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Kliff Kingsbury Giving Cardinals An Analytical Boost

Cardinals coach has been aggressive on fourth downs in Arizona territory

Arizona Cardinals tight end Darrell Daniels catches a 31-yard pass during a regular season game on Sunday, October 11, 2020.
Tight end Darrell Daniels caught a 31-yard pass on fourth-and-1 against the Jets.

Doug Pederson and John Harbaugh are darlings of the football analytics community, and for good reason.

In the past few years, the coaches of the Eagles and Ravens, respectively, have been on the cutting edge of in-game aggressiveness, pushing the envelope when conventional wisdom said to be more conservative.

Kliff Kingsbury may not get the same recognition quite yet, but he is starting to make a name for himself in the realm.

The Cardinals coach went for it on fourth-and-1 from his 39-yard-line on Sunday against the Jets, the third time this season he's done so inside his own 40.

The Cardinals have converted each attempt, which certainly makes it more palatable to the fanbase, but regardless of the outcome, it was always going to be the modus operandi.

"He trusts the offensive line," center Mason Cole said. "He trusts the playmakers on this team. He said early in the year when training camp started, that we were going to be aggressive -- that is how we were going to take games on. These fourth downs are going to come up, and I'm sure he's going to keep being aggressive. Hopefully we keep being successful on them."

Cardinals' 2020 Fourth Down Attempts

Table inside Article
Opponent Situation Result Drive Result
Washington 4th-and-1 at AZ 27 3-yard rush Punt
Washington 4th-and-4 at WAS 37 12-yard pass Touchdown
Lions 4th-and-1 at AZ 37 3-yard rush Interception
Jets 4th-and-1 at AZ 39 31-yard pass Touchdown

Kingsbury has been well-versed in analytics since he was hired, but it wasn't evident in the first four games of his tenure. The Cardinals had four fourth-down snaps inside the opponent's 5-yard-line in the first month of 2019, and Kingsbury kicked a field goal each time.

But there was a reason for that: he had a rookie quarterback at the helm and a group still learning his system. As the players got more comfortable, Kingsbury started to push the throttle, finishing No. 8 in the NFL in Football Outsiders' fourth-down aggressiveness index in 2019.

In Year 2, he is full speed ahead, working in tandem with his players to make the right call.

"I think there is a comfort level with our personnel and just getting their information," Kingsbury said. "If they come to me and say 'Hey, we got this, we got that,' that can adjust my thinking a bit. A lot goes into it. We love to have the analytics and the probabilities right in front of you so you can help your decisions, but definitely just a trust factor with our players and knowing 'Hey, we can get this' and leaning on them to give you that information is definitely a step forward."

Unsurprisingly, every offensive player who has spoken about the fourth-down aggressiveness has been gung-ho about it. But what about the other side of the ball?

A fourth-and-short will inevitably fail at some point, which will give the opponent premium field position. Even so, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph is onboard with Kingsbury's decision-making.

"I like it, because from a defensive perspective, you have very few calls on fourth-and-1," Joseph said. "One yard for an offense is sometimes pretty easy to get. I like Coach being aggressive, because the more he can burn clock and the more points he scores, it helps the defense. If he feels good about a play he has called, and he's saving a good play for a fourth-and-1, I trust it."

Kingsbury's analytical bent is not reserved to fourth downs. He is among the league-leaders in pass rate on second-and-long, is top-10 in play-action percentage and spreads defenses out to help the running game.

He was asked this week about the possibility of trying a very unconventional move: an early two-point conversion as a proactive measure rather than a reactive one.

Pederson did it to great acclaim in Week 4, as an 8-0 first quarter lead eventually forced the 49ers to chase the point in the fourth quarter. After failing on its own two-point conversion, San Francisco faced a late five-point deficit and had to try for a touchdown instead of a field goal in a 25-20 loss.

Between Kyler Murray's mobility and the Cardinals' short-yardage success through five games, it could be a conducive enough scenario for Kingsbury to follow suit.

"I think there's something to that, no doubt," Kingsbury said. "If you feel like you need a spark, or you feel really confident in your short-yardage package or see something on tape, I think, 'Hey, be aggressive' and try to get those points that are out there."

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS A 'BANGED UP GROUP'

Kingsbury said Friday that the Cardinals' outside linebackers are a "banged up group," but he is hopeful Devon Kennard (calf), Dennis Gardeck (foot) and Kylie Fitts (hamstring) will be available against the Cowboys on Monday night.

The Cardinals didn't practice on Friday, but if they did, the team estimated that Gardeck and Kennard would have practiced in a limited capacity, while Fitts would have sat out. Right guard J.R. Sweezy (elbow) and defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence (calf) likely would not have practiced.

The Cowboys had full participation from everyone on their active roster, although linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is not yet listed because he is still on injured reserve with a broken collarbone suffered in Week 1. Vander Esch could return to the field against the Cardinals.

Images from practice at the Dignity Health Training Center, presented by Hyundai.

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