Arizona Cardinals Have Tools To Improve Impotent Ground Game

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Aug 29, 2013



By Justin Henry (@jrhwriting)
Cold Hard Football Facts' Dr. Death

The 5-11 Arizona Cardinals of 2012 fielded the worst rushing attack in the NFL: 3.42 Yards Per Attempt.

Yes, the Cardinals offense in 2012 was so historically inept, they were worst in the league in rushing yards per attempt, the Offensive Hog Index, Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (4.51) and Offensive Passer Rating (63.1).

As we pointed out in this CHFF Insider report on Arizona's passer rating woes, it begins with the offensive line. When they weren't fast-tracking Kevin Kolb toward having his ribs crunched into dust, they were causing Kolb's less-experienced backups to panic, and throw pick after pick.

Indeed, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer combined to throw three touchdowns and 18 interceptions across 11 games. Lindley was on the hook for no touchdowns and seven of those picks.

The woes of that line boiled down to the following:

* Left tackle Levi Brown missed the entire year with a torn pectoral, and replaced by journeyman D'Anthony Batiste. That would explain the consistent avalanche on the blind side.

* Right guard Adam Snyder was signed away from San Francisco prior to the season, and given a five year deal. He proved ineffective, and was released just after the 2013 Draft.

* Right tackle Bobby Massie was a fourth round pick in 2012, and was pressed into duty for sixteen games.

* The only other starter who played a full season was Daryn Colledge at left guard. Generally serviceable center Lyle Sendlein held down the middle for most of the year.

With this lack of continuity, and unmistakably subpar play, it's no wonder the quarterbacks were frequently under siege. However, the running game suffered just as much.

Here's a look at how four running backs fared for the Cardinals in 2012.

PlayerGames AttemptsYardsYPANotes
Larod Stephens-Howling141113573.22Started only five games
Chris Wells 8882342.66Missed eight games with turf toe
William Powell13592.163.66More than 5 carries in a game  only twice
Ryan Williams5581642.83IR after shoulder surgery in October
TOTALS 403169713.07 

 

Four running backs couldn't even combine for 1,000 yards. Seventeen individual running backs totaled more than Arizona's four backs in 2012; 16 of them topped 1,000 and the other was Reggie Bush with 986.

Ken Whisenhunt didn't have much faith in his backs to carry the load; Williams averaged the most attempts per game with a mere 11.6. When the committee broke down due to injuries, the team simply passed more. Of course, given that Arizona was behind a lot as the year went on, passing, even with their rogue's gallery of signal callers, was a necessity.

Rectifying the Issue

Through Bruce Arians' vertical passing game, as well as his extensive work with quarterbacks as an assistant over the years, the new Cardinals coach is labeled as a pass-first coach. That's simply not true.

The Colts ran the ball 440 times last season, tied for fourteenth most with the Dolphins. That total is also above the league average of 435.2 (and well ahead of Arizona's dead last 352 attempts).

In the 12 games in which Arians was head coach, the Colts ran the ball 333 times, or 27.75 times a game. With that average, had Arians coached all year with 27.75 runs a game, Indy would have run 444 times.

On the other hand, those 440 runs accounted for just 39.68 percent of the Colts' offensive plays. The Colts called the third most plays-from scrimmage (1109), so there was more capacity for them to run. Still, 60/40 isn't the worst disparity you can have.

The passer rating piece already covered the changes to the offensive line. Brown is healthy, and back at left tackle.

The Cardinals drafted Jonathan Cooper seventh overall to be left guard, and his second-level blocking gives the running game a good inside track. That is, if he even plays this season. Due to a broken leg, Cooper's a risk to miss all of 2013. For the time being, Colledge switches to the left guard spot, while Paul Fanaika looks to start at right guard.

Eric Winston, who's had experience blocking for Steve Slaton, Arian Foster, and Jamaal Charles, takes over at right tackle. Sendlein and Colledge are the only holdovers from last year, though Paul Fanaika could displace Colledge.

The running back depth chart looks drastically different from last season, with only Ryan Williams emerging from the scrap heap. He'll be backing up the new kid in town, Arians' old subordinate Rashard Mendenhall.

Mendenhall's notched a fairly inconsistent career, thanks to injuries, the Steeler's shambled offensive line, and as of last season, his attitude.

Playing in just six games a year ago, Mendenhall ran for 182 yards on 51 carries (3.57 YPA). He was coming off of an ACL injury sustained in the 2011 season finale, but also was suspended in December for failing to show up to a game he'd been deactivated for.

Mendenhall has twice rushed for 1000 yards in his career, peaking with 1273 and 13 touchdowns in 2010. That was also the only season of his five year career in which he's rushed over 250 times (324).

As second banana, Williams is hoping for a healthy season for once. The 2011 second round pick missed all of that season with an injured right knee, and played just five games last year before requiring shoulder surgery.

The Cardinals also selected a pair of backs on the third day of the Draft. Bulky Stepfan Taylor fell to them at 140 overall out of Stanford. Taylor could be a boon as a receiving back, given that Arians plans to add more screens to the offense.

Clemson's diminutive Andre Ellington could be a steal at 187 overall, given his ability to escape after being boxed in. At 197 pounds, his health could be an issue, especially if hits pile up.

Breaking it Down

Indianapolis averaged only 3.80 YPA last season, even with an above average amount of attempts. Arians' last three Steelers teams ran for total attempts of 434 (19th), 471 (8th), and 428 (18th). Personnel aside, his teams have seen healthy amounts of running mixed into the offense.

Through this balance, it's expected that Arizona will climb out from being rock bottom in attempts this season. Whether it translates to a better rushing average depends on many factors.

The line has to prove it can gel, but Winston has proven to be adept blocking for the run. The backs have to hold up, as Mendenhall and Williams have combined to play just 26 games over the past two seasons.

With Palmer now leading the offense, you have a quarterback who can handle pressure a little better than what Arizona was imbued with last season. He's far from immune to injury, but if the line stands pat, he can thrive with Larry Fitzgerald and an impressive receiving corps.

And that's what the run needs: for the passing game to largely succeed. If it does, a defense can be stretched thin from having to guess what's coming.

Arizona still lacks a true stud running back, and fantasy players won't be looking at the Cardinals' running game for anything but 14th round depth. But on the surface, it's worlds better than it was last season.


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