Bruce Arians and the Cardinals New Air Attack

The offensive-minded Bruce Arians is now in Arizona. Can he help out their dreadful passing game?

The catch made by Santonio Holmes will forever be ingrained in the minds of football fans. Back right corner of the end zone, arms extended, Cardinals everywhere, toes lifting his 190-pound frame.


The Steelers and Cardinals aren’t rivals. There was a genuine respect shown by players on both teams before and after that matchup. You could argue that the two teams are more friendly than they are hostile, actually. There's a mutual respect. That’s probably because a lot of the coaches involved in that Super Bowl are tied to one another in some odd, direct way.

The Cardinals head coach in 2008 – the year of Super Bowl XLIII – was Ken Whisenhunt. Just prior to that job, Coach Whiz was the offensive coordinator for the Steelers. Interestingly enough, Whisenhunt was actually beat out by Mike Tomlin in 2007 to replace Bill Cowher as head coach in the Steel City. Tomlin coached the Steelers to that dramatic Super Bowl victory, beating Whisenhunt.

It only gets weirder, trust me. Not only was former Steelers offensive line coach, Russ Grimm, Ken Whisenhunt’s assistant in 2008, but Todd Haley was Whisenhunt’s offensive coordinator. Haley, in 2012, was hired on by the Steelers to replace Bruce Arians as their offensive coordinator.

And Arians, who managed the Steelers offense in Super Bowl XLIII against Whisenhunt, Haley and the Cardinals, is now the head coach for Arizona.

It’s like one giant dysfunctional family.

Arians is the second ex-Steeler offensive coordinator to snag the Cardinals head coaching gig in just seven years. Throughout his coaching career, he’s appeared to push his quarterback’s potential, and has always installed a passing attack that excited fantasy owners. Can that continue in Arizona?

Big Play Bruce Arians

In the past, Arians has stated that he hates the West Coast Offense. Rather than throwing shorter, more horizontal passes to open up the running game, Arians likes to stretch the field. He likes to go deep. And we saw that with Mike Wallace and T.Y. Hilton, his two speedy wideouts in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. In their four combined NFL seasons under Arians, the pass catchers have ranked 1st, 2nd, 15th and 5th amongst receivers in average yards per catch.

But with any vertical passing game, quarterbacks need time in the pocket to deliver. That’s certainly been a problem in Arians’ offenses. Below is a chart showing team ranks in sacks while Arians was coach (Note: his three seasons in Cleveland are not part of this research.)

TeamYearSacks AllowedRanking

It's not good to be ranked high in the sacks allowed category, folks. In 2006, the season before Arians took hold of the Steelers offense, the Steelers ranked 5th in the NFL in team sacks allowed, making the 2007 ranking not nearly as horrifying. But last season, the first without Arians since 2006, the Steelers fell back and ranked 15th in Todd Haley’s more conservative scheme. Furthermore, in 2011, the Colts ranked 20th in sacks allowed, showing a lack of improvement the following season with Arians. Yikes.

This is all to say that we should probably expect quarterback pressure and sacks when Arians is making offensive decisions. That'll happen naturally when you take time to get the ball downfield, as Arians enjoys doing. Over the last six seasons, he’s never called plays for a team that has allowed fewer than 44 sacks, and although the offensive lines in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis may not have been tops in the league, the quarterbacks within said offenses certainly had the ability to escape. Say what you want about Ben Roethlisberger holding on to the ball too long: He can also avoid pressure.

From a passing standpoint, Arians' offense seems to be misinterpreted by many. Yes, he certainly loves to throw the deep ball, but this doesn’t equate to more pass attempts for his quarterbacks. In fact, if you take a look at the table below, you see that Arians' offenses have been anything but pass-heavy ones:

TeamYearPassing PlaysPass:Run Ratio Rank

Though the Colts ranked fourth in pass plays last season, they ranked 11th in terms of pass-to-run ratio. Quite simply, they ran a lot of plays. But with the Steelers, Arians never ranked higher than 13th in terms of passing versus running plays. Really, we shouldn't assume his pass attack equates to more passes, because it doesn’t. It just means bigger potential plays. As long as the quarterback can escape the pressure, of course.

