I have no idea if he will be good or not but I’m absolutely thrilled with the idea of Byron Leftwich as an NFL OC.— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) October 19, 2018
There’s a lot to be said for the Arizona Cardinals seeing Bruce Arians retire in 2017 and entering the year with Mike McCoy, a more conservative offensive coordinator who ran the 2nd worst offense in the league for 7 games...only to fire him for an Arians disciple.
The entire offense can’t change overnight.
However, the philosophy and identity of an offense CAN even using some of the same plays and routes though minor adjustments that isolate specific weaknesses, rather than attacking an enemy’s strengths or allowing them to play guessing games by predictable calls.
Here in this article I’m going to break down three different plays in Bruce Arians’ offense and how each subscribes to a different area of the philosophy I believe Leftwich can bring over from BA.
Play #1: Creating space to work by spreading defenses out rather than funnel through choke points
We’ve all seen this infamous chart on David Johnson’s usage in the run and pass game:
These #NextGenStats route charts (on targeted plays) help further explain David Johnson's changed role, as a receiver, in 2016 vs. 2018.— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) September 17, 2018
There is virtually zero vertical element -- especially up the boundary -- in DJ's routes this season: pic.twitter.com/GufaaXFhBL
If that changes, what could it look like?
Note that the running back, Andre Ellington (yes, he was a member of the Cardinals even last year) is lined up wide as a receiver...something Arians did a lot and Mike McCoy was loath to do.
After the snap, the three wide receivers get more vertical and clear out a lot of the space, leaving the running back in one-on-one coverage against a linebacker at the bottom left of the screen.
What’s also great about this play is it fits Rosen so well being a quick drop-back and timing route, where he can throw the ball before the receiver is out of his break.
Plays like this under McCoy were lacking a more vertical element and were more horizontal, meaning that the linebackers could sit a bit more and close quickly on the ball for a breakup, which happened all the time as the lack of space meant Josh Rosen had to make a tight throw.
Now, if there’s more space to work and it’s David Johnson as the receiver you’re talking about on the linebacker...
...you’ll take that every time. This might be the biggest philosophical change I think we could see under Byron Leftwich.
Understanding that spreading a defense out versus beating your man is the way to make things easier rather than overcomplicated and harder. This is an easy pitch and catch Rosen can make for a first down to his running back.
Play #2: Playing the numbers game in the run game
Here’s a play against the Broncos that really highlights some of what I’m talking about with how the run game can be used effectively once a defense is spread out.
On 3rd down against the Denver Broncos in 2017 preseason, this call features a look the defense has seen before on film. Four receivers and a RB in shotgun.
The RB often would end up in pass pro often under Arians who would run a check on a slant pattern or, given the man coverage on the outside, might see the RB chip and take a shot for a 50-50 ball.
But watch what Leftwich calls here instead on 3rd and long...it’s not a pass:
That’s right, he calls for a run play instead on a delayed handoff that effectively works as a screen. Look at how Denver’s linebackers are already drawn over to the side with three wide receivers and the defensive line is getting upfield, meanwhile after the right guard clears the hole with a solid block,
Elijhaa Penny has daylight and a blocker downfield in front of him to easily pick up 10 yards and the first down.
Again, all of this is made possible by baiting the defense into a look from what they had seen previously, but while Mike McCoy might run a similar play over again, Leftwich plays a bait and switch and once the handoff is executed, it’s a numbers game.
The payoff to the “numbers game” comes below where they bulldoze the two crashing players and he gets across the line with no problem due to outnumbering and out-sizing the competition:
I don’t know if AZ’s guards will be in space much with this scheme considering it’s Iupati and Pugh, and especially given their injuries, but we HAVE seen at least one or two screens to David Johnson drawn up already.
This is how you make a run game work for you—not by running 6-7 guys and a running back into a 9 man box.
How did that turn out?
I blended all of David Johnson's #NextGenStats run charts together. The VAST majority of his runs are between the tackles. Absolutely baffling play calling for a RB with speed. For comparison, I added Melvin Gordon's carry chart from WK6 #Cardinals pic.twitter.com/SwYtw4dZnc— James Koh (@JamesDKoh) October 18, 2018
And that’s why he no longer has a job.
So, we have creating space and using the numbers game to AZ’s advantage, not detriment in the run game.
Which leads to the last two plays...
Play #3: Exposing zone coverages and forcing linebackers to cover David Johnson to open up big plays in the passing game
This play comes against the Bears in Week 2 of the preseason, on 3rd down again, with a familiar look.
Simple 11 personnel which Arizona runs a lot, but the guy you want to watch here are the two linebackers and the tight end at the bottom of the line.
That’s #86, Ricky Seals-Jones. After the snap, rather than staying in to protect, Jones runs and splits the zone between the two linebackers (he’s the guy between the two hashes in the blurry image), but isn’t picked up by either guy.
They’re both looking at the RB out of the backfield and it’s a mixup in coverage. The running back runs a vertical route so the linebacker on the right would be the one to gurd him, but in case he turns it into a wheel route to get upfield or the quarterback runs into his zone, the linebacker thinks it’s on him.
By splitting the zone, Ricky Seals-Jones ends up wide open for a huge gain rather than staying in and blocking, as the wide receiver already cleared out the area with a deep pattern.
In fact, it’s reminiscent of another call this year in which Arizona Sports’s own John Gambodoro reported was drawn up by Leftwich against the Bears this year for a Ricky Seals-Jones touchdown:
Play #4: Combining all of the above with play-action
This is the way the touchdown was drawn up: 13 personnel (three tight ends) and an obvious run look on first down to run straight ahead for a gain of zero to one yards, right?
Or...they go off of play-action and the defense bites and has to run back to their zones and that confusion is where Seals-Jones does his work to exploit the blown coverage:
Note that the play almost fails if Seals-Jones (bottom right) doesn’t keep his feet but the linebackers in Chicago (#39 and #59) are both looking at Bradford and the running back expecting the run.
Seals-Jones is already behind the linebacker in #99 and with 59 biting on the run fake, he’s got room. AZ went against form for a play in a game in which the film showed they did NOT pass out of 13 personnel...and here they did just for this moment:
But here’s where it gets blown wide open...watch the play here and look at #99 to see what happened to get Jones so wide open.
He’s not standing around (or he wasn’t) but he dropped into the flat to cover the running back out of the backfield.
This is the biggest area in which Mike McCoy failed. Rather than creating space and drawing players by spreading the field out, he would put David Johnson back there in pass protection rather than send him out on a route for the defense to account for.
By biting on play-action, Seals Jones got free and the guy who would probably have covered him if Johnson had stayed in to block and might have even gotten a shot to break up the pass had to cover the back.
In short, it all starts and runs through David Johnson.
Just by adding a few more vertical elements to the passing game to spread the defense out and open it up.
There’s absolutely zero reason why over the next few weeks the Cardinals won’t be able to open up the offense a bit more by spreading out the field and involving David Johnson as god intended as a passing threat AND running threat in space under Byron Leftwich through the last 9 games of the season.
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