James Bettcher has been experimenting with zone coverages the past couple of years, but thanks to some untimely assignment miscommunications and less than requisite speed at the linebacker position, the efforts to incorporate more zone looks into the Cardinals' defense have been thwarted.
However, with the additions of Karlos Dansby and Haason Reddick to the defense, Bettcher suddenly has the kind of speed, flexibility and athleticism it takes to play effective zone coverage. Dansby's experience and his uncanny sense of where the ball is going makes him an asset in zone coverage. With Reddick, Bettcher gets a superior athlete who can drop into the hook zones and converge on a WR or RB with dispatch. In addition, Bettcher can send Reddick on blitzes and drop the now lighter and more spry Chandler Jones into coverage.
On the perimeter, Patrick Peterson and Justin Bethel have the speed to take away their deep thirds of the field and at times Bettcher can roll one of them up to disguise man to man and then rotate the safeties over the top. On one zone play during the pre-season, Peterson nearly intercepted a deep pass that normally a QB would not throw in his direction because the coverage was well disguised.
The safeties, Mathieu, Branch and Bethea, are interchangeable, just as Bettcher likes his safeties to be and thus Bettcher can have Honey Badger blitz on one play, dog the flat on the next, and play over the top on the following. The safety roles in the zone schemes are also made to order for the intuitive Budda Baker and speedy Rudy Ford.
The Cardinals will always be primarily a man-to-man team. But this year we just might see them disguise their coverages more regularly and with greater confidence in order to keep opposing QBs and their offenses guessing and off-balance.
This time around Bettcher has the speed and the playmakers to make the situational zone coverages prolific.