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From Air Raid To Run Raid: Cardinals Unexpectedly Dominating On Ground

Team on pace to set franchise record for yards per carry

RB Kenyan Drake has excelled since joining the Cardinals in a midseason trade.
RB Kenyan Drake has excelled since joining the Cardinals in a midseason trade.

When Kliff Kingsbury was hired to run the show for the Cardinals in January, center A.Q. Shipley envisioned the obvious: An Air Raid coach who attacked defenses through the air.

There was little reason to deviate from that thought during the first month of the season, when the Cardinals passed the ball 68.1 percent of the time.

Since then, though, it's been more Run Raid than Air Raid, as a potent rushing attack has improbably lifted the offense to impressive heights.

"I don't think anyone (saw this coming)," Shipley said. "If you polled almost everybody 10, 15 weeks ago, 'Hey, do you think we'll be running two tight-end sets in Week 16?' I don't think we saw that. But it's kind of the way we've gone the last couple of weeks, and it's been successful. We've been very efficient doing it."

The Cardinals have the second-most efficient rushing attack in the NFL this season, according to Football Outsiders, behind only the juggernaut Ravens. They are averaging 5.06 yards per carry as a team, easily on pace for the most efficient rushing season in franchise history.

On Sunday in Seattle, the Cardinals ran for 253 yards, the second straight week they surpassed 200 yards in a game and the third time this season. The last time the Cardinals ran for at least 200 yards in a game three times in a season was 1983.

The Cardinals had historic offensive struggles a season ago, but since Week 4, they have comfortably been among the best offenses in the NFL because of the ground game.

"I think we had to switch up some of the stuff," quarterback Kyler Murray said. "Earlier in the season, we weren't running the ball as much as I think we needed to. We'd get down early and when we had to throw the ball and it just got predictable. I think there has to be a good balance of what we're doing. If you look around the league, the majority of the good teams have a run game and they play defense. I think that's kind of the recipe for success in any form or fashion of football."

Kingsbury designs the Cardinals' passing game but defers to Sean Kugler for the rushing plays. The two didn't meet until Kugler interviewed to be the offensive line coach this offseason, but Kingsbury was excited to make the hire and the chemistry blossomed early on.

"I had heard great things (prior to the interview)," Kingsbury said. "I actually coached against him when he was at UTEP. Everybody that I had ever spoke to said he was phenomenal. (Washington quarterback) Case Keenum was in Denver last year, and I talked to him about his experience with him. I knew he was a great technician offensive line coach, but just the stuff he does schematically week to week, the in-game adjustments, has been phenomenal and really helped me and kind of expanded my horizons as a football coach."

Murray is a big part of the rushing attack, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. Some of that yardage comes on designed runs, some on scrambles. Even when he's not carrying the ball, Murray helps neutralize defenders by faking a keep on zone-read looks.

Kenyan Drake has been at the forefront at running back since joining the team via midseason trade, carrying the ball 111 times for 583 yards – 5.25 yards per carry -- and seven touchdowns in seven games.

"Kenyan is really giving us a boost there," Kingsbury said. "He's shown explosiveness on some of those long runs that have obviously helped us."

The Cardinals have one of the more dressed-up running attacks in the league, with plenty of deception built in, and the passing game aids it by using similar formations and concepts.

While that part may be pretty, the running game wouldn't be effective without some brute strength to pave holes, and that's also been impressive.

"Guys are playing at a physical level on the perimeter, up front, and it's paying off," Kingsbury said.

A reputation for airing it out preceded Kingsbury, and maybe in an ideal world, he'd still want Murray to throw the ball more. But the personnel dictated an emphasis on running the ball in 2019, and players like Shipley appreciate that Kingsbury proved willing to adjust.

"He's never acted like he knows everything," Shipley said. "He's figuring this thing out just like us, and that's what makes him such a great coach. He's been unbelievable for us this year, being able to adapt from college to this game. That took a special thing in itself, and to be able to adapt to himself over the course of 16 weeks, it's been pretty awesome to watch."

A chronological look at the Cardinals' 15th regular season game against the Seahawks.