Hightower gains in Cardinals' backfield

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The emergence of running back J.J. Arrington, running back Tim Hightower and receiver Steve Breaston is giving the Cardinals additional options for how they use their personnel on offense.

The chart shows how frequently Arizona has used elements of their personnel over the last three games.

The lopsided nature of the Jets game skewed the percentages in favor of putting four wide receivers on the field at the same time. Even so, the Cardinals used four receivers less frequently against the Cowboys than I might have expected, only 16.7 percent of snaps (not counting kneel-downs and spikes). They used two backs and two receivers quite a bit more, sometimes putting Arrington and Hightower on the field together.

Edgerrin James finished with only nine touches, all carries on first or second down. Hightower had 11 touches (seven rushes, four receptions).

Hightower started getting more of the touches on early downs. This included four first-down carries and two first-down receptions. The rookie also had one catch and one carry on second down. His third-down plays consisted of two successful rushes on third-and-1, plus the 17-yard gain on the third-and-17 screen play. Hightower carried only once on first down against the Bills in Week 5.

CHART NOTE: Personnel differs from formations; a tight end counts as a tight end for my purposes even when he lines up wide, for example. This is an important distinction. Defenses set their personnel based on what they see in the offensive huddle, not what they see at the snap.

I asked coach Ken Whisenhunt about dividing touches among the running backs, and about personnel use in general. His answers run in full below:

Running backs care a great deal about their touches. How much does that factor into the team's approach?

We have a number of packages where we are specifically desinged for different backs. We're essentially controlling carries or controlling receptions by that way even though I don't think you can control your number. I think a lot of it is your feel for how we're doing offensively, what's working for us and what matches which runner's style. If we're going to be in a 3- or 4-wide-receiver set, then J.J. might be a little bit more involved. If we're in a power run scheme, then it's going to be Edge and it's going to be Tim Hightower and it may be the style of run that we're using is going to be geared toward one of the backs. And then there's a point, too, where Edge is
getting a number of carries and there have been a couple times where he has made tough runs where we immediately put Tim in because we have great confidence in him because of what he has shown. If one back gets hot and he's making a lot of carries, then you stay with him until he gets worn down a little bit. But other than that, we're mixing them up pretty good.

What does the team's use of three- and four-receiver groupings, even when leading, say about the team's approach?

I think it's versatility. We spread the field when I was in Pittsburgh in games when we were ahead because I think it's a part of your package. The hardest thing I feel for defenses to do is to adjust to multiple personnel groups. And if the four-wide-receiver set from a spread formation is part of your package, defenses have to work on that. That may take away some of their preparation for our two-back offense. That may take away some of their preparation for our three-wide-receiver offense. If we can give them as many different formations and personnel groups as we can, it makes us harder to stop. And that's what the whole thinking behind that is. I think Kurt [Warner], first of all, is very comfortable with that. He does a great job of managing it and understanding the protections. Our line has gotten much better at protecting in that spread set. And that's a function of it. And part of that is because last year we had to run it so many times when we were behind. I think we're better equipped to do that now and that is why it's part of what we are doing.