The Arizona Cardinals own the best record in the NFC thanks to an innovative offensive scheme and excellent production on third down. Brian Filipiak looks at another factor ‒ a ground game in motion that uses the strengths of its personnel exceptionally well.
Despite losing running back Chris Johnson for at least the remainder of the regular season because of a broken leg suffered in Week 12, the Cardinals ground game has continued to be a solid complement to their explosive passing offense. Rookie David Johnson has emerged as the team’s primary ball carrier, thriving within the Cardinals motion-filled run scheme that deftly uses the blocking ability of their tight ends and wide receivers.
The Cardinals running game started the season with a flourish averaging slightly more than 125 yards per game through the first eight weeks. However, it had seen a significant drop off in effectiveness before Chris Johnson’s injury. The veteran who goes by CJ2K had just a 2.5 yards per carry average, with a long of 9 yards, in his last three contests.
With change-of-pace running back Andre Ellington battling turf toe and missing action, a once deep backfield turned to a rookie third-round pick in David Johnson, which has sparked a resurgent Arizona ground attack in recent weeks. Utilized mostly as a kick returner and in the passing game prior to Week 13, the former Northern Iowa standout had tallied just 35 rushing attempts. But since taking over, he has 41 carries and 191 yards, making the most of his opportunities within the Cardinals man and gap blocking schemes.
After an abysmal 2014 season running the football ‒ second to last in total rushing yards and last in rushing yards per attempt ‒ Arizona replaced both starting guards, inserting third-year reserve offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper at right guard (since replaced because of struggles and injury by Ted Larsen) and signing left guard Mike Iupati to a lucrative contract in free agency.
But while the revamped interior of the Cardinals offensive line has helped, it is the usage and efforts of the tight ends and wide receivers blocking that has made the difference of late.
Tight Ends In Motion
In the offseason, Arizona parted ways with tight end Rob Housler in free agency, while fellow tight end John Carlson retired. To fill the void, the team inked Jermaine Gresham to complement incumbent second-year tight ends Darren Fells (54% of snaps played this season compared to 21% in 2014) and Troy Niklas (16% from 8%). The trio have responded, sliding into key blocking roles in the Cardinals running game where coach Bruce Arians likes to use his tight ends out of bunch and tight slot alignments, with pre-snap motion and post-snap pullers.
In particular, Fells ‒ who played college basketball, not football at UC-Irvine and then four seasons of professional basketball in parts of Europe and South America until 2013 ‒ has developed into one of the premier run blockers at the tight end position, using his 6’7”, 280-pound frame and powerful burst to lead block and seal off defenders.
Power In Motion
In Week 14 against the Minnesota Vikings, the Cardinals put power into motion, running often out of multiple tight end bunch sets.
Here, Arizona deploys 12 personnel with Fells (#85) and Niklas (#87) sandwiching wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (#11) on the left. The Vikings deploy a 4-3 over front and use a defensive back in the box. Starting from the wing-back position, Fells motions from right to left before the snap, settling into an H-back alignment behind left tackle Jared Veldheer (#68):
As David Johnson (#31) takes the handoff, Fitzgerald kicks out cornerback Xavier Rhodes (#29) on the edge, while Niklas moves defensive end Everson Griffen (#97) off his spot, creating a running lane. Fells hits the hole first, isolated on outside linebacker Chad Greenway (#52). The big tight end drives and turns the defender inside, securing the necessary space for Johnson. Behind the play, Veldheer and Iupati (#76) work a combo block on middle linebacker Eric Kendricks (#54), negating pursuit from behind. The ball carrier sprints through the crease for a 7-yard gain.
The next play ‒ out of the same offensive personnel and formation against a similar defensive alignment ‒ results in a much larger gain as Johnson reads his blocks well and improvises a quick bounce to the outside. Once again, Fells motions from the wing right to left before positioning behind the left tackle just prior to the snap:
Like clockwork, Fitzgerald kicks out the force defender, this time safety Anthony Harris (#41), while Niklas attempts to drive defensive end Danielle Hunter (#99) away from the point of attack and Fells meets Greenway in the C Gap.
Not all goes as planned, though. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (#73) fends off the combination block from Iupati and Veldheer, using an initial punch to rock the guard and then his mass (and leg) to delay the left tackle’s slide into the second level, allowing Kendricks to fill the potential hole at the line of scrimmage.
Recognizing the leverage of his blockers, Johnson shows good vision, pressing wide and stutter stepping around Hunter. Rhodes cheats in and the defender loses contain, along with his angle to the ball carrier. Johnson turns up field and races down the sideline, tripped up by the recovering Rhodes just shy of the pylon on the 24-yard gain.
The Cardinals will also use play action off the short motion out of bunch alignments to further stress the run-pass read and discipline of the opposing defense, such as on this Week 13 play against the St. Louis Rams:
Gresham (#84), in place of Niklas, aligns as the Y receiver tight to the formation ‒ positioned slightly off the ball, which allows for a cleaner release on his route toward the flat. The play fake and motion by Fells combines to draw the second level defenders toward the line of scrimmage ‒ and then, putting them in full retreat mode as they diagnose the fake and scramble to fulfill their Cover 3 responsibilities.
With Fitzgerald stretching the field vertically before stemming to the corner – taking the deep-third defenders with him – and safety T.J. McDonald (#25) late covering the flat, quarterback Carson Palmer hits Gresham for 12 yards and a first down.
Counter In Motion
Arizona complements the strong-side power running game out of compressed formations with counter plays, using the same pre-snap motion to keep a defense guessing. Against the Rams, the Cards repeatedly used counter runs to the weak-side to pick up big gains on the ground, such as on this 16-yard run by backup running back Kerwynn Williams (#33):
Similar to the previous plays, Fells goes in short motion, settling between the right guard and right tackle. But on this occasion after the snap, the tight end continues to cross the center while Gresham ‒ from an off-line three-point stance ‒ pulls right behind him toward the weakside. The Rams defensive front slants to the right, either in anticipation of the play direction or in reaction to the counter step offered by Williams, leaving safety / outside linebacker Mark Barron (#26) and inside linebacker James Laurinaitis (#55) on the perimeter. As the offensive line seals off the backside, Fells forces Barron wide on the trap block as Gresham kicks out Laurinaitis in the hole, making way for Williams on the chain-moving run.
The Cardinals used the same formation and pre- and post- snap movement later in the game against the Rams, executing a 35-yard touchdown run on the counter weak concept:
Fells crosses center and takes on the weak-side defensive end Matt Longacre (#99), while also forcing Barron wide and out of the play. With Iupati handling 1 technique defensive tackle Nick Fairley (#98) on his own, Veldheer quickly fans out into the second level to wall off Laurinaitis. The running back shoots through the widened crease, receiving little resistance past the line of scrimmage, in large part because of outside linebacker Akeem Ayers’s (#56) decision to crash the backfield off the snap.
In the past two weeks, the Cardinals running game has seemingly regained its early season groove. The dawning of a new lead running back in David Johnson, along with the formation versatility of Fitzgerald and the continued development of the late-blooming Fells has reinforced an already productive Arizona offense heading into the playoffs.
Tomorrow, we will look at the blocking prowess of future Hall of Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and how his willingness to lead the way on running plays powers Arizona’s ground game in motion.
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Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense, how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.