A shortened version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
On Thursday morning, the Arizona Cardinals signed defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to a three-year contract extension that reportedly makes him one of the five highest-paid assistant coaches in the league. He is worth it.
Before the season, Arizona’s defense lost its two best linebackers: Karlos Dansby left for Cleveland via free agency, and Daryl Washington was suspended for the year. Veteran defensive end Darnell Dockett tore his ACL in training camp, and John Abraham, their best pass rusher, was placed on injured reserve after Week 1.
Yet despite the turmoil and turnover, Arizona’s defense is ranked fifth by Football Outsiders. Conventional stats tell you that the Cardinals are vulnerable against the pass, allowing the third-most passing yards per game. However, FO grades Arizona’s pass defense as fifth-best in the league and fourth versus the run. The Cardinals enter Week 11 tied for second in the league with 19 takeaways, including a league-high 14 interceptions. Much of that has to do with Bowles’ heavy-blitz philosophy. The Cardinals are blitzing 41.1% of the time, fifth-highest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Sunday’s game (4:25 p.m., Fox) likely will come down to how the Lions handle these blitz packages. Detroit’s run game has been pitiful, and they will be without right guard Larry Warford for the foreseeable future. Rookie third-round draftee Travis Swanson will make his first career start in Warford’s place Sunday and will face quite the test. A banged-up offensive line is a recipe for disaster against this blitzing defense. The game likely will hinge on the offensive line’s ability to keep Matthew Stafford upright, as well as the quarterback’s decision making and accuracy under pressure.
Per Pro Football Focus, Stafford has been decent against extra rushers this season. In 72 dropbacks facing a blitz, Stafford has completed 60% of his passes, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, good for a 96.9 quarterback rating. He has been sacked seven times versus the blitz. For comparison, last season, his QB rating was 79. He completed 52.8% of his passes for 11 TDs against six picks. Stafford commands the 19th-best passing offense, according to FO, and the Lions will be relying on him to have success against one of the more talented secondaries in football.
In 2013, the Cardinals were a nickel team (five defensive backs), but this year, they play a lot more dime (six DBs). Last week against the St. Louis Rams, Arizona was in dime 71% of the time. The reason for the change is rookie safety Deone Bucannon, who is used as a hybrid linebacker. He’s strong against the run and provides better pass coverage than a linebacker. Bucannon also is a good blitzer, and Bowles utilizes him in a number of blitz concepts from the dime package.
On Wednesday, I wrote about how the Lions’ defense used a fake Double A-Gap blitz against the Miami Dolphins to force a James Ihedigbo interception. Well, Bowles likes to bring a Triple A-Gap blitz and isn’t afraid to use it with the game on the line. This blitz is lethal against a one-back backfield, and here’s why:
In Week 1 against the San Diego Chargers, Bowles relied on pressure to seal the victory. The Cardinals led by one point with two minutes to play when Bowles ramped up the heat. Arizona is in dime, playing man-to-man with “zero coverage,” meaning there is no safety help in the middle of the field.
Detroit native and former Lion Larry Foote and Bucannon blitz the A-gap together. Safety Tony Jefferson will be the third blitzer. The Chargers identify Foote as the middle linebacker and, thus, the center will pick him up. Running back Danny Woodhead is responsible for the second free rusher.
Both Foote and Bucannon are accounted for, but Jefferson comes through clean.
The Cardinals play tight coverage, and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is forced to rush the throw as Jefferson bears down on him. Rivers throws short across the middle and nearly is intercepted.
Bowles brought the same blitz on the following two plays, and the pressure forced two more incompletions to secure the win.
Let’s look at the same concept, this time against a more mobile quarterback in the San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick. The Cardinals led, 20-14, with five minutes to play. With the game on the line, Bowles again cemented his defensive philosophy by bringing heat.
The center will pick up Foote, who again is identified as the Mike linebacker, while the halfback takes Bucannon. Jefferson will blitz from even more distance this time.
On this blitz, the Cardinals drop their outside linebackers in coverage and only bring five rushers.
The right guard (No. 75) is unprepared for Jefferson, and the safety uses his quickness to speed past him for the sack. The Cardinals take away Kaepernick’s first read, and he doesn’t see Jefferson until it’s too late.
This sack put San Francisco in third-and-19, and it was forced to punt one play later, allowing Arizona to bleed clock and earn the win.
Like the Lions, the Cardinals feature an excellent defensive lineman in the mammoth Calais Campbell. The 6-foot-8 Campbell ranks among the best 3-4 ends in the league, racking up 39.5 sacks over the last six seasons. He also is dangerous on field goals, using his pterodactyl wingspan to block six attempts in seven seasons.
Against the Rams on Sunday, Campbell destroyed a double team to earn a sack. Arizona used a ‘Cross Dog’ blitz scheme of the A-Gap while playing zone coverage. Foote (No. 50) and Ed Stinson (No. 72) will cross on their blitzes, with Foote attacking first.
Foote gets bumped outside while Campbell fights against the guard and tackle.
He’s so big and strong that he bursts through the line. Again, the Cardinals’ secondary has the receivers covered, and quarterback Austin Davis can’t find anybody open. He feels the pressure and tries to escape but has nowhere to go, and Campbell tracks him down.
If we learned anything from the Lions’ last three games, it’s that this game might come down to a last-ditch drive. If that happens, expect to see the Cardinals bring defenders from anywhere and everywhere to try to stifle the Cardiac Cats.
Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.