The Arizona Cardinals emerged victorious from their Divisional Round game against the Green Bay Packers thanks to the long run of Larry Fitzgerald in overtime. However, as Dave Archibald points out, the Packers defense did an admirable job containing Arizona, particularly on this play, Palmer picked by Clinton-Dix.
Arizona finished the year as the NFL’s #1 yardage offense, but Green Bay’s defense was able to keep them under wraps much of the night. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers used a variety of looks, coverages, and blitzes against Cards quarterback Carson Palmer, racking up two interceptions, three sacks, and holding the high-flying Cardinals to just 4.65 yards per play in regulation. The Cardinals finally broke through in overtime, but the work Capers and the Packers defense did to get them there should not be ignored.
An example of the Packers’ confusing and stifling defense came early in the second half, with the Cardinals nursing a slim 7-6 lead. On 3rd-and-11 near midfield, Capers dials up a blitz:
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The Cardinals line up with trips left and one receiver, Michael Floyd (#15), to the right. They protect with seven, leaving the tight end and running back both in to block. The Packers blitz cornerbacks Damarious Randall (#23) and Quinten Rollins (#24) from the left, overloading the right side. While Arizona has the necessary number of blockers, the tight end is on the left and can’t help, leaving the running back to pick up both extra rushers. It’s a math problem with no solution.
On the back end, the Packers show a Cover 3 look behind a 3-2 dime front, but at the snap they roll into Cover 2 Man Under. The rolling coverage and blitz require the defense to make two adjustments on the fly: first, with slot corner Casey Hayward (#29) rolling to a deep zone, linebacker Joe Thomas (#48) has to cover slot receiver Larry Fitzgerald (#11); and second, with Randall blitzing, safety Morgan Burnett (#42) picks up Floyd in man-to-man coverage.
Palmer recognizes the blitz and the mismatch he has with Floyd working against Burnett. Because the Packers were disguising the coverage, the safety has to close a significant distance to Floyd and put himself in position to cover the receiver. Floyd, who averaged 16.3 yards per catch on the season, is a tough cover for any safety, and Palmer doesn’t hesitate in targeting the wideout on the fly route.
Enter Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix (#21), who is covering Floyd’s side of the field deep. He knows the defensive call, and that Burnett is in poor position to cover Floyd. With no other receivers running routes on the right side, Clinton-Dix can focus his efforts on helping Burnett. He begins closing on Floyd’s route before Palmer even finishes his drop. Palmer tries to fit the throw over Burnett and in front of Clinton-Dix, but underestimates the range of the second-year safety, who hauls in the interception. The Packers marched down the field and scored, and taking the lead.
As a young player, Palmer was a great talent, but his penchant for turning the ball over too much (interception rate of 3.4% through 2013*) kept him from joining the game’s elite signal-callers. Since the beginning of 2014, however, he has reined in his gunslinging ways and taken better care of the football (interception rate of 1.8%*), making him a viable MVP candidate in 2015.
Against a Carolina Panthers defense that ranked first in the NFL in takeaways, Palmer can’t afford to make the mistakes he did Saturday night. If he can hold on to the football, he stands a good change of punching Arizona’s ticket to Super Bowl 50, but too many passes like this one and the Cardinals will be watching the big game from home.
*Editor’s Note: Both stats are from Palmer’s pro-football-reference.com player page, linked above.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.