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Approach Changes for Cardinals

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Some coaches in the NFL like to approach the 16 game regular season as 4 “four game” quarters—-and just as so many MLB teams do—-the focus becomes winning the series at hand—-and if you win more series than you lose, you increase your chances to make the playoffs.

The Cardinals obviously lost the 1st quarter series going 0-3-1. Because of changes in coaches and personnel, those first 4 games felt like pre-season games—-in other words—-it was a time for learning what the team’s strengths and weaknesses are.

On offense the Cardinals have shown an ability to move the ball—-which is a pleasant improvement from last year’s inept, mostly “3 and out” poor excuse of an offense—-which put the Cardinals’ defense on the field for most of the game,

The offense has been struggling to score TDs—-which is not uncommon for teams with a rookie head coach, a rookie QB and new schemes.

Part of the problem is that the Cardinals have played 4 of the best, most physical and well coached defenses in the NFL. The last two opponents, the Panthers and the Seahawks boast probably the best two zone coverage defenses in the league—-because their athletic, savvy linebackers are adept in zones.

As i predicted when Kyler Murray was drafted, the Cardinals were going to see a record number of zone defenses.

Murray and the offense have done a good job of chipping away at the underneath zones and taking what the defense gives them. What they have yet to master is how to attack the deep gray areas of the zones—-which are the pockets up the sidelines past the first level and in between the deep safety—-up the seams versus 1 deep safety and to the sides and up the middle versus 2 deep safeties..

Murray knows how to attack those deep gray areas—-the problem was the key missed opportunities versus the Panthers when Christian Kirk couldn’t hold on to a perfectly thrown pass on the deep post and when Trent Sherfield mistimed his jump on a very catchable ball up the sideline gray area between the 2nd and 3rd level defenders.

When zone defenses start to give up those kinds of big plays—-they tend to lose confidence and often shift over to man coverage.

Any accurate QB should be licking his chops whenever he sees a zone—-because there are two standard ways of beating zones: (1) overload the zone (3 receivers in an area with 2 defenders); or (2) to stretch the zone (the 1st receiver takes his zone defender to the edge of his zone while you slip the RB, TE or slot WE into the area the defender has vacated).

We all know the major reason why teams want to zone the Cardinals is to have defenders lined up to be ready to tackle Kyler Murray if and when he runs.

But, here’s the good news—-Murray has learned that, despite the zones, he can still beat them with his feet when he needs to.

Screens aren’t a bad idea—-and the Cardinals’ middle screen to David Johnson for 31 yards last week was a Rembrandt.

The side screens need tweaking—-the RB or TE or WR needs to move laterally in order to create a clear passing lane for Murray. Murray has to do a better job of looking one way while backpedalling to give time for the passing lane and the OL swings to develop.

It wouldn’t be bad idea to run a fake screen one way and hit a screen (with a clear passing lane) the opposite way.

Now—-on the other side of the ball——there needs to be a major change in the approach.

What the opponents want and are desperate to do versus the Cardinals is go on methodical, ball control drives in order to score and keep Murray and the Cardinals’ offense for long periods on the sidelines.

When Kurt Warner was playing at an MVP level for the Cardinals back in 2008 and 2009, the Cardinals’ defense was not one of the better defenses in the NFL—-and they were faced with a similar dilemma of giving up long drives that kept Warner and the offense on the sidelines.

What those defenses started to do was bring all-out pressure down after down in the attempt to induce a turnover or a 3 and out or 6 and out. Who will ever forget Michael Adams’ CB blitz strip sack of Aaron Rodgers and Karlos Dansby’s scoop and score game winner of what was one of the greatest QB duels in the history of the NFL playoffs?

This year’s defense needs to adopt an ultra aggressive approach by repeatedly storming the gaps with 5-6 defenders and playing ballhawking man to man coverage.

Storming the gaps should also help the defense disrupt the running game.

The defense might give up a chuck yard play every now and then—-but they will speed up the game and they will get the ball more quickly back into the hands of the offense.

if the defense can muster 1-2 turnovers and 2-3 “three and outs” a game—-the Cardinals could have a better than average chance of winning those games.

I would like to see a high pressure defense where Vance Joseph has Chandler Jones, Terrell Suggs and Cassius Marsh (all three on the field at once) coming hard into the backfield every play. Both Jordan Hicks and Haasan Reddick are good A and B gap blitzers. Sending Budda Baker or Deionte Thompson on safety blitzes several times a game could create added havoc.

The more aggressive a defense is—-the more fun it is to play. This defense needs to start having fun. Freaking get after it.

As we look ahead to these second quarter games of the season, the Cardinals have:

1—-The Bengals (0-4) in Cincinnati. They are banged up (A.J. Green, John Ross out) and coming off a short week.

2—-The Falcons (1-3) in Arizona. They play the Texans (2-2) in Houston this week. The Cardinals have actually scored more points this year (74 to 70) thus far than the Falcons.

3—-The Giants (2-2) in New York. They play the Vikings (2-2) at home this week, then the Patriots (4-0) in New England on Thursday Night Football the following week.

4—-The Saints (3-1) in New Orleans. Their next 3 games are: the Bucs (2-2) at home, the Jags (2-2) in Jacksonville and the Bears (3-1) in Chicago. Chances are good that Drew Brees won’t be back in the lineup just yet.

You be the judge—-what kind of chance do you think the Cardinals have with this 2nd quarter of games?

I believe that with a more opportunistic approach on offense and a more aggressive approach on defense, this could be a very positive stretch of games for the Cardinals—-one in which the Cardinals start forging an identity.

But if we see the same passive approach—-as they say in my neck of the woods—-fuggeddaboutit.