The Arizona Cardinals present a number of challenging facets to prepare for if you're the Eagles' defense. Head coach Bruce Arians has always been known as a playcaller who likes to stretch defenses vertically, and he's got the personnel to do it. This offense is fully capable of beating you deep on any given play. In 2014, the team spent a mid-round pick on receiver John Brown from Pittsburg State. When you pair Brown (4.34 seconds in the 40-yard dash) with 2015 draft pick J.J. Nelson (4.28), along with the veteran presences of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd who know how to separate down the field, and you have a field-stretching passing attack.
Here's how Brown can beat you based just on his wheels. Eagles fans remember him from the game-winning touchdown he caught a year ago. Brown has developed his game more since that point, and has turned into a more complete receiver. The second-year player (who I watched in-person at the East-West Shrine Game, so keep that in mind when we are down in St. Petersburg, Florida this January) isn't just a deep-ball threat because he wins over the middle and in the intermediate areas of the field as well. Brown is a reliable piece of that offense.
Arizona utilizes a lot of different vertical concepts to attack defenses, using schemes from all around the tangled web that is pass-game tactics. This concept above is what is known as the "Pin" or "Mills" pass concept, a play-design made popular during Steve Spurrier's heyday with the "Fun n' Gun" offense. The basic principles include a deep post from the outside receiver, with a dig route from the No. 2 receiver. The idea is that the dig route will often attract the attention of safeties in the middle of the field, opening up space for the receiver to run over the top of the coverage. The play works to perfection here, as Fitzgerald's dig route pulls that safety out of the middle of the field, giving Carson Palmer the space he needs to deliver this pass right between the hashes for a big gain.
On this play to Fitzgerald, you see the three-level stretch, or "Flood" concept. We saw the Eagles use this multiple times last week against the Buffalo Bills, and it's effective because you really put stress on the coverage at all three levels of the defense. With the deep post taking the top off the defense and the flat route controlling the underneath defenders, this post-corner route from Fitzgerald runs him right into the void of the coverage for a first down.
Fitzgerald is the leading receiver on this football team. He's getting up there in years and isn't necessarily the dominant perimeter player he was in the past, but he's still extremely effective in all areas of the field. The Cardinals utilize him a ton out of the slot, and his ability to work the middle of the field without taking huge hits from defenders is pretty special.
Here, the Cardinals run a basic "Four Verticals" concept with Fitzgerald running the down the seam. You get to see an example of how, even when he's covered, Fitzgerald is still open. Quarterback Carson Palmer has a ton of trust in him, and his ability to out-body defenders at the catch point has helped make him as one of the most dangerous wideouts in the NFL at this stage of his career.
The vertical element isn't the only phase of the Cardinals' offense that the Eagles will have to prepare for on Sunday. They're a big screen team as well. Arizona has every screen play in the book at its disposal, and they do a good job of utilizing all of them to get the ball in their playmakers' hands quickly.
First, you see some "double screen" action as the Cardinals bring Brown in motion from right to left to get the defense flowing one way, only to bring rookie David Johnson back to the right on a base screen concept. Johnson was one of the most athletic players at his position at the Scouting Combine in February, and his movement skills really make him effective in the passing game.
Here against Pittsburgh, the Cardinals call a jailbreak screen for Fitzgerald, and the veteran makes the most of it on a huge play for a first down. Arizona excels at getting blockers out in front for their receivers in the screen game, and you can see that on full display on this rep against the Steelers.
A type of screen that has become increasingly popular over the last few seasons is what I like to call the "Dropback" screen. The offensive line and quarterback make it all look like a regular dropback pass, with all but one receiver turning into blockers down the field. Here, the Cardinals use it to get Brown the ball on the perimeter with a wall in front of him, resulting in a first down.
I wrote about packaged plays in this week's piece on the Eagles' offense after the win over the Bills, and the Cardinals are one of many other teams that use concepts like that. Here, Carson Palmer sees off-coverage on the outside against Floyd. Instead of handing the ball off on the called running play, he turns and throws a quick "Smoke" screen to Floyd, who makes the first man miss and gains a first down.
I mentioned earlier how Johnson's athleticism helps the Cardinals in the passing game, but it's not just in the screen game. The rookie can often be found running vertical routes, namely wheel routes, out of the backfield. When he's flying down the seam, matched up on linebackers, he's a mismatch. Palmer has been able to hit him on more than one occasion this year, including this touchdown against the Rams. Last year, as a senior at Northern Iowa, Johnson had over 200 receiving yards against the Iowa Hawkeyes in Week 1 of the college football season. He had a number of big gainers down the hash on routes that looked just like that one. This is a play the Eagles will have to be ready for on Sunday night. When you factor in the Arizona vertical passing attack with its screen game, it's a very tough offense to prepare for.
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.