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2017 Colts Opponent Scouting Report: Week Two, Arizona Cardinals Offense

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NFL: New York Jets at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On September 17, 2017 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Arizona Cardinals. In this week two match up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea for what we’re up against. The Cardinals have an aging offense and Bruce Arians has struggled with health issues of his own. The last time our Colts played a Bruce Arians led Cardinals team things didn’t go so well. A lot of faces have changed for both teams since 2013, hopefully that turnover gives us a better chance this time around. Let’s figure out what we can expect in week two.


Offense

Bruce Arians’ scheme

Most Colts fans who know that Bruce Arians once filled in for Chuck Pagano during his cancer treatment and recovery, are probably familiar with the basics of Arians’ scheme. He’s famous for detesting the West Coast Offense and 7 step drops. Bruce Arians doesn’t like to play small-ball, BA he wants to hit home runs. jacobstevens over at Field Gulls (SB Nation’s Seahawks Blog) wrote up an awesome piece on the Arians offense, which the coach named the “Six-Gun Offense” when he was hired in Arizona.

The architecture of the plays themselves aren't unique or particularly sophisticated. One of the first things to note, is not patently obvious, yet really self-apparent: that an intentional deep vertical attack will primarily stand on vertical routes. There are a handful of double-moves, inside/outside leverage tricks, and the finer points of route running that are utilized to get receivers open. It's not a schemed-open offense, which only works closer in toward the LOS. Arizona doesn't need to scheme their receivers open. They wouldn't be able to capitalize on as many shot plays without them, no doubt.

The key factor in the home run-seeking Six Gun Offense is shrewd utilization of shot plays. Situational stuff. Setting up plays. Not as much what to call, but when to call it.

I know I’m quoting a lot of this article, it’s just so good.

Q2 2:36 1st-10 ARI 20

"Players, formations, plays." That's what Brock Huard stresses that most coaches teach their defenses to watch for. So what do defenses expect when they see rookie interior lineman A.Q. Shipley report as eligible? And then align offset in the backfield?

Let's explore how multiple use of a single play can set up an opportunity for a shot. This is the opening play of the drive. On three occasions in two games has Shipley reported as eligible and align in this fashion on the opening play of a drive. On five occasions in three games has he done this, very early in a drive (within first three plays).

jacobstevens

No shot is taken here. Palmer and the play's design seem intent on moving the safety over and targeting TE Jermaine Gresham on the backside, not seriously challenge deep. Palmer's deliberate midfield gaze and mechanical turn to throw to Gresham show he's working within the play's design. Incomplete, but the play unfolded as drawn up.

Shipley aligns offset for chipping duty in the backfield. Although I thought they might use this unusual assignment to call a slide assignment for the line, they haven't, which might speak to the intentions of this usage: not so much for additional pass protection but for imprinting a memorable play to then play off of.

Sure enough, not one to let you forget, Arizona runs the play on the following drive (now Q2 13:23). Ought Cleveland expect a roughly similar approach to the play, or ought they anticipate the changeup?

Running a play multiple times in a game to set up a shot play is nothing new, or particularly creative. It's not a shocking trick. But that's the NFL. Where two LB swapping coverage or a DB blitz counts as exotic, and where a slight permutation of a standard route is a wrinkle that can do real damage. It's almost funny how well this works.

Palmer looks to Gresham instantly, who actually cuts inside instead of out this time. As though that modest wrinkle were intended to help get Nelson open on a deeper cross, Palmer then looks to Nelson and triple-hitches the windup ala Bronco-era Peyton Manning to get Campbell to close on Nelson's route, leaving Fitzgerald alone with Donte Whitner, which you don't want if you're a Browns fan.

These two plays show exactly what jacobstevens was talking about when he said that this offense wasn’t sophisticated and it was more about when to call a specific play, rather than what play to call.

Arians loves to setup plays like this throughout the game and Palmer and Co. generally execute well. Between this and having specific “shot plays” determined before the game, Arians will look to set up the defense with a steady dose of David Johnson followed by play action passes and running similar plays multiple times. If you’re interested in how he calls his plays (or just interested in football at all) you should read this great article from The Ringer.

If you click no other link, click this one to better understand the Cardinals passing attack.


QB: Carson Palmer.

There has been a lot of talk about Carson Palmer falling off and many people talking about that old metaphorical window closing on the Cardinals chances of winning the Super Bowl. It’s true Palmer will turn 38 this year and the team limited his reps in the off season but the idea that he’s ready to fall off seems to be nothing more than speculation. Last year the Carolina Panthers highlighted how Palmer is dangerous when given time in the pocket. While it’s the most obvious football commentary captured since John Madden retired, they make a good point, Carson Palmer doesn’t look like a guy who has “fallen off”

  • Evades DE, Picks up the first down:

I could have sworn La’Raven Clark played for the Colts last season, but I swear that’s him lined up at right tackle for the Cardinals. (small joke)

Here we see Palmer give the defender a pump fake to get him in the air, Palmer steps up in the pocket to hit his safety valve who picks up the first down against Richard Sherman.

I have talked with a few Cardinals fans and they all seem to agree he’s getting older and they’re worried time is running out, but none of them think his accuracy has gone anywhere.

  • Absolutely perfect:
  • This is insane:

Credit to David Neuman at Niners Nation.

Week 1 saw Palmer throw three INT’s, it could be the beginning of the end but looking at the plays that took place, I’m willing to attribute it to getting rid of off season rust.

Rushed the throw:

Eh:

Will Carson Palmer fall off at some point this year, has it already happened? Maybe. If the Colts played the Cardinals in week 12 instead of week 2, I would feel better about facing a run-down version of #3. For now, I’m going to assume we’re getting his best in a game he’ll be looking to bounce back in.


