The Arizona Cardinals have emerged as a legitimate contender in the NFC behind a high-powered offense that's clicking on all cylinders and leading the NFL in scoring. Bruce Arians has Carson Palmer playing the best football of his career and the two-time Coach of the Year has found a way to rejuvenate Larry Fitzgerald on the perimeter. With the running game slowly coming around, it is time to consider the "Bird Gang" as a serious threat to the Seattle Seahawks for NFC West supremacy. After all, Arizona's already two games up on the two-time reigning division champs.
1) Carson Palmer is playing at an elite level under Bruce Arians.
The 13th-year pro is rarely mentioned as a top-notch quarterback, but few have played better than Palmer since he joined the Cardinals in 2013. In his last 17 starts, Palmer has completed 64.5 percent of his passes with seven 300-yard games and a 34:13 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Most importantly, he sports a 15-2 record and an impressive 99.0 passer rating in this span, illustrating his efficient play in Arians' system.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film of Palmer's recent play, I've been impressed with his solid understanding of the system. He routinely gets to the second and third receiver in the progression, exploiting the vulnerable areas in coverage. Granted, the former Pro Bowler should be able to find the soft spots in zones based on his experience reading defenses over the years, but it is uncommon to see a veteran quarterback with the arm talent and physical skills needed to throw darts to every area of the field. Palmer fires the ball with zip and velocity on intermediate throws outside the numbers, yet also shows the touch and timing to finesse throws over linebackers and defensive backs on the second level. With Palmer also adept at throwing the deep ball, Arians is able to build a game plan that allows the Cardinals to attack all areas of the field.
Palmer's superior talent and superb pocket-passing skills perfectly match Arians' ultra-aggressive scheme, which places a premium on the vertical passing game. The crafty play designer routinely dials up shots on deceptive play-action passes that put deep defenders in a bind. In addition, Arians will mix in some quick-rhythm throws designed to get the ball into the hands of electric playmakers on the perimeter. These quick-hitters also allow Palmer to get the ball out quickly, thus avoiding blitzes and heavy pressure in the pocket. The Cardinals' had legitimate O-line questions heading into the regular season, but the rhythm passes have helped the group pitch a shutout against opposing pass rushers in each game. (Arizona is one of two teams that hasn't allowed a sack this season.)
Against the Chicago Bears in Week 2, Arians featured more quick-hitters to neutralize the pass rush and create easy pitch-and-catch situations. From quick slants and angle routes to various slip and "now" screens, Arians scripted a plan that put the onus on Palmer to get it out of his hands before the Bears' edge rushers could collapse the pocket.
In the first quarter, the Cardinals use a slip screen to take advantage of the Bears' pass rush without exposing Palmer to harm. Prior to the snap, Jaron Brown motions across the formation into a wing position. At the snap, he bangs the edge defender before reverse-pivoting to catch a fast screen from Palmer. With a lead blocker (LT Jared Veldheer) kicking out the first second-level defender to show up, Brown waltzes into the end zone for a score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Considering Palmer's success directing the Cardinals' offense under Arians' direction, it is time to consider the "Bird Gang" as a legitimate title contender.
2) Clever play calling is helping Larry Fitzgerald thrive as a WR1.
Fitzgerald is no longer regarded as one of the premier playmakers in the NFL, but the 12th-year pro is enjoying a bit of a renaissance as the Cardinals' WR1 due to creative scheming by Arians. The grizzled coach is moving the veteran around to help him find cracks and crevices in zone coverage. In addition, Arians' decision to deploy Fitzgerald at various spots in different formations has allowed the eight-time Pro Bowler to out-leverage defenders and create separation on short/intermediate routes.
Studying the All-22 coaches' footage, I was blown away with the subtle tweaks Arians has incorporated into the game plan to help his 32-year-old pass catcher get open between the numbers. The Cardinals are frequently aligning or motioning Fitzgerald to a "nasty" position near the end of the line to prevent cornerbacks from getting a jam on him early in routes. The close alignment also helps Fitzgerald use a variety of stems to create separation on slants and crossing routes.
