Arizona is better, but not nearly enough to rise to the top of the NFC West
The Cardinals, at 10-6 last season, were the NFL’s best team to not make the playoffs. Naturally, they’d be a trendy pick going into this season. Unfortunately, they play in the NFC West, one of the most loaded divisions we’ve seen since realignment in 2002.
To make the postseason, Bruce Arians’s club must be even better than it was a year ago. How can that happen?
First, let’s examine what the Cardinals were in 2013. They were coached well on both sides of the ball in terms of schematic design and week-to-week game-planning. Offensively, Arians did a great job manufacturing production from a very average collection of players. He used a variety of formations, including a lot of “tight split” and bunch concepts for his receivers, which created advantageous angles by providing more space off the line of scrimmage and giving routes more room to unfold downfield.
Arians also turned superstar wideout Larry Fitzgerald into his Z receiver, making him more of a movable chess piece, much like he did with Hines Ward in Pittsburgh and Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis. A lot of the time, this made Fitzgerald a possession type target or a decoy. Fitzgerald drew many double teams, which is why long-striding X receiver Michael Floyd had a career year, leading the team with 1,041 yards receiving. (Fitzgerald had 954.)
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Tight end Rob Housler was not overly impressive statistically, racking up 454 yards, but he was flexed often and developed a nice niche as a screen catcher. Arians is eager to build on those concepts moving forward, though perhaps with a more talented prospect. The Cards drafted Troy Niklas in the second round. Niklas will compete with veteran pickup John Carlson for playing time in the base two tight end sets.
Arians’s passing attack put a lot on quarterback Carson Palmer’s plate. Palmer was asked to be a sharp, decisive field-reader who could fling balls to the deep-intermediate levels, which are often the toughest throws. Never lacking trust in his arm, Palmer was aggressive and had results both good and bad.
Arians almost always asked Palmer to play from the pocket. Given Arizona’s porous offensive line, it was often a collapsing pocket. Palmer has the toughness to throw under duress, but he lacks the polished footwork to consistently persevere. One thing the 12th-year veteran did not like about Arians’s scheme was its frequent employment of 3 x 2 empty sets. According to Football Outsiders, the Cards went with this formation a league-high 16 percent of the time, often on third down. In an empty set, a quarterback has only the minimum five blockers. That meant one-on-one protection assignments for offensive tackles Bradley Sowell and Eric Winston, neither of whom were equipped for that. There were too many plays where Palmer got crushed or didn’t have a chance to compete.
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If Arians ran 3 x 2 with a bad O-line last year, it’s reasonable to assume he’ll run it again this year. At least it will be behind an improved group. Sowell has been moved from the left side to the right to compete with Bobbie Massie and make room for free-agent left tackle Jared Veldheer. The long-armed ex-Raider is not a stud, but he’ll be a much-needed steadying presence. At left guard, 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper is set to see his first action after missing all of last season with a broken fibula.
Cooper provides a boost in raw talent, which hopefully can compensate for center Lyle Sendlein, who sometimes struggles in a phone booth. Next to Sendlein and inside of Sowell will be 28-year-old Paul Fanaika, who has been trustworthier than last year’s fourth-round pick, Earl Watford.
Arians won’t always burden his linemen in pass protection; he does understand the value of chip-blocking, which can easily be set up in a system that likes to align its eligible receivers close to the formation. That said, Arians might have more inspiration for 3 x 2 empties this year because Andre Ellington will be playing more snaps at running back. Besides having the explosive lateral agility and all-around quickness and control to be a dominant rusher, the 2013 sixth-round pick can also flourish in the passing game. Ellington is a polished enough receiver to beat not just linebackers and safeties but also some cornerbacks from the slot or even from a wide (“plus split”) position. If Ellington maintains his current rate of development, he’ll be a top five back by the end of this year. He’ll draw a lot of favorable matchups shifting out of the backfield and into a 3 x 2.
With the rest of the wide receiving group back—save for slot man Andre Roberts, who is now in Washington and will be replaced by third-round rookie John Brown—the Cardinals have enough weapons to post big numbers in Arians’s system. But do they have the quarterback? Even when he’s protected, Palmer comes with highs and lows. His arm strength is not quite what it was, but it’s certainly still enough. The problem is he’ll occasionally believe in it too much and throw into coverage. What the Cardinals really have in Palmer is a veritable middle-tier NFL quarterback. At least that will provide a great telltale on whether Arians’s scheme is truly special.
