Teams tend to take on the personality of their head coach. For the Arizona Cardinals, Bruce Arians' "no risk it, no biscuit" motto has taken on a life of its own. On defense, they're multiple and aggressive in their blitz schemes and coverages. On offense, they're not afraid to push the ball downfield. Not even a little. For Arizona, the belief that fortune favors the bold shows up week in and week out, and against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night, I expect much of the same, particularly when it comes to Carson Palmer and that high-octane offense.
The numbers on that side of the ball match up with Arians' one-line philosophy. The Cardinals finished first in the NFL in deep passes to the middle of the field (43), Eighth in passes down the deep right sideline (51), and 15th down the deep left (44). They ended up third in the NFL in pass plays of 20+ yards (66) and third in pass plays of 40+ yards (16). Palmer finished the year first in the NFL in yards per pass attempt (8.7) while throwing 35 touchdowns, tied for second most league-wide. To say that Palmer is having a renaissance in Arians' scheme is an understatement.
It helps that Arizona has two of the fastest receivers in the entire league, John Brown and J.J. Nelson, both of whom can literally just run past a defense. They've got two of the more physical and powerful receivers in the league in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, both of whom can win contested balls downfield. And importantly, Palmer's a guy that is willing and able climb the pocket and deliver a strike downfield.
Here's what I'm getting at: This team can throw the ball around the yard. I think that will be a big factor in the Divisional round.
Let's take a look at a few ways they've done that this season.
1. The deep square in
I like this strategy. Because the Cardinals love to chuck the ball deep like they're playing flyer's up a handful of times a game, you get defenses that have to respect that action and play a little deeper as a result. One way to counter this -- whether it's a Cover 2 (two-deep) or Cover 3 (three deep) shell -- is to run a deep square in, behind the linebackers but in front of the deep safety (or safeties).
In this case below, the Pittsburgh Steelers run what looks like a two-deep, man-under scheme where the two safeties drop back into zone coverage while the corners on the outside match up on their man. With the safeties retreating so far, Brown -- the receiver lined up to the far left -- just has to beat the press, and he'll have the corner in his hip pocket. Once he does that, it's a matter of running a crisp route.
Palmer does his thing -- steps up into the pocket like a boss -- and delivers a strike. This is a hard-ass route to defend as a cornerback because when you're trailing like that, you have to respect the idea that the receiver could break outside as well. In this case, the Steelers defensive back does a fine job, but he's just not fast enough to get in front of and break up the pass.
I also like how Brown sets up the route by working inside first before getting off the line to the outside. He then again breaks back inside.
Below, we see another example of this strategy. In this case, it's Floyd, who sort of rounds his route off based on the defensive drops into coverage, and after making the catch does a lot of damage in yards after the catch.
This throw by Palmer from a muddied pocket is impressive as well.
2. The banana route to the outside
I really like this concept shown below. The Baltimore Ravens appear to be in a mixed zone-man coverage, where on the defensive left, the two corners up toward the line are in man, and the deep safeties and corner to the other side are in zone.
As Brown and Floyd release on the offense right, the defensive backs in coverage stick with their original matchups. As Brown heads upfield and Floyd widens out, he's got his cornerback on his hip and a lot of green toward the sideline.
Palmer simply has to lob it over the top.
3. The post
The classic post route. This route in particular is deadly for the Cardinals, who, like I said above, threw the ball to the deep middle more than any other team this year.
Below, this is just a classic two tight end single-back set for Arizona, and it's really a simple concept. The crossing route by the tight end, originating on the left side of the formation, is meant to occupy the safety to targeted receiver's side. In this case, that tight end actually occupies both deep safeties. That means that, whoops, Brown sneaks past them both.
This is not ideal, obviously, and two overzealous safeties allowed this to happen, but a slightly underthrown ball saves the day for the San Francisco 49ers.
4. Run the post ... then keep going
And, that's rare. Palmer is one of the best deep-ball throwers in the NFL right now -- if not the best -- and has demonstrated that he can hit targets on a dime even in the face of pressure.
Take this concept. It's essentially a deep crossing route that looks like a shallow post at first and then just becomes a really, really long run to the other side of the field.
In the case below, as Fitzgerald motions over, the Cincinnati Bengals show what looks like a zone defense. That's a signal to Palmer that the safety to Fitzgerald's size may be responsible for help in the mid-range. This is key, as he slips a pass over that safety's head on the long-developing crosser.
The effect? The safety from the opposite side of the field, in this case Reggie Nelson, is far off in coverage and late to react. It also helped that Palmer had good protection on this play.
It works against man too, especially if you've got undisciplined safeties in the backend. Against the Niners below,outruns his man on a similar styled route, and there's no help over the top because a crossing route underneath had distracted them.
A big chunk of yards.
5. Old reliable, the go-route
Ah, yes, the go-route, or fly-route or 9-route or whatever you want to call it. There's not much to say here. Speed kills, and the Cardinals have a lot of it.
Carson Palmer, as I said above, is also supremely accurate.
Look at this frickin' pass below. With pressure in his face, Palmer launches it downfield up the sideline, and trusts his receiver (Floyd) to go up and get it.
Not shabby. I saw a lot of these types of plays too. They literally will just throw it up and let their receivers either win in the air or simply beat their defender down the field.
There are a ton of wrinkles to the Cardinals passing offense, but I absolutely love the way they push the ball downfield. Palmer is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in the pocket -- he subtly avoids pressure and is so damn good at stepping up to deliver a pass -- and that squad has some really talented receivers catching passes as well.
The Packers' defense has their hands full in this one. Multiple weapons. Multiple styles. Speed for days. I'll be watching for Brown and Nelson streaking downfield on go-routes and long crossers, and I imagine stopping those will be a big part of Green Bay's defensive gameplan. Safeties and corners will be so worried about getting beat deep that it will likely open things up underneath (but still in the intermediate range) for Fitzgerald, and I'd expect he'll have a big day because of it. David Johnson could feast on releases out of the backfield. All these things work together, but they start with the fact that the Cardinals are fearsome deep down the field.