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

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams Kelvin Kuo-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.


Defense

Scheme

The Cardinals run a base 3-4 defense, but it’s far from traditional. Defensive coordinator James Bettcher (native of Lakeville, Indiana) loves to use versatile players to control match-ups so that his team has a favorable look each and every play. You know, exactly the same way NFL offenses have been planning and playing for years.

Moneybacker. It’s a term you may have heard and it was coined by the Arizona Cardinals. What is a Moneybacker? More or less it is a safety that plays in the box and can cover. When Clayton Geathers moved to ILB for the Colts 2016 game against the Packers, he was playing as a Moneybacker.

The Cardinals took Deone Buccannon in the first round of the 2014 draft. Buccannon played safety at Washington State and has played every NFL snap as a linebacker.

Tyrann Mathieu, the Cards star safety can often be found lining up as the Nickel CB. This year they expanded their position flexibility by drafting a Defensive End (Hassan Reddick) in the first round with the intention of playing him at ILB* and took Safety Budda Baker in the second who has been compared to both Tyrann Mathieu and Bob Sanders. In short, the Cardinals want to keep an offense guessing and have the ability to control match-ups in their favor.

On top of all of that flexibility, the Arizona Cardinals LOVE to blitz. They sent 5 or more rushers on 45% of plays in 2015.

This article from Matty Brown over at Inside the Pylon has a ton of good info about the Cardinals defense, specifically how they may use their versatile new players but it also breaks down a couple blitz packages the Cardinals might use on Sunday. Just a sample:

...The Cardinals have three men on the line, in a 3-3 stack, which could hint at a prevent coverage on 3rd and 16. They then show a potential blitz coming from the right pre-snap. This sees the quarterback change the protection. Instead, the Cardinals bring five, mainly from the left. The pass coverage appears to be Cover 1. They slant their left defensive end, Alex Okafor (#57) inward and have their weak linebacker, safety Tyvon Branch (#27), on a slightly delayed crash aimed at clogging up the B to C gaps. Behind this, they loop inside linebacker Markus Golden (#44) round into blitzing the D gap. The action in front of him, executed perfectly, creates a free path to the quarterback and the sack.

The initial misdirection on the play was an excellent way of getting home with just five men against what was 60 protection (six men pass blocking)...

The Cardinals defense is unique and fast. While much younger as a whole than the offense they have the scheme and coaching to be a very good unit. We’ll take a look, position by position to see who will have an impact.

*to be fair, Reddick played ILB at the Senior Bowl and was projected to fit that position. It just sounded good at the time.


D line

After facing a good defensive line in week one it sure would be nice to catch a break in week two. Unfortunately the Cardinals aren’t going to give the Colts offensive line a day off. Unlike the Rams’ “Phillips 3-4” my research has shown that the Cardinals run a more traditional 2 gap system.

If you’re unsure of the difference between 1 gap and 2 gap this is a good breakdown.

At the time of this writing the Cards plan to start Josh Mauro, Corey Peters and Frostee Rucker. Josh Mauro is a former UDFA who has made an impact in Arizona. By all accounts he has played well and earned his job. Corey Peters is pretty good at his job and unless Ryan Kelly is able to go, plan on seeing the pocket collapse with regularity. Frostee Rucker has been around for a long time. He isn’t what he once was but he’s a good veteran to have in the rotation.

The rotation? The first guy up for them is 2016 first round pick, Robert Nkemdiche. Nkemdiche, is most famous for falling from a fourth story window while under the influence at Ole Miss. Some people focus on the fact that he fell out a window after using an intoxicating substance, I find it fascinating that he fell from a fourth story window and, save for some cuts, he was otherwise unharmed. Either way, if Nkemdiche has figured out how to put his past behind him and can use his athletic ability on a football field, whoever is playing QB for the Colts might want to note where he lines up.

I only have one clip to show you because because 3-4 defensive lines aren’t often sexy, this is something we all love to see. I give you, Corey Peters during his time with the Falcons:

  • Fat guy TD:

In what will likely be Peters’ only chance to score an NFL TD, he takes full advantage. Everybody loves a fat guy TD.


Linebackers

The Arizona Cardinals have invested heavily in their linebacker corp and it shows. They plan to start two first round picks in OLB Chandler Jones and $LB Deone Bucannon and two second rounders ILB Karlos Dansby and OLB Markus Golden. Not to mention 2017 rookie first round ILB Hassan Reddick who figures to have a large role rotating with Karlos Dansby until he takes over the role permanently.

We went over the moneybacker position when we talked about scheme. The Cardinals website literally lists Deone Bucannon as a $LB, I’m not just making stuff up. They’re creating positions, but hey, they did it well so nobody’s going to tell them they cant.

