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Chess Move Ideas for Cardinals

Pittsburgh Steelers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The best teams in the NFL are able to turn agonizing defeats into positive learning lessons, which in the long run can make the team stronger and better.

When one scrutinizes what ailed the Cardinals versus the Rams on Monday Night Football, two factors stand out:

  1. Not having a better plan as to how to contend with All Universe DT Aaron Donald.
  2. Not having a better plan as to how to contain All Pro QB Matthew Stafford on play action bootlegs and waggles.

Think about this —- if the Cardinals had been able to limit Aaron Donald and cut down his QB pressures and sacks —- and if the Cardinals were able to keep contain on Matthew Stafford so that he couldn’t have had all of the time in the world to hit the 52 yard TD bomb to Van Jefferson and the 44 yard deep cross corner route to Cooper Kupp —- chances are pretty strong that the Cardinals could have flipped this game in their favor.

On October 3rd, when the 3-0 Cardinals routed the then seemingly invincible 3-0 Rams in LA by the score of 37-20, they held Aaron Donald to 2 pressures, 2 tackles and 0 sacks —- and they pressured Matthew Stafford into throwing 15 incompletions and 1 interception. Cooper Kupp was able to catch only 5 of his 13 targets for 62 yards.

Perhaps heading into the MNF rematch, the Cardinals expected they could do more of the same. The problem for the Cardinals was not being able to start Justin Pugh at LG who had turned in one of his best pass protection performances (67.0 per PFF) of the season versus Donald and company, the first time around. Aaron Donald’s PFF pass rushing grade in that game was 51.5 (his lowest on the season).

You just know that Aaron Donald was still smarting from that game and would be on a mission to flip the script, especially knowing that going into the game he would be matched up with two guards (Max Garcia and Sean Harlow) who had not been in the Cardinals’ starting lineup back in Week 4.

Stunning game stat: Aaron Donald 14 QB pressures, the Arizona Cardinals 10 QB pressures.

Plus, the problem on the Cardinals’ defense was that in the first game the Rams were relying more strictly on passing from the pocket, feeling that Matthew Stafford could beat any team from the pocket, just as long as they protected him. Hence, they weren’t running Sean McVay’s vaunted bread and butter play action bootlegs and waggles the way McVay routinely did with Jared Goff.

But, if you have been watching the Rams in recent weeks, Sean McVay brought back a heavy emphasis on employing his old bread and butter off-tackle runs with unbalanced lines and added blockers (2 TEs and/or a OL), to then set up Stafford on play action bootlegs and waggles —- the very bread and butter plays which the Cardinals, under DC Vance Joseph, have yet to provide an answer for, losing 3 times to Jared Goff and 1 time to John Wolford in games that were dominated by the Rams.

Adjustment Suggestions: (in chess terms)

1A. Protect Your King (QB Kyler Murray)

Going in, even with Justin Pugh at one of the guards, you have to expect that Aaron Donald is going to win one-on-one blocks.

You can also expect that he is going to be able to win off the snap and then if you try to double him with a RB or TE he is going to toss them aside like ragdolls.

So, what you can do is line up an extra offensive lineman directly over Aaron Donald 2-3 yards behind the line of scrimmage and line him up in a two point stance so as to give him perfect vision on Donald’s moves, whether #99 bull rushes or swims to one side. And once Donald commits to his move, the offensive lineman attacks him like a battering ram. This is going to keep Donald’s side of the pocket clean.

In this formation, you can also run power dives right at Donald with the man over him at the line of scrimmage and the battering ram charging at him off the snap. This kind of staggered double teaming is a defensive lineman’s nightmare.

Sure, by inserting an extra offensive lineman 2-3 yards into the backfield, it is going to take one of the 5 eligible receivers out of the equation. However, giving Kyler Murray the extra time and added comfort to make his throws can pay huge dividends because of Kyler’s accuracy.

1B. Castle the King

Another tactic is to take a page out of McVay’s book and maneuver the QB like he’s the king getting moved to one side like the “castle” move in chess —- by moving the pocket, just as Kliff Kingsbury did in the win at LA when he had the flexed TE block down on the right edge which enabled Kyler Murray to shift the pocket behind the RT (further away from Donald) —- on the play where Kyler hit A.J. Green on a go route up the right side for a 41 yard TD.

2. Attack and Contain the Edges with Your Knights

Vance Joseph started the season attacking and containing the edges with his knights —- if you recall, every time Ryan Tannehill tried to bootleg, either Markus Golden or Chandler Jones was in his face,

For whatever reason, perhaps seeing that in the first game Matthew Stafford threw the vast majority of his passes from the pocket, Vance Joseph felt like he could defend the Rams’ offense with mostly a 4 man front.

The two defensive ends were Golden and Jones, but because it was only a 4 man front, they were selling out to try to stop the run by crashing down inside, particularly when the flow went away from them. Not only did this fail, as Golden and Jones combined for only 2 tackles versus the run all game, when McVay and Stafford recognized how Golden and Jones were selling out, they were licking their chops, knowing that their play action bootlegs and waggles would be wide open.

On the big two long passes off of play action waggles, on both occasions the backside edge, Markus Golden, crashed down inside and got trapped, leaving Matthew Stafford nothing but green grass and all the time in the world, to see the field, set his feet and throw two perfect lasers, the first to Van Jefferson on a 52 yard deep post TD where Odell Beckham, on a deep crosser over the middle, drew the attention of FS Jalen Thompson who was unable to recover deep on the pass to Jefferson, who had essentially left Robert Alford in the dust (not sure if Alford thought it was zone and was passing off Jefferson to the free safety).

On the second play action, the Rams ran the waggle to the right this time, where Golden again crashed down to try to defend the cutback run, and got pinned to the turf. Thus, Stafford once again found himself unpressured to the point where he was able to turn his shoulders back to his left, set his feet and fire a 50 yard dime to Cooper Kupp on his deep corner route, which Byron Murphy had chased and defended so well that only a tight window was available. Kupp hauled in the perfect pass for a 44 yard reception. mere inches from the sideline..

The 96 yards the Cardinals surrendered on these two plays came at critical times:

  • The Jefferson 52 yard TD —- on Rams’ 1st possession of 2nd half with the score tied 13-13.
  • The Kupp Deep Cross Corner for 44 yards —- on 1st and 20 from the Rams’ own 22 yard line just after James Conner’s Wildcat TD had cut the score to 27-20 and the Cardinals now seemingly had gathered momentum. This reception helped to set up the Rams’ FG to put them up by two scores, 30-20 with 7:20 left in the game.

If you take those 96 yards away, Matthew Stafford threw for 191 yards for the game and the Cardinals defense might have limited the Rams to 20 points.

Adjustment: Charge the Backside Knight

  • If flow goes away, the edge opposite has to charge the potential bootleg or reverse like a horse so that he forces the QB to have to make a quick bail out throw to avoid the sack, which thereby blows up the play and eliminates any possibility for a long pass.
  • Note —- it’s important to instruct the backside defensive tackle to stay home as well as possible so as to be able to prevent a cutback run and/or reverse, if the play is handed off.
  • Vance Joseph’s defense has been very good at now giving big passing plays because he’s been able to keep consistent pressure on the opposing QBs. After the MNF setback, the Cardinals need to feed off the Rams’ defensive aggressiveness and come back swinging versus the Lions this week —- and they need to make sure that Jared Goff is not able to beat them on bootlegs and waggles the way he has done repeatedly in the past.