Stifling defenses come in different shapes and sizes, but they can be all be beaten. Matty Brown shows how the blitzing Arizona Cardinals defense has an exploitable weakness in the short pass game.
The Arizona Cardinals are one of the most blitz-happy teams in the league, having sent five or more rushers on 45.1% of plays last season. The blitz will remain a focal point of the Cardinals’ defense with Cover 0 still being prevalent in certain situations despite the acquisition of pass-rusher Chandler Jones via trade and 3 technique Robert Nkemdiche in the draft. One issue blitz-heavy packages cause is over pursuit with the linebackers leaving space behind them as they rush the passer. As a result, one of the best play concepts to move the chains against the Cardinals is the running back screen pass. Teams who lack the ability to run it effectively, such as divisional rival Seattle Seahawks, struggle to deal with the blitz-heavy schemes run by Arizona. Accordingly, offenses that have a fully-functioning running back screen game are able to expose what is arguably the Cardinals’ greatest weakness defensively.
In Week 1, the New England Patriots showed the potency of a well-executed running back screen. The Cardinals had blitzed four times in the previous nine plays leading up to this play, the first drive of the Patriots’ second offensive series with 6.12 left in the first quarter. The formation that New England comes out in for its first running back screen — on 1st and 10 at their own 8 leading 7-0 — had been successful up to this point having completions of 11 yards and 19 yards to Julian Edelman on the two previous occasions in which it was deployed. The Cardinals, despite not blitzing on either of these plays, had shown signs of over pursuing and little outside contain early in the game.
The Cardinals play a form of man coverage with the running back, James White (#28), crucially left unaccounted for. Arizona rushes just four and New England lets them through, as the right guard, center, and left guard run upfield to block toward the left for White. As White leaks through to be the screen dump-off option, Cardinals outside linebacker Chandler Jones (#55) attempts to rush left tackle Cameron Fleming (#71) inside as he fails to diagnose the play. This leaves White completely free to secure the pass and follow his blocking linemen downfield.
While White runs with good vision after the catch, finding a good seam and making a nice cut, it is fair to criticize certain Cardinals defenders for the angles they take on their pursuit of the ball carrier, particularly linebacker / safety hybrid Deone Bucannon (#20). The poor pursuit is worsened by the man coverage the Cardinals are in, with the Patriots having their receivers run deep intertwining routes clearing out plenty of space underneath for White to enjoy.
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The Cardinals did not blitz here; it was their issue of over pursuit which proved costly in this instance.
The second, and final, time that the Patriots ran a running back screen, the Cardinals again only rushed four. This time, however, a smart, brilliant play from outside linebacker Markus Golden (#44), lined up at defensive end, prevented what was going to be another big gain. Golden recognized the screen and, instead of continuing on his path to the quarterback, dropped back and swatted away the pass intended for White.
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The 2015 season, where teams with polished screens in their offense enjoyed success against the Cardinals, shows the Patriots’ game is not an isolated incident. In fact, it is remarkable that teams do not try to run more running back screens against Arizona. Yes, a screen needs the element of surprise – making it difficult to run more than a few times a game – but the Cardinals are practically begging teams to do so. If the trends of high-aggression coordinating and over-pursuit continue, 2016 will continue to have running back screens cause issues for Arizona.
Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattyfbrown. Check out Matt’s other work here, such as what RBs to watch in the SEC, the Pac 12, and the Big 12, and on Kenneth Dixon and what the Ravens should expect from him this season.
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All video courtesy of NFL Game Pass.