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How Cardinals stunned Cowboys’ defense to pull off biggest NFL upset so far

Making sense of what the Arizona Cardinals did to the Cowboys on Sunday

Dallas Cowboys v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

When Sunday afternoon’s tilt between the Dallas Cowboys and the Arizona Cardinals got underway, you could not find a bigger contrast between two teams. The Cardinals entered play 0-2 on the season, with many wondering if Caleb Williams was already looking at real estate in the Phoenix area.

Meanwhile Dallas rolled into town as one of the remaining unbeaten teams in the league — topping our own rankings of those nine organizations — and looking like one of the best teams in football, with perhaps the best defense in football.

After all, the Cowboys shutout the New York Giants in Week 1, holding Daniel Jones to just 104 yards passing and forcing a pair of interceptions. In Week 2 against the New York Jets, Dallas held the visitors to just ten points, grabbing three interceptions off Zach Wilson and forcing four turnovers overall.

This was going to be a Dallas victory, right?

What a difference sixty minutes makes.

Because when the final whistle blew, the Cardinals had their first win of the Jonathan Gannon Era, a 28-16 victory that raised a lot of eyebrows around the league. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs secured his first NFL win as a starter, throwing for 189 yards and a touchdown. James Conner and Rondale Moore added touchdown runs, and Dallas mistakes helped seal the win for Arizona.

So what can we take from this game? Was it merely a letdown game from Dallas? Did the Cowboys make some mistakes to open the door for the Cardinals? Did Arizona do some creative things on offense that other teams might copy going forward?

Perhaps a little of each, but here, we are going to focus on that third element.

Some creativity in the running game

Arizona dialed up some creative looks in the running game, using different schematic elements, formations, and personnel groupings to create opportunities for Conner, Moore, and even Dobbs in the rushing department.

The first example comes from early in the game, a 2nd and 8 play near the start of the first quarter. Arizona comes out with 12 offensive personnel, putting both tight ends in a YY wing alignment into the boundary. With Conner in the backfield to the left side of the quarterback, presnap the defense might believe Arizona is going to run him to the wide side of the field.

That expectation only increases as the play begins. Arizona dials up a GT Counter, pulling both the left guard and left tackle towards the right side, with Conner setting up to take a handoff and follow that two-man convoy. There is just one twist coming.

This is GT Counter Read.

Dobbs meets Conner at the mesh point and is reading an unblocked defender: Micah Parsons. Normally, leaving Parsons unblocked ends poorly for the offense. But here, the Cardinals in a way use his aggression against him. Parsons crashes down on the expected handoff, and Dobbs — seeing that — pulls the ball and keeps it towards the left edge. There, the two tight ends handle the two defensive backs lurking, and the QB rips off a 44-yard gain on the ground:

However, Arizona turned to another counter design minutes later in the game, with Conner ripping off a 20-yard gain to the left side following an unlikely lead blocker.

Rookie wide receiver Michael Wilson:

Conner starts his path aiming to the right side, with Dobbs pulling out from underneath the center and moving that way as well. But the running back then bends his angle towards the left side, allowing Wilson to slide across the formation and lead him into the hole. Wilson finds cornerback DaRon Bland in that hole and gets a good block on the DB, one that Conner cuts behind for a 20-yard gain.

One of Arizona’s most explosive plays, a 45-yard touchdown run from Moore, came through a great use of personnel and formation. Facing a 2nd and 2 early in the second quarter the Cardinals align with 01 personnel on the field: No running backs, one tight end, and four wide receivers. They put Moore in the backfield, standing to the right of Dobbs who is in the shotgun.

Dallas counters with a 4-1-6 defensive package, using four down linemen, one linebacker, and six defensive backs.

Look at the state of play before the snap:

With three receivers in a bunch to the right, and Moore offset to that side as well, Dallas has the bulk of their defense slid that way. Safety Markquese Bell aligns in a linebacker’s alignment over the center, the main line of defense should Arizona run either inside, or to the left.

Well, having set this all up, where do you think Arizona ran the ball with Moore?

