Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cardinal Creativity

At last, a chance to sit down and look at the Cardinals offense from last week against the Eagles. There's two plays in particular that interest me, mainly because of the way the Cardinals involved players coming from the running back position into the passing game. Just keep in mind that I come at this from the perspective of being a huge fan of Bill Walsh and having long been obsessed with watching old 49ers games to learn more about how Walsh got the tight end and the running backs involved in the passing game, so if I sound overly enthusiastic and pleased about throwing the ball to running backs, now you know why.

The first play is a pass that came on 4th and 2 with just 3:10 left in the game. The Cardinals are driving down the field for what would eventually be the winning touchdown. Naturally they have four wide receivers on the field, but the Eagles defense play this look in a weird way. As you'll see in the diagram below they have their usual "wide nine" (nine technique) aligned defensive ends, but they also have five down defensive linemen and go man to man in coverage.

Normally at this point in the game when defending a lead, teams will try and use a much softer coverage, with plenty of deep defenders and usually a reduced pass rush in favour of strong underneath coverage, the idea being to force the offense to execute perfectly all the way down the field. The Eagles went the pressure route though and it cost them badly on this play. Let's take a look at the set up;

The Cardinals had just sent Larry Fitzgerald in motion to the right which is why you have that stack of two receivers on the right hand side. LaRod Stephens Howling is in the backfield. Judging the best I can from the camera angles he appears to "cheat" outside just a little, lining up a little wider than a back normally would in the shotgun. Obviously the defense is expecting pass so such an alignment isn't telling them a whole lot they don't know, that it does kind of hint at a pass route over staying in to pass protect.

What the Cardinals are going to do that is quite interesting (to me at least) is to have the wide receiver to the left run across the middle of the field, thereby drawing the corner (in man coverage) across with him and also focusing the attention of the safety to the middle, which is then going to allow Stephens-Howling to get out of the backfield and run clean up the left side. Something else happens here as well which I would normally moan to the high hills about, but I'll let it go because the Cardinals suck and they need all the help they can get; the receiver clearly sticks out an arm to obstruct and delay the linebacker who is locked in man to man on the running back. It's a fairly blatant 'pick play', but as I've said (re; moaned) many times before, the league seems totally disinterested in such blatant pass interference against defenders.

(For those interested in the specific rule; "Actions that constitute offensive pass interference include but are not limited to; a) Blocking downfield by an offensive player prior to the ball being touched," and contrary to the insistence of the hosts on the NFL Network's "Playbook" show there is no such thing as a "legal pick" or a "natural rub". There is however, obstructing/blocking/impeding/"significantly hindering" the progress of an eligible player to deny him the legal opportunity to catch the ball.

I'm an offensive guy really...)

Now don't forget the time situation here - it's the fourth quarter and there's only a little over three minutes left to play, with the ball on the Cardinals 32. They've still got 66 yards to go to reach the end zone and if they can stop the clock by getting the ball carrier out of bounds then that's a huge bonus. Here's a look at the pass routes used;

As you can see the receiver on the left comes off the ball quite shallow, aiming just above the linebacker M who he picks before crossing the field and running another "Mesh" type pick play with Larry Fitzgerald coming back underneath. The safety got pulled away to the middle by the post route and the drag, and only reacts to the running back once the ball is in the air. The pick on the linebacker gives Stephens-Howling just enough of an advantage in the run for the sideline, allowing John Skelton to drop it in over the linebackers head. Stephens-Howling gets to the Eagles 38 for a pick up of 30 yards before he was pushed out of bounds by the safety, keeping the drive alive and stopping the clock in the process.

Just as important as the pass routes though was the protection, which for once in a Cardinals game wasn't that bad. The line adjusted to the over hanging defenders well and kept the pocket perfectly clean for Skelton. Proof that miracles do happen occasionally...

The second play is the touchdown that ended the drive, putting the Cardinals up 21-17, a lead which they would hold onto to win the game;

This time the Eagles stick to just the four down linemen and appear to be planting their flag on the goal line, putting four guys across in a zone look, with three underneath defenders. At the snap those three underneath guys (B, B and S) all drop back and form a three man wall along the middle of the goal line, covering at least the width of the offensive tackles, with the other four deep defenders spreading out a little to make what is effectively a seven man picket fence defending the end zone. The only problem for the Eagles is that their's is the flimsiest picket fence in the history of picket fences.

Now originally the Cardinals had started with a bunch to the left, but they motioned Early Doucet out of that bunch and into the backfield where he lines up to the left of the quarterback. At the snap Larry Fitzgerald, who was at the top of the bunch, just runs up and out a little, running a simple hooking pattern. The receiver next to him delays his route for a second and then runs behind Fitzgerald and up into the end zone.

The main effect all this has is to clear out space in the defense for Doucet running a little short swing pattern out of the backfield. The only person who comes close to making a play is the free safety who got his attention diverted by the crossing receivers before trying to come down and make the tackle. Unfortunately tackling seems to be something that the Eagles don't do particularly well, as was the case here.

Doucet celebrated his score with a bit of 'Tebowing'.

But what was great about the play was how once again the Cardinals used their receivers almost as a diversion to create space underneath for the easy completion which got them the score. With a young and inexperienced quarterback like John Skelton, plays like this make it so much easier for the offense to consistently keep the chains moving and to help the quarterback avoid making critical mistakes at critical times.

When you go back and watch the 49ers offense of the early to mid eighties with Joe Montana at quarterback you see much the same thing; lots of effort made to clear out deep defenders in order to create space underneath for the tight end and running backs. When you compare and contrast this to the approach that Denver is taking to their passing game, it makes for quite an eye opening experience.

I'm just a big fan of passes like this, that cleverly combine the routes to manipulate and distract the defense, while forcing what I would call a true "spread" of the defense, by combining short, intermediate and deep passes all into one play to stretch the defense vertically, while also using formations to make the defense spread out horizontally. It's a great design and a credit to the Cardinals coaches. Whether they can keep that up against San Francisco is up for debate!

Tomorrow = picks for week 11.

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