As most people seemed to agree that looking forward was the way to go, I watched seven hours of football Tuesday night in an attempt to answer a few questions about the Arizona Cardinals:
- What did they do defensively in the Thanksgiving game that really didn't work?
- What did they do defensively against Carolina that did?
- Why did the Eagles have success limiting them to only 20 points?
- Why did Carolina provide so much less resistance?
- Specifically, why did Larry Fitzgerald go bonkers against them?
- What can we expect the Cardinals to do differently in game two, based on what they did against Carolina?
- Is there anything to the Cardinals' much-vaunted, late-season rushing attack?
- Lastly, is there anything else interesting that we can learn?
We'll start with Arizona's defense.
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The Cardinals had a right to feel screwed by the schedule makers this season. There's no way they should have been asked to cross three time zones to play the Giants in New Jersey four days before they had to come all the way back to take on the Eagles. [Update: Cards played the Giants at home. Can't win 'em all.]
This incredibly short window of time likely explains their lack of familiarity with the Eagles' offense. We have to remember that the Cards came into town right after the three game stretch that went loss-tie-loss, during which the Eagles completely abandoned the run game after the opposition proved it could shut it down early.
It's the second part of that equation the Cards missed, though, not realizing that if they simply handed us huge chunks of yardage on the ground, even Marty Mornhinweg would feel too embarrassed not to take them.
The Cardinals opened the game in a soft nickel defense and stayed in it for much of the Eagles' 70-yard drive down the field for the first touchdown. Even when they had only four defensive backs on the field, they occasionally flashed a 3-4 look, which obviously took one of their beefier dudes to the sidelines.
Counting a DeSean Jackson "wildcat" carry, but not a McNabb scramble, the Eagles ran six times for 30 yards on that initial 12-play drive, surprising the heck out of everyone in the building in the process.
Following Warner's interception on the next series, the Cardinals again came out with nickel personnel. On three straight carries, Westbrook ripped off runs of 5, 16 and 17 yards, taking the ball down to the one-yard line where the Cardinals left in their base defense. Think about that for a moment. First and goal. On the one yard line. And the Cardinals played a 4-3.
Westbrook ran over left guard for the easy touchdown.
Oh, and for the people who don't like the DeSean Jackson end around, the 17-yard gain happened because both the backside DE and the safety jumped the fake to Jackson, leaving a gaping chasm in the defense for Westbrook to exploit.
From that point forward, the Cardinals mixed things up more and played the Eagles a little more honestly. They even started dropping safeties into the box on running situations. Westbrook still found some room to run, but on the first two drives combined he had eight carries for 61 yards (7.6 ypc). The rest of the game he managed 14 for 49 (3.5 ypc).
After the initial flurry of runs, the big difference was just McNabb. The guy we've seen in the playoffs first showed up that week and as we all know, when he's on, he's on. It's worth mentioning too that Rod Hood missed this game for the Cardinals. He's better than the guy who replaced him.
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As an aside, let's talk for a minute about what the Cardinals do up front. As was mentioned in the comments, they absolutely do switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 at times, but it ends up not really being that simple. Here are the defenses I saw them use in the two games:
- A normal 4-3. This is their base, although I'm not sure they even use it the majority of the time.
- A 4-3 with a stand-up rush end. For some reason, defensive end Travis LaBoy often lines up in a two-point stance. He's still a defensive end and he's still mostly just rushing the quarterback, but because he's standing up and wears a linebacker number (#55), he can make it look like it's a 3-4 defense. It's not, the other three defensive linemen are still in their normal 4-3 positions. (#92 Bertrand Berry does this at times as well.)
- The normal 4-2-5 nickel. With LaBoy sometimes up, sometimes down. Doesn't really matter.
- A 3-3-5 nickel. The Eagles saw some of this at the start of the second quarter and promptly ran right at it. Adrian Wilson sometimes drops down as a quasi-linebacker in this set.
