Steelers Film Room: Arizona Cardinals’ Offensive Scouting Report

This year, Jon Ledyard and I will be collaborating our scouting reports. We’ll play to our strengths – he’ll be focusing on the individuals while I’ll be looking at overall scheme. These reports will be broken down into two articles, one for offense and one for defense.

Our reports for the Arizona Cardinals’ offense.

ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT: 

Arizona’s Run Game

As Dave and others have illustrated throughout the week, the Cardinals are enjoying one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks. Something they haven’t had in a long time. Their five yards per carry average is first in the NFL while their seven rushing touchdowns is tied for third.

They have 23 runs of 10+ yards, also first in the NFL. Chris Johnson’s career has been revived, and he’s responsible for 11 of them. He has a 20+ run in each of the last three games.

Wide receiver John Brown also has one rush on the season, a 13 yard gain.

Will see three to four different faces in the backfield. Last week against the Detroit Lions was a blowout, skewing the numbers a little, but the snap count as follows: Johnson with 17, Andre Ellington 13, Stephan Taylor 10, David Johnson 6.

Their run scheme is as multiple as it gets. Good mix of inside zone, man, and gap runs. They especially like to pull their guards inside the 20s. Run a crack toss play to the boundary, asking receivers to crack lineman/linebackers and getting their big bodies out in space.

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Here they are running power with the left guard pulling, creating a downhill, isolation run. All have been effective and one reason why their run game in general is near the tops in the league. There’s talent but they match it with scheme variation that makes their approach harder to predict.

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Arizona mainly runs out of one back sets but will place their big tight end Darren Fells into the backfield, or use motion to get him immediately behind a lineman in a two-point stance. With how massive he is, the Cardinals’ line splits often tell you where he’s going.

Against the Lions last week, here we get a much bigger split in the closed A gap. It’s where Fells blocks to.

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One thing the Cardinals love to do, making this one of the key areas to watch for, is crack safeties with their receivers. Larry Fitzgerald is doing an incredible job of getting his nose dirty and throwing blocks. We’re talking a Hines Ward level.

Quick side note: check out this Vine I took of his first three plays against the St. Louis Rams. That chip on Robert Quinn is remarkable.

They’ll crack any safety even close to the box, which isn’t that uncommon, but they do it very well and remove safeties from their run fill. It forces cornerbacks to replace them and become a key part of run defense, protecting the edge and being the last line of defense to that side. The Cardinals bank on the cornerbacks not being as good in run support as a safety, most aren’t, giving them tasty matchups in the open field.

Look no further than Johnson’s 40 yard run last week against the Lions. Fitz cracks the safety, forcing the cornerback to make the tackle in open field, and Johnson jukes him, free downfield.

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Don’t know how many times it’s happened throughout the year but here’s a 2nd and 9 direct snap to Johnson last week. Another wrinkle.

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One other note. In Week Three against the St. Louis Rams, they put in center A.Q. Shipley in the backfield in this split back/near set formation, acting as a lead blocker on a G-Lead concept.

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Arizona Cardinals’ Passing Game

As a unit, they are third in the league with 22 plays of 20+ yards. Fitzgerald is responsible for exactly half of those. No other receiver in the league has more than eight.

He and Brown make up for 58 of the 97 receptions Carson Palmer has completed, or 59.8%. Fitzgerald is catching 79.5% of the passes thrown his way while Brown has caught 74.2%. Impressive numbers for both.

David Johnson and Daniel Fells have just 17 combined receptions but four touchdowns already. Fells is playing the second highest percentage of snaps of all the skill players, only behind Fitz, at 83.8%.

Michael Floyd has played 52% of the offensive snaps but has just eight grabs on the season.

Along the offensive line, they’ve dealt with injuries, but have been fortunate to get Mike Iupati back. Only Jared Veldheer, Jonathan Cooper, and Lyle Sendlein have played more than 62% of the time in 2015.

Like Philip Rivers last week, Palmer has complete control over that offense. Just as Ben Roethlisberger does, Palmer runs plenty of RPOs, or throws hot without alerting anyone but he and the receiver.

Here he is handing the ball off and throwing the swing against the Lions. All based on how the defense lines up.