Cardinals’ defenders must also be a step better given this group’s offseason losses. Last year, coordinator Todd Bowles thrived using interior blitzes, featuring Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby. But now Washington is suspended for at least this season and possibly more (substance abuse punishment for this year, and discipline for a domestic assault guilty plea possibly on the horizon) and Dansby is cashing bigger, well-earned checks in Cleveland.
Now at inside linebacker are Kevin Minter and Larry Foote. Minter, being a second-round pick last year, is the more dynamic talent. But Foote, having 12 years of NFL experience—many of them in Pittsburgh, where he was a great setup man in Dick LeBeau’s similar 3-4 blitz designs—is the more important piece. His firm grasp on the concepts will be counted on to help create opportunities for others. For depth here, Cardinals GM Steve Keim also signed ex-Packer Desmond Bishop, who has experience as a 3-4 blitzing inside linebacker.
Bowles’s interior blitzes will remain significant because, aside from John Abraham, this defense doesn’t have viable outside pass rushers. And Abraham, at 36, may have to be helped more by the scheme, even though he was very good off the weak side edge last season, posting 11.5 sacks over his final 10 games. Abraham was not supposed to be a featured contributor, but then Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander were both lost with season-ending injuries in Week 3. That also helped propel steady but far from outstanding Matt Shaughnessy into a fulltime role. Shaughnessy returns on the strong side, where he’s a solid run defender.
Many expected the Cardinals to draft an edge-rusher this offseason. Keim, however, presumably feels that a major investment in that expensive position is unnecessary for a defense that manufactures pressure through blitzes. Plus, the saving grace for Arizona’s pass rush is that, unlike most 3-4 fronts, it gets penetration from both of its defensive ends. Eleventh-year pro Darnell Dockett has tremendous strength, tenacity and hand quickness, making it tough to sustain blocks against him. Seventh-year pro Calais Campbell has freakish length mixed with equally notable power and dexterous movement in traffic. Bowles wisely utilizes both players on various stunts and gap-attacking concepts. On early downs, he’ll squeeze both inside, aligning them over the guards, shoulder-to-shoulder with nose tackle Dan Williams, creating a “Bear front” that’s nearly impossible to run against.
Bowles and his staff this season may want to incorporate more zone coverage in their scheme. But the reason they didn’t do that last year is the same reason they probably won’t do it this year. Their types of blitzes and safety rotations are best executed with press-man coverage on the outside. Plus, in Patrick Peterson, they have a corner who is the most gifted man-to-man shadow in the league but very average in zone. Peterson can play man with no help whatsoever (i.e. Cover 0) but no defender can play zone without help.
Additionally, needing an upgrade over Jerraud Powers opposite Peterson, the Cardinals signed Antonio to a one-year, $3.25 million deal. The lanky ninth-year pro is another gifted man-to-man defender with little aptitude in zone. Zone requires reaction skills based largely on a football IQ; man requires reaction skills based on athletic instincts. Cromartie is equipped to play man.
It would be fun, though, seeing Tyrann Mathieu play zone. Mathieu is expected to be close enough to full strength at some point this season after tearing his ACL and LCL last December. He has extraordinary short-area redirection and quickness, and even more extraordinary football instincts. He was able to learn a host of positions last season, most prominently free safety in the base 3-4 and slot corner in nickel. He’ll assume those duties again this season, likely replacing Rashad Johnson in the base. At strong safety, heady veteran Yeremiah Bell is gone. In his place is first-round rookie Deone Bucannon. The Washington State product is touted for his speed and size, a potentially lethal combination when paired with Mathieu, which Bowles will take advantage of.
Jay Feely is trustworthy under pressure, though he did have six missed field goals on 36 attempts last season, and from a variety of ranges. Dave Zastudil ranked a ho-hum tied for 12th in net punting average, but his 35 punts inside the 20 tied Kansas City’s Dustin Colquitt for the league lead. Patrick Peterson can be explosive in punt returns, though he did not ignite last season, averaging just six yards per with a long of 22. This year, Ted Ginn Jr. will likely assume all return duties, though rookie receiver John Brown could warrant opportunities on kickoffs.
The Cardinals are better this season, but not drastically enough. They seem destined for another third-place finish in the NFC West.