On Sunday, when the Arizona Cardinals host the Detroit Lions, the NFL world will finally get to see Kliff Kingsbury’s hotly anticipated offense — and the player hand-picked to run it, No. 1 overall draft pick Kyler Murray.
We didn’t see Murray and Kingsbury showcase much of the Air Raid offense in August — they obviously wanted to keep everything under wraps before the regular season — but that doesn’t mean we can’t piece together clues about what to expect.
In preparation for this article, I spoke to four college coaches who have coached against Kingsbury or Murray, as well as two NFL coaches who either played Kingsbury or were familiar with his system, and put together the following list of tips. These are things to know (and look for) if you are, say, running a defense trying to figure out how to stop the Kingsbury Cards — or if you’re just a football fan looking for insight on one of the most eagerly awaited reveals in recent NFL history.
But before I get to the details, I can tell you that the first-year head coach brings a high-volume philosophy to a unit in need of a turnaround. In 2018, the Cardinals averaged just 56.4 offensive plays per game (second-fewest in the NFL), according to Pro Football Focus. Kingsbury’s offenses at Texas Tech from 2014 through ’18 (his last five years at the school) averaged 80.8 offensive plays per game (second most in the FBS in that span). So we should expect Arizona’s offense to be on the field more often.
Here are 16 more things to know about Kingsbury, Murray and the Air Raid.
1) Kingsbury will aim to blow out opponents right away. Just weather the storm! Defensive coordinators can do that best by lining up quickly and simplifying their calls and substitutions. Don’t get too cute by trying to do too much. You’ll get into trouble early.
2) Murray will get the ball out quickly. With a pass-heavy scheme that routinely features four-receiver sets, it’ll be extremely tough to sack the rookie quarterback, who will be able to swiftly distribute the football due to the offense’s fast pace (not to mention, Murray’s quick release).
3) There will be an emphasis on short passes. The Cardinals‘ new offense should feature plenty of screens and crossing routes, so limiting yards after the catch will be key for opposing defenses. Kingsbury’s offenses at Texas Tech from 2014 through ’18 recorded 7.1 yards after the catch per reception — the fifth-highest figure in the FBS during that span. It’s important for defenses to keep the ball in front of them and tackle the catch.
4) Expect constant adjustments. Like most NFL coaches, Kingsbury will adjust his passing attack based on what his opponents aren’t defending well. In order to disrupt his game plan, defenses should change up their coverages from previous weeks, to give Kingsbury looks he hasn’t seen. Opponents must make the first-year NFL coach engage in a guessing game.
5) Kingsbury shies away from the run. Kingsbury’s Texas Tech offenses passed the ball on 63.8 percent of plays from 2014-18, so opponents should try to force the Cardinals coach out of his comfort zone and get him to run the ball by dropping eight defenders into coverage.
6) And when he does run, he’ll tend to replace rushes with gadget plays. Don’t expect a lot of running plays to go through the tackles. Instead, prepare to see plenty of screen passes and jet sweeps. The key here? Read them well and gang tackle!
7) Have a plan for run-pass options. When attempting to defend RPO plays, disguising your intentions is important in formations, player personnel and alignment. It’s even more important to not tip off blitzes or give any indication of who your “conflict player” is (the defender responsible for stopping the run or dropping into coverage on a pass play).
8) Use disguises in zone coverage. Don’t run straight Cover 3. If he reads a three-deep zone, Murray will make you pay by sending four receivers deep. Be cognizant of what Murray sees pre-snap and be ready to throw him a curveball when the play starts.
9) Play the plays, read the patterns. Kingsbury wants defenses to use true spot-drop zone, and he’ll eat you alive if he gets it. Instead, defenses need to be in pattern-match zone — meaning defenders play the man within their zone. Even further, defenders will have to adjust their coverage, depending on the offensive route concepts.
10) Limit explosive plays. Kingsbury’s group won’t hesitate to take shots deep, especially if the defense presses. We saw this in the preseason against the Vikings when Murray hit rookie KeeSean Johnson on a fade route.
11) The most important receiver in this offense is the slot receiver. Christian Kirk and Johnson look slated to man the slot. The defense must have a plan for them.
12) Be aware of Murray’s speed. He looks fast on tape, but he’s faster in person. Defenders must keep leverage on him and can’t let him get outside. Don’t get cute. Wrap him up!
13) Keep Murray inside the pocket. Edge rushers must concentrate on keeping the rookie quarterback from escaping the pocket and not worry about sacks. The New England Patriots did a good job of this against a mobile Patrick Mahomes in last year’s AFC title game, holding the league MVP, who ran 60 times for 272 yards in the regular season, to just two carries for 11 yards.
14) Rush the passer from the inside. Rushing up the middle should be the most effective tactic, because of Murray’s height (5-foot-10) and inherent lack of vision. Using simulated pressures gives you the best of both worlds, because defenses can rush four players and still have seven guys in coverage playing in different combinations. As I mentioned before, the ball generally comes out fast in this offensive scheme, so using a fifth defender in coverage is more valuable than blitzing him and using five-man pressures.
15) Designate a “spy” on Murray. If a defense rushes three players, the fourth person can serve as a spy. The spy MUST be athletic enough to stay with and tackle Murray.
16) Be physical. Murray does not like to be hit, and defenses can keep the diminutive Cardinals QB uncomfortable by routinely getting hands on him.
Follow Charley Casserly on Twitter @CharleyCasserly.