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They appear to like running sail concepts to the field. A three man route consisting of a vertical route, a corner, and a flat. Multi-level design to expand the defense. Here’s one on 2nd and 7 complete to Fitzgerald for 16.

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Their backs are dangerous out of the backfield, especially Johnson. He’ll run the wheel out of the backfield or motioned onto the line in trips. Linebackers are going to asked to carry him downfield, and it isn’t an easy task.

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Generally speaking, it’s a vertical threat and true to Bruce Arians form, not one that will be shy about taking chances downfield. Live and die by it.

Finally, one other alert. They’ll pull their guard on passes to create a false run key, throwing downfield or working screens away from the pull. The goal the same, get the linebackers thinking run and sucking them to the line of scrimmage.

Here they are pulling the left guard, faking the playaction, and hitting Jermaine Gresham on a screen.

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I’m going to guess Keith Butler isn’t going to be able to blitz as much Sunday. Arizona runs too many empty sets to be able to blitz. If you want to, you have to declare early, and Palmer is going to get the ball out quick with five receivers to target. Going to have to trust their four/five man rush to get home.

Arizona’s Special Teams

Their kick return formation is a 5-1-2-2-1, with one player from the wedge line peeling around to work as the upback for David Johnson, who is already one of the most dangerous return men in the game. He’s taken one kick back for a touchdown already.

Patrick Peterson is the team’s punt returner. He isn’t any easier to tackle. Steelers’ special teams will have to be on point Sunday.

Drew Butler is the Cardinals’ punter and holder on field goals. He’s never thrown a pass in his career, Arizona or elsewhere.

JON’S INDIVIDUAL REPORT: 

In one of the most impressive coaching performances I’ve seen in my lifetime, Bruce Arians has taken a franchise with a culture of losing and inconsistent play, and turned them into one of the best, most intense teams in the NFL. The Cardinals offense exemplifies his coaching style, an aggressive unit led by the gun-slinging capabilities of Carson Palmer.

Despite a couple knee surgeries and a mid-career stretch of poor play, Palmer has been one of the best quarterbacks in football this season, consistently making high degree of difficulty throws into tight windows. Palmer has never been gun shy, and his aggressive mentality has allowed a talented trio of wide receivers to star while working with him.

Great footwork in the pocket to step up and fire one just past the cornerback and into the hands of Larry Fitzgerald as he heads into a crowd. Not much margin for error on a throw like that, but Palmer has the velocity to take those risks other quarterbacks can’t or won’t.

Here’s another one zipped into a narrow window with defenders bracketing tight end Darren Fells.

I mean, this is tremendous coverage, yet Palmer still finds a way to get the throw right where it needs to be. I have at least three other passes from the Detroit game just like this. Palmer is simply in the zone right now, able to pinpoint accurate passes with great mechanics and timing, leading to a thriving passing game in Arians system.

Of course, Palmer’s greatest strength can also become his greatest weakness. The veteran quarterback is as gutsy and competitive as their is in the game today, but he’ll definitely take some chances and live with the results. Palmer trusts his arm and his receivers, which are great traits to have, but the opportunities for a defense to make plays on the ball are there every game.

The key will be getting Palmer uncomfortable in the pocket, forcing him to make those tough throws from an unsound base. A gunslinger like Palmer can’t turn it off, so Pittsburgh’s defense has to be prepared to capitalize on one of his high-risk tosses.

The Cardinals offensive line has been brilliant this season, especially in the run game. The group did give up some early sacks against Detroit’s four-man rushes, but improved as the game went on.

Left guard Mike Iupati came over from San Francisco this offseason to give Arizona a nasty presence on their offensive line. He’s still rounding into form from a significant knee injury, but twists up front have given him issues this year.

Iupati aggresively helps on the crasher, but leaves himself susceptible on the inside shoulder by cheating to the edge. The looper aggressively attacks the A-gap, and Iupati can only perform a semi-hold to keep his quarterback from being decked. Palmer still takes a hit on the play, and has to rush a throw that is nearly intercepted as a result. Happened again on the next drive.

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Iupati really makes his mark in the run game, mostly due to his raw power and firm base. Bullies the three technique here to open a big lane for David Johnson to score.

