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Cowboys scouting report: Breaking down the Cardinals offensive scheme

The Cardinals lack both talent and experience, but does their scheme help at all?

New York Giants v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Following the end of the 2022 season, the Cardinals underwent an organizational facelift. Their general manager, who had been with the team for 24 years, stepped down while head coach Kliff Kingsbury, with just one winning record in four seasons, was fired. The Cardinals had limped to a 4-13 finish that saw quarterback Kyler Murray tear his ACL in Week 14.

In came rookie general manager Monti Ossenfort and rookie head coach Jonathan Gannon, two young minds tasked with turning around an organization with just one winning season in the last seven years, and doing so without their franchise quarterback. Joining them is offensive coordinator Drew Petzing. Only Kellen Moore, now with the Chargers, is a younger offensive play-caller, but Petzing is in his first season calling plays for an offense while Moore is in his fifth.

Petzing came over from the Browns, where he was the quarterbacks coach in 2022 after coaching tight ends the previous two seasons. Prior to that, Petzing had spent six years with the Vikings working alongside Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, as well as Gannon. From a scheme standpoint, Petzing is very similar to Stefanski, who himself runs a variation of the Shanahan style of offense that is taking the league by storm. Nathaniel Hackett and the Jets run their own variant of this offense as well, but Stefanski and now Petzing are a little different.

The structural bones of the Shanahan offense is a West Coast offense that heavily emphasizes the outside zone running scheme. While that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be run-heavy, many of the designs and concepts are built off the outside zone run, which makes the play-action game even harder to defend because it’s nearly impossible for defenses to know when it’s a run or a play-action pass. At least in theory, of course.

Stefanski has created a variant that relies much more on running the ball than some of his colleagues. That partially comes from his time spent in Minnesota under a head coach in Mike Zimmer who demanded a ground-and-pound offense, and it also has to do with Stefanski having rather unstable quarterbacks since arriving in Cleveland. Either way, Stefanski crafted one of the most efficient rushing attacks in the NFL in his now-four years with the Browns, ranking in the top 10 in both rushing attempts and yards per carry every year.

Petzing has been by Stefanski’s side for all of it, going back to their days in Minnesota. Now, he’s being tasked with recreating that in Arizona with very little talent to work with. The early results have been mixed. The Cardinals are currently 10th in yards per carry, but they rank 17th in rushing DVOA and 26th in EPA/rush, with a whopping 28% of their runs getting stuffed. Running back James Conner, their bellcow, has performed admirably behind an inconsistent offensive line but ultimately been unable to sustain drives.

Josh Dobbs has played well within the scheme as well, completing almost 69% of his passes for 360 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers. However, he’s rarely taken chances downfield, with 60% of his passes traveling less than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. That’s resulted in Dobbs recording just one big-time throw and four turnover-worthy plays. Dobbs is playing conservative football, which is why the offense has the fourth-lowest success rate in football.

The Cardinals have yet to face a defense like the Cowboys, too. In Week 1, against a Commanders defense that currently ranks 10th in DVOA, they failed to score a touchdown. Kicker Matt Prater made three field goals, one from beyond 50 yards, and the defense scored a touchdown to keep things close. Last week against a much worse Giants defense (27th in DVOA) they scored three touchdowns but settled for a field goal or punt on their other seven drives.

Meanwhile, the Dallas defense has allowed just one touchdown through two games and it came on a one-play drive. In other words, this defense doesn’t give up touchdowns and they rarely give up field goals. They lead the league in just about every advanced statistic, whether it’s against the pass or run. And they just shut down the rushing attack for the Jets, who operate their run schemes in a very, very similar manner to the Cardinals.

The things that Petzing wants to do in the run game are nearly identical to what the Cowboys just saw with the Jets, and many of the passing concepts are similar too. Dobbs is a different type of quarterback from Wilson, and may be mobile enough to avoid this fierce pass rush one or two times. But this is akin to racing a brand new, right-off-the-lot Corvette with a 2010 Honda Accord that you’ve been working on restoring for the last few months.

The Cardinals have performed better than expected through the first two weeks, but they appear ill-equipped to handle a defense with as much firepower as the Cowboys currently possess. Add in the seeming likelihood that Donovan Wilson returns from injury this week and the odds get even slimmer for Petzing to find success in his third outing as an offensive coordinator.

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