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Run It Back: Cardinals Set Sights On More Ground Success

Kliff Kingsbury, Sean Kugler prove to be potent schematic pairing

Arizona Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake against the Cleveland Browns in 2019.
RB Kenyan Drake helped the rushing attack reach new heights after he was acquired in a midseason trade.

Kliff Kingsbury and Sean Kugler seem like an odd couple.

Kingsbury is among the new wave of NFL coaches who like to spread defenses out and throw the ball in any situation.

Kugler, 13 years his senior, was coaching in the league when Kingsbury was still a college quarterback – back when fullbacks and smashmouth football were fashionable.

Despite their different backgrounds, the Cardinals' head man and his offensive line coach have proven to be a potent duo. The team was unexpectedly dominant on the ground in 2019, setting a franchise-record with 5.03 yards per carry and finishing second in the NFL in Football Outsiders' rushing efficiency.

With the scheme intact, Kenyan Drake returning as the featured back and a similar group of blockers, expectations are high for the running game in 2020.

"We set the franchise record last year, and what's to say we can't add a yard to that, or set it again this year?" left tackle D.J. Humphriessaid. "We were top-10 in rushing last year. Who says we can't be top-5 or No. 1?"

The Cardinals hoped to test teams through the air in 2019, but it quickly became apparent that the offense's strength was the ground game. To his credit, Kingsbury morphed his playcalling and leaned on Kugler's expertise.

"I'm one of those guys who knows what he doesn't know," Kingsbury said. "I don't try to go there with coach Kugs, because he's a run-game savant."

Kugler deflected the praise when when it was relayed to him -- I don't even know what savant means," he deadpanned -- but in truth, he's a critical component for the Cardinals.

Kugler molds his coaching philosophy after Andy Reid, his former position coach at Texas El-Paso, and it is plainly evident.

Reid was one of the early NFL adopters of the spread offense when the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes in 2017 (coincidentally, from Kingsbury's Texas Tech team). The Cardinals' running game starts similarly, as shotgun formations and Kyler Murray-led zone reads are the lynchpins of the attack.

"Ten, 15 years ago, 20 years ago, you really didn't see a lot of quarterback runs, zone reads, where they are reading defensive linemen and have the ability to hand it off or keep it," Kugler said. "That really came from the college game, and it's really progressed in the NFL."

The Cardinals didn't have above average personnel last season, but finished No. 13 in Football Outsiders' offensive efficiency in large part due to the scheme. The Cardinals did a nice job avoiding predictability as Kugler mirrored his run-game looks to the passing game formations.

"He's one of the top O-line coaches in the league, if not the best," Kingsbury said. "He comes up with great ideas. I'll try to pair some stuff up — if I see something I like, or if I want to try and do something, he's been awesome as far as trying to accommodate me -- but he's been phenomenal at developing run-game stuff and putting us in positions to be successful."

Kugler has an old-school look about him and coaches a rugged position group, but he enjoys Kingsbury's cutting-edge takes on offense. The Cardinals often used pre-snap shifts and motion to keep defenses off-balance last season, and ran plenty of gadget plays.

"I love it," Kugler said. "The creativity, it makes it exciting. I think it keeps the players alive. … Each week there are new schemes and those are always going to presented throughout the year. It keeps them on their toes. It keeps me on my toes."

When Kingsbury had Mahomes at Texas Tech, he threw all the time, and between Murray's maturation and the arrival of DeAndre Hopkins, it's possible this year's group has more of an Air Raid feel.

But the Cardinals' best facet on either side of the ball in 2019 was the rushing attack – and it's something Kingsbury is willing to lean on, even if outsiders aren't privy to that yet.

"Misconception? Maybe," Kugler said. "We run the ball more than people think we do, and we run the ball a lot more effectively than people probably think we do."

Images of the 16 players on the practice squad to begin the 2020 season.