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Once Iupati gets you locked up, he’s so powerful that defenders have a difficult time working free. As a pass protector I think he gets to high out of his stance, leaving himself susceptible to leverage rushers, but his base is so stout that most bull rushes are ineffective against him.

Right guard Jonathan Cooper has battled injuries for much of his NFL career, but is the only Cardinals player to be on the field for every offensive snap. There have been positives and negatives, but like Iupati, Cooper tends to stand straight up off the snap and expose his chest to pass rushers.

Cooper gets bull-rushed in Palmer’s lap when he misses his punch, opening a gap for the defensive end to get home after whipping right tackle Bobby Massie inside. Not a good look for the Cardinals right side.

Jared Veldheer is a prototypical blindside protector with good feet and great arm extension. He was excellent in the tape I watched, and has given up just one sack this season. Very good angle blocker in the run game. Most of Arizona’s splash rushing plays were off the right side against Detroit, largely thanks to Veldheer and Iupati. Jarvis Jones and James Harrison should have their hands full with Veldheer.

Center Lyle Sendlein has been solid this season, not giving up a sack and doing a great job controlling the A-gaps. Smart lineman who knows where the pressure is coming from and puts himself in great positions to succeed. Been the starting center for Arizona since 2008, and has only missed five games during that whole time. Durable, tough, very clean in his technique. Kind of guy the team tries to replace most years (they cut him this offseason), but keeps hanging on and elevating his play. Also hasn’t been penalized yet this season, and has been whistled just six times over the past four years. FOUR YEARS. By comparison, Veldheer has been penalized six times in the season’s first five weeks.

As for the team’s weapons, there are a wide array of them. At wide receiver, perhaps no trio in the NFL has been as effective as Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown. Fitz seemed to be fading into obscurity over the past few seasons, but has responded with a incredible start to the 2015 campaign, catching 35 passes on 45 targets, for 490 yards and six touchdowns, all of which lead the team. The touchdown mark leads the NFL amongst all receivers.

What makes Fitzgerald great, and has throughout his NFL career, is his ability to make tough catches in traffic with an insane radius and remarkable concentration. Did it against Detroit early and often.

Doesn’t get much separation with his route, coverage is tight, but literally takes the ball off the defensive back’s helmet for the tough catch. And going down the seam where he knows he could take a shot. Next play he caught a two-yard touchdown with the cornerback draped all over him. He’s just an animal at the catch point, better bring your lunch pail if you want to slow him down.

Fitzgerald is also a big play threat, with 11 of his 35 catches going for 20 yards or more. And he’ll block in a variety of ways, even lining up in two-point stance on the wing in a pseudo-tight end role a few times.

Brown thrives in different ways, a top-notch vertical threat with outstanding speed (4.34 40) and tracking ability deep. Arians trusts him too, calling his number for this 49-yard completion despite being under the shadow of his own goal posts.

First, Arians is some type of gutsy calling a five-step drop with a deep shot from his own end zone. Again, trusts his players and stays aggressive with a lead.

That’s a pretty good corner Brown is working on in Darius Slay, but he makes a mistake not getting a hand on the receiver. If you let Brown get a clean release, prepare to be eating his dust at some point in the route. He’s crazy quick in his footwork, and can straight run away from defensive backs in the open field. The only guy who has a shot to match up with him vertically on Pittsburgh’s roster is Brandon Boykin, but it doesn’t look like that is gonna happen.

Cardinals will use Brown on screens too, but his route tree has advanced to the point that he is no longer a one-trick pony. He can hurt a defense in a lot of ways.

Floyd is kind of the forgotten man everyone thought Fitzgerald was becoming, catching eight passes for 107 yards on 17 targets for zero scores. He has an outstanding catch radius and makes great adjustments in the air. Jump ball threat in the red zone too, Palmer gave him back-to-back opportunities on the fade route in the end zone against San Francisco, drawing a penalty on the second try. Floyd will block too, quite well. He won’t stay quiet forever this season. Floyd made this sensational grab against the 49ers two weeks ago that was called back due to a penalty.

