As you watch football week to week, you see new things crop up and wonder if they are trends or simply the result of teams playing the game with different lineup combinations. Necessity was the mother of invention in Arizona this year, with defensive coordinator Todd Bowles drawing up a new style of play because he had no other choice. The different usage of his marauding safeties has played a big role in the Cardinals’ 3-0 start.
It especially was evident Sunday, in the 23-14 victory over the 49ers.
The best coaches find ways to win when they’re at a personnel disadvantage. That’s what Bowles has done in the first three weeks of the season, when he’s been forced to find solutions with a different cast than he fielded last year as a first-year Cardinal defensive play-caller. Both three-down linebackers were lost—Daryl Washington to a season-long drug suspension and Karlos Dansby in free agency to Cleveland. This summer, two more defensive playmakers disappeared—tackle and team leader Darnell Dockett to an ACL tear and pass rusher John Abraham to IR with a concussion.
So Bowles decided, particularly in nickel situations, to play safeties near the line, and to play safeties pretty much everywhere. It’s not unusual to see four safeties on the field for the Cardinals, and they have four good ones: starters Tony Jefferson and Tyrann Mathieu, and quasi-starters Deone Bucannon and Rashad Johnson. That’s how they’re listed on the depth chart, but on Sunday, Johnson was the starter at free safety and played all 64 snaps, and Bucannon, the rookie first-round pick, played a hybrid role that had him playing linebacker much of the game. Jefferson, a strong safety, also plays down in the box and had 52 snaps. Mathieu is still recovering from major knee surgery nine months ago and isn’t ready for a full role yet.
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Bowles isn’t the only defensive coach finding different uses for safeties, because of the advanced use of athletic tight ends and three- and four-receiver sets, but so far this year he’s the most effective. On Sunday, he tormented Colin Kaepernick with Jefferson and Bucannon playing down at inside linebacker several times. Bucannon was impressive because he didn’t get caught in the wave of misdirection that San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman was throwing at the Cardinals. Usually, a veteran play-caller can get a rookie to bite on misdirection, but Bucannon is a mature player who stayed home on several snaps flowing left and made plays.
“We were losing a lot of players in the off-season," Bowles said Monday from Arizona, “and losing a lot of pass rushers. So when we get to third down, most of our better athletes are now defensive backs who can play some nickel linebacker down in the box. With all the DBs on the field, I guess it’s hard [for a quarterback] to point out who the Mike linebacker is—so that leaves the offense in a little bit of confusion. You’ve got four safeties who can come back or come up, so you kind of play with that a little bit to offset some of your lack of pass rush.”
In the first half against the Niners, Kaepernick often went no-huddle, and that prevented the Cardinals from adjusting on the fly to moving the safeties down in the box and adding them depending on the situation. In the second half, the Niners slowed down, and that helped Arizona make changes more often. “Last year," said Bowles, “we had two three-down linebackers in Karlos and Daryl, so it was easy to leave them on the field, because they can do more things than the ones we have this year. So in order for us to be a little bit faster, we have safeties that can tackle and play in the box and they can get to the quarterback a little faster, as well as messing up the blocking scheme. So that helps out a lot … We don’t have the impact players that you always had, but from a chemistry standpoint, the way the players get along and communicate makes it kind of easy to play.”
Todd Bowles (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Bowles, a former NFL defensive back, is in his 14th years as an NFL assistant. He played for Joe Gibbs in Washington and coached under Bill Parcells in Dallas. I asked him what he learned under two of the best coaches, and mentors, in recent years.
“Coach Gibbs was very meticulous," said Bowles. “He was an outstanding X’s and O’s guy. And under coach Gibbs I had Richie Petitbon as coordinator, and he was one of the best X’s and O’s guys that I’ve ever been around. He taught me how to watch film and how to see the football game and really become kind of a coach on the field and see what’s going to happen to you and how to diagnose things.
“Coach Parcells taught me from a coaching standpoint how to look at the game, how to treat coaches, what to look for every day—he taught me the entire game overall. I think he doesn’t get enough credit for how great he was at seeing the entire game, offensively and defensively. He knew how to push players’ buttons. He knew what they could and couldn’t do. He had an idea from the first guy on the roster to the last guy on the roster about how he would play them if they had to play. I learned a great deal from him about using all my pieces.’’
He’s using them all in Arizona now. And it would be a surprise if Bowles doesn’t get a chance to use them as an NFL head coach. Soon.