The bye week has come and gone and on Sunday the Eagles welcome the Arizona Cardinals, who boast the toughest defense they’ve seen at Lincoln Financial Field since Week 3 against Kansas City. How the Eagles respond after two weeks of preparation will be one of the interesting storylines before, during and after the game is over.
Let’s take a look at this Cardinals team. Offensively, it all starts with their pass game and veteran quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer has his faults at this point in his career, as he often takes sacks he shouldn’t and is known to throw a couple balls to the other team. He is the reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Week, but he could’ve had three or four interceptions in the win over the Colts on Sunday. However, Palmer can really sling it if he is given time in the pocket. The offensive line has begun to settle in and provide their quarterback more time of late.
Palmer is really in sync with his receivers. On the outside, he’s got a plethora of targets in two former first-round picks (Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd), one of the most undervalued third receivers in the game in Andre Roberts and a dependable tight end in Rob Housler. They use both of their running backs, veteran Rashard Mendenhall and rookie Andre Ellington, out of the backfield as receivers as well (more on that later).
What head coach Bruce Arians is great at, however, is his ability to create favorable matchups with his skill players on linebackers and safeties in space. This is the biggest challenge for the Eagles defense this week. This offense doesn’t just place Fitzgerald and Floyd outside the numbers and say, “go play,” they move them around the formation with “minus splits” (inside the numbers on the field) to get them matched up against less-athletic linebackers and safeties, a mismatch for Palmer to exploit.
Let’s take a look at one example of how the Cardinals get their playmakers the ball in space. This is the “smash concept.”
It is first-and-10 late in the second quarter against Jacksonville, and the Cardinals come out with a tight bunch formation to the right. Here, you’ll see both Housler and Floyd set off the line of scrimmage. Floyd is the “No. 1” receiver farthest to the outside in the bunch. He runs a corner route. Housler is the “No. 3” receiver flanked on the inside of the bunch and he runs a curl route underneath. This is a common route combination that can attack a number of coverages, and typically puts cornerbacks in a bind, as we will see in the next shot.
Now we’re into the play. Palmer is at the top of his drop. Again, you’ll see Housler run the curl route, and Floyd run the corner over top of it. Let’s look at what this does to the Jaguars cornerback.
At this point, you can already see the battle is won. The cornerback was in a bind from the jump to play the corner route or play the curl. By this point, Floyd is already past him, and there’s a ton of space for Palmer to put the football. Floyd comes down with the ball for a 22-yard gain and an Arizona first down.
Let’s take another look at the “smash concept” from Arizona, as they run “double smash” here on this play on both sides of the field.
It’s first-and-10 and the Cardinals out in 11 personnel with three receivers, a tight end and a running back. We’ve got the “smash concept” to both sides, but that is not where Palmer will go with the football ...
The ball will actually be going to the running back, Ellington, on this play. Ellington is running a wheel route out of the backfield down the seam.
With all of the action outside the numbers, look at all the space for Ellington here on this play. He’s isolated one-on-one with middle linebacker Pat Angerer, a mismatch for the offense. This is what Arizona and Bruce Arians like to do, get their offensive skill players isolated on less athletic second-level defenders. This ball is not completed, but pass interference was called on Angerer. The end result is a 24-yard gain for the Cardinals.
The wheel route is something the Cardinals like to do to get their players down the field, and it’s something we’ll take a really close look at this weekend on “Eagles Game Plan.” Here’s another shot once again where they utilize Ellington out of the backfield on a wheel route.
Inside, tight end Jim Dray is running down the seam. Ellington will once again run a wheel route out of the backfield.
At the snap, the Lions are in man coverage. The outside cornerback is manned up on Dray, while the linebacker to that side is matched up on Ellington.
The construct of this play, however, prevents that linebacker from getting out to Ellington. Dray’s route serves as interference, and Ellington has a clean release to get down the field unimpeded. Ellington catches the ball in space and runs away with a 36-yard touchdown reception.
