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Cards 2021: Defending NFC West Offenses

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers

Last night, I found myself watching a replay of Super Bowl LI with great interest. For the better part of three quarters the Falcons’ defense was stifling Tom Brady while the Falcons’ offense, directed by Kyle Shanahan and Matt Ryan was performing with rare aplomb versus a Bill Belichick defense.

As we well know by now, the Patriots, over the last frenzied 21 minutes of regulation roared back from a 28-3 deficit to accomplish the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history with their stunning 34-28 overtime win.

Watching Kyle Shanahan’s offense in that game was a superb reminder of how and why Shanahan became one of the hottest (if not the hottest) head coaching candidates in 2017.

Shanahan’s offensive blueprint:

1 —- establish a fierce running attack right from the outset with zone, influence and trap blocking principles with RBs who hit the hole ay full speed (Devonta Freeman busted loose into the Patriots’ secondary several times in the first half —- his best run of 37 yards would have been a TD had Malcolm Butler not made a very good open field tackle.

2 —- once the running game has caught the attention of the defense, it’s play action city with a ton of pre-snap motions and misdirection threats, with post-fake drop backs, bootlegs and waggles and a host of RPOs and combination routes that typically have the slot WRs running crosses (Taylor Gabriel caught 3 balls for 76 yards, 25.2 ave.), the TEs running seams, posts and corners (Austin Hooper had 3 catches for 32 yds. and a sweet TD on a 19 yard red zone seam/post) and the WRs running deep outs, nines (go patterns), cross corners, fades and deep comebacks (as Julio Jones did to the tune of 4 catches for 87 yds, 21.8 ave).

3 —- shotgun pass plays on third and longs which almost always feature pass plays to the RBs on quick outs, wheel routes and Shanahan’s favorite circle/option route where the RB runs opposite the leverage of the LB (which has burned the Cardinals repeatedly the last two years on easy TD passes to Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson—-plus have the Cardinals ever found a way to cover FB Kyle Juszczyk?). In this game, Devonta Freeman caught 2 passes for 46 yards, 23.0 ave.—-which was a rare feat versus the Patriots typically tight coverage.

So —- how in the world was Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia able to turn this game around on defense?

1 —- they got very physical up front and dialed up a number of LB and SS run blitzes, which put the Falcons in a number of 2nd and longs, where play action is not as effective. It’s amazing to think that the Falcons, while having such a hefty 18 point lead, wound up running the ball in this game only 18 times (for 104 yards, 5.8 ave. and 1 TD —- nearly a third of which came on Freemans’ 37 yard scamper in the 1st Q).

2 —- they bracketed Julio Jones to near perfection in the second half —- amazingly Jones wound up with only 4 targets in the game, all of which he caught for 87 yards —- but only one of his 4 catches was in the second half. That’s right. The Patriots limited Julio Jones to one target and catch in the 2nd half.

3 —- by forcing the Falcons into longer 2nd downs, Belichick started to dial up the pressure on Matt Ryan on 4-5 man rushes, the most crucial if which was an edge blitz from LB Dont’a Hightower that led to the now infamous strip sack that helped to turn the entire momentum of the game over to the Patriots.

In Kyle Shanahan’s first year as the 49ers’ head coach, he was trying to run his offense with Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard at QB. Hoyer was 0-6 as the starter, Beathard was 1-4. In October, GM John Lynch pulled off the Jimmy Garoppolo trade, which paid immediate dividends as Jimmy G. won all 5 of his starts to close the season.

However, in 2018, due to injury, Jimmy G was only able to start 3 games, going 1-2. Nick Mullens went 3-5 and C.J. Beathard went 0-5.

I am still of the firm belief that had the 49ers owned the #1 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, despite having traded for Jimmy G., Lynch and Shanahan would have drafted QB Kyler Murray because of how nifty the ultra-mobile Murray would be in running their play action RPOs, drop backs, bootlegs, waggles and sprint-outs.

