When the Cardinals face the Eagles Sunday, it will be a game matching two of the top three NFL teams that often throw caution to the wind and try for a first down on fourth down.
The Cardinals have 16 fourth-quarter attempts in four games, making 10, while the Eagles are third at 7-for-11. In between is the Lions at 8-for-12.
And while Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury glibly said Friday, “By necessity us. I don’t know about them. We’ve been down every single game,” that ignores the fact that Kingsbury’s history has been to be bold on fourth down even in his own territory.
Those top three teams account for 21.9 percent of the 178 fourth-down tries league-wide this season and the top six (the Jets, Chargers and Jaguars with nine each) are 37.1 percent of the total.
Still, the obvious trend over the last five seasons has been a significant spike throughout the league.
Made Att. Pct. Att. Per game
2015 233 476 48.9 1.86
2016 246 479 51.9 1.87
2017 223 485 46.0 1.89
2018 300 539 55.7 2.11
2019 285 595 47.9 2.32
2020 362 658 55.0 2.57
2021 421 793 53.1 2.92
2022 96 178 53.4 2.78
Of course, those number include all fourth-down tries.
Football Outsiders (footballoutsioders.com) has an Aggressiveness Index that “excludesobvious catch-up situations: third quarter, trailing by 15 or more points; fourth quarter, trailing by nine or more points; and in the last five minutes of the game, trailing by any amount. It also excludes the last 10 seconds of the first half, and it adjusts for when a play doesn’t actually record as fourth-and-short because of one of those bogus delay of game penalties that moves the punter back five yards. Only the regular season is included.”
Not surprisingly, the number of attempts has doubled since 2015.
2015 211 0.82
2016 233 0.91
2017 215 0.84
2018 272 1.06
2019 307 1.20
2020 386 1.51
2021 450 1.65
2022 112 1.75
Most notably, 86 of the 450 attempts last season (19.1 percent) prior to the fourth quarter were from a team’s own territory. In 2015, there were 33. This season, there have been 20 (17.8 percent) of the 112 aggressive attempts.
Asked about the change in recent years, Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph parroted Football Outsiders when he said, “The trend is people are being more aggressive. It’s a league of scoring points and I think a fourth-and-1 call, even when you’re high red zone; it’s a no-brainer. Everyone’s going for it because if you don’t make it, it’s a long field for the offense. But teams are going for it at midfield. We had one last week in minus territory. It’s important to score points, so the fourth-and-1, fourth-and-2; teams are taking more chances now.
“That was a no-no years ago, but now it’s a go. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong. It’s numbers and numbers don’t play football. I think you have to be smart with those things and it’s good sometimes and not good sometimes, but it’s definitely hard on defenses because having a fourth-and-1 call or fourth-and-2 call is tough. You have to be exact and perfect. It falls in the offense’s favor.”
Is there anything to the notion that teams with younger head coaches are going for it more than others?
Not according to Joseph.
“I won’t say that,” he answered. “I would say the trend has changed for all coaches in the last five years. It’s just the numbers. And it’s been proven that it works and it puts pressure on the defense. And, again, to get one yard, that’s fairly easy to do if you have a good play-caller. To get one yard, it’s easy to do. So it’s a good thing for offenses, bad thing for defenses.”
Last week against Jacksonville, the Eagles were 4-for-15 on third down and 3-for-5 on fourth down. Last season, they had 24 fourth-down attempts, so they’re almost halfway to that total in only four games. They converted 11. Coach Nick Sirianni linked that with the trust he has in quarterback Jalen Hurts.
“I trust our guys,” Sirianni asid this week. “Who do you trust? I trust Jalen to make the right decisions with the football. I trust Jalen if it’s a pass. I trust Jalen that if it’s a run that he creates an extra gap for the defense. I trust the heck out of our offensive line and I trust our guys on the perimeter to make a play with the football in their hands. I trust our defense if we don’t get it that they’re going to get a stop.
“That’s a big part of it. You heard the first guy I mentioned, right? I trust Jalen because he’s going to be touching the ball every single time.”
Meanwhile, after noting some of the necessity inherent in the Cardinals’ large total this season after having 29 with 17 successful in 2021, Kingsbury acknowledged the obvious.
“Traditionally, if you had a fourth down, you were punting,” he said. “With the emergence of analytics and things of that nature, people are trying to make informed decisions using those. If there’s a 70-percent chance to get it and if you get it, you have a better chance of winning, people are just trying to use that information in the best way they can.”
Kingsbury said there would be some roster gymnastics necessary with players being activated from reserve/injured. That will surely be the case ahead of Sunday’s game against the Eagles.
One surprising move Friday was the termination of tight end Maxx Williams’ contract, who hadn’t practiced Wednesday or Thursday because of a knee injury. Players can’t be released when injured, so this move might have been done via an agreement with Williams. It’s possible he could end up on the practice squad.
There was no corresponding roster made when Williams was released. The deadline for transactions prior to Sunday’s game is 1 pm Arizona time Saturday.
When first asked about the three players (wide receiver Antoine Wesley, quarterback Colt McCoy and cornerback Antonio Hamilton) designated for return from reserve/injured this week, Kingsbury said, “We’ll see. Ham’s done some stuff this week. Colt has too. But gotta get ‘em out there Sunday; run around.”
Notably, he didn’t mention Wesley and for good reason. Reports Friday morning indicated he was having an MRI because of a possible torn quad. When asked about Wesley, Kingsbury said, “He had a setback. We’re still kinda evaluating it. He won’t be going this week. We’ll see where that ends up.”
There might be a need to sign cornerback Jace Whittaker from the practice squad to the roster in the event Trayvon Mullen Jr. isn’t available. Mullen played his first 18 defensive snaps against Carolina, but then suffered a hamstring injury in practice Thursday and did not practice Friday. He is questionable and Kingsbury said, “We’ll see. Same deal. Game time.” Whittaker has already had the three free elevations from the practice squad to the roster. It’s unknown how comfortable coaches are with Hamilton playing significant snaps.
There is also only one elevation available because one will be needed for kicker Matt Ammendola with Matt Prater out.
There are also numerous questions on the offensive line with center Rodney Hudson doubtful, guard Justin Pugh and tackle D.J. Humphries questionable and guard Max Garcia out. Of Hudson, Kingsbury said, “Probably not going to make it this week.” His replacement would likely be Sean Harlow with rookie Lecitus Smith possibly being active as Harlow’s backup.
It might be necessary to have extra linemen available if Pugh, who is questionable, ends up playing but has issues as he did against the Panthers when he departed the game after playing only 13 snaps. Recently signed center-guard Billy Price is on the roster as is Josh Jones. On the practice squad are guards Danny Isidora and Koda Martin.
One elevation might also be needed for a wide receiver. A.J. Green had a full practice Friday and has no injury status. Rondale Moore was limited Friday after suffering a knee injury Thursday in practice. Asked if Moore will be available, Kingsbury said, “I hope so. He’s another one. We’ll get him out there and see how he feels. He did some stuff today so that was positive.”
Marquise Brown had a full practice Friday and has no injury status listed. “Hollywood I think will be ready to go,” Kingsbury said.
Let the gymnastics session begin.
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