Offensive Efficiency

So it’s balanced and vertical. Is it efficient?

TeamYearAdj. Rush NEP/Play RankAdj. Pass NEP/Play Rank

If you're unaware, the adjusted net expected points numbers above take matchup and efficiencies into consideration. Total yardage, in the end, isn't the best way to determine which offenses were good and which ones weren't. The rankings show how effective both areas of the offense were towards the team's season point total.

Looking at this data, it's a bit ironic that Arians' best season, 2011, resulted in him being let go. But nevertheless, Arians cracked the top 5 in either category just once, and typically has had better passing than rushing efficiency. If you’ve watched one of his offenses, it’s not all that surprising. The lack of polished running could, however, shed light to the fact that some of the sacks mentioned above are due to poor offensive line play, not just scheme.

If you break down the efficiencies by player and position, you begin to get an even better picture of the passing offense, and one that’s more relevant to fantasy football owners:

Quarterback Play

PlayerYearPass NEP/AttemptPass NEP/Attempt Rank
Ben Roethlisberger2007.206th
Ben Roethlisberger2008.0519th
Ben Roethlisberger2009.1610th
Ben Roethlisberger2010.214th
Ben Roethlisberger2011.2110th
Andrew Luck2012.0516th

With Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck, Arians has produced two top-10 passing net expected points per attempt seasons. Man, that's a mouthful. Basically, this metric tells us how many points a quarterback was providing for their team on a per attempt basis, making it more useful than simple data. In this case, the minimum attempts needed to qualify for a ranking is 200.

Ben Roethlisberger’s 2010 season ranked best, finishing fourth in the entire NFL in efficiency. And in Big Ben’s first year with Arians making the calls, he finished 6th. Those are the only two years, however, where Bruce Arians has ever coached a single-digit ranked quarterback. And remember, we’re talking about Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck. This isn’t Blaine Gabbert.

This expected points data, among other metrics, is more predictive for future performance than looking purely at raw numbers. Rather than taking the time and analyzing yardage, touchdowns and averages, expected points information looks deeper at opponents and play-by-play situations within a game. Typically, a high expected point value (again, other factors are important here too) correlates nicely to fantasy success. That's why you've rarely seen Ben Roethlisberger as the best quarterback in terms of fantasy points per game, but he's always been a usable commodity.

Wide Receiver Play

The quarterback efficiencies have been a little above average, appearing lower than what we may expect under Arians, but what about the guys catching their passes? Here’s a look at the top receivers on each of Bruce Arians' teams since 2007:

PlayerYearRecYardsTDsYards/RecRec NEP/Target Rank
Hines Ward200771732710.343rd
Santonio Holmes200752942818.11st
Hines Ward2008811,043712.915th
Santonio Holmes200855821514.944th
Hines Ward2009951,167612.346th
Santonio Holmes2009791,248515.816th
Mike Wallace2010601,2571021.01st
Hines Ward201059755512.831st
Mike Wallace2011721,193816.69th
Antonio Brown2011691,108216.122nd
Reggie Wayne20121061,355512.860th
T.Y. Hilton201250861717.27th

While the third receivers on some of Arians’ squads have been relevant, there’s a clear formula here. Arians likes to use a speedster to get downfield, as shown by one receiver typically having a high yards per catch average, while a possession receiver sees a high volume of targets. Hines Ward and Reggie Wayne are perfect examples of that latter type.

But take notice to the efficiencies from the players who took on the deep threat role. They’re high. Really high. And moreover (probably more relevant to fantasy owners) these receivers were usually the ones scoring touchdowns. We saw that last year with T.Y. Hilton, and previous seasons in Pittsburgh with Mike Wallace.

What This Means For the Cardinals Passing Attack

Arians has been criticized in the past for not shifting offensive style for personnel. Rather, he uses his philosophies and attaches it to the personnel he’s given. You can roughly see how that's the case with the similar metrics above.

So is that a good thing or a bad thing for Arizona in 2013?

