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Know Thine Eagles Enemy: Cardinals Film Review

And y’all complained about Doug Pederson’s run/pass ratio

Philadelphia Eagles v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Let’s chuck out some stats as an opener:

Philadelphia is second in the NFL in 3rd down conversion percentage, at 50.85%. First is Carolina, their upcoming opponent (51.92%), and Arizona ranks 15th in the league with 39.06%. Defensively, Philadelphia (37.21%) and Arizona (37.10%) are neck and neck as far as 3rd down conversion percentage allowed. The difference, however: Philadelphia is last in the league, having forced 10.8 third downs per game; Arizona leads it, forcing 15.5 third downs per game.

Philadelphia, having given up 13.0 points on average in the fourth quarter this season, is second-worst in the NFL. Arizona, however, has the 19th best scoring offense in the 4th (5.5 points/game). Let’s see if Philly can more easily close out a game at home this time.

Arizona is tied for 3rd-worst in the NFL with only 3 takeaways across four games; Philadelphia is tied for 3rd-best in the NFL with 7 takeaways across four games.

My favorite: Philadelphia is first in the NFL with a 59.13% time of possession percentage. Ooh, that feels good.

Cardinals Offense

Let’s call this what it is: Bruce Arians, Carson Palmer, and Larry Fitzgerald are old. Quite old. That’s not to say their respective talents have fallen off the cliff. There’s certainly a decline in Palmer’s arm and Fitzgerald’s strength, but they’re still talented NFL players.

The true impact of such a geriatric trio? They know their time is running to an end. At 2-2 (wins over San Francisco and Indianapolis by a combined 9 points), with injuries to elite offensive weapon RB David Johnson and excellent DE Markus Golden, they need every win they can get if they’re to salvage together any semblance of a last hurrah.

As such, Arians is still taking shots deep—even more frequently than he has in years past, by my eye. Their offense isn’t reckless, per se—but it’s looking for a jailbreak play at every opportunity.

This first play is worthy of note due to the frequency with which the Cardinals attack downfield out of 3 WR stacks and bunches. The Cardinals don’t particularly disguise their passing plays—they’ll go 3 x 1, with a 3-route concept on the strong side, and expect Palmer to make the correct read and the WR to make the play. Very few backside screens or 1-on-1 isolation routes.

The Cardinals motion into the bunch here (a very common occurrence) with their veteran WR Larry Fitzgerald. He’ll immediately draw a lot of defensive attention. Fitz runs a delayed flat route, and on a short-yardage situation, or against Cover 3 or 4, Palmer may hit him right away.

But against Cover 2, like you see here, Palmer knows the threat of Fitzgerald will hold the flat corner, and the corner route ran by the #1 WR will be open against the boundary. The post route run by the inside slot receiver holds the deep safety long enough to keep the window open.

That inside slot post route? Don’t be surprised if you see Palmer attack that route against Cover 3 or Cover 4. You’ll often see in Arizona’s offense what’s called a MOFO/MOFC read (Middle Of the Field Open/Closed): depending on the action of the deep safeties, that post route could become a go down the field, or potentially even a dig across the middle.

Philadelphia will likely look to play a ton of Cover 2/Cover 4 this week, as they don’t need to rotate an extra safety into the box against Arizona’s non-existent rushing attacks. Keep an eye out for 3 WR sets to the wide side of the field, and particularly this flat-7 divide concept here, as the Cardinals look to acquire leverage advantages against those deep zones

As stated, the Cardinals just don’t run the football (21.5 att/game, tied for 4th worst). Last week, RB Chris Johnson saw 13 carries for only 32 yards, while RB Andre Ellington saw 14 touches—but 9 of them came through the air.

Ellington’s ability as a receiving back cannot be underestimated, however. Remember how I said the Cardinals rarely throw it backside? They will, on occasion--but those occasions have tells. For example, look for 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE), with a 3 x 1 formation, and an inline TE to the weak side. Out of this alignment, there will be a ton of space to the weak side, and the primary receiving threat on the defense’s radar will be that inline TE. Ellington will leak out of the backfield, read the leverage of the closest defender, and break out on an option route.

Against SF, it looks to be a Cover 3 shell. The corner on the weak side gets sucked in by the vertical release of the TE, and Ellington has green pastures to the outside. Against DET, the Lions run a Cover 2 look, and Ellington slices upfield, inside of the flat corner, for an easy catch up the seam.

Expect Philadelphia to carry Ellington in space with man coverage as often as they can—but a healthy dose of zone, to protect the young CBs, is likely. Avoiding the temptation to cheat to the strong side against Arizona’s 3 route concepts will be key, as well as sound tackling in space.

As stated, the Cardinals just don’t run the football—woah, déjà vu. The stat that shocks me the most about Arizona? Across the 41 red zone plays I charted, they threw the ball 33 times (80.4%) and only ran it 8 times. Inside the 5 yard line, they threw it 9 times and only ran it 2 times. That’s roughly 300 types of bonkers.

You’ll see Arizona work from empty sets a ton in the red zone, moving Ellington and TE Jermaine Gresham out as WRs. On this play, we see a favorite red zone concept of Air Coryell coaches everywhere: Double Smash-7.

The primary target on this concept, and often in the red zone, is Larry Fitzgerald. Working from the inside slot, he does very well to work through the physical coverage of the slot CB and get to the empty area behind the boundary corners. Even though the slot corner is in decent position, there’s still a good window for this football to arrive.

Those boundary corners are sucked in by the quick-breaking in routes of the two receivers (oh wow, look at that, a 3-route concept to the wide side of the field). These are the smash routes, which are designed to hold up all of the underneath traffic and leave space in the back of the end zone for Fitzgerald.

