As we transition into the NFC West section of our newest series, “The Breakdown,” we take a look at the Arizona Cardinals schematic philosophy. Quarterback Carson Palmer guided the Cardinals to the NFC Championship Game in 2015, but took a dip the following year and now looks to rebound. A reliable, efficient defense is back and potentially better than they were in both 2015 and 2016 with the addition of draft picks Haason Reddick (first round) and Budda Baker (second round). Let’s take a look at what they do on both sides of the ball.
The Breakdown: A Look at the Arizona Cardinals Schematic Philosophy
Getting Weapons Down the Field
After utilizing empty sets in 2015, the Cardinals diminished offensive line play forced to stray from the personnel grouping. They utilized multiple formations this past season with 68 percent of snaps featuring three or four-receiver sets to capitalize on their skill players’ abilities.
When the line struggles, however, those empty looks get gashed by blitz packages that allow one-on-opportunities or even a free-rusher if the defense brings six. This issue is only exacerbated when you combine the downfield passing game employed by the Cardinals that naturally takes an extended period of time for the routes to unfold.
Head coach Bruce Arians has proven to be a master play-designer who can incorporates concepts that are adept at beating multiple coverages and attack the intermediate to deep levels. Where Arians’ success as a designer truly show their colors are the deep crossers and stack-releases that attack vacated zones down the field and sufficiently defeat man coverage off the line. With a variety of different formations, Arians can out-leverage the defense simply by alignment and allow his receivers to enter their routes with increased efficiency.
Drafting running back David Johnson in the third round of the 2015 draft has proven to be beneficial in the passing game. Johnson is a viable pass-catcher out of the backfield who can also split out wide. The former is perhaps the most valuable aspect of Johnson’s skills as a receiver, allowing the Cardinals to release five options into routes without having to align in empty and surrender the run boxes they draw from keeping him in the backfield. Johnson is unquestionably one of the top running backs in the game, and establishing a dominant ground game helps further the development of an equal play-action offense.
Versatility and Pressure
There may not be another defense across the league with the level of athleticism found on the Cardinals depth chart. Deone Bucannon was a collegiate safety who’s moved closer to the line as the team’s SAM linebacker. Tyrann Mathieu, listed as a free safety, has shifted around as a defensive back along the perimeter and in the slot. 2016 first-rounder Robert Nkemdiche can handle duties as a 3 and 5-Tech.
To further build on such a unit, Reddick and Baker are uber-athletic defenders who can move around and handle responsibilities in space. The former spent time in both a two and three-point stance when rushing the passer, while dropping into coverage to cover tight ends and running backs in space. As for Baker, he’s expected to be a second version of Mathieu as a defensive back who can handle slot and free safety duties.
Possessing personnel like such on the defensive side is vital to the success of a unit’s blitz packages. When defenders can shuffle around and align from multiple spots, it’s incredibly difficult for an offense to decipher exactly where the pressure points are. Hybrid players further unlocks the level of flexibility a unit can operate with and prevent mismatches.
These are important in defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s pattern-match scheme that asks his secondary to play man-to-man until receivers cross another in which the defensive backs will pass off responsibilities. Such a defensive operates out of single-high looks (Cover 1 or 3) that puts stress on the defensive backfield, so talented is required in the back-end.
Stumbling to a 7-8-1 record in 2016 just a year after finishing 13-3 was quite the disappoint despite finishing second in the division. The Seattle Seahawks are still the team to beat int he West, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see the Cardinals make a run to dethrone last season’s top dog.