- A "true" 3-4. This is where things get interesting. Most of the time that I saw the Cardinals running a real 3-4 (and it's sometimes hard to tell because OLB Chike Okeafor (#56) is about the same size as LaBoy), they actually ran it as a 5-2 look. The three down linemen narrow their splits and the two OLBs come right up to the line. This actually appeared to be their dominant run-stopping look. (You can see how it would work great in the middle, but if they tried this against the Giants, those edge blockers would have destroyed it.)
The bottom line on Sunday is that just because you see three guys in three-point stances, don't assume it's a 3-4 look.
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Shifting to the Carolina game, there are really two separate defensive stories. The first is why they did such a good job stopping the Panthers' rushing attack. The second is how they picked off Delhomme so many times.
Oh wait, it's the same story.
It's true that Arizona committed to stopping the run in this game. Where the Eagles often saw six in the box, Carolina was facing eight or even nine guys early in the game. Still, Carolina was having some success running early, but once the Delhomme pickfest began and they got too far behind, they somewhat gave up on the running game.
As for why the pickfest happened ... a few times this year Ron Jaworski has used the expression "muddy field" to describe what he saw from Donovan McNabb during his bad time. According to Jaws, McNabb wasn't seeing what the defense was doing and was making some poor reads based on what the offense was trying to do.
Compared to McNabb's muddy field, Delhomme was seeing the La Brea tar pits.
I have never seen an NFL quarterback make so many poor decisions. Delhomme repeatedly threw into double coverage -- and not just to Steve Smith. On some plays, it really looked like he picked the worst of all possible receivers to try to get the ball to. And in addition to the five interceptions, he actually threw at least three other passes that could have been picked.
Arizona's defensive backs did a great job a) playing their scheme and b) catching some passes that weren't right in their hands. But Delhomme put up one of the worst games I've ever seen from an NFL QB.
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On the offensive side of the ball, a few themes emerged:
The late-season resurgence of Edgerrin James is vastly overrated. Need a guy to get two yards or bounce a run outside for no gain rather than following his blockers? Edge is your guy. At this point, every time Edge is carrying the ball instead of Hightower, it's a win for the defense.
Things opened up a bit at the end of the game when the fight was gone from the Panthers' defense, but the Cardinals' rushing attack is very much like what the Eagles have had the past couple weeks -- run just enough to keep them honest, don't expect much success.
Playing your normal zone coverage against Larry Fitzgerald is about the stupidest thing any defensive coordinator could ever do. You know what was amazing about Fitzgerald's big day against the Panthers? The number of times he caught the ball with dudes wearing 50s and 40s around him. This guy is the best wide receiver in the game and Carolina's plan was to have linebackers pick him up across the middle? Baffling.
The Eagles, of course, didn't get this far by having such a dumb defensive coaching staff. Fitzgerald appeared to be double-covered on almost every play the Eagles weren't blitzing. In fact, it's kind of funny, but I think the Eagles almost missed Samuel less against Fitzgerald then they might have against some other receivers. Since it's not like any cornerback in the league can cover him one on one, when he was lined up against Lito (with a safety over the top), it's not that big a difference (except perhaps by the goal line when there's no deep help).
Of course, even with all the attention, Fitzgerald still caught five passes for 65 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles. The big play was a 40-yarder that came when he ran a double move (fake deep in and go) that completely fooled Quintin Mikell. Remember the big play Considine gave up to Owens in the first Cowboys game? The one that got him benched? Pretty much the exact same play.
The two touchdowns both came down in the redzone. The first from the one-yard line and the second from the seven. The Cardinals like to run a lot of pick-ish type plays down there. Combine that traffic with the fact that Fitzgerald is ridiculously good, and I just don't think you can stop him by playing man coverage down there. Look for the Eagles to inside/outside him in this game if the Cardinals get close to the goal line. They're also likely to drop safeties or linebackers into the slant throwing lane to see if they can't bait Warner into making a mistake.
