This is a good team that underachieved in 2016, and with an aging roster there is a little sense of urgency: The window for the Arizona Cardinals may be starting to close. Bad pass protection, a failure to win close games (2-5-1 in games decided by one score), and terrible special teams play were all factors in their 7-8-1 record last season.
The good news is that this is a veteran coaching staff with proven schemes. The Cardinals still have quality playmakers on all three levels. Let’s look at both sides of the ball from film study with a play that illustrates what we can expect in 2017.
This is an elite attack in both the run and pass. It is one of the most balanced offenses in the NFL. It is also one of the “smartest” schemes, with a lot of flexibility and moving parts that make it tough to defend. The Cardinals’ ability to make “in-game” adjustments puts a lot of pressure on the defense to match it. The passing game continues to be explosive and consistent but the emergence of the run game (David Johnson) makes this offense a complete unit. It is a fun scheme to look at on film because of its variety of plays, creativity, and multiple playmakers.
Get the ball to Fitz
In the twilight of his career, Larry Fitzgerald has become an excellent slot receiver. The Cards love him to attack the middle of the defense. Here he is in the slot left, and not only does the corner line up in an outside shade technique, but he also gives him a free release, which allows him a lot of room to work inside. The linebacker lined up versus the left side of the offense is forced to cover the running back on a little outlet route, and a play fake holds the backside LB, who is late on his drop. The backside safety comes on a delay blitz… and that leaves a lot of uncovered space inside. Carson Palmer makes an easy throw for a solid gain in the middle of the defense. Nothing flashy, but it is effective!
This is really a fun defense to watch. The Cardinals can change their fronts, they can play every coverage scheme you can imagine, and they are constantly moving to confuse the offense… and they really play fast! If there is an area they could improve, it is their upfront pass rush, although the Cardinals do a good job of applying pressure from their multiple sub-packages and liberal blitzes. They do have two elite outside linebacker pass rushers. You can tell that these guys like to play in this defense.
This is another example of how the Cardinals’ defense “baits” the offense into thinking it has a play.
We see a three-defensive lineman, two-linebacker, six-defensive back alignment (no fly zone). On the snap it looks like they are dropping into zone coverage (no blitz and a four-man rush and a cover 4 look). The QB sees the right corner is really deep in his drop and there is a lot of room to work underneath. With two receivers, one tight end, and one running back on the left, the offense is really attacking the right side of the defense.
The inside left WR runs a crossing route and the offense assumes that the safety (Tyrann Mathieu) will go inside with him. That leaves the offense with an easy out route by the wide left WR (versus that deep corner). However, Mathieu hands off the inside WR to a corner and jumps the out route for a huge interception and touchdown. It is a terrific play because he covers so much ground and his read and break on the ball are superb — the QB never anticipated that he would be there!
5 additional summer film evaluations
- Passing game philosophy is a real dilemma — Bruce Arians has never met a vertical pass he doesn’t like. Carson Palmer still has a big arm and some receivers with great speed who can go vertical, but a downfield passing game requires a mediocre offensive line to hold those blocks for seven-step drops. That leads to a lot of hits for an aging QB. Arians may be forced to change his approach with a lot more short passes and dump-offs designed for yards after the catch to protect his QB and O-line.
- The “no fly zone” needs to return — Injuries and inconsistent play caused this secondary take a step back in 2016. Even though they play a lot of sub packages to match up versus spread offenses, the Cardinals don’t have the depth and elite man coverage we are used to seeing. They like to think that their safeties and corners are interchangeable, which helps their versatility, but they must avoid communication breakdowns when they blitz — we saw that too often in 2016.
- How quickly will a retooled defense gel? — The Cardinals lost five starters in free agency, including super defensive end Calais Campbell and three key DBs. They didn’t do a lot in free agency so they will have to depend on backups and rookies to step in and produce. They use a variety of personnel groupings to confuse the offense, but will they be forced to dial back their aggressive blitzes if they struggle early?
- What should we expect from this O-line? — Injuries really hurt this unit a year ago, and even though the Cardinals return four of five starters in 2017, there is still a lot of change they must adjust to. D.J. Humphries moves from right to left tackle. Jared Veldheer will move from left to right tackle. Left guard Mike Iupati and center A.Q. Shipley are adequate, and the right guard position is up for grabs. Some changes exist for a group that is not elite and allowed Palmer to be sacked 40 times a year ago. There is work to do.
- Feed RB David Johnson — He is an elite player who keeps getting better every year because of a dazzling skill set and a terrific work ethic. Because the Cardinals run a lot out of 10 personnel (1 RB, 4 WR), he faces a lot of spread sub-package defenses. That is a huge recipe for Johnson’s success. He is also an excellent outlet receiver and he often motions to an empty look, where a linebacker just can’t cover him. The challenge for Arians is to not overwork him, thereby keeping him as fresh as possible.
- Early 53-man roster projection for the Cardinals
- Palmer believes Arizona ready to rebound from disappointing 2016
- Carson Palmer is the Arizona player with most to prove in 2017
- David Johnson among the best at creating plays