The Arizona Cardinals have a 9-2 record and a three game cushion atop the NFC West. And while their aggressive Cover 3 defense is suffocating and tough to score on, the key is the offense, which has been especially effective for Arizona on 3rd down.
In football, the main goal of an offense is to consistently move the football down the field. Conversely, the inability to move the chains, and keep your defense off the field, will result in late-game fatigue and lost confidence.
That’s what makes 3rd downs so intense; it’s do or do not. Players that execute their assignments on 3rd down are highly sought after by coaches, and coaches that put playmakers in a position to succeed are highly sought after by owners. Quality teams execute in these high-pressure moments, and Arizona’s 2015 offensive unit is a perfect example of this; they rank first in the league at converting on third downs, at a 46.6% rate.
With all of that said, how has Arizona achieved success on 3rd down? Is it a specific player or players, or something about the scheme? Here’s my best guess after watching Arizona’s Week 11 victory at home against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Early in the second quarter, the Cardinals face 3rd and 8 from their own 22. Bruce Arians deploys 10 personnel, with trips in a bunch formation right, the Z receiver split wide left and a single running back alongside Carson Palmer:
The Bengals are sugaring the A gaps, with Vincent Rey (#57) and Emmanuel Lamur (#59) walked up into the left and right A gaps, respectively. Safety Reggie Nelson (#20) also moves to the end of the line, outside the weak-side defensive end.
Prior to the snap, Palmer recognizes a clear numbers advantage to the strong side. Cincinnati deploys only two corners to the trips side of the formation, leaving John Brown (#12) uncovered. Brown runs a simple slide route, with the outside two receivers ‒ #13 Jaron Brown and Fitzgerald ‒ blocking:
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Simplicity is a beautiful thing. If the defense doesn’t cover all three receivers, why not take advantage? John Brown displays good athletic ability and run-after-catch skills very effectively here, running alongside the edge of his blockers and then knifing up the field.
This blitz beater prevents Arizona from worrying about that exotic stunt the Bengals throw their way:
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The Bengals send both of their 4 technique defensive tackles into contain, drop both the defensive ends, execute a double A gap blitz with the two inside linebackers, and even send the nickel safety, Nelson, who tangles with the RB in protection. Yeah. That’s a mouthful, and Arizona had a great plan to negate it, taking advantage of numbers and letting their athletes make a play in space.
Cardinals’ Offensive Coordinator Harold Goodwin isn’t afraid to take some controlled risks. With just under ten minutes remaining in the second quarter, Arizona trots out 22 Personnel with Jaron Brown the lone WR split wide to the left. Both TEs are on the line in three-point stances; Jermaine Gresham (#84) to the left and Darren Fells (#85) on the right. The running back is Andre Ellington (#38), lined up at around 7 yards behind the ball, and the fullback in offset i-formation is David Johnson (#31):
The Bengals deploy their 4-3 over front, with 3 technique DT Geno Atkins (#97) to the strong side, Vontaze Burfict (#55) aligned at strongside “Sam” linebacker, Rey Maualuga (#58) in the middle, and A.J. Hawk (#50) on the weakside. In the defensive backfield, Cincy creeps to a 1-high, Cover 3 look pre-snap, with Iloka playing down in the box to the offense’s left in response to the WR motion.
Earlier in the first half, Arizona showed this same backfield set on a 3rd and short play, converting on a simple fullback dive by David Johnson. This play is effective for the Cardinals because it hits quick in the A gap and allows them to get the ball to the 6’1”, 224-pound rookie between the tackles.
After showing the conservative approach, and burying the ball into the open right A gap with 1 yard to go, Arizona dials up a play-action pass. The play call is sound, but it is Palmer’s cool head under pressure that makes this play a success:
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After selling the dive fake to Johnson ‒ who sets up in the A gap to pass protect any incoming blitz ‒ Palmer opens up to the top of his drop and looks to his first read, Ellington, who is sprinting to the right flat. However, Cincinnati’s strong-side end Carlos Dunlap (#86) is in the QB’s throwing lane.
Palmer’s next look is at the deep drag from Gresham, which is covered from underneath by Hawk. Palmer then senses the unblocked pass rusher to his right closing on him. Showcasing great poise and decision making ability, he gets the ball to his final read: the far-pylon corner run by Fells.
Even though the quarterback has a 6’6”, 280-pound man bearing down on him, Palmer delivers a perfectly thrown ball in between the thirds corner and high-safety for the touchdown:
It must be mentioned that Arizona’s 3-headed backfield of Ellington, Chris Johnson, and David Johnson has established the run ‒ especially on short distance situations like these. On this play, the threat of the inside run causes the defense to pause before breaking to their pass assignments. Meanwhile, Palmer’s ability to make decisions under pressure gives the Cardinals’ play-calling braintrust the flexibility to call this on 3rd and 1; it sure paid off.
With a 28-21 lead with more than ten minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Arizona faced 3rd and 10 from their own 21-yard line. They go back to the 4 WR, 1 RB set from play 1 above, again deploying three receivers to a tight trips formation to the left, the single WR wide right, and the RB set to the boundary:
The Bengals send out their dime package ‒ 6 defensive backs. It’s an odd front, featuring two inside linebackers, and using DE Michael Johnson (#90) as the mike. Most likely he’s aligned here to use his explosiveness and length to disrupt the pocket from a standing rush position
The Bengals align their safeties in a Cover 2 alignment. But off the snap, weak safety Nelson spins from the boundary to the middle of the field and the strong safety, Iloka, sprints down to play robber on underneath routes ‒ rolling into Cover 1. Up front, the Will drops in coverage while Johnson looks to take the right tackle off of his assignment with a C gap blitz.
Arizona’s concept was to work the trips side against a 2 deep coverage look. Palmer again displays very good processing abilities here, taking a new course of action with the play after the coverage shifted. Seeing the defense spin to 1-high safety, the QB knew he had a one-on-one matchup against press man coverage on the outside:
Once Palmer reads the defense and makes his choice, he makes an accurate, very well-timed throw to JJ Nelson, running a deep comeback route. The ball is incomplete because of a clear defensive pass interference call, but the play gains yards and converts the first down:
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Based on the film, there are three key factors to Arizona’s success on third down:
- Palmer’s strong ability to diagnose the coverage quickly, as well as his ability to make accurate throws under duress.
- Diagnosing and defeating exotic pressure with quick adjustments, and hot reads to their best athletes, as opposed to forcing their OL to pick up the blitz.
- The Cardinals’ pass-catchers are very competitive, winning contested balls. Their smaller guys (Nelson, John Brown) get great separation at the top of the route and after the catch, while their bigger receivers (Fitzgerald, Jaron Brown) have been reliable perimeter blockers. Even their tight ends have been solid enough to draw some attention on third down.
Arizona is flying high right now, and if they continue to convert on the money down, they’ll find themselves contending deep into the playoffs.
Follow Sal on Twitter @SC2Football.
Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking down matchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.
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