The last point about Fitzgerald -- for now -- is that the Cardinals move him all over the place, even more against Carolina then they did against the Eagles. It's all well and good to set up your double coverage on the outside, but when he lines up (or motions) inside, things get a lot trickier. The Panthers even ended up having a linebacker cover him a couple times, with predictable results.
Especially if Boldin doesn't play, look for the Cardinals to run Fitzgerald all over the place to shake him free of the double teams. (And if he goes in hard motion late, Warner's going to be looking for him right away.)
Speaking of Boldin, let's hope he doesn't play. I know the Cardinals had three 1,000-yard receivers this year, but there's still a pretty significant drop from Boldin to Breaston, based on what I saw. Between the drops and the fumbles, Anquan had a pretty terrible game against the Eagles, but IF he plays this weekend and IF the Eagles continue to sell out to stop Fitzgerald, Boldin is going to have the opportunity to have a very big game. Say a prayer for Joselio Hanson and hope the Eagles tackle well.
Another interesting thing the Eagles did was to put three safeties on the field. With Asante out, Quintin Demps was basically the team's dime back. I get that. But do you remember the three safety dime the Eagles were using early in the year? By putting Demps on the field in place of Jordan, you get better coverage and a bit more speed, without 1) the negative run defensive aspects of Lito being inside or 2) the negative outside coverage aspects of moving Sheldon inside (and presumably replacing him on the outside with Lito the gambler).
I'm extremely curious to see what Johnson has planned for this game. When the Cardinals put four wide receivers on the field, even Jordan is a bit of a scary match-up. But how much four-corner dime can the Eagles play if Arizona is willing to keep trying to run the ball? You can probably control the line of scrimmage by using your starting defensive line with extra defensive backs behind them, but then you're not getting the same pass rush push up the middle.
I have to say, against this team, I like putting Demps out there. He's inexperienced, but he's fast and he can tackle, which isn't a bad combo to have against Boldin in the slot.
Key point: disrupt the Cardinals' passing attack by disrupting its timing. Arizona runs a timing-based system. Warner hits the top of his drop and bang, the ball's out.
That's a big reason why the Eagles played so much press coverage in their first game. They kept two safeties over the top to help out, but the corners all lined up tight to dirty the receivers' releases and change the timing on the plays. Look for that again.
Second key point: Kurt Warner is scary good when he's in the zone. It didn't look like it in real time, because Carolina kept turning the ball over in the second half, but there was a huge difference between Warner's first and second half performances.
In the first 30 minutes, he was St. Louis Kurt Warner. His accuracy -- always a strength -- was practically absurd. Almost every ball was in almost the exact right spot. His first half stats were 15 of 19, for 199 yards, two touchdowns, and a 145.4 passer rating. He was completely locked in.
The second half was different, however. Carolina started to bring more pressure and actually got to him a few times. Whether it was this pressure or just the end of his hot streak, I don't know, but Warner put the cape away and turned into a much more ordinary quarterback: six of 13 for 21 yards and an interception.
The moral of the story is that if Warner gets in the zone, you better do whatever you can to take him out of it, even if it means risking the big play. He's way too dangerous when he's on.
Finally, one last thing I noticed about Warner is that he throws those super-fast slants like Romo does. You know the plays. The ones where Romo sees a guy about to blitz and then just whistles the ball past him before the cavalry can arrive?
Warner does that too. Hopefully, it's predictable enough that JJ can dial up a few of his patented DE drops right into those lanes. All the ends should be working on their hands this week.
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If it matters in this game, we're probably dead, but I did want to point out one more interesting thing. In the fourth quarter of the Carolina game, when the Cardinals just wanted to run out the clock, they actually brought in a back-up guard to play tight end. I have no idea who #61 Elton Brown is, but he looks a little like a more-in-shape MJG and was an absolute monster blocking Carolina's defensive ends. I really don't understand why more teams don't do this.
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Kurt Warner is 7-2 lifetime in the postseason. Just saying.
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And I think that covers everything.