Since Bruce Arians took over as head coach out in the desert before the 2013 season, the Eagles have faced off against the Arizona Cardinals three times. The Eagles are 1-2 in those games, with the lone win taking place right here in Philadelphia. During that time span, the Cardinals have followed Arians' blueprint to become one of the most explosive offenses in the entire league.
He has a quarterback in Carson Palmer, who is getting up there in terms of age but can still make every throw in the book and is willing to push the ball downfield. He already had one of the best receivers in modern history in Larry Fitzgerald on the roster, and Arizona has acquired a ton of speed on offense since Arians' hire. This team wants to attack vertically, regardless of down, distance, or situation. The Eagles' defense has to be prepared for some kind of a downfield throw on each and every play.
Shot 1 - #Cardinals want to push the ball downfield and they're always looking to attack zone coverages. 2 plays beat Cover 3 & Cover 4 here pic.twitter.com/J2lspyv8Jd — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 5, 2017
The Cardinals push the ball downfield and Fitzgerald shows why he's still one of the best in the game. Palmer steps up in the pocket to deliver beautiful throws in tight quarters, attacking zone coverage.
That last note is an important one. The Cardinals have the speed to beat man coverage and run away from anyone. However, Arians designs and installs vertical shot plays that prey on the opponent's go-to zone coverages. He'll pull the trigger when he thinks you're in a situation to play that.
The 49ers are in Cover 3 on this play from the overtime game a week ago. The Cardinals expect it, and they run an outstanding Cover 3 beater - Four Verts. A defense can rarely cover four receivers if the spacing is right in Cover 3 with just three defenders deep downfield. Here, from a 3x1 set, the inside receiver occupies the safety, the outside receiver erases the corner, and Fitzgerald flies down the numbers and makes a leaping grab in the end zone to win the game.
The Cowboys are in Quarter-Quarter-Half coverage on the second play with Quarters (Cover 4) at the top of the screen, and Cover 2 (half-field coverage) at the bottom. It just so happens that the Cardinals are running a Quarters-beater on this play. Fitzgerald is in the slot again, and outside of him is wide receiver Jaron Brown, who runs a deep post. Both the corner and the safety follow Brown. Fitzgerald breaks outside, underneath the vacated cornerback. There's an underneath defender in the area, but Palmer pulls the trigger anyway/ Palmer trusts Fitzgerald to go up and win and he does just that. The Cardinals get an explosive play through the air to change field position. But this should be familiar to Eagles fans because we've seen this team three times in Arians' four years.
Shot 2 - #Eagles are 1-2 vs Arians w/ the #Cardinals. Every time he's found ways to attack downfield. That's what they'll aim to do this wk pic.twitter.com/Jh3MsS07m7 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 5, 2017
On John Brown's game-winning touchdown back in 2014, the Eagles were in Quarters coverage. Brown ran a route that destroys Quarters. By breaking inside on a double move, he got the safety to bite downhill which is the safety's responsibility. The cornerback doesn't get over the top, and Brown runs away to win the game at University of Phoenix Stadium. Arians and Palmer aired the ball out downfield in the two other games against the Eagles as well, and I expect them to try the same thing this week. With the amount of zone coverage the Eagles play, Arians will have shots dialed up against their schemes. It will be up to the secondary to stay disciplined in coverage, and also on the front four to get home against an offensive line that is struggling to protect Palmer. That will be the biggest key in this game.
When Arizona isn't trying to go deep, the Cardinals do a lot in the quick passing game to "steal" yards from opposing defenses. The wide receiver screen game is a big part of what they do and an extension of their run game. The biggest theme in the quick passing game, however, is the use of "stacks." A "stack" is when you have two receivers lined up right on top of each other, either one directly behind the other or slightly staggered. Whether it is with just two or three receivers (in a tight bunch formation), the Cardinals used these stacked looks to create interference for defenders and generate even more separation for their already quick, dynamic receiving corps.
Shot 3 - I've watched every snap of #Cardinals on O. If it's 3rd down and they stack WRs, the ball is going there! Communication will be key pic.twitter.com/ZaE3zVdibl — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 5, 2017
Offensive coaches refer to these plays as "rub routes," while defensive coaches may refer to them as "pick plays." Regardless, you can expect to see them plenty on Sunday, especially after the Chargers had some success with similar types of concepts against the Eagles' defense last week.
Furthermore, there's another noticeable trend on third down. If the Cardinals line up two receivers in a stack, you can almost guarantee that one of those receivers will be the intended target. It has happened consistently in clutch situations for this offense.
Shot 4 - #Cardinals don't just use stacks & rubs to get WRs open, they do it for their RBs as well. Ellington is a HUGE part of passing game pic.twitter.com/BB0axBDaUX — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 5, 2017
The Cardinals don't just do this with wide receivers. They love getting their running backs involved in the passing game as well. The Cardinals run a lot of plays out of an empty set. Andre Ellington is flexed out wide and runs a quick slant underneath the slot receiver for a first down. Keenan Allen caught a pass on the exact same route last week. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Arizona try something similar on Sunday.
Shot 5 - Ellington had 14 targets last week and is used in so many ways. Was cross-trained at WR. Backfield, slot, wide, he's moved around pic.twitter.com/njxbjcXvkf — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 5, 2017
The initial plan for Ellington this offseason was for him to see more reps as a slot receiver than as a running back. The quick, explosive, and elusive athlete is dynamic in space and a mismatch problem for any defense.
These are three examples of how Ellington is used in the passing game. Ellington will be a threat on Sunday whether it's with rub concepts out of the backfield, on Texas routes in the middle over the ball, or flexed out wide on vertical routes where he can compete against cornerbacks. Just as players like Chris Thompson (Washington Redskins), Theo Riddick (Detroit Lions), and Lance Dunbar (Dallas Cowboys) have done in the past to the Eagles, the defense needs to be very aware of Ellington's whereabouts and keep him under wraps.
Palmer remains at the center of this passing game. He is certainly in the twilight of his career but is still capable of playing at a high level. He has been largely under fire because of the struggles the Cardinals have had up front this season. That has resulted in some turnovers, but make no mistake, Carson Palmer is capable of beating any defense on any day.
One of the most technically sound passers in football, Palmer is constantly used as a good example by coaches for young quarterbacks as they're developing. In fact, my good buddy Ben Fennell remembered another quarterback named Carson learning a very specific technique from Jon Gruden that centered on Palmer's ability to protect the football.
Coincidentally, Wentz has been outstanding at using two hands to protect the football while navigating the pocket during his NFL career. It's just another example of how coachable the young quarterback is.
Shot 6 - Not just scheme in ARI because Carson Palmer is still a very good QB. Savvy in pocket, anticipation, touch. #Eagles must get to him pic.twitter.com/XYC1moRfjk — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 5, 2017
Palmer shows the ability to navigate the pocket with bodies around him, protect the football, and deliver a pass downfield for a first down. You also can see the anticipation and feel he has as a passer, getting the ball out quickly and hitting receivers in stride. The numbers may not be there, but as an Eagles fan, do NOT take Palmer lightly going into this game. The offensive line has not played well, but Palmer and this receiving corps are going to be tough to stop.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. 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.