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Cardinals’ Nickel Giving Up Dimes and Quarters

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Minnesota Vikings Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
  • Trying to defend the run in a nickel defense is not a good idea. There is a good reason why most teams play a base defense 13 rd of the time. The Cardinals’ 4 down linemen are outnumbered 4-5 (OL). That means one OL is free to pull or make blocks on the ILB. Essentially the ILBs are not covered—-so you need ILBers who are super quick to diagnose, and who can plug and finish on a dime and get into pass coverage (zone or man) in a flash.
  • What happens is—-even a struggling rushing team like the Vikings can have a field day running the ball because they can seal the 4 DL inside—-which then means that the safety to the play side has contain—-thus the offense can block down on the safety with a WR or they can pull a guard to kick the contain man wide—-those safeties are Budda Baker and Antoine Bethea—-are they really who you want to set your edges with? They are high effort players—-but there is an understandable physical component to setting an edge.
  • Then, if the offense makes blocks on the safety and play side ILB—-which traps the other ILB in the traffic—-that leaves a big running back like Latavius Murray one-on-one with the FS or the CB—-and, as we saw, the Cardinals safeties and CBs are getting overpowered by big backs (remember Adrian Peterson?). Even worse they are making the mistake of trying to tackle big backs high and are getting stiff-armed and thrown aside the way Antoine Bethea did on Murray’s 1st TD and the way Tre’ Boston did later when he did a whirlybird with Murray bearing down on him. Not a good look for the Cardinals.
  • One more point—-Steve Wilks claims his defense is simple because it is all about ‘1 gap integrity.” Every player has a gap assignment—-which is like in the NBA, every player has a man. But, the opponent, knowing you are trying to play 1 gap defense, down blocks or double teams to drive a gap wide open—-and at that point gap integrity is lost—-and just like the NBA when a man gets beat the defense has to switch into help mode. Wilks keeps saying the defenders are ‘trying to do too much and are not sticking to their gaps”—-which to a degree is true, but when gap integrity is lost on the line, if the gap is too wide for one defender to defend, then the rest of the team have to help or they give up a huge gain.
  • In Wilks’ 4-2-5 nickel defense—-if you are asking them to defend the run—-you need 4 DL studs who can hold off down blocks and double teams—-you need superstar ILBers who can shed blocks, fill, plug, chase, string, blitz the A, B and C gaps, in addition to covering RBs and TEs in man and covering WRs, RBs and TEs in zone. Does that sound simple to you?
  • Then in the secondary—-Wilks asks 2 of his 3 safeties to play like linebackers (apply assignments above) and his 2 CBs to force the run and make plays in zone coverage like safeties. This is why when Wilks was hired, the main question was whether CB Patrick Peterson could be the type of physical run forcer and zone thumper that Wilks covets. To Peterson’s credit, he’s making the effort—-and when he is unblocked he has been making some tackles—-but his biggest issue has been getting off blocks, even from smaller WRs.
  • This is why in some respects it’s not shocking to hear that Peterson could be on the trade block. It seems like a waste of his talents to have him in a defense where the stud WRs on the other team have it easy, knowing that they are going to get a significant number of snaps versus zones—-and that only occasionally will they have to contend with Peterson.
  • Now—-in my opinion—-you do NOT trade Patrick Peterson with 2 years left on his deal. He has been in Arizona for 8 years and Steve Wilks has been in Arizona for 8 months. At this point, Wilks’ tenure with he Cardinals, as well as GM Steve Keim’s should be more in question than Peterson’s. Keim gets included here because Arizona is not, under Keim, a premier landing spot for free agents. That needs to change and possibly could with a new GM. Otherwise, who do you replace Peterson with, a draft pick? Keim has a problem every year signing a #2 CB.
  • To watch WR Adam Thielen have a field day yesterday, even catching a 22 yard pass on 3rd and 22 (no 3rd and long seems to be out of the question versus this defense, does it?)—-while Peterson was playing other receivers in zones—-was like watching a dinner guest in a restaurant administering the Heimlich maneuver on a choking diner when Heimlich himself is 20 yards away.
  • What is the answer to the defense’s main problems? If they are getting beaten badly in the running game and in their zones like they were yesterday—-they should be able to insert a 5th defensive lineman to then free up the linebackers better—-to get instant contain and control of the edge with taller, more rugged athletes like Jones, Golden and Mayowa (rather than with Baker and Bethea) and added pressure on the QB both from the edge and up the middle—-while playing sticky man coverage behind with a single free safety over the top. The players know how to play the 34 (LB coach Larry Foote is a 34 guru having played for years with Dick LeBeau and then Todd Bowles—-in case anyone needs a refresher)—-why Steve Wilks and Al Holcomb have not created this as a chess move option is incomprehensible. You can’t just sit there and watch your defense getting picked apart without making adjustments or turning to a Plan B.
  • Speaking of adjustments—-just as the Cardinals are not starting strongly in first quarters—-they are now being outscored by 42-0 in the 3rd quarter. Whatever is going on at half-time is clearly ineffective and is a total carryover from the past two years. That does not speak well for any of the coaches and particularly the head coach and the coordinators. But it also does not speak well for the players’ leadership in the locker room.
  • Note—-one adjustment in coverage that could make a huge difference is to do what Bill Belichick does with the Patriots. He double teams the opponent’s best WR with his #2 CB and the FS, and then he puts his #1 CB on the opponents’ #2 WR. Kirk Cousins may have had a much more difficult trying to pass to WR Adam Thielen in double coverage and Stefon Diggs being hounded by Patrick Peterson. Budda Baker was doing a good job on TE Kyle Rudolph. Think of how easy the Cardinals made it on Cousins, Murray, Thielen and Diggs yesterday. A whole lot of chunk yard runs by Murray and whole lot of pitch and catch by Cousins and crew. You can’t let good QBs like Cousins get that many easy wide open throws. The good news is that the Cardinals’ defensive line is now getting their hands up to deflect some of the passes. But far too many passes were wide open. And far too many gaps were being hammered open and exploited.