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The Zona Zone: Pre D-Hop is going on?

I'd be lying if I said that Cardinals have met expectations this year - at least in the eyes of the majority of people. In my pre-season outlook, I called out the lack of depth on the offensive line, edge rushing unit, and the cornerback positions, and to this point, those perceived shortcomings have been made apparent. Offensively, they have been incredibly lackluster and uninspired. Kliff's dry play calling and poor utilization of a diverse receiving core has tarnished the start of Kyler's season, and arguably, his career as well. In a way, the Cardinals have met the expectations I set for them this season, and it's been sickening to watch.

Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images


Offensive Struggles

Losing D-Hop for the first 6 games definitely didn't help, but the Cardinals have enough receivers with different skillsets to make up for his loss. Hollywood Brown has elite speed, Rondale Moore (when healthy) is an athletic freak, Greg Dortch is an underrated slot receiver, and AJ Green is serviceable when he wants to be. That goes without mentioning the much needed security blanket that Zach Ertz provides, and when he's used, Trey McBride has proven to be a solid Robin to Ertz's Batman.

So why have the Cardinals struggled? The stale, horizontal, questionable play calling and poor substitution and formation package frequency by Kliff. I'm gonna list each receiver and how they are currently being used with a mix of Pro Football Focus analysis and Next Gen Stats route trees (no photos since there's no season long display of routes).

Hollywood Brown: Marquise is an explosive and fast player. His size doesn't help him, but he makes up for that with his great ball tracking skills and athleticism. His most common routes where he made receptions are fades, short out routes, and mid in routes. He has ran a few crossing routes and hitches, along with screens and posts, but not nearly at the level that he should be. If he was given more opportunities for slants, posts, and comeback routes, Hollywood's game would go to the next level.

Rondale Moore: For the life of me, I can't figure out why Kliff insists on using Rondale as a gadget player. He has had more tunnel screens, bubbles, and jet sweep play designs on this team than any other player, and he didn't even play the first three weeks. We saw glimpses in Week 5 and 6 that if he is used as a deep route guy, especially on in breaking routes, he can toast any defensive back in the league.

Greg Dortch: I'm disgusted with the complete drop off in usage for Greg Dortch. Through the first three games, he ran 136 routes while being targeted 23 times. On those targets, he hauled in 20 receptions for 199 yards and 1 TD (on a 113-1127-6 pace over the course of a season). Since then, he has played a total of 33 offensive snaps, with only 6 in the past two weeks combined. It's a disservice to the threat he can be and how his dynamic playmaking can open up the offense.

Photo: Michael Owens/Getty Images

AJ Green: I know the Cardinals don't have a real big body threat until D-Hop returns, but AJ isn't the answer. He's a shell of what he used to be, and it shows on tape. In 5 games, he's been targeted 21 times and recorded 10 receptions for 56 yards. In comparison to Dortch, in the three games he saw a ton of volume, he generated a catch per route run rate (CPRR) of 14.7%. On the other hand, AJ has ran 164 routes, giving him a CPRR of 6.1%, which is less than half the rate of Greg's. He is a clear non factor in the offense, and even though using 3 receivers all listed at 5'9 or lower isn't ideal, it fits for the type of offense the Cardinals run.

Zach Ertz: In terms of big body receiving types, Ertz should have been the one to fit that mold. Ertz has played great, as he has hauled in 35 receptions on 49 targets and 245 routes ran, giving him a CPRR of 14.3%. On that volume, he's generated 299 yards and 2 TDs, and has done that from a mix of lining up on the line, in the slot, or out wide. He has been a great 2nd option for Kyler, and will continue to do so until Hollywood returns from injury.

Other than the clear issue in not utilizing receivers the right way, the offensive line has actually played well when fully healthy (currently ranked 12th in the league per PFF). The issue at hand is the prolonged injuries of Rodney Hudson and Justin Pugh, with the latter recently being ruled out for the remainder of the season. We'll monitor this moving forward, but it doesn't look good for the offensive line in the near future.

Defensive Struggles

There's a lot of ways I can go with this, but it seems to be the same issues as the offense - poor utilization of players, lack of depth in certain spots, and awful sub packages. We'll take a look at pass rush productivity, snaps played by key defenders, and how each player is used.

Pass Rush: Before Week 6, the Cardinals were dead last in the league in sacks and sack percentage at 6 and 3.3% respectively. In terms of pressure, on 206 pass rushing snaps, the Cardinals have a 30.6% pressure rate. This looks good at first, but if we compare that to a team like the Cowboys, who have a pressure rate of 59.2%, it's clear to see the Cardinals are extremely lacking in the pass rush department. Also, the fact that defensive tackle Zach Allen has more pressures than edge rushers JJ Watt, Markus Golden, and Dennis Gardeck is alarming. The one silver lining is that Cameron Thomas and Myjai Sanders were productive on their minimal opportunities in Week 6, as they had 5 and 6 pass rushes each respectively, resulting in 1 and 2 pressures and a sack each. Both of them need to play more, and this pass rush unit could do damage in the second half.

Player Utilization: The key player I want to bring up is Isaiah Simmons. He has been primarily used as a nickel defender, using his elite speed and massive frame to cover receivers and set the edge. I believe this is the best use for him in this defense, and he is currently being used just as frequently as an off-ball linebacker as well. If his snap percentage starts to lean more heavily towards nickel over linebacker, this defense should evolve. The problem, however, is when he is primarily used as a linebacker, he rarely sees playing time. In the 2 games he played as a linebacker more than a nickel, he played a total of 31 snaps over those games. Whenever he played in the slot more, he eclipsed more than 40 snaps per game. Outside of Isaiah, like I mentioned before, the young guns need to get more reps in the pass rush game. Myjai and Cam are too good to ride the bench behind underachievers in Markus and Dennis.

Photo: USA Today Sports Images


Final Notes:

I didn't mention Kyler's subpar play much as I believe it is a larger result of Kliff's bad play calling and failure to optimally use Kyler's abilities. With D-Hop back, the hope is this offense will surge, along with Kyler's play.

The Special Teams units have actually been great aside from Matt Ammendola and terrible front office management via Steve Keim. If things don't get better fast, expect both Kliff and Keim to be out of town before the end of the year, despite signing 6 year extensions each.


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