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The Arizona Cardinals have shown great (and somewhat surprising) adaptability over the last couple weeks, with one example coming in Week 5 against the poor run defense of the Bengals, when Kliff Kingsbury eschewed his pass-dominant approach and instead called on David Johnson for 17 carries, Chase Edmonds for eight carries, and Kyler Murray for 10 carries (some designed, some not); and while coaching adaptability is always worth paying attention to in order to gain an edge, this particular shift by the Cardinals is noteworthy in a matchup sense as well, as opponents have been looking for ways to keep the ball out of the hands of the Atlanta offense so far this year — with the Falcons facing the third highest opponent rush play rate in spite of ranking seventh in DVOA against the run.
This is a good starting point for our exploration of the Arizona offense, as the action on this team has been flowing largely through the backfield of late (Kyler and the running backs), with Larry Fitzgerald seeing his targets drop from 24 across the first two games to only 20 across the last three — while Kyler has traded in back-to-back 300-yard passing efforts at the start of the year for rushing totals of 69 // 27 // 93. Across the last three weeks (with Fitz seeing his dip in action), DJ has touch counts of 17 // 19 // 20, while Edmonds has chipped in with 4 // 6 // 11.
While Atlanta ranks seventh in DVOA against the run, they rank 19th in yards allowed per carry (and while they rank 30th in DVOA against the pass, they rank 20th in yards allowed per pass attempt), with this run defense holding strong up the middle so far but getting brutalized on runs to the edges. One area in which Kingsbury has still not adjusted as much as we would like is in his deployment of DJ, as he is still using his star back on too many shotgun runs up the gut — and when you combine DJ’s Week 6 price with these “up the gut” runs and the “locked up back” that shuttled him on and off the field last week, he becomes more of a “bet on upside” play than a lock-and-load option. If DJ happens to miss this week, however, Edmonds (who is not a major talent drop-off from DJ) would step into a roughly 20-touch role including pass game involvement, and would immediately become one of the more attractive plays on the slate.
Kyler is also in a great spot this week, as the Atlanta defense is allowing the 12th most passing yards and the second most passing touchdowns in the league to date — with this second statistic being particularly important, as the Cardinals (third worst red zone touchdown rate in football) need all the help they can get right now in order to turn all their production into actual points. Only eight teams are allowing a higher red zone touchdown rate than Atlanta, and only one team is allowing a higher opponent drive success rate — which, in essence, means that the Falcons often aren’t able to get off the field on defense until an opponent finds the end zone.
Through the air, things remain simple for the Cardinals, as this passing attack has remained heavily concentrated on Fitz and (if he returns this week) Christian Kirk. There is no need for Atlanta to over-focus on one player the way they did last week with Hopkins; and while the Falcons are still shaving over 10% off the league-average aDOT, they are also allowing a nearly-10% boost to the league-average catch rate (lining up nicely with what Fitz and Kirk provide). If Kirk misses this week, it’s a good spot for Fitz to see a few more looks, while both Kirk and Fitz are in a good spot if the former plays. Atlanta has allowed 10 touchdowns to wide receivers (the most in the league), so there is at least a chance the Cardinals finally figure out how to make their way into the end zone.
On the other side of this game, Atlanta has faced a rough slate of opposing run defenses, but they haven’t done much to help themselves, ranking 28th in adjusted line yards and largely leaving the ground game alone to focus on their aerial attack — with the highest pass play rate in the league, and with Matt Ryan topping 300 yards in every single game. The Falcons rank fifth in drive success rate while the Cardinals defense ranks 25th, and Atlanta has the most passing yards in the league and will be taking on an Arizona team that has allowed the second most passing touchdowns (12) and is the only team with zero interceptions.
Unsurprisingly, the Cardinals enter this game having faced the fourth most tight end targets, while allowing the third most catches, the most yards, and the most touchdowns to the position. Through five games, Austin Hooper has target counts of 9 // 6 // 7 // 11 // 9 — with only Kelce (one), Ertz (three), and Engram (six) having seen more targets on the year.
The Cardinals have been middling against wide receivers — essentially non-threatening, but with nothing that explicitly boosts matchups — but between the Cardinals’ inability to get offenses off the field and the game environment boost this spot should provide, there is a good reason to expect Julio Jones to bounce back from back-to-back disappointments.
Behind Hooper and Julio, Calvin Ridley is obviously in play for his tournament upside (though unlike last week, there is nothing in the matchup that points to elevated expectations), while Mohamed Sanu should maintain his typical underneath role while providing value if he scores.
The final piece in this passing attack (more valuable for his pass game role than his run game role right now) is Devonta Freeman — who continues to play only about 60% of the snaps, but who has been soaking up pass game work of late and has at least some case that can be made for him in tourneys as a piece that will go overlooked by the field and could provide a solid game with a score.
JM’s Interpretation ::
This is a straightforward game, but that doesn’t take away from the attractiveness of this game, where both quarterbacks are very firmly in play, and where Hooper // Julio // DJ // Fitz // Kirk (in that order — with Fitz // Kirk fine to flip-flop) are all in the thick of the conversation as well. If DJ misses, Edmonds immediately becomes one of the more attractive plays on the slate for his low price and his locked-in role; and even beyond these names, there are assorted pieces that could end up producing at a respectable level in this spot.
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