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The Arizona Cardinals are right where they belong

Take a look at the standings. Notice which team is on top of the tough NFC West with a 3-0 record? It's no fluke. The Arizona Cardinals have arrived. Danny Kelly takes a closer look at the most surprising team of 2014.

The Arizona Cardinals are 3-0, one of only three undefeated teams in this young 2014 NFL season. Raise your hand if you're not an Arizona fan and you predicted this.

I saw firsthand last season just how good this team was/is when they walked into Seattle in Week 16 and unrepentantly became the first team to beat the Seahawks at the CLink in the last 14 games. I still had some doubts. I wondered how they'd adapt after losing All Pro linebacker Karlos Dansby to free agency, Daryl Washington to suspension, Darnell Dockett to injury and would be short one Honey Badger for the early part of the season. After Week 1, I kind of wondered what their offense would look like after starter Carson Palmer went down with a nerve issue in his throwing shoulder. I didn't know if their defense could afford to lose yet another major contributor in John Abraham to concussion issues.

Undaunted in Week 3, patriots of Scotland, starving and outnumbered, charged the fields of Bannockburn, fought like warrior poets, fought like Scotsmen, and won their freedom, Arizona, injury depleted and underdogs, mounted a spirited comeback, outscoring the Niners 17-0 after the half, and walked away atop the mighty NFC West all by their lonesome.

I don't know if the Cardinals can continue on this trajectory to emerge from the NFC West in spite of the injuries, suspensions, and free agency losses they've sustained, but right now they're playing like a team that's still pissed off about missing the playoffs last year despite finishing with 10 wins. They're pissed off for being an afterthought in the NFC West most of the offseason, as the media focused on Seattle and San Francisco. And, in my opinion, they're playing with an unspoken and undeclared mantra that really gives them a shot in this tough division:

Qui audet adipiscitur: "Who Dares Wins."

Offense

Bruce Arians' offensive system is typically balanced, and that has proven true this season. After three games, Cardinals quarterbacks, plus Ted Ginn, have attempted exactly 100 passes. They've been sacked six times and scrambled/rushed 12 times. So, let's just say, Arians has called 118 passes. He's called 99 runs. That's an incredibly balanced attack in the NFL these days, and it's working. As a whole, they haven't been world beaters in any particular category, but what they have done is utilized their weapons effectively.

That seems so simple, doesn't it? Like, you've got these great players, so you should use them to make great plays -- easy! Only, for whatever annoying reason, this isn't Madden, and not all teams seem to do this. I think Arizona has.

In addition to feeding the electric Andre Ellington the majority of their carries (something they did not do last season to the chagrin of pretty much everyone), they're spreading out targets to Michael Floyd (11 catches for 252 yards), Larry Fitzgerald (10 catches for 107 yards), and explosive rookie John Brown (nine catches for 109 yards and three touchdowns).

Even with a backup quarterback in Drew Stanton filling in for Carson Palmer, they don't seem to have altered (greatly) their willingness to chuck the ball deep.

Against San Francisco in particular, this was apparent.

Below: protection does its job, including a nice blitz pickup by running back Stepfan Taylor (No. 30), and Stanton goes confidently in the direction of his dreams.

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Of course, it's nice to have a really tall guy that can run like the wind and jump out of the building running downfield.

Later, on a big third quarter play (below), while credit goes to Stanton, who, frankly, shows nice poise to climb the pocket so he can deliver the throw, this play happens because Michael Floyd is proving he's a top talent at receiver. The former first rounder out of Notre Dame adjusts to the ball, subtly swims over the cornerback, then climbs the ladder to go get it.

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Trust your damn playmakers!

Do it!

So many times, we've seen offenses neutered when a starter goes down (sometimes I can't blame coordinators for going to a safer game plan with some backups), but Arians and Stanton showed they're still down to attack deep.

That willingness turned out to be the big difference in the game. Trailing 14-6 early in the third quarter, the Cards got bold on a first down, used Floyd and Fitzgerald as decoys (who wouldn't be worried about that duo?), and threw over the top to rookie Brown on a crossing route.

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Above, the Niners and safety Eric Reid either have a breakdown in coverage assignments or Reid simply waits too long to break on the crossing route. Brown's speed kills.

On the next Cardinals' possession, the attention that opposing defenses must pay to Fitzgerald once again comes into play.

It's a two-man route combination, and against man coverage, this is deadly. Stanton pump fakes to Fitz on the slant. Reid bites. Why? It's third down, San Francisco likely thinks the Cards will just go for the sticks to pick up a first down, and this is a common concept you'd see in that situation. Few players are tougher over the middle than Fitz, and he's not easy to bring down. So that's the thought process that Reid probably has in his mind, and he doesn't give Brown enough attention. Rookie Jimmie Ward doesn't jam, then can't quite keep up in man coverage.

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Cards go up 20-14, and they wouldn't look back.

Defense

Of course, the Cardinals' identity is centered around their tough, physical NFC West™ defense. In addition to a strong, stout front that includes the versatile and dangerous Calais Campbell, they've beefed up their secondary with Antonio Cromartie and rookie draft pick Deone Bucannon. Tyrann Matheiu is back and getting up to speed. This defense is and will remain very strong this year, even with their losses.