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Their tight ends are just guys as receivers, but are capable of making plays given the array of talent around them. Darren Fells had a couple nice grabs against Detroit, but has just ten targets on the season. He’s the starter and a red zone threat as well, as two of his eight grabs have gone for scores. Jermaine Gresham is the backup tight end, and the Steelers should be well-acquainted with him from his days in Cincinnati. The former first round pick has been quiet in Arizona with just five grabs, and is still struggling with drops. Had one in the red zone against St. Louis that would have given the Cardinals a big first down. Dropped another one in the end zone against San Francisco too. Unreliable as always.

Both tight ends are primarily extra blockers, and Fells especially does a nice job. He’s stout at the point of attack, and battles hard to sustain blocks. Gresham uses those long arms to lock out defenders. Both are big reasons why Chris Johnson has enjoyed so much success.

As for Johnson, boy has he been a surprise since arriving in Arizona right before the regular season began. His 405 rushing yards on just 79 carries is good for an average of 5.1 yards per tote. He spearheads the third best rushing attack in the NFL (134.8 yards per carry), and is a great fit for Arians’ offense. Even with Andre Ellington returning to the lineup and David Johnson flashing every week, Chris Johnson looks like he’ll remain the feature guy.

Ellington and David Johnson are excellent complements however, as the former possesses the breakaway speed Chris Johnson once had. Ellington took one carry 63 yards to the house against Detroit, and has scored twice on just 16 touches this season. He’ll line up in the slot on passing downs quite often, as his versatility is greatly valued by Arians.

If Ellington is versatile, then what do you call David Johnson? The Northern Iowa back has had an incredible first five weeks to his NFL career, scoring six times on just 31 touches. He’s run a kickoff back 108 yards for a touchdown, nabbed two receiving scores on just nine catches (one from 55 yards out), and has found the end zone on three of his 18 carries. Absolutely dynamic threat who can break tackles at 6’1, 224 pounds, but also has the straight line speed to destroy defenders pursuit angles.

Sidenote, should something happen to Palmer, Drew Stanton is one of the best backup quarterbacks in the NFL. Arizona went 6-3 with Stanton at the helm last year, despite the fact he hadn’t thrown a pass in an NFL game since December of 2010.

Above all, Arians’ team is marked by consistency and discipline. The unit is a remarkable +13 in turnover differential during Arians 37 games as head coach, despite having dealt with significant injuries at almost every position on the roster. The Cardinals 29 offensive penalties is tied for the third lowest mark in football. In short, they rarely beat themselves, and when they do, they typically bounce back and pound the snot out of their next opponent or two (see St. Louis in Week 4, Detroit in Week 5).

In the kick return game I mentioned Johnson’s prowess, and he should continue to run back kicks if Chris Boswell allows him to. The dangerous Patrick Peterson fields the majority of punts for Arizona, but has yet gain more than 12 yards on a return this year. Peterson had four punt return touchdowns during his rookie season, none in the two-and-a-half seasons since despite ample opportunity. In fact, Peterson hasn’t had a return longer than 26 yards during that time.

Chandler Catanzaro has been an excellent find for Arizona, going 7-for-7 on field goals over the first five games of his second NFL season. Catanzaro was 29-33 last year, with a long of 51 yards. 51 yards was his collegiate long as well. He’s missed one extra point this season, currently sitting at 23-24.

About the Author

Alex Kozora

Full-time blogger from mom’s basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.

  • David Paul

    Steelers miss Hines blocking like that. It makes a huge diff in the run game.

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    Cards averaging 4 or more explosive plays a game? If we can limit them to 3 or less maybe we have a chance.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    Fantastic job showing people how well they can perform. Love the blocking. They were legit contenders to take it all last year. This year as well if they can stay healthy. Nearly unbeatable with Palmer as QB. Their D went from phenomenal last year to giving up 200 rush yards per game near the end when they had all those injuries.

    WRs do not need to Heinz Ward people. They just need to get a guy a little off balance at the moment the ball carrier should be zooming by them. Oh those Fitzgerald blocks are a sight.

    I hope the Steelers can come out flying today, make a couple of big stops, get the fans going crazy, then get Palmer to force some throws for INTs. It’s going to be tough but the Steelers often lose to lessor opponents while winning against better teams, especially at home. Let’s hope. Arians is a great motivator much better head coach, and both teams are much better off now. Win-win.