Arizona sends Moore to the left side, and left guard Trystan Colon is able to climb to the second level and take on Bell. Generally speaking, a matchup between a guard and a safety in the run game is something an offense will take every time, and that’s what happens here. Moore is untouched into the secondary, ripping off a 45-yard touchdown run.

This play also happened at a pretty critical moment, as the Cowboys had just kicked a field goal to cut the Arizona lead to 9-3. In a flash, it was 15-3 Cardinals.

These run game elements combined personnel, formation, and creativity to create opportunities for Arizona to the run game, even using the aggression of players like Parsons against them. A tremendous effort from Arizona.

But this is just half the story.

Rhythm Nation starring Joshua Dobbs

Now we can talk about the QB who just got his first win as a starter.

While Dobbs did not put up huge numbers, this was an impressive performance against a defense many considered one of the best in the league coming into Sunday. To be fair, Dallas was dealt a big blow on Thursday when they lost Trevon Diggs for the season with a knee injury. Time will tell if what we saw Sunday will linger for Dallas, but let’s dive into the performance from Dobbs.

Early in the game, Arizona used some pre-snap movement and eye candy to get the Dallas defense thinking, before giving Dobbs the post/over combination we see every week in the NFL. Here, Dobbs does a good job at moving and sliding in the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield in the face of pressure before hitting the open over route to Wilson:

Presnap, Arizona shifts Moore into the backfield from his alignment on the right. As the play begins, Dobbs first fakes to him aiming left, before executing another fake to Conner. All this eye candy works to draw the eyes of the defense, and Wilson slips open on the over route.

Dobbs, facing a little pressure in the pocket, does a very good job of moving to create space, before finding Wilson for a 17-yard gain.

Near the end of the third quarter Dobbs makes a very smart read and decision. The Cardinals face 3rd and 4, and dial up a Mesh concept with crossing routes underneath. This is ideal against man coverage, but on this play, Dallas drops into zone while bringing a defensive back pressure off the left side.

Dobbs sees this, and knowing the cornerback to the left side has no help over the top, and any underneath presence is now coming after him instead of lurking in the throwing lane, the QB gets his eyes to the out route on that side of the field, making a timing-and-rhythm throw to Marquise Brown move the chains:

These two linked up just before halftime, on another throw relying heavily on timing from the QB:

Dobbs does leave this throw a bit high, but that is okay, given that he has a looping Parsons bearing down on him, and that the timing of the throw has given Brown a good deal of separation to snare this reception.

This play also started a drive that began with just 25 seconds left in the half, and ended with a field goal to give Arizona a 21-10 lead at the break.

In the second half, Dobbs ripped perhaps his two best throws of the game. First this vertical ball to Brown along the right side of the field, putting this throw in a perfect spot to convert a 3rd-and-long situation:

This drive eventually stalled, and Dallas took over trailing by eight with nearly the entire fourth quarter left to play. But the Cowboys, at the end of long drive that covered over 50 yards and took over five minutes off the clock, decided on 4th and goal at the Arizona 8-yard line to kick a field goal, cutting the Arizona lead to 21-16.

That gave Dobbs and company a chance for a TD drive to perhaps put the game away. Which they did, with the big play this completion from Dobbs to Wilson on a perfectly designed throwback element:

Moore comes in motion from right-to-left, and after Dobbs carries out a run fake to Conner, he rolls towards the left side. With Moore releasing vertically up the left sideline, Brown running a deep post working from right-to-left, and tight end Geoff Swaim blocking then releasing to the left flat, everything screams “three-level read on the left side” to the Dallas defense.

But Wilson runs a post route working out of the slot and from the left side to the right, operating against the flow of the play. The Dallas secondary loses him along the way, but Dobbs does not.

69 yards later, the Cardinals are already facing 1st and goal.

They would punch it in on a short touchdown from Dobbs to Brown, to take a 28-16 lead midway through the fourth. Arizona would seal the win with an interception of Dak Prescott in the end zone, capping off one of the day’s more shocking results.

But thanks to creativity, personnel, formation, and execution, the Cardinals’ offense gave Dallas fits on Sunday.

And gave the rest of the league some things to think about going forward.