The Arizona Cardinals’ top two selections in the 2017 NFL Draft are perfectly suited to the defensive scheme run in Phoenix. Budda Baker and Haason Reddick give defensive coordinator James Bettcher even more options in the hybrid scheme. For another piece breaking down Baker and Reddick’s fit in Arizona, check out this piece by Ollie Connolly.
Hybrid Defense and “two for one” Players
The Cardinals almost use their defensive players in a similar way to an NFL offense. Across the league’s attacks, every team utilizes multiple packages and various personnel on offense, as this side of the football has become matchup-driven. On defense, while most teams are more rigid, Arizona is unique; the closest to using players in a more fluid, matchup style. They utilize players – particularly on the back seven – in different ways, moving defenders around the field. They blitz them. They drop them into coverage. They put them in one-on-one situations.
This approach has been reflected in the Cardinals’ draft strategy. The front office seeks chess pieces and swiss army knives. Indeed, general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians spoke about the positives of “two for one” players when reflecting on Day 1 of the 2017 Draft.
One such example would be the skill set and usage of Tyrann Mathieu. The Honey Badger’s frenetic playing style is accentuated by Arizona’s defensive scheme. They have him in man coverage on receivers in the slot. They play him at outside corner. They rotate him to cover the deep third. They blitz him off the edge.
Budda Baker, S, Washington
In Baker, the Cardinals have a similar prospect. Like Mathieu, Baker plays with that “hair on fire” intensity and energy – hence Arizona’s trade-up for him. Baker is similarly an undersized safety at 5’10” 195 pounds – which is why he was available in the second round – and he’ll be restricted to certain roles in the NFL.
Fortunately, Baker is in the perfect defense for himself. He was a multi-faceted player in college: covering outside, in the slot, in two-high, and in the deep-third. He and Mathieu are both great robbers in coverage. His explosiveness makes him a ferocious blitzer; bringing down the quarterback four times in college. The Cardinals have gained another defensive backfield weapon; a much-needed one after the departure of Tony Jefferson in free agency.
No, Baker and Mathieu are not the exact same player. That is not the point of the above paragraphs. Instead, both players provide very similar abilities. Thus, Baker will be used in a similar fashion to Mathieu. Having two frantic, versatile, similar defensive backs gives huge adaptability and options to the defense. Additionally, with Mathieu’s durability issues, Baker can act as insurance to what is a crucial role.
Here, Baker buzzes down to the line of scrimmage and a better blitzing angle at the last possible moment before the snap. This maximizes his chances of reaching the quarterback as a blitzer. He has a good get-off, but is forced to get around a running back tasked with picking up any pressure off the edge. He shows his nous and physicality, getting Ronald Jones II (#25) at a bad angle and placing his hands firmly on him before he can anchor. This puts the pass protector in a terrible position, and Baker throws him aside. He completes this swat move quickly, continuing his path toward the quarterback. The passer, Sam Darnold (#14), senses pressure, and forces an underthrown ball into coverage. Washington’s Taylor Rapp (#21) intercepts the football.
The clip of Mathieu demonstrates how Baker will be used in Arizona. As well as blitzing men with Cover 0 behind them, the Cardinals have some zone stuff. In this clip they are running a Cover 3 Cloud blitz, and they are attacking the bootleg side of the play-action – a regular occurrence. Mathieu comes down to the line of scrimmage pre-snap, as though he is lining up over motioned wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (#12). Instead, he blitzes. His speed and awareness is good enough to avoid tight end Levine Toilolo (#80) in the flat – tasked with chipping any potential blitzer – and the defensive back sacks quarterback Matt Ryan (#2). Baker is ideal for this assignment in Arizona.
Haason Reddick, LB, Temple
Arizona’s first-round selection is another player who can be moved around. Though Reddick is likely to start his career playing mainly as a strong inside linebacker, he can play multiple spots on defense. Reddick’s physical nature would work as a strongside linebacker, and his movement skills in space make him a capable weakside linebacker as well. In limited opportunities, he displayed real coverage ability.
His transition to an off-the-ball position will require time, particularly at inside linebacker – a spot he only moonlighted at as a spy in college. However, Reddick has the sideline-to-sideline speed and other athletic tools to make it work. Furthermore, the Cardinals’ depth at each linebacker spot will enable them to place Reddick where they see fit.
Arizona blitzes their linebackers more than any other team in the league, and, while Reddick can refine his pass rushing moves, he has an explosive first-step burst with an excellent motor. He could even put his hand in the dirt in certain pass-rush packages. The SAM spot, which Chandler Jones plays, is the likeliest postion for Reddick to solely attack the quarterback though. Indeed, Bruce Arians clearly envisions this as a possibility. He told reporters that Reddick’s blazing speed and ability to turn the corner reminded him of Von Miller.
Before the snap, Reddick shuffles inside from the slot to more of an end position, achieving a preferable blitzing lane. He shows a quick reaction to the snap and a blistering get-off. This is too fast for offensive lineman Dustin Woodard (#53), who is left flat footed as Reddick gains prime position in the B gap. The left guard is forced to turn and hold Reddick in order to prevent him from sacking the quarterback. This goes unseen by the officials. Still, Reddick’s pressure contributes to the eventual pass falling incomplete.
The second piece of footage is again taken from the Cardinals’ 2016 matchup with the Atlanta Falcons. A reason for this decision was the Falcons being the league’s best offense, while the game also shows that various blitzes form a big part of Arizona’s defensive gameplan.
The Cardinals have three men on the line, in a 3-3 stack, which could hint at a prevent coverage on 3rd and 16. They then show a potential blitz coming from the right pre-snap. This sees the quarterback change the protection. Instead, the Cardinals bring five, mainly from the left. The pass coverage appears to be Cover 1. They slant their left defensive end, Alex Okafor (#57) inward and have their weak linebacker, safety Tyvon Branch (#27), on a slightly delayed crash aimed at clogging up the B to C gaps. Behind this, they loop inside linebacker Markus Golden (#44) round into blitzing the D gap. The action in front of him, executed perfectly, creates a free path to the quarterback and the sack.
The initial misdirection on the play was an excellent way of getting home with just five men against what was 60 protection (six men pass blocking). With Reddick’s athleticism, the quarterback would have gone down even sooner. He will be a terrific threat on twists, stunts, and loops.
Because of how unique Baker and Reddick are, the landing spot for each player was more crucial than ever. Fortunately, they have landed in their “dream” scheme. The hybrid defense that Arizona runs is one of the best-case scenarios for the pair as it will really highlight their strengths. Overall, it makes the Cardinals a better, faster, ever more flexible defense.
You can find Haason Reddick and Budda Baker scouting reports, plus other rookies, in the ITP Draft Guide at www.itpdraftguide.com.