  • Deone Bucannon:

That’s not uncommon, Bucannon flies around like a safety on one play, providing tight man-to-man coverage the next and then working in traffic, fighting off blockers and stopping opposing RB’s in their tracks.

The other first rounder in the starting lineup is what every team wants to have; a consistent 10 sack a year guy. I suppose he only averages 9.4 sacks per season, including his rookie year and 2014 when he only played in 10 games, but I’ll allow it.

  • Chandler Jones:

This isn’t indicative of every sack Chandler Jones has made in his career. This is indicative of why #68 is no longer the Steelers starting LT. This does show that Jones is big, fast and very athletic and unfortunately for the Colts, with five years in the league, he turned in his third 11+ sack season in 2016. Anthony Castonzo is a better left tackle than most seem to think, with that said, I hope the coaching staff recognizes the need to give him help on passing downs.

This linebacker corp is a good one, they’re versatile, they’re good against the run (top 10 in both yards and YPC in 2016), good in coverage and can get after the QB. They have what most teams wish they had at linebacker, our Colts included.


Secondary

Every NFL fan knows who Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu are. Every NFL fan knows them, because they’re good. Lining up in the other secondary spots are CB2 Justin Bethel and former Colts safety Antoine Bethea.

Bethel, believe it or not, is a three time Pro Bowler. I realize that Pro Bowl’s aren’t a great way to prove the value of a player but it’s worth noting as he’s made the trip in three of his first five years as a special teams player, not for his play at corner. His ascent to CB2 is somewhat surprising as nine months ago Bruce Arians called Bethel’s development as a corner back a “failure in progress”. This year Arians has changed his tune citing his ability to play bump and run as the reason he won the job.

Bethel is a guy we can expect to see challenged on Sunday as he’s the biggest question mark on the entire defense. I would say that his increased time on the field worked out, thus far. In week one he notched an 80+ yard pick 6.

  • Bethel INT Return:

One thing to note is this was close to being pass interference, the LB legally hit the crossing WR within 5 yards and before Stafford released the ball. Had he hit the WR a split second later, this draws a flag. As it stands, the WR stopped and Bethel was the only player running the route Stafford was throwing to.

Another guy it’s fair to question is Antoine Bethea. When he was with the Colts I loved the guy. Possibly the best sixth round pick in Indianapolis Colts history, Bethea is 33 and on his third team. This could be his last rodeo and it will be interesting to see how he handles the challenge. Early reports from week one point to Bethea playing center field and getting beat regularly. If he plays in the same role next week, assuming the Colts have a QB who can get the ball downfield, this could turn into a huge plus for our offense.

Patrick Peterson. He’s really good. He’s a big, physical corner with elite athleticism. The guy is a freak. But there is one knock on his game: he may not be at his best covering smaller, quicker wide receivers. That’s great news if your name is TY Hilton:

This video is almost 11 minutes long but Mark Parson does an amazing job breaking down CB vs WR interaction. It also shows that Patrick Peterson is very good but may struggle getting his hands on guys like TY.

Two things to point out; one: TY Hilton is not Steve Smith. Totally different guys. With that said both are small and quick, if Pat Pete is locked on TY the whole game, I expect the Ghost to win about a little less than half of his routes, which is really good against a guy like Peterson. The second point: it doesn’t matter if TY wins every battle if the throws aren’t accurate as Patrick Peterson possibly has the best closing speed in football when he makes a mistake. If TY gets a step and a ball is thrown behind on a go route expect Peterson to make a play most guys wouldn’t.

Tyrann Mathieu is another guy who is tremendously talented. There isn’t much he can’t do, save for play 16 games in a season. Assuming he’s healthy, expect to see him all over the field. I linked to this article above but it’s worth linking again for the play breakdown featuring Mathieu. He might drop deep, he might play man in the slot, he might blitz, but you can count on him making plays.


Final Thoughts

The Cardinals are loaded with talent on the defensive side of the ball. Their weakest position on paper is CB2 but given the strengths of the team it isn’t unreasonable to believe they can overcome that weak point and bounce back to contention this year.

I expect to struggle to move the ball through the air, not due to our receivers inability to get open, because they very well may. I expect to struggle due to our offensive line and the Cardinals ability to get pressure.

During my research I noticed that the 2016 Arizona Cardinals stats and team rankings dropped some compared to past year. While stats don’t tell the whole story, when you see a team’s record drop from 13-3 to 7-8-1 you expect to see a massive statistical decline somewhere — but that wasn’t the case. To gain some insights on this anomaly I asked some Cardinals fans what happened and their response surprised me: Special Teams.

Later in the week we’ll take a look at the Cardinals struggles on special teams in 2016 and I’ll give my prediction for the game.