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Thursday, October 9, 2008
Closer look at Cardinals' offense


Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

 
 Chris McGrath/Getty Images
 Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner is making smart decisions and avoiding mistakes.

The Cardinals used three or more wide receivers on nearly 70 percent of offensive plays against the Bills despite leading the game most of the way. They gave significant snaps to running back J.J. Arrington after putting him on the inactive list previously. I expect Arrington to remain part of the offense after breaking down the Cardinals' production when he was in the game.

I liked the Cardinals' approach to offense against Buffalo. They threw 42 passes without completing one longer than 18 yards. They averaged only 7.6 yards per completed pass -- Kurt Warner has averaged more per attempt throughout his career -- but the Cardinals also allowed no sacks. The tradeoff makes sense as long as Warner continues to make the right decisions and the team continues to convert short-yardage rushing situations.

Putting extra receivers on the field forces a quarterback to make more complicated decisions. Defenses react by putting more defensive backs on the field. The more defensive backs on the field, the more options a defense has in coverage. The more options in coverage, the more important a quarterback's decision making becomes.

The 49ers learned this the hard way when J.T. O'Sullivan threw into coverage with four receivers on the field during a critical second-and-2 play against the Patriots. Rodney Harrison picked off the pass for New England, a pivotal play in the game.

Warner has the experience to avoid those types of basic errors. He also has the receivers to make it work against most teams. Even without Anquan Boldin, the Cardinals can produce favorable matchups by putting three and four receivers on the field together.

This Excel file features sheets breaking down the Cardinals' offensive personnel use against the Bills.

Edgerrin James averaged 1.6 yards per carry on five first-down rushes with two receivers on the field. These are base runs. He had a 15-yard run on first down from a rare split-back formation with three receivers. His remaining six first-down carries averaged 0.6 yards. Five of these were with three receivers and a tight end. A sixth was with four receivers. Arrington and Hightower each had only one first-down carry.

Hightower converted all three third-down rushing attempts. He had gains of 17 and 6 yards on third-and-1, plus a 7-yard gain on third-and-6. He had runs of 3 and 1 yards on second-and-10. He scored on second-and-goal from the 2 and he had a 1-yard run on second-and-7. His lone first-down carry gained 5 yards on first-and-goal from the 7.

Arrington gained zero yards on his lone first-down carry. He had gains of 5 and 8 yards on second-and-10. Arrington rushed for 14 yards on third-and-9. The Bills stopped him for no gain on a third-and-2 run. He gained 13 yards on a screen pass on third-and-13.

James still got 21 carries, but the production wasn't great. Expect Arrington and Hightower to continue getting touches because both are producing.