Yet, with a healthier Jimmy G. over center in 2019 and their defense how bolstered by the strong play of DE Nick Bosa and LB Fred Warner the 49ers went 13-3, they romped over the Vikings and Packers to win the NFC Championship and then lost 31-20 to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

Once again in 2020, Jimmy G’s season was derailed due to injuries and the 49ers wound up 6-10 —- which led to a number of pre-draft trades where they gave up 3 1st round pick to be able to draft QB Trey Lance at pick #3. Now, Shanahan finally has the kind of athlete at the QB position that he has wanted.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks have been trying to mitigate the tensions that have been building between QB Russell Wilson and team management. And down in LA, the Rams made one of the big splash moves of the off-season by acquiring veteran QB Matthew Stafford in a trade that sent former #1 pick QB Jared Goff to the Lions.

Now that Shane Waldron (Rams’ passing game coordinator the last few years) has replaced Brian Schottenheimer as the Seahawks’ OC —- for Vance Joseph and the Cardinals defense they now pretty much will be tasked with defending the same structure and style of offense for all three of their NFC West rivals.

Wen one compares Sean McVay’s style of offense to Kyle Shanahan’s —- the similarities are striking —- from making running the ball an early priority so as to set up their play action passing schemes. The only difference is that McVay tends to run his bootlegs and waggles with a little more frequency.

Sean McVay was an offensive assistant to Kyle Shanahan when Shanahan was the Redskins’ OC. Shane Waldron was an offensive assistant to Sean McVay when McVay was the Redskins’ OC. Essentially, they all come from the same Mike Shanahan and/or Jay Gruden coaching tree.

What may make Cardinals’ fans nervous is the fact that Vance Joseph has yet to come up with an effective defensive game plan versus McVay and the Rams’ offense. As crazy as this sounds, in all 4 games the Cardinals were caught ill-prepared to take away McVay’s off-tackle power runs and the play action bootlegs and waggles that accompany the power runs. These are McVay’s bread and butter plays.

This is despite the fact that other teams have put a blueprint on tape as to how to box Jared Goff into the pocket where pressuring him up the middle leads to turnovers or stalled drives —- like Bill Belichick did in the Super Bowl three years ago when he employed a balanced 6-1 scheme —-which Belichick disciple Brian Flores took some aspects of this past season when his Dolphins beat up on Goff and the Rams in LA. That superb Dolphins’ 28-17 upset win was in Week 8 —- which gave the Cardinals their BYE week and 4 additional weeks to prepared for their first game versus the Rams in Week 13,.

Week 8 @ MIA (28-17 L) Jared Goff: 35-61, 57.3%, 355 yds., 1 TD, 2 INT, 2 sacks, 9 QB hits, 65.9 RTG

Week 13 @ ARZ (38-28 W) Jared Goff: 37-47, 78.7%, 351 yds., 1 TD, 0 int. 1 sack, 7 QB hits, 104.9 RTG

Then in Week 17, with Goff sidelined by injury, the Cardinals’ defense, while limiting the Rams to 18 points, had difficulty containing backup QB John Wolford in his first NFL start —- as Wolford time and time again extended drives with his feet to the tune of the Rams dominating the time of possession: 37:53 LA to 22:07 AZ.

The Cardinals under Kingsbury and Joseph have split with the Seahawks 2-2, and in both of the Cardinals’ wins the defense was boosted by the performance of faster, more athletic linebackers —- in the upset win at Seattle in 2019 and in the OT win at home this season, Haason Reddick at SAM OLB played a key role in containing Ruseell Wilson —- and in the 2020 win when Joseph tuned to the quicker, more athletic ILB tandem of Tanner Vallejo and Isaiah Simmons during overtime where Simmons’ interception of Wilson set up the game-winning FG.

Versus the 49ers, Kingsbury and Joseph are 1-3, losing the lead in 2019 (Week 11) late in the game at SF when Chandler Jones was assigned to guard Jeff Wilson on the 49ers’ patented RB circle route with no FS help because of a Budda Baker delayed blitz where the FS had to vacate the middle in order to cover Budda’s man.

The Cardinals won 24-20 at SF in Week 1 this past season thanks in large part to Budda Baker’s aggressive tackling of TE George Kittle, which because of a knee sprain took Kittle out of the game. The Cardinals had 29 1st downs to the 49ers’ 18 and they won the time of possession 31:26 to 28:34.

