When the Arizona Cardinals lost defensive coordinator Ray Horton to the Cleveland Browns in January 2013, it was thought that the team's defense would take a while to recover -- especially when it was announced that former Philadelphia Eagles secondary coach and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles would serve as his replacement. Horton left the team because he was angry that Bruce Arians replaced Ken Whisenhunt as the team's head coach, and Horton had a reasonable belief that he deserved serious consideration. The ex-Steelers defensive assistant had raised Arizona's defensive profile in a major way in just two years -- from 25th in Football Outsiders' DVOA metrics in 2012, to 20th in his first season of 2011, to sixth in 2012. Horton made his name on the creative blitzes and disguised coverage he learned from Dick Lebeau in Pittsburgh, and it worked like a charm.
Bowles was less successful. He was seen to be responsible for many of the coverage disasters during the regrettable era in which Andy Reid made Juan Castillo his defensive coordinator, and when Castillo was summarily dismissed in October 2012, the pass defense actually got worse with Bowles as his replacement. You couldn't blame Cardinals fans for feeling that new general manager Steve Keim had let a gem walk out the door, replacing him with a far inferior option.
Safe to say, those same fans are undoubtedly singing Bowles' praises now. Freed from the constraints of Philly's misfit secondary and given much more talent to work with, Bowles has added to Horton's concepts with some very effective ideas of his own, and the results have been singularly impressive -- the Cards have ranked either first or second overall in FO's Defensive DVOA metrics in each of the last three weeks, and that defense is the main reason Arizona currently stands at 7-4.
And it didn't take long for the players to buy in to what Bowles was selling. Horton used more two-gap schemes, which tasked linemen with holding blockers while second- and third-level players shot through the holes. Defensive linemen Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell immediately preferred Bowles' more attacking style.
“It’s like a million pounds off your shoulders,” Dockett, a 10-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowler, said in May. “Personally, I had nothing against Ray. But I hated that scheme. I really hated it. I played it because I needed to. But this defense is based on guys and what their ability allows them to be good at. What they were drafted for.”
Dockett had five total sacks in his two years under Horton, as opposed to 12 in the two seasons before. Through 11 games in 2013, he has 4.5.
“Darnell and myself, I feel like we have the ability to make a lot of different plays, but sometimes in the 3-4 you have to put the team in front of yourself," Campbell added. "This defense, the way we are doing things, it gives us a chance to make a difference.”
There are actually different kinds of 3-4 or 5-2 looks -- the old Houston Oilers variant, which has been forwarded by teams such as the Steelers through the years, does feature more of the head-up alignment for its linemen. But there are other strains of the concept that have gained popularity -- Wade Phillips has long espoused schemes in which 3-4 personnel are in one-gap alignments, and Pete Carroll has added a few wrinkles in his own hybrid defenses. What Bowles does up front is as multiple and aggressive as you'll see from any NFL team -- but somehow, the Cardinals are also able to keep things solid at the linebacker and secondary levels. As Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup told me this week, it's because Bowles has perfectly married scheme and personnel.
"You have to start with the fact that they have some very good players," Cosell said. "I know that's clichéd, but they've got certain things that you need to have a good defense, if you're just looking at talent. They've got a big-time, man-on-man cornerback in Patrick Peterson, which is critical in today's NFL. They have two defensive linemen in Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell who are really good players. Since Daryl Washington has been back [from his four-game suspension to open the season], they have two inside linebackers in Washington and Karlos Dansby who are both very athletic. Dansby's long and athletic, and he's playing very well. So, if you just look at the parts needed to have a good defense, they've got those kinds of players. Now, you could argue that they don't have a pure pass-rusher, but this is where Bowles comes in. This team blitzes more than any team in the NFL, and they blitz more on first down than any team in the NFL, and they're creative with their pressures. They're also very good with disguise."
Cosell knows Bowles fairly well from their Philly days, and while he's always respected Horton's defensive concepts, he puts forth the proposition that what Arizona is doing now is even more interesting.
"I would argue that Bowles is even more creative with his pressures than Horton. Because Horton, while he was very good, he was out of that Dick LeBeau/Dom Capers school. Not that it's not creative, but there are certain blitz concepts that all those guys use. Bowles is great with triple A-gap pressure, and that's almost impossible to pick up."
Arizona's defense has been fairly nightmarish for opposing offenses throughout most of the season, but the team's performance against the Colts in a 40-11 thrashing last Sunday deserves special mention. Andrew Luck was held to 163 yards on 39 passing attempts, and he didn't convert a third down until the third quarter, when Indianapolis was already down 27-3. Because Arizona's offense put the Colts on their heels and desperate to try and answer points with point, the Cards didn't run any triple A-gap blitzes in this game, where three defenders fly in between the guards, creating a matchup disadvantage. But Bowles did dial up some very creative pressures, and Luck had no answer for any of them.