Here’s another play with a similar route combination, and an example of how the Cardinals get their best players the ball in space.
It’s third-and-7 against New Orleans, and Floyd is again lined up with a minus split inside the numbers. Floyd runs an in-breaking route, and Ellington runs a wheel route out of the backfield.
The Saints are playing Cover-3, and this combination will put the defensive back in a tough situation. Does he carry Floyd inside? Or does he stay at home and guard against the wheel? He does his job, stays in his third of the field, and Floyd runs into the middle of the field where he is matched up by a buzzing linebacker (No. 50, Curtis Lofton). Palmer puts the ball on target to Floyd for a 20-yard gain and a Cardinals first down.
Let’s take a look at another way the Cardinals use minus splits to manipulate defensive coverages.
It’s first-and-10 against Detroit, and the Cardinals come out in 11 Personnel. The Lions are playing “1 hole” coverage, with one safety deep, a linebacker playing as a “rat” player in the middle of the field and man coverage across the board. Notice, at the bottom of the screen, you see Larry Fitzgerald manned up on the Lions’ top cornerback Chris Houston.
The Cardinals bring Fitzgerald in motion, tighter to the formation. This forces the Lions to adjust their coverage.
The Lions brought two defensive backs closer to the line of scrimmage. They may have been expecting a run play with Fitzgerald lining up that tight to the formation. The Lions also changed responsibilities after Fitzgerald went in motion. Houston is no longer on Fitzgerald, as he now will cover the new “No. 1” receiver to the outside, Andre Roberts. Fitzgerald is manned up now on young cornerback Bill Bentley (No. 28). This is a much more favorable matchup, and it’s what the Cardinals wanted from the get-go.
Fitzgerald is running a deep corner route, and in this shot you can see he has the advantage over Bentley. The pass falls incomplete, but Fitzgerald draws a pass interference penalty that results in a 28-yard gain and a first down for the Cardinals.
Let’s take a look at another play the Cardinals go to at least once a game and have had a lot of success with - the tight end screen.
It’s first-and-10, and the Cardinals come out this time in 12 personnel with one running back, two tight ends and two receivers. Before the snap, Housler will motion from the right to the left side of the formation.
Arizona will come off the ball as if they are running “power” to the right, with the left guard pulling and the right side blocking down to create a hole.
This will not be a run play, however, as Palmer drops back to pass. Power run-action often times means a deep shot is coming down the field. With the Cardinals, however, this is actually a screen play, as Housler allows his rusher to come free after a three-count and prepares to catch the football.
Housler pulls in the pass from Palmer, and has two blocks out in front. The tight end screen is a staple of the Arizona passing game, and is a concept you can expect to see on Sunday afternoon.
A FAMILIAR FACE LEADS THE ARIZONA DEFENSE
Let’s shift gears to the defensive side of the ball. Arizona’s defense, led by former Eagles defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, is one of the most impressive units in the league and a fun group to watch on tape. They’re incredibly multiple, in that they come at you in a number of different fronts and subpackages. They play everyone on defense, and like to rotate and substitute as much as possible, which will make for a fun chess match against the up-tempo Eagles offensive attack.
In their base package, the Cardinals line up in a three-man front, with bookend defensive ends in Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett. Campbell and Dockett both line up everywhere along the line of scrimmage and are three-down players, giving Bowles the versatility to make a number of different calls with them on the field. Nose tackle Dan Williams typically is the starter, but second-year man Alameda Ta’amu (a personal favorite of mine during the draft process two years ago) has played a lot of football for them as well inside. Both nose tackles are big men who can dominate at the point of attack and make plays in pursuit as well.
Off the edges, John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy have been making plays all year long. Abraham, who has been in the league since before some of his younger teammates even started watching the NFL, has been a force as of late. Some questioned his ability to stand up at this point in his career and have an impact, but he has brought great energy to that defense and makes plays for them week in and week out. Inside, they have two linchpin inside linebackers in Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby. Dansby was another free agent signing from Miami, who has played absolutely lights out in his second stint with the team. Both players can run, cover, play between the tackles and rush the passer.