The issue here is pressure: Palmer can’t get a clean throwing hallway and is forced to release the ball earlier than he’d like, attempting to jam it inside to one of the smash routes. The Cardinals are coming to Philadelphia with a battered offensive line, and many of these route concepts are long-developing. If Philadelphia can disrupt Palmer’s pocket, they’ll ruin his vision and timing with his receivers down the field.

Watch that play again. The slot corner does just enough to delay Fitzgerald getting into his route, and the pressure does all of the rest. Philly’s D better come to disrupt.

Cardinals Defense

Arizona is playing pretty solid defense this year, folks. They have an impressive backfield between All-World CB Patrick Peterson, SAFs Tyrann Mathieu and Tyvon Branch, and kinda-meh CB Justin Bethel (we’ll get to him). There’s some good depth in that secondary as well, with 2nd-round rookie Budda Baker and veterans CB Tramon Williams and S Antoine Bethea.

Remember, Arizona helped herald in the age of the SS/LB hybrid—the moneybacker—with LB Deone Buchanon, who plays beside veteran Karlos Dansby in the middle. The defensive front is a little lacking, especially with the recent injury to EDGE Markus Golden, though OLB Chandler Jones is always difficult to handle, and first-round rookie LB Haason Reddick—a Philly kid—will likely see increased playing time this Sunday.

Let’s start with the running game, which has been the grease on the wheels of Philly’s machine these last two weeks. Dallas busted a 20-yard gain against Arizona from a formation and blocking concept that should be familiar to Eagles fans.

The Cowboys work an overloaded line here—Philly loves to do this, bringing in OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai as a TE. And on this play, Dallas runs a sweep with two pullers—the RG and RT . This sort of sweep, from an under center, singleback alignment, has shown up multiple times in the Eagles’ tape. Corey Clement’s touchdown against New York comes to mind.

Though Philly tends to run against lighter boxes, and not overload the play side like Dallas does here, this iteration of one of their staple plays is undoubtedly in the book.

Though the frontside does its job perfectly (peep #82 Jason Witten sealing Robert Nkemdiche nicely) it’s the backside that makes this play. C Travis Frederick (#72) gets a perfect reach block, while LG Chaz Green (#79) does excellent work cutting off backside pursuit at the second level against Reddick (#43). The Cardinals’ front seven is generally smaller than the average NFL team’s, which is advantageous against bigger, plodding offensive lines that can’t tag them in space.

Philadelphia does not have a bigger, plodding offensive line.

Expect the Eagles to move linemen like C Jason Kelce and OTs Lane Johnson and Jason Peters into space and bust open some big runs. I like this sweep concept, as well as a healthy dose of outside/split zone, for the game plan on the ground.

When the Eagles take to the air, Carson will likely look to attack Justin Bethel. Patrick Peterson will track WR Alshon Jeffery for the majority of the game, and given the issues Jeffery had with Casey Hayward last week, it’s unlikely he sees an improved outing on Sunday.

This play is important to highlight for a few reasons. One you can’t see—the Lions went no huddle on this drive, and in an effort to substitute, Arizona became discombobulated and struggled to get their personnel and call in. Philly hasn’t shown it as much this year, but Pederson has utilized tempo in the past—with a few young players on the field for the Cardinals, he may look to do so again.

What you can see, is that Arizona has 8 in the box against 12 personnel here. The Lions ran the football with some success against the Cardinals, and Arizona resorted to a single-high coverage in response. If the Eagles, who run a decently similar offense to Detroit, can consistently pound it on the ground, they’ll have advantageous coverages against which to dial up shot plays.

And finally, let’s highlight Bethel. Whether because of the aforementioned confusion with the call, or because Bethel has sub-par short area quickness, Golladay is able to blow by Bethel’s tight coverage. Stafford delivers a beautiful ball, the free safety can’t cover that distance, and the Lions score six.

Carson’s deep ball, discussed ad nauseam, is one of the few missing pieces of the serious playoff contender that could be the Philadelphia Eagles. He’ll have Torrey Smith and Nelson Agholor matched up against Bethel—a corner that both receivers should be able to beat down the field. If Carson can’t hit this throw, teams will play single-high on Philadelphia all year long.

The one area in which the Cardinals are struggling, in my opinion, is pressure. While they have 9 sacks (Philly has 10), the manufacturing and effects of these sacks are wildly different for both squads. Arizona is one of the most blitz-frequent teams in the NFL, but of their 9 sacks, I only charted 1 as the result of a blitz. They like to muddle the line of scrimmage with their various hybrid players, but only send 5 rushers at a time—if those players don’t arrive, QBs like Wentz should be able to pick apart 6-man coverage schemes.

The one blitz that resulted in a sack? Just a doggone good play by Tyrann Mathieu.

You’ll notice that, on these nickel blitzes, the Cardinals often shift the edge defender on the blitzing side to the next interior gap. That’s common for this character of blitz. At home, Carson should be able to work a hard count and force this pre-snap movement, thereby adjusting the protection to the true source of the two or three possible extra rushers

Besides these looks, however, the Cardinals pressure for most of the season has either come from excellent play and effort by EDGE Chandler Jones, or from coverage forcing the QB to hold the ball for too long. They cannot consistently generate a rush at all.

Having faced off against elite duos in Olivier Vernon/Jason Pierre-Paul and Joey Bosa/Melvin Ingram, OTs Jason Peters and Lane Johnson should have no issue stymieing Jones for most of the game. Should Wentz and Kelce succeed at diagnosing and neutralizing extra rushers, pressure should not factor much into the game for Philadelphia’s offense.