One thing that's shown up for Arizona thus far is that the longer they play, the better they get. No one has scored on the Cardinals in the fourth quarter this season, and as Revenge of the Birds points out, opponents' fourth quarter drives have not worked out well for them this season: three punts, two fumbles, two drives ended on downs, one interception, one blocked field goal, and one drive ended when time expired.

Of course, it helps that defensive coordinator Todd "Bowles of Steel" isn't afraid to bring the house on third downs.

Very generally, Arizona plays it straight up on first and second down (with occasional blitzes), then goes nutsrageous when they know teams will be passing. They'll blitz from every angle imaginable and one of the biggest reasons Bowles' schemes work so well is that they're exceedingly multiple.

As OLB Sam Acho put it, "Safeties. Corners. Inside ‘backers. Outside ‘backers. He'll bring anybody and everybody."

Let's take a look at a few examples.

First of all, when Arizona sets up prior to the snap, they do a great job of not tipping their hand to the offense--milling about, playing off the line, or apparently locked in to man coverage outside. Colin Kaepernick (or any quarterback, or sometimes center) has to set protections based on what the defense is showing. Are there six defenders that look like they're going to rush? He's got to call a protection scheme that protects against six. What Arizona does well is to make it look like pressure will come from the left, for instance, then rush from the right (dropping players on the left into coverage).

Another thing that they like to do is the double or triple A-Gap blitz. The A-gaps are the two gaps between the center and guards. Below, you can see the center and running back pick up the double A-gap blitz by No. 50 and No. 36. What they haven't accounted for in their protection is the delayed third blitzer, No. 22 Tony Jefferson.

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Jefferson, who is lined up over the top of tight end Derek Carrier, leaves his "man-coverage position", and blitzes up through the now cleared out A-Gap. Acho drops with the tight end, taking away a quick dumpoff option for Kaepernick. This versatility and athleticism at outside linebacker is one of Arizona's strengths.

The play above was from the mid-third quarter on a 3rd and 4 play -- and it ended San Francisco's drive. Bowles and company dialed up the same play in the fourth quarter, this time on a 2nd down. Cheeky bastard.

Below, you'll see that the 49ers' protection slides to the other direction as the play above and that RB Carlos Hyde picks up the safety blitzer in Deone Bucannon. The double A-Gap blitz occupies the center and running back, and then the Arizona defensive end to the offensive right rushes toward Alex Boone's right shoulder. This allows Jefferson to sneak in behind Bucannon, and viola: nine-yard loss.

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Jefferson explained to the Cardinals' website what was going through his head on this play: "I want the quarterback to think I'm manned up on the tight end, since I'd been manned up on him most of the game. (Kaepernick) is going to check the call first, so I'm waiting. I don't want to move. I want to show that I'm still playing man."

In other words, he's waiting for Kaepernick to read the defense and make his protections or audibles before he even thinks about moving, or giving up his intentions.

As the Cards' website points out, Acho is also "coy, feigning blitz before dropping into coverage." You can see Acho on the right -- he's in a forward leaning stance, and it does look like he's prepping to rush the passer. "A lot of times," said Acho, "offenses will look at your stances, so you never want to make it obvious when you're blitzing. I try to use the same stance in everything I do. There were some plays when I was the dropper and some plays when I was the rusher. I think that helped. "

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg with Bowles.

Below, you can see Arizona mulling about and threatening from the offensive right side of the formation. Kaepernick (or one of the linemen) sets the protections to the right, as this is where it looks like pressure will be most dangerous.

At the snap of the ball, watch the offensive line react.

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However, Bowles brings an all out Cover-0 blitz (no safeties over the top), rushing two defensive backs from the offensive left side. This rush attack from the outside is quick enough and deadly enough in combination with the rush from the right that Kaepernick has no time to look to his receivers. He quickly throws the ball away.

Watch how the mechanics of this blitz work below in the All-22 footage. It looks like Anquan Boldin's quick out route is open, but the blitz happens so quickly Kaepernick thinks twice about making the throw.

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Ballsy playcall. Bowlesy.

One more example that I liked:

Below, you see another cornerback blitz out of the slot. When Kaepernick sees pressure coming from this spot, his first reaction will be to throw quickly to the player the blitzer just abandoned. In this case, it's Michael Crabtree.

Initially, the route looks clear -- Cromartie has the outside receiver and is playing about ten yards off of him.

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However, in a brilliantly designed scheme, the Cardinals get precisely what they wanted, and Kap takes the bait. Cromartie, who's had his eyes in the backfield the whole time, jumps the route, and should've had a pick six. He drops it, but what a playcall! You can see Matheiu deeper adjusting for the Cromartie jump by taking the deep receiver, but this is still a pretty dangerous play by the defense.

Bottom line

Like I said, I don't know if the Cardinals will continue to exceed expectations and run away with the division or if they'll come back down to earth and succumb to some of their losses. Right now you have to respect the way they're playing. They've got a chip on their shoulder from being overlooked. They've got no quit in them (three comeback wins), and most importantly, they seem to really believe in the system and in themselves. Arians has put together an interesting team in Arizona.