RB: David Johnson

This is a list of running backs taken before David Johnson in the 2015 NFL draft:

  1. Todd Gurley
  2. Melvin Gordon
  3. T.J. Yeldon
  4. Ameer Abdullah
  5. Tevin Coleman
  6. Duke Johnson

This is a list of running backs taken before David Johnson in the 2015 NFL draft who are better than David Johnson:

Watching #31 run and catch is a lot of fun. He has great speed and acceleration, great vision, he’s patient and is almost impossible to bring down with a single defender. But what makes him a great offensive weapon is the fact that coupled with all of that, he could have played receiver too.

  • Looks easy:

This isn’t a fluke, David Johnson doesn’t just do this sometimes, he had 1,249 yards rushing and 80 catches that went for 879 yards and 20 total touchdowns in 2016. He’s on record as saying he hopes to go over 1,000 yards on the ground and through the air.

For some perspective had he played for the Colts in 2016 he would have been second on the team in both receptions and receiving yards.

Our linebackers are going to struggle to cover him in the open field, maybe they’ll fare better limiting him on the ground?

  • Probably not:

UPDATE: David Johnson injured his wrist in week 1 against the Lions. X-Rays showed no breaks and as far as anyone seems to know right now it is just a sprain. Reports have varied wildly, ranging from missing half the season to possibly playing in week 2. This is vital looking towards this coming Sunday.

News moves fast, 21 minutes later:

Now more than ever the Cardinals will need play makers to fill any possible void that may be left sans Johnson. Andre Ellington, who averaged 2.8 YPC last year doesn’t seem fit to handle the load, so who are they throwing the ball to?


WR: Larry Fitzgerald

If it feels like you’ve been hearing about Larry Fitzgerald for a long time, it’s because you have been. Fitz is entering his 14th season with the Cardinals and while he isn’t the deep threat he once was, 2015 and 2016 saw him make more catches than during any other two year stretch in his career. So what does Fitz do well?

  • Palmer finds a hole in the zone:

As much as this was Palmer throwing a perfect pass, Fitz runs good routes and knows how to sit in holes in zone coverage.

  • Contested:

As soon as the ball arrives Fitz takes a hit and holds on to the ball. He’s working against man coverage against a good corner in Josh Norman.

  • Using his blockers well:

This demonstrates that Fitz maneuvers well in space, setting up and then using his blockers efficiently. He isn’t the deep threat that he once was, but Larry Fitzgerald is an effective receiver.

  • From Week 1:

They clear out the underneath and let Fitz catch and run. Still looks pretty good to me.

Looking at the Cardinals receiving corps it’s clear that there is talent outside of Fitzgerald, John Brown, when healthy is a threat. He seems to be healthy, watch for him to be used most heavily when the Cards have the ball on their side of the field, chunk plays are where Brown excels. Another guy to watch is J.J. Nelson, he’s entering his third season and has made huge improvements in his game. He is the deep threat Patriots wide receiver Phillip Dorsett was billed to be. I would be very surprised if we didn’t see a deep ball or two thrown his way.

Bottom line, while there are other good receivers in Arizona, after 14 years Larry Fitzgerald is still the guy to go to. If Carson Palmer gets time in the pocket our DB’s need to be ready to see a healthy dose of #11.


Offensive Line

I know I’ve given you a lot of bad news so far. This Cardinals team finished with a bad record in 2016 but their offense isn’t exactly lacking. They are an aging team, but there is no indication that they are slowing down. So rejoice! The Arizona Cardinals offensive line isn’t great! I know I used PFF in my favor last week, and this week I’m discrediting them, but stay with me. There’s a (albeit slight) difference between their limited and somewhat flawed ranking system and their projections, which seem to be based on their limited and somewhat flawed ranking system and what the author had for breakfast.

PFF gave them a preseason rank of 17th, which seems generous when they qualified this placement while mentioning that their new LT gave up nine sacks while playing RT last year. In the same article they ranked the Dallas Cowboys as having the 9th best offensive line in the league saying that La’el Collins failed to play well at guard so his moving to RT is concerning. Seems like a double standard, but that’s none of my business.

Like our Colts the Cardinals excel in the ground game and seem to struggle to keep the pocket clean. One thing to watch for is the outside (or stretch) Zone. It should look familiar to anyone old enough to remember Edgerrin James.

  • Stretch Run:

On this play both the play side tackle and center get taken to school, coupled with both guards failing to get blocks on flowing LB’s the RB has no where to run. David Johnson is really good, but he’s not a superhero. If the Colts can get this kind of penetration consistently it will give them a chance to win.

  • AQ Shipley, ladies and gentlemen:

Granted I’m cherry picking from what was, by all accounts, a good year for the former Colt and these are two plays against really good defensive lines. Bottom line, penetration kills plays. If any team can get consistent penetration, they have a shot to win the game.


Final Thoughts

While the Cardinals offense is reliant on aging talent they still have the talent to be a top 5 unit. In my week one scouting report on the Rams I mentioned that there were a lot of “if’s” with that team. I should have mentioned that the same could be said of every team in the league. The difference isn’t the fact that both teams need things to break in their favor, the difference is the Cardinals have done it before.

If healthy, each of their skill positions look like they’ll give our defense problems and while their offensive line isn’t stellar, if the Colts can’t find someone to rush the passer, this weakness may not matter.

This early in the season, we don’t really know which teams are contenders and which teams just didn’t show up in week one. With that said, based on everything we know, it’s safe to assume that if David Johnson can go, he and Carson Palmer will do their best to make it a long day for Colts fans.