The Offensive Line is Key

As noted, Arians’ offenses allow a lot of sacks. They’ve never given up fewer than 44 in a season since 2007, and good pass protection is needed in order to get the ball downfield. Like I've said, Bruce loves getting the ball deep behind coverage.

Unfortunately, he’s not moving into a situation where quarterbacks are sheltered. The Cardinals allowed the most sacks in the league in 2012, as their passers fell to the ground an absurd 57 times. You can blame poor and immobile quarterback play for that, but here’s the realism of the situation for 2013: New quarterback Carson Palmer isn’t mobile, either.

There’s no Houdini-like quarterback to cover up poor offensive line play in Arizona this season, and that could spell disaster for Arians’ offense. Although the Colts and Steelers never had a top-tier unit, they did have top-notch passers in terms of escapability. In order to be successful, the Cardinals, first and foremost, need to get their line straightened out. That's assuming Arians continues with his offensive mindset, of course.

The Cardinals did add pieces to help, but they’ll need to make a pretty big jump to bail out Arians. If he doesn’t shift his thinking to be at least a little more West Coast-oriented, it could be a disaster.

Carson Palmer Isn’t Big Ben or Andrew Luck

Though Carson Palmer saw efficiency-related success during his early years as a Bengal, he’s been an average quarterback since. Over the last four seasons, Palmer has ranked 16th, 19th, 13th and 17th among 200-plus attempt passers in terms of passing net expected points per play. Remember, Roethlisberger and Luck have averaged to hover around the 10 to 12 rank.

Palmer will certainly be an improvement over some of the league's worst passers the Cardinals used last season, but let’s not go overboard. Given the way Roethlisberger – and even Luck – performed in Arians' offense, I don’t think we should expect Palmer to get close to top-10 quarterback production. After all, Ben Roethlisberger only ranked higher than 10th twice. Somewhere in the 15 to 20 range is more realistic.

And remember, Arians’ offenses are vertical, but not pass-happy. They’re balanced. We currently have Palmer projected to throw 597 passes, which seems accurate given the poor running game in Arizona. With those passes, Palmer should throw for around 3,900 yards and 21 scores. That seems more than reasonable for an ordinary quarterback in Arians’ system. In the end, Palmer should be a low-end QB2 with weekly upside in your fantasy league.

Larry Fitzgerald Shouldn’t Be Viewed as a Top Fantasy Receiver

Alas, the thing that everyone wants to know: Can Bruce Arians bring Larry Fitzgerald back to fantasy stardom?

Our very own Alex Hampl already broke down why Fitz shouldn’t be viewed as a top-tier wideout, and the Arians evidence above seems to agree.

Look, I love Larry Fitzgerald. Not only is he a Hall of Fame talent, but he also went to my alma mater (Go Pitt!). I just don’t see him living up to his third-round average draft position, especially considering the position’s overall ability (Fitzgerald's competition).

I expect him to take on the security blanket role that Hines Ward and Reggie Wayne had under Arians. Fitz will, without a doubt, be one of the highest-targeted receivers in the NFL next season. He just won’t be one of the best in terms of efficiency, as we saw with Ward and Wayne. The Colts stud wasn’t as effective as his numbers indicated last season on a per target basis, and neither was Hines Ward under Arians. They were fantasy relevant because of volume, sure, but their lack of scoring pushed them to non-elite tiers. Is Fitzgerald better? Of course. But that doesn't always translate to fantasy success.

And keep in mind that both Ward and Wayne had better quarterbacks, offensive lines and running games for support. Fitz is a better receiver, but that shouldn’t automatically outweigh the other factors that are vital for Fitzgerald's success.

I wouldn’t mind owning Larry Fitzgerald, but not at his current cost. We have him listed to catch 95 balls for 1,129 yards and around nine touchdowns, which places him as our 15th-best receiver. In PPR leagues, Fitz has a little more upside, but is still just a low-end WR1.

The allure is there. Trust me, I know. But in fantasy football, we often over-exaggerate potential. Someone like Larry Fitzgerald will always have a high ceiling, but his coach and play caller isn't going to be the sole reason why. Remember that as you enter the draft room this season.