NFL Big Throw: Palmer Finding Nelson

The Arizona Cardinals game plan was designed to show the Cincinnati Bengals defense what it expected ‒ right up to when Carson Palmer and the offense needed a backbreaker. Mark Schofield looks at how play design and doing your job led to Palmer finding Nelson for a key score.

Future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald is having a tremendous season: Entering Arizona’s Sunday night game against Cincinnati, the 32-year old wide receiver had notched 65 catches for 836 yards and 7 touchdowns, including four games with ten or more catches. But the veteran wideout’s contribution goes beyond the stat sheet, as Bengals safety George Iloka will see on film this week.

Arizona trailed 14-7 early in the third quarter. On 1st and 10 at their own 36-yard line, Carson Palmer lines up under center with 12 offensive personnel.

The offense sets up with three receivers right, with both tight ends in a wing alignment and Fitzgerald outside. JJ Nelson (#14) is the lone receiver split wide to the left. The Bengals respond by sliding linebacker Vontaze Burfict (#55) over the two tight ends:NFLReview11ArizonaStill1

The Cardinals use play action, faking the outside zone run left with running back Chris Johnson (#23). After executing the fake, Palmer rolls out  to the right. Only two receivers run routes, with J.J. Nelson and Fitzgerald both running routes deep into the secondary:

Fitzgerald runs a wheel route, releasing outside before breaking upfield, along the sideline. Meanwhile, Nelson runs a deep post pattern. The Bengals are in Cover 2, and the rookie WR is aiming to split the two deep safeties.

As this play develops the cornerback over Fitzgerald, Dre Kirkpatrick (#27), plays the wheel route to perfection. He gets a jam on the veteran WR, forcing him to the outside. He then turns to run with Fitzgerald, maintaining inside leverage, and trying to sink underneath the vertical route.

Backside, second-year CB Darqueze Dennard (#21) is in press alignment over Nelson, with safety help over the top from Reggie Nelson (#20). Dennard stays with the WR for a moment, and then releases him into the custody of the deep safeties. Reggie Nelson begins this play 17 yards deep and is shaded toward the rookie wide receiver. The safety tracks the WR but sees him angling across the field, so he expects his partner, Iloka, take over the coverage.

However, Iloka is not in position:

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Iloka has his back to J.J. Nelson. He is instead staring at Fitzgerald’s wheel route. Spotting the safety out of position, Palmer unleashes a deep throw from the 28-yard line:NFLReview11ArizonaStill4

J.J. Nelson runs under the ball, tracking the pass to the 18-yard line where he secures the catch. Reggie Nelson, the safety, tries in vain to chase him down from behind, but the rookie possesses the speed to scamper into the end zone with the game-tying score.

Here is another angle at how the route comes together for Arizona:

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Iloka is paying too much attention to the veteran Fitzgerald, who had already been targeted multiple times. The game plan and early plays showed Iloka that the future Gold Jacket recipient, Fitzgerald, was a primary target – until he wasn’t. The use of misdirection – and the professional route run by Fitzgerald as a decoy – combined to create space for the rookie receiver, and to make the Bengals safety dread the postgame film review.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

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