They have other edge players that they like to rotate in as well. A former third-round pick in Cincinnati, 2012 NFL Combine standout Dontay Moch has found a role as a subpackage pass rusher, coming in on passing downs standing up or with his hand on the ground and getting after the quarterback. The same can be said for another former Cincinnati Bengal, Frostee Rucker, who plays both inside and outside for the Cardinals in subpackages. Linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who started while Washington served a four-game suspension at the beginning of the year, gets a lot of reps as well and is a more than serviceable player inside.
In the secondary, you’ll almost always find Patrick Peterson and Jerraud Powers on the outside at cornerback. Peterson is one of the most versatile players in the NFL, and plays in all three phases of the game at a high level. Powers isn’t the most athletic corner, but he is incredibly physical, plays with great instincts and has a nose for the football. At safety, Bowles leans heavily on veteran Yeremiah Bell, who can play in the box as well as in the deep half (though he has struggled some in the latter at times this fall). The wildcard is Tyrann Mathieu, who is a starter at safety in their base package, but when the team sees three- and four-receiver sets will come down to play cornerback in the slot or on the outside. When Mathieu slides down, rookie safety Tony Jefferson from Oklahoma plays in his stead on the backend. The Cardinals also will utilize Javier Arenas and Antoine Cason as hybrid defenders in subpackages, with the ability to play as quasi-linebackers and outside on the perimeter at cornerback.
Let’s go to the tape to see some of the ways this defense likes to attack the quarterback.
It’s second-and-15, and the Cardinals have come out in one of their nickel subpackages. Linebacker Jasper Brinkley will stalk the line of scrimmage, working his way from gap to gap before the snap as if he is coming on a blitz.
The job that Brinkley does “sugaring” before the snap has caught the attention of Tampa Bay’s center. He will attempt to block Brinkley as if he is coming on the blitz. Brinkley will not be blitzing on this play, as he will instead be “buzzing” out in coverage as a zone player. Instead, the Cardinals will bring edge pressure in the form of (from left to right) Rucker, Abraham and Dansby. Dansby was lined up over the flexed tight end before the snap, and was never even considered a part of the pressure by Tampa Bay. The Bucs are blocking ghosts inside, and it’s three-on-two on the perimeter in favor of Arizona. Dansby comes clear and forces Mike Glennon to throw an incomplete pass to make it third-and-long.
Here’s another similar situation, where the Cardinals show pressure before the snap, and show something completely different afterwards.
It’s third-and-9 against the Carolina Panthers, and Arizona is showing a six-man pressure, with two down linemen, three linebackers and a defensive back all in the box pressing the line of scrimmage. At first glance, it appears to be man coverage on the outside with the pressure coming inside.
The amount of rushers was right, but the Panthers were wrong in terms of where the pressure was coming from. In the slot, you’ll see Mathieu lined up over the third receiver. This blitz is disguised incredibly well by Mathieu. He won’t be considered a part of the pressure by Carolina’s offensive line.
Let’s go to the end zone after the ball has been snapped. From left to right, Dockett is occupying three blockers. Inside, Daryl Washington is getting double teamed. Campbell has one blocker, Antoine Cason has another and Mathieu is coming free. Five blitzers, seven blockers, yet one man still gets free to the quarterback? The Cardinals make it happen, and Mathieu is able to come up with the sack on Cam Newton to force fourth down.
Let’s take a look at how consistent edge pressure from the Cardinals defense is affecting opponents in other ways.
It’s first-and-10, and Arizona will blitz the safety Bell off the edge (blue arrow). Before the snap, you’ll see Houston bring the tight end on that side in motion to the other side of the formation.
The Cardinals flip the play. This is something we’ve seen the Eagles do this season (here’s Chip Kelly breaking down this exact situation from Week One at the 4:30 mark).