With 5:02 left in the third quarter and the Cards up 34-3, the Colts had the ball on 3rd-and-12 at their own 25-yard line. Bowles countered Luck's two-back shotgun look with two down linemen and a whole lot of moving parts. By directing his front defenders to avoid picking a specific spot pre-snap, Bowles was able to limit the Colts' line calls and create additional confusion in Luck's mind. On this play, Dockett had his hand down straight over center, and Campbell was down to the defensive right. Around those guideposts, linebackers John Abraham (55), Dansby (56), Jasper Brinkley (52), and Washington (58) are the ones moving around, with Tyrann Mathieu (32, far right below) giving a potential blitz look outside Campbell.
What made this such an effective defensive play was the combination of pressure and coverage. The Colts had to keep their backs in to counter the pass rush Arizona had been sending throughout the game, which left Luck with two receivers outside, and tight end Coby Fleener in the left slot. At the snap, the pressure forced Luck up in the pocket, and Mathieu followed Fleener on his up-and-out. When Luck was ready to pull the trigger, he saw his three downfield targets blanketed perfectly. Few plays better illustrate why this defense works so well: from front to back, everything's covered.
Blitzes don't tell the whole story with Arizona's linebackers, though. Washington and Dansby are tremendously versatile, and you'll see each of them play as many roles as could be expected from their positions on a play-to-play basis. From inside run fits to outside blitzes to zone coverage and disguised looks, Washington and Dansby can do it all. And with all the talk about the line, I think they're the fulcrum of this defense -- they're why it works.
With 8:07 left in the first half, the Colts had 2nd-and-10 at their own 20-yard line. They went three-wide with Fleener inline to the right side. Arizona went with a nickel defense that featured Mathieu in the slot against speedster T.Y. Hilton. The play ended with Dansby jumping a throw to Fleener and returning the interception 22 yards for a touchdown. It's interesting to see how this defense set up, because the Cardinals had a base front (no blitz) and the linebackers in coverage were the stars of the show.
Peterson and fellow cornerback Jerraud Powers had the outside receivers on lock (it should be said -- the Colts really miss Reggie Wayne), and Mathieu was trailing Hilton in a crossing route. Running back Trent Richardson ran a quick route to the right from up the middle, but Washington and safety Yeremiah Bell were all over that. Luck's eventual decision was to throw to Fleener on the cross the other way. Dansby had that read, and it was a poor decision by Luck, based almost entirely on pressure from the Cardinals' front.
Campbell was playing three-tech in the nickel front, and he took guard Mike McGlynn out of the picture. As is often the case. Dockett forced a double-team from the other side, and this is another little wrinkle about Bowles' defense -- he'll run one-gap and two-gap in the same play. Bill Belichick also loves to do this. Abraham and Marcus Bernard (59) each got pressure from the outside, and Campbell just demolished his side to force a really bad throw from Luck ... who would have been better off taking the sack.
Luck is already headed to the turf when he makes the throw, he's looking for the obvious bail route, and everybody knew it was Fleener. Especially Dansby.
One jumped route later, Dansby had his touchdown, the Cardinals had a 23-3 lead, and the game was effectively over.
Keim, who's going to get a lot of General Manager of the Year votes once the 2013 season is over, is more than pleased about the calculated risk he took in hiring Bowles. As he should be.
"One thing I want to do is give a lot of credit to Todd Bowles, because if you think about last year and the way our defensive football team played, a lot of credit went to Ray Horton -- and I know our fan base, in particular, was obviously pretty disappointed to lose Ray, and Ray's a good coach, I don't want to take anything away from him," Keim said earlier this month. "But hiring Todd Bowles, there was obviously a bulls-eye on his chest the minute he walked in the door and we lost some defensive personnel and replaced them with some younger guys. Todd has really stepped up to the plate and done a fantastic job for us, I really do want to give a lot of credit to Todd and his staff ... schematically, what he's been able to do and the pressure he's been able to put on opposing quarterbacks has been fantastic."
No doubt about that. The Cardinals will head to Philadelphia this week to face Bowles' old team, and Eagles head coach Chip Kelly is more than aware of the challenge his offense will face.
"Yeah, well, there's a lot more besides them, and those two are really, really good," Kelly said Tuesday, when asked about Dockett and Campbell. "They [the Cardinals] have got a lot of experience, a lot of guys that have played a lot of years on the defensive side of the ball. Besides those two you've got [John] Abraham and [Matt] Shaughnessy, Dan Williams, also, [Alameda] Ta'amu is another big guy in there when they're playing their base package. I think Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby at linebacker are two outstanding players that are playing at a really high level. And then one of the best corners in the league, Patrick Peterson. Tyrann Mathieu is a great addition out back. It's a formidable defense, and they're playing really, really well right now."
The Cardinals finish up with games against St. Louis, at Tennessee, at Seattle, and home against the 49ers. They've got a legitimate shot at a wild-card spot, knowing full well that they'll go as far as their defense can take them. In the Cardinals' case, that's less a statement of hope, and more a threat for upcoming opponents.