In the second quarter of Sunday's game in Chicago, Fitzgerald, the lone receiver on the right side of the formation, motions into a tight alignment. By alignment, he has leverage on the cornerback for his slant route. Palmer executes a play fake to lure the safety to the line of scrimmage and create a void on the second level. Fitzgerald sets the defender up with an outside stem before slipping inside on the slant. Palmer delivers the ball on time for an easy 8-yard score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Arians also has used deception and misdirection to create home-run opportunities for Fitzgerald. The use of a play fake draws defenders to the line of scrimmage, which allows a slower receiver to run past hesitant defenders on vertical route. Given Fitzgerald's limited speed and explosiveness at this stage of his career, the combination of deception and play design is needed to help him get open down the field.
In this clip from the third quarter on Sunday, the Cardinals incorporate a flea flicker to help Fitzgerald get loose on a vertical route. After taking the snap, Palmer hands the ball to Chris Johnson ... only to have the veteran runner flip it back to the quarterback. Fitzgerald sells the run by stuttering and breaking down before blowing past the box safety on a go route. With the deceptive play fake creating hesitancy in the back end, Fitzgerald is able to gain a step on the defense to notch a big-play touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Cardinals have employed creative formations, as well, to help Fitzgerald get easy completions on the perimeter. The team occasionally will align in run-heavy sets to force the defense to load the box, leading to one-on-one coverage on the outside. This is a tactic frequently used by clever play designers to enhance the passing game; Arians has started to use it more to help Fitzgerald get easy touches.
In the fourth quarter, the Cardinals align in an overload formation out of "13" personnel (1 RB, 1 WR and 3 TEs), forcing the Bears to load the box in an attempt to stop the run. The formation leaves Fitzgerald alone on the perimeter against one-on-one coverage. With so much space available between receiver and defender, Palmer wisely throws the "now" route to give the ball to his top playmaker in space. Fitzgerald runs through the defender's arm tackle and scores a touchdown on a simple concept with minimal risk (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Despite failing to register a 1,000-yard season since 2011, Fitzgerald remains a legitimate WR1 for the Cardinals in his later years. While his diminishing physical skills make it difficult to get open consistently on his own accord, the clever scheming and play design from Arians is giving the veteran an opportunity to make his mark as a playmaker on the perimeter.
3) The Cardinals' sneaky ground game provides balance to the attack.
There is no disputing the Cardinals' reputation as a pass-first team, but Arians has assembled enough talent in the backfield to provide enough balance with the running game. The current combination of Chris Johnson and David Johnson gives the Cardinals just enough production on the ground to force opponents to respect the run. The Cardinalsrank 13th in rushing yards per game (117.5) and they're tied for ninth with an average of 4.4 yards per rushing attempt. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider the fact that Arizona has yet to break a single run of 20-plus yards.
Granted, the absence of injured back Andre Ellington has contributed to the lack of big-play production on the ground, but the ex-Pro Bowler formerly known has CJ2K has been better than anticipated as the Cardinals' workhorse. Despite lacking the home-run speed and burst that once made him the most feared runner in football, Johnson has been able to consistently churn out positive yards with the ball in his hands. Although Johnson hasn't broken off a big-gainer to this point, he has given the offense just enough punch to keep opponents from completely ignoring the running game.
David Johnson is the X-factor in the Cardinals' backfield, with his raw combination of speed, quickness and acceleration. Checking in at 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds with 4.50 speed, the rookie has the ability to take it the distance from anywhere on the field. He has already shown home-run potential with the ball in his hands, as evidenced by his three touchdowns in nine total touches (five rushing, two receiving and two kick returns) this season. He has a knack for getting to the corner on outside runs, yet also possesses the size and strength to grind between the tackles. When he becomes more comfortable with the responsibilities as a potential RB1, David Johnson could help take the ground game to another level.
Arians is starting to tap into David Johnson's electric skills by giving him a handful of carries on perimeter runs. He used a toss crack play in the red zone against the Bears to get his big-bodied runner loose on the perimeter. As you can see below, Johnson is positioned as the "dot" back in the Cardinals' trix formation. Receiver Michael Floyd motions inside from the slot to crack Jared Allen on the toss sweep to the left. Johnson follows Veldheer around the corner. The massive offensive tackle buries the Bears' defensive back at the line of scrimmage, resulting in an easy 13-yard score for the rookie (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Cardinals' running game might not play a starring role in this offense, but it's getting the job done.