How Kliff Kingsbury can fix the Cardinals’ red zone issues

Arizona Cardinals v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Dan Kubus/Getty Images

The Cardinals have had one of the worst red zone offenses so far this year. Geoff Schwartz explains what they can do to change that.

The NFL field is 100 yards long. All parts of the field matter when it comes to winning the game, but there’s one area that’s most vital to a team’s success. That’s the red zone, AKA the scoring zone. It’s from the 20-yard line to the end zone. Both the offense and defense know this part of the field is treated differently, as SB Nation detailed here.

The red zone stands apart from the rest of the field because it’s compressed. At most, teams have 30 yards to work if they’re starting at the 20. The passing game must be precise and accurate as the windows for throwing passes are smaller. With a condensed field, the defenders are closer to the receivers. Teams MUST get creative, innovative, and have a plan of attack in this part of the field.

That’s especially the case for one team so far in 2019.

The Arizona Cardinals have been mostly horrendous in the red zone

After two games, the Cardinals have converted two of eight attempts for touchdowns, good for just 25 percent, in the red zone. That puts them 31st in the NFL, only ahead of the Bengals. Part of the reason for that could be the conservative nature of first-time NFL coach Kliff Kingsbury early on. In Week 2 alone, the Cardinals attempted a field goal on fourth-and-1 at the 4-yard line, fourth-and-goal at the 3-yard line, and fourth-and-goal at the 2-yard line. They lost, 23-17.

Kyler Murray has attempted 17 passes in the red zone. He is 7 of 16 on those attempts and was sacked once, with only eight of those passes even being on target. Their passing Expected Points Added (EPA) is -5.1 in the red zone, according to Sports Info Solutions. That’s, umm, bad. For comparison, the top nine teams last season were all above 10 for EPA.

One way to “win” in the red zone is rushing the ball, since teams generally sit in a two-high defense or in man coverage. But the Cardinals haven’t been great at that either: seven attempts for 14 yards, and most of those are on two carries. That’s not surprising, because their offensive line isn’t very good.

What is surprising, and what is actually the red zone fix, is the lack of creativity by Kingsbury in his offense. Creativity is essential in this area of the field due to the shortage of space and the zone coverages. So if you run basic route concepts that the defense is well aware of, they will eat them up.

The offense must attack the middle of the field, where there’s more space than throwing toward the sidelines. Wide receiver screens aren’t as successful, unless it’s man or zero coverage, because the defense doesn’t have to run as far. Teams can achieve some of the creativity via formations and motions. They can scheme up open wide receivers with close and bunch formations. Or, they can go empty with running backs and tight ends on linebackers.

The Cardinals have done almost none of this. They’ve stayed in static formations spread out across the field. There has been almost no motion and ZERO attacking the middle of the field. The air raid offense in nature attacks the field outside of the numbers, but it seems to have taken ahold of the Cardinals in the red zone. Focusing on outside of the numbers often hits down the field — deep outs, corners, and go routes take yards and time, which you don’t have in the red zone.

The Cardinals have attempted to hit routes outside the numbers, including slants, and the defense is all over it.

However, there is some hope for the Cardinals

The Cardinals’ two best plays in the red zone this season have been creative. The first was their game-tying touchdown against the Lions in Week 1. They did a shift and then a motion and a touchdown. Hurray!

OK, great work, Cardinals. After that excellent offensive showcase, they went back to the boring stuff and did almost nothing again. The game ended in a tie.

Then the next week against the Ravens, they used a play-action pass. And guess what, it worked! A 19-yard gain and down to the 1-yard line.

That set up a David Johnson rushing touchdown on first-and-goal. So, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Cardinals’ red zone offense. They just need to run more of those plays.

They are a new offense and are attempting to figure it out, but this is an area where Kingsbury has to improve if the Cardinals’ offense is going to succeed. It’s time to get a little more inventive, Kliff!