The blitz will come from the other side, with Mathieu coming after the quarterback and Bell dropping back to the deep part of the field.
Flip it to the end zone to see what Houston does to protect against this, as Mathieu shows blitz off the edge. Somewhere along the way during the motion, the protection responsibilities were skewed. No one is blocking John Abraham!
The threat of edge pressure confused the offensive line on this play, and a breakdown ensued. The left tackle erased Mathieu from the play, but no one picked up Abraham who brings the quarterback down for the sack. These kinds of breakdowns happen if your offensive line is not prepared and detail-oriented on gameday for this type of defensive pressure scheme.
The Cardinals don’t just bring edge pressure, as they will attack the A gap (space between the center and guard) and B gap (space between guard and tackle) as well. Here, we see one of the most common double A gap blitzes around, the “Fire X.”
It’s third-and-4 against San Francisco. Washington and Dansby are right in the center’s face in their respective A gaps. On this play, Dansby on the left will serve as a penetrator here. He will get up the field and press the center out to create space for Washington to loop around and get to the quarterback. We’ve covered this blitz here in this space as it is one of the most common in the league and at every level of the game.
Dansby does his job, as there’s plenty of room for Washington to loop around him. The center is blocking no one on this play, so this becomes a two-on-one situation with both linebackers against a running back. Whomever isn’t picked up by the back should be able to go come up with a pressure on the passer.
The running back peels off of Dansby and moves to pick up Washington. It’s just Dansby one-on-one with Colin Kaepernick. The veteran pulls the quarterback down for the sack and a 7-yard loss. This was a great double A-gap pressure by the Cardinals.
The double A-gap blitz is common, but triple A-gap?? Not so much.
It’s third-and-long and before the snap the Cardinals are showing what looks to be at the very least a five-man (and possibly a six-man) pressure, with man-free coverage on the back end (one free safety and man coverage underneath). Bell is in the tight slot closest to the formation (on the hash mark at the 50-yard line) and is lined up over the slot and looks to be in man coverage.
However, he’s not in man coverage. Bell will actually be a part of this blitz by the Cardinals. Linebacker John Abraham will drop back into coverage in his place.
There are five Arizona blitzers (minus Bell). Dansby (No. 56) and Javier Arenas (No. 35) will be blitzing in the A gap, right up the middle. Bell will be right behind them.
Predicting a double A-gap blitz, this is picked up very well by the Bucs. The center will take care of Arenas. The running back will block Dansby. There’s no additional edge pressure. Glennon should have all the time in the world, right?
That will not be the case, as Bell becomes the third blitzer in the A-gap, and has a free shot at Mike Glennon (who was making his first start). Bell comes up with the sack and an 11-yard loss.
The Cardinals are a heavy man-coverage team. If they aren’t playing man, they’re playing some kind of matchup-zone concept on the back end (which has plenty of man principles). They have athletes and are comfortable with those athletes being able to make plays on the football on an island. This is the last play I wanted to show you, and only because it was an incredible play by one of their athletic defenders in space to make a huge defensive stop.
It’s third-and-3 in the fourth quarter against Carolina. The Panthers are threatening deep in Arizona territory. A touchdown here will put them in the lead. This is a crucial play at this stage of the game. The Panthers attempt to spread the Cardinals out, and Arizona responds by playing a version of what I refer to as “1-hole” coverage. You’ve got man coverage across the board, and a hole player underneath in Washington. He is in a spy-type mode here, and will read the quarterback from the snap of the ball and react.
The Panthers are hoping to get wide receiver Steve Smith open on a quick slant. On third-and-short, it’s a good playcall to pick up the first down and get three more shots at the end zone.
You can see what a masterful job Washington does at reading Newton’s eyes. He read this play from the jump.
Washington makes an unbelievable play on the football and comes down with a one-handed interception, returning it to midfield. Washington is an incredible talent, one of many on this Arizona defense.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen on 6abc Sundays at 11:30 AM. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the Head Video Coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices, and opponents ...