After defeating the Green Bay Packers, the Arizona Cardinals are headed to the NFC Championship. Their high-powered offense has helped them succeed, but their defense is something to fear. Brian Filipiak shows how Arizona used the slant dog blitz to get pressure on Aaron Rodgers.
Few NFL teams, if any, blitz more than the Arizona Cardinals. Under the helm of defensive coordinator James Bettcher – just as Todd Bowles before him – the Cardinals’ go aggressive on defense to pressure opposing quarterbacks into making quick decisions, often leading to mistakes (19 interceptions – fourth-most in the league) and inaccuracies (59.9 percent completion rate allowed – sixth lowest in the league).
Against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional Round, the Cardinals executed a well-choreographed blitz in the red zone to throw off Aaron Rodgers’s timing.
Defensive linemen don’t simply line up and shoot a gap haphazardly. In many situations – particularly on obvious passing downs – a defense will call for pre-designed movements by the big bodies up front. These line stunts look to attack specific areas in order to draw reactions from the offensive line that can potentially open up rush lanes elsewhere. As such, line stunts are often combined with blitzes in order to take full advantage of any open gaps in pass protection.
Slant This Way
With the Packers trailing 7-3 and facing 3rd and 14 from the Arizona 16-yard line with a minute to go in the first half, the Cardinals dial up a successful six-man pressure scheme to force a field goal attempt.
The blitz utilizes a strong-side slant from the four line-of-scrimmage defenders along with pressure from the second level on the opposite side. Here’s a pre-snap look at the design of this slant strong dog (linebacker) blitz:
The Cardinals deploy nickel personnel in response to Green Bay’s 3×1 out of the shotgun. The defense aligns in a 4-2 front with safety Deone Bucannon (#20) assuming the “dollar” linebacker spot out of a stacked position behind defensive tackle Frostee Rucker (#92). Fellow defensive tackle Calais Campbell (#93) – like Rucker – aligns head up over the offensive guard, while the two edge defenders – Markus Golden (#44) and Dwight Freeney (#54) – operate from wide techniques outside of the offensive tackles. Linebacker Kevin Minter (#51) rounds out the front on the weak-side.
Although the Packers have a balanced line with no tight end, the presence of running back James Starks (#44) – who is offset to the right of Rodgers – would likely cause the defense to declare strength to the running back’s side. This communication – especially within a blitz – is important during pre-snap adjustments in reaction to the offensive formation, as it organizes the coordinated movement of the defensive line. In doing so, the strength call not only ensures that each gap can be accounted for, but also that no rush lane is occupied twice, thus avoiding a potential logjam:
In this case, the slant by the defensive line is aiming to draw the protection their way, creating pass rush lanes for Bucannon (up the gut) and Minter (from the blindside) to exploit.
Specifically, Golden works his rush outside against right tackle Bryan Bulaga (#75); Rucker will slant to the gap outside of him to entice right guard T.J. Lang (#70); Campbell will cross the face of center Corey Linsley (#63) on a long stick that covers two gaps; and Freeney will work an inside rush toward the B gap looking to engage both left guard Josh Sitton (#71) and left tackle David Bakhtiari (#69). At the same time, Bucannon and Minter will scrape over one gap, following tightly behind the nearest slanting defender on the backside.
The pre-designed movement by the defensive line works to near perfection as a well-defined pass rush lane emerges for Bucannon between the center and the left guard – further aided by Campbell’s slight tug and hold on Linsley’s outside shoulder pad. Meanwhile, Freeney’s effort not only secures the opening for Bucannon, but also pulls the left tackle slightly out of position, allowing Minter to turn the corner with speed and gain ground into the pocket before engaging the blocker.
Needing to at least reach the two-yard line to extend the drive, the only open receiver for Rodgers as he completes his drop in the pocket is Jeff Janis (#83), who makes his break to the inside at around the ten-yard marker. Given the down and distance, the quarterback elects to wait for another option:
While the pass rush doesn’t get home – largely because of the excellent blitz pick up by Starks on Bucannon – it nonetheless still impacts the outcome of the play. The initial push up the middle by Bucannon forces Rodgers off his spot.
The quarterback slides to his left just as Minter begins to walk back Bakhtiari who, after sliding off of Freeney late, is off-balance and unable to square up the defender. Minter gets his hands inside the blocker and extends his arms, driving Bakhtiari into the face of Rodgers, which prevents the QB from stepping into his throw. The rushed pass attempt by Rodgers (who completed just 54.5% of his passes in the game) to wide receiver Jared Abbrederis (#84) falls harmlessly into the back of the end zone.
The Packers settle for a field goal and the Arizona defense kept four additional points off the board. Slowing down a passing attack often starts with disrupting a quarterback’s timing and comfort in the pocket. Opportune blitzes that combine well-coordinated line movements, such as the one described above, don’t always have to end in a sack in order to be effective.
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All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.