2015 NFL Playoffs: Arizona at Carolina Preview

The 2015 NFL Playoffs kick off with a wild card round matchup between division rivals as the Cardinals face the Panthers. The Arizona at Carolina preview has what to look for on game day.

The Matchup

WHO: Arizona Cardinals (11-5 – #5 Seed) vs. Carolina Panthers (7-8-1 – #4 Seed)

WHEN: Saturday, January 3 – 4:20 p.m. EST (ESPN)

WHERE: Bank of America Stadium – Charlotte, NC

The Carolina Panthers emerged as the winners of the NFC South by closing out the season with four-straight victories, including blowout wins over New Orleans and Atlanta. The Panthers started the season by winning three of their first five games, but after tying Cincinnati the club endured a brutal stretch where they lost six straight games. However, Ron Rivera’s team righted the ship and are playing solid football these days.

For Arizona, a brilliant start gave way to a bitter holiday season. In Week 11, the Cardinals defeated the Lions to improve their record to 9-1 and stood alone atop the NFC standings. But they lost four of their final six games, their starting quarterback, and their backup quarterback. With Carson Palmer out for the season and his replacement Drew Stanton injured in Week 15, Ryan Lindley will get his first playoff start on Saturday. Arizona signed the QB off San Diego’s practice squad earlier this year.

When Carolina Has the Football

Carolina’s Passing Game against Arizona’s Defense

Arizona loves to blitz. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has no fear of sending six or more defenders regardless of down and distance. Bowles frequently employs “zero blitz” schemes, where the Cardinals blitz six or seven defenders and play Cover 0 in the secondary:

The flaw with this concept is that when the offense contains the pressure, one mistake in coverage can lead to a big play:

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The blitz fails to get to the quarterback and Russell Wilson escapes the pocket. Worse, the secondary fails to account for tight end Luke Willson, who is open for the long catch and run. With no free safety to help deep, offenses can exploit this scheme if the protection is sound.

Thankfully for Carolina, they have experience handling zero blitz schemes. Take these two plays against New Orleans from their second meeting of the year. On this first play, Cam Newton is under center and the offense has 21 personnel on the field. The defense shows blitz, and sends seven defenders after the QB:

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The protection holds and Newton has a clean pocket from which to work. Tight end Greg Olsen runs a post route and the quarterback finds him before free safety Kenny Vaccaro arrives.

This second play is eerily similar to the Seattle touchdown play. The Panthers line up in a heavy formation and the Saints respond in kind. Carolina runs a simple play-action pass against the defense, who, while using a zero blitz concept, gets burned:

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Newton has time to survey the field and throw, finding his security blanket open for the score. I anticipate the “Newton to Olson” phrase will be worn out by Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden Saturday afternoon, especially against Arizona’s zero blitz schemes.

Carolina’s Running Game against Arizona’s Defense

This section would be more aptly titled “Carolina’s running game against Arizona’s defensive edges.” The Panthers love to attack the edges of a defense and have three main ways of doing so. First, they like to run plays at the ends:

The flow of the offensive line here is flawless. Center Ryan Kalil does a tremendous job of keeping his feet moving and getting in front of the running back. Tight end Ed Dickson lines up in the backfield and takes on the safety, resulting in an 11-yard gain for Jonathan Stewart:

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Carolina’s next method of attacking the edge is their read option game. Newton, despite a recent traffic collision, seems to be healthy after battling some early-season injuries as his feet put pressure on the opposition:

This is one of the Panthers’ read option schemes, which incorporates a lead-blocking element. Newton is in the pistol formation with Stewart, but the QB is also flanked by his tight ends. As Newton and Stewart carry out the read option fake, Dickson and Olson pull around left end to block for the QB:

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The Heisman winner keeps the football, follows his two TEs, and gains 22 yards on the play.

The third way Carolina attacks the edges is by using timely end-around runs with their receivers. After pounding away at one side of the defense with their power lead, they fake that play here:

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Newton fakes the handoff and then gives to football to rookie wide receiver Philly Brown. The former Buckeye races around left end for a decent gain.

With these methods of attacking the outside, the Arizona defensive ends and outside linebackers need to do their jobs on Saturday afternoon. However, if recent numbers are any indication, the Cardinals will struggle against the run. In each of the last six weeks, their defense yielded at least 100 ground yards per game to their opponents. And in their final two games ‒ both losses ‒ Seattle and San Francisco both topped 200 yards rushing.

When Arizona Has the Football

Arizona’s Passing Game against Carolina’s Defense

Lindley now finds himself improbably starting in the NFL playoffs after beginning the season on San Diego’s practice squad. He struggled in his first start, against Seattle, completing only 41% of his passes for 216 yards and one interception. His numbers improved last week against San Francisco, as he completed 59% of his throws for 316 yards and two touchdowns. But he threw three more INTs against the 49ers and his first task on Saturday is to cut down the risky throws and take better care of the football.

His second task is attacking the Carolina Cover 2 defense. The Panthers play a lot of that coverage and if Lindley is smart with the football he will find the seams. His outing last week gave him some practice against that scheme, as San Francisco used some Cover 2 against Arizona. On this first play the QB does a good job of taking what the defense gives him:

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The 49ers blitz an inside linebacker and deploy Cover 2 in the secondary. Lindley finds his tight end Rob Housler over the middle for an easy pitch-and-catch.

On this play, Lindley executes a much more difficult throw along the sideline against Cover 2:

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Arizona has 11 personnel on the field, using a trips formation to the right side of the offense. Larry Fitzgerald is the middle receiver in the trips and he runs a deep out pattern. San Francisco implements Cover 2 with man underneath, so the WR is covered by a safety who has help deep. But as Fitzgerald makes his break he gains separation from the safety, and more importantly, the ball is already coming out of Lindley’s hands. The throw arrives before the safety can arrive to break up the play.

Arizona’s Running Game against Carolina’s Defense

With Lindley making his first playoff start in his third career start, Arians will likely try to establish a running game. Carolina’s run defense was average in 2014, ranking 16th in the NFL and surrendering over 100 yards per game. While Carolina’s offense likes to attack the edges, the Cardinals like to work between the tackles.

Arizona loves to run this power lead play:

First, Housler motions from left to right and then blocks down on an inside linebacker. Next, fellow tight end Darren Fells (#85) and left guard Ted Larsen (#62) pull around to the right:

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These two players provide a nice convoy for Stefan Taylor who gains five yards on the play.

And when I say that Arizona loves to run this play, I mean it. Here they are just two plays later:

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This time Taylor gains six yards.

Now, are you ready for this? Big twist on this run:

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That was not Taylor carrying the ball. That was Kerwynn Williams.

After showing San Francisco that look multiple times, the Cardinals came back with this play. They show the defense that initial formation, but snap the ball quickly without any movement or motion:

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Lindley tosses the football to Williams, who manages to keep his feet and rip off an 11-yard gain.

I am not a betting man, but if I were, I’d bet the house on Arizona running that power lead play at least once Saturday.

Prediction

Carolina is playing solid football right now, and they earn a bit of respect for the NFC South with a resounding win.

Carolina 27, Arizona 14

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 the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.

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