up. That’s what the “total defense” stat means. Yes, the object will always be to prevent the offense from scoring, but the mindset of how you go about doing that will continue to get altered. Offenses are getting too good. They will gain more yards on a week-to-week basis than in years past. A defense’s goal shouldn’t be holding a team under some arbitrary per-game yardage number. If football is to continue to move toward being basketball on grass, consider the standard a basketball defense is held to. It’s a baked-in assumption that the other offense will score. It’s about limiting scoring. The standard is about getting stops. When you center your organization around this offense, defense becomes the complementary part. That’s gonna take some re-wiring for everyone. There are many in the coaching profession who treat air raid almost like it’s a bad word. It’s hard to have a truly great defense with this kind of offense because of the way it changes the calculus of the sport. Any uptempo offense exposes its defense to more possessions, more plays, and therefore more opportunities to be scored against. Mike Leach — Kingsbury’s former head coach, and purveyor of the purest air raid — had his best team at Texas Tech with a defensive coordinator, Ruffin McNeill, who understood how to scheme in concert with this offense. The Red Raiders saw a gradual rise in the mid-2000’s when they hired assistant coach Ruffin McNeil and then, after a catastrophic defeat to Oklahoma State in the middle of the 2007 season in which they surrendered over 600 yards of offense, McNeil was promoted to defensive coordinator. He emphasized a simpler, cover 2 approach and drastically improved the quality of Tech’s DL play, allowing their back seven to sit back in coverage and make life difficult for Big 12 passing offenses. In 2008 they had a pair of defensive ends in McKinner Dixon and Brandon Williams who combined for 19 sacks while safeties Darcel McBath and Daniel Charbonnet took advantage of the opportunity to jump routes from a two-deep shell and combined for 11 interceptions and 13 pass break-ups. The Cardinals know this, and it’s doubtful they hired Kingsbury without understanding what this whole organization is getting itself into. And here’s where Kingsbury and the Cardinals may look to mimic the Rams again. McVay pretty much just lets Wade Phillips — someone who’s almost 40 years older than the 32-year-old head coach — cook with the defense. Phillips has installed an aggressive base 3-4 defense, and the Rams have pumped that side of the ball full of high-priced talent. Consider what the Cardinals are already saying about the defensive coordinator hire: “I don’t think there’s any doubt that a veteran defensive coordinator would be ideal in this situation,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said during Kingsbury’s presser. “Just based on our personnel, I think a 3-4 fit is what we’re looking at. With the edge rush that we have, certainly being able to play man-free on the backend — again, it’s catering to your strengths.” While Kingsbury’s addition that his defense will be “aggressive” may sound like a cliche, Keim’s elaboration fits with what he said. They want to get the hell after the quarterback and they’re going to put their DBs on islands and trust their deep safety to patrol that part of the field. Man coverage is also the way you stop RPOs, which are also all over the place in today’s NFL. But at some point, it’s certainly going to get beaten. The Rams are one of two NFC favorites to make it to the Super Bowl. They had the 15th-ranked defense this season per weighted DVOA. Your air raid defense doesn’t necessarily have to be good. It just has to be good enough. That’s the reason why someone like Nick Bosa or Josh Allen makes even more sense to take as the first pick in the NFL Draft. Luckily, Arizona has that first pick. Speaking of the draft, let’s talk about how Kingsbury’s roster will actually get filled. He’s no longer recruiting, and he won’t even have the final say on personnel most likely (most NFL head coaches don’t). But those who are picking the players get to fill the roster with more talented players than what Kingsbury had in Lubbock, many of whom will have a higher football IQ. Kingsbury’s defenses at Texas Tech sucked for many reasons. The defense hasn’t ranked in the top 50 of defensive S&P+ since 2009 (four years before he got there), and they were in the 110s or worse from 2014-16. They got slightly better (88th) in 2017 and finished 87th this season. The biggest reason that side of the ball was terrible has nothing to do with all the mindset stuff we just talked about. It’s because of their talent, with two-year and five-year recruiting rankings on the low-end of the Power 5. The stress the high-wattage offense put on the defense only made things worse. And that offense was buoying the whole team. Remember, Tech wasn’t bad under Kingsbury (obligatory “he was 35-40” reference). The Red Raiders were actually pretty average ... just like that record states. His worst team by win-loss (4-8 in 2014) finished 66th in the S&P+ rankings. That’s what happens when you have a good offense (19th) and a terrible defense (114th). Deficiencies in talent are easier to scheme around on the offensive side of the ball. Kingsbury’s already proven he can do that (this story is from 2016). The correlations between recruiting rankings and defensive success were stronger than on offense. Whereas most offensive categories ended up in the 22 to 29 percent range, a majority of defensive categories were between 31 and 42 percent. These are verified to some degree with eyeballing. Of the top five offenses according to Off. S&P+, only one (Stanford’s) came from a team that recruits at a top-20 level. The other four were Arkansas (28th in two-year recruiting), Baylor (32nd), Texas Tech (47th), and Western Kentucky (93rd). Meanwhile, four of the top six defenses came from the top end of the talent pool: Alabama (first in two-year recruiting), Michigan (14th), Clemson (12th), and Florida (13th). Boston College (53rd) and Northwestern (40th) bucked that trend. Don’t forget, Kingsbury discovered both the guys who piloted the offenses in a 2016 college game that set the NCAA record book on fire. They look like they’ll have really successful pro careers, and neither was an elite recruit. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. Do the names Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield ring a bell? Texas Tech is a hard place to recruit to for many reasons, and it burned Kingsbury in the end. The structure of the NFL Draft paired with the the ability to nab free agents can get bad teams good in a hurry. Before McVay got the Rams to 11-5 they were 4-12. The Cardinals’ struggles this season were much more on the offense than on the defense. Defense is a bit more of an individual effort than offense is, and it certainly is in the style that Cardinals’ brass has already said it wants to play. A lot of the defensive issues in Arizona can be traced to a switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3. It’s clear that the Cardinals will return to at least a familiar base next season with Kingsbury. So Kingsbury’s hire has supercharged the air raid referendum he was already at the forefront of. When it looked like Kingsbury was going to be USC’s offensive coordinator, we were about to see what the air raid could do with arguably the most raw talent any team running the scheme had ever had on both sides of the ball. Now we get to see it against the most sophisticated and talented defenses in the sport week in and week out. We also get to see what it will do to Arizona’s own defense. If this succeeds, the Cardinals will look like geniuses. If it doesn’t, you’ll know what the problem was.