NFC Championship Preview: Arizona Passing Concepts

When the Arizona Cardinals square off against the Carolina Panthers, Bruce Arians and the Cardinals’ offense will look to attack the Panthers’ passing game with some vertical concepts. Mark Schofield looks at how the Arizona passing concepts likely to be used to attack the Panthers defense.

Carolina plays a number of coverages in the secondary and is very adept at rolling their coverage at the snap, looking to confuse the offensive skill players. Depending on the coverage they employ, Arians and Carson Palmer have a number of passing concepts at the ready, as they demonstrated throughout the 2015 season.

Against Single-High

When the Panthers utilize single-high coverage (Cover 1 or Cover 3) here are two ways the Cardinals attack this scheme. First is the yankee concept. This is a two-man, deep passing concept, utilizing a deep post route combined with a crossing route underneath. This play stresses a single-high safety, forcing him to either remain deep on the post route or commit forward to the over route: stay back or come forward?

Against the San Francisco 49ers, the Cardinals have Palmer (#3) under center with 12 personnel on the field. Arizona has three receivers on the right, featuring Larry Fitzgerald (#11) in a tight split and two tight ends in a dual wing alignment. The defense has their base 3-4 personnel in the game, using Cover 3:


The Cardinals run the yankee concept: Fitzgerald executes the deep over, while the receiver at the bottom of the screen runs the deep post:


Pay attention to free safety Eric Reid (#35) as the play develops. Because of the post route he backpedals, opening up a huge throwing window below him for Fitzgerald’s over route:

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Should Reid collapse on the over route from Fitzgerald, the defense is exposed for a big play down the field. The safety makes the best of a bad situation and keeps the action in front of him. This play is a great example of how the yankee concept can stress the single-high safety.

Sail Concept

Another way that Arians has attacked defenses this year, and opened up room for his receivers , is by using the sail concept. This is a three-level flood and stretch design, which utilizes a vertical route and two out routes to attack one side of a defense.

Here, the Cardinals use this scheme against the New Orleans Saints. Palmer is under center with 12 personnel in the game, slot formation left and dual wing tight ends right. The Saints have their base 3-4 defense in the game and show Cover 3:


Fitzgerald is in the left slot, with John Brown (#12) to the outside. The Cardinals run a play action fake here, with the sail concept to the slot side of the field. Brown runs the go route while Fitzgerald runs a deep out. After the run fake to Andre Ellington (#38), the back runs a short out into the left flat:


The intention is to stretch the outside coverage. Brown’s vertical route pins the free safety and the playside cornerback deep. That allows Fitzgerald and Ellington to high-low the coverage in the flat.

This still gives you a good look at the concept in action:


With Brown occupying the two deep defenders, Palmer has his choice between Fitzgerald and Ellington. He selects the deeper option:

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Fitzgerald collects the ball in stride, and the Cardinals have an easy 30-yard gain thanks to the marriage of design and execution.

Deep Over

Should the Panthers roll their coverage into Cover 2, Arizona is adept at attacking this scheme as well, sometimes using Fitzgerald as bait.

Arizona faces 1st and 10 on their own 34-yard line. Palmer is in the shotgun with 11 offensive personnel and an empty backfield, with an inverted slot formation on the left, and trips to the right. New Orleans has their 4-2-5 package in the game and use Tampa 2 coverage:


Arizona uses a route combination to bracket the middle linebacker on this play. Both Michael Floyd (#15) and Fitzgerald run curl routes, from opposite sides of the formation:


As the middle linebacker Stephone Anthony (#50) drops into the deep middle zone, Brown and Fitzgerald bracket the linebacker, and Palmer has his pick of open receivers:

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Since both receivers break vertically, and then throttle down in an underneath zone, both safeties have to respect the inside vertical threats before breaking forward on the shorter routes.

On this play the Cardinals have 12 personnel in the game, with Palmer under center and trips formation to the right. The Saints have their 4-2-5 package on the field, showing Cover 2, with underneath zone coverage:


The Cardinals have the perfect play drawn up: from the left, Fitzgerald runs a deep in-cut, while on the right Brown runs a deep post:


Against Cover 2, you can see how the safeties are put under pressure by this play. If they react and flow forward on Fitzgerald’s deep in route, Brown will come open deep. But if the safeties maintain depth on the post, then Fitzgerald should find room in front of the safeties and behind the linebackers. Speaking of the linebackers, the offense sets some bait for them using the tight end on an underneath crossing route to try and draw them in:

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Which is exactly what happens. The safeties maintain their depth against Brown’s post route, and Fitzgerald is able to exploit the soft spot in the coverage.

Finally, here are the Cardinals using Fitzgerald as bait against the Cincinnati Bengals. Arizona trailed 14-7 early in the third quarter. On 1st and 10 at their own 36-yard line, Palmer lined up under center with 12 personnel. The offense sets up with three receivers right, with both tight ends in a wing alignment and Fitzgerald outside. J.J. 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:


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 receiver 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 receiver but sees him angling across the field, so he expects his partner, George Iloka, take over the coverage.

However, Iloka is not in position:

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The safety 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:


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  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 post-game film review.

Given these various concepts used to date, you can expect Arians, Palmer and the Arizona offense to be ready for whatever the Panthers throw their way on Sunday.

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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