Yet, in Week 16 with the playoffs on the line and the 49ers having little to play for but pride, the Cardinals at home were given a good old-fashioned butt-whipping by an inspired 49ers defense and more than enough timely plays made by third string QB C.J. Beathard. The 49ers made 22 1st downs to the Cardinals’ 20 as the 49ers outgained the Cardinals 398-350.

After Kliff Kingsbury’s and Vance Joseph’s first two seasons the Cardinals are 3-9 versus their NFC West rivals. To be fair, the Cardinals have had a good deal of catching up to do personnel-wise with these rivals while developing a talented young QB.

As we know, the Cardinals’ record in the NFC West must improve if the Cardinals are going to contend for the division title and a playoff berth.

Personnel-wise the Cardinals should be stronger, more physical and athletic in the front seven this season due to the additions of J.J. Watt and Zaven Collins (to pair with isaiah Simmons at ILB). Plus, the arrival of CB Malcolm Butler should be a significant upgrade both in coverage and in run support. The speedy, athletic trio of Marco Wilson, Tay Gowan and James Wiggins should bolster a talented, young secondary where Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson could emerge as one of the top safety tandems in the NFC.

At this point, the biggest personnel questions for the Cardinals’ defense remain at SAM OLB and CB2.

One of the most surprising aspects of the Cardinals’ decision to let Haason Reddick defect from the team in free agency was how he quickly was containing and sacking Russell Wilson to near perfection. It takes an athlete like Reddick to be able contain Wilson —- and an athlete who fundamentally knows the right rush angles to take so as not to lose contain and to finish off “outside-in” sacks.

The problem at SAM OLB is that Chandler Jones, Markus Golden, Devon Kennard, Kylie Fitts and Victor Dimukeje are not quite speedy and agile enough to play the position. Remember, not only does the SAM have to set the edge and contain athletic QBs, he has to be able to coverTEs and speedy RBs. The one athlete who is capable of doing this —- is Dennis Gardeck. Steve Keim has said that he believes The Barbarian will be a full go for training camp, despite what the average rehab weeks for a torn ACL suggest.

The best remaining free agent to play SAM OLB, imo: K.J. Wright, 6-4, 246. What a boon it would be for the Cardinals to get their hands on him. Wright knows the NFC West as well as any linebacker, other than Bobby Wagner. Would probably take an offer of $4M.

Seeing as the Cardinals have yet to sign a SAM OLB type —-and seeing as the Cardinals keep adding to their safety talent and depth —- as many of you know, I have been wondering whether Vance Joseph is conjuring up a 4-2-5 defense, where essentially he can drop 2 safeties into the edges of the box and keep one safety in the deep middle.

Who knows? Maybe Vance Joseph is cooking up his own version of a 5-2 Monster or 6-1 Jumbo.

As far as the CB2 spot goes, I first want to give a shout-out to Robert Alford who played his ever-loving tail off versus Julian Edelman and the Patriots in Super Bowl LI. Alford is one of the main reasons why the Falcons were able to slow down Tom Brady and the Patriots for nearly three quarters. His pesky, aggressive, instinctive coverage of Edelman was, for the most part, absolutely superb.

Covering Edelman with Tom Brady at QB is a daunting assignment because Edelman and Brady work the “oppo-leverage” game to near perfection —- when the CB leverages one way, Edelman costs the opposite way on a dime. But, in this game, Alford was dogging Edelman and mirroring Edelman’s cuts and re-covering as well as any defender i have seen.

One time, Alford recovered off the cut so well he was jumping Edelman’s out cut, but the Falcons’ pass rush wasn’t great on that play so Brady had the extra time to hit Edelman for a 27 yard gain when Edelman had noticed that Alford was in position to jump his “out’ route, so Edelman went “oppo” and turned upfield. To Alford’s credit, he was able to recover quickly enough to make the tackle.

After playing a strict diet of man to man, Coach Quinn disguised Alford on a man coverage of Edelman and then had Alford chase for two steps and then pop back in to a 5 man under zone, where Alford was able to break on a Brady pass, pick it off and bolt 83 yards for a TD!

The graphic afterward was tough to read for Cardinals’ fans —- it read “ Alford’s 83 yard interception return was the 2nd longest in Super Bowl history to James Harrison’s 100 yard return.” Ugh. But, good for Alford!

With Robert Alford dogging him most of the game, Julian Edelman caught 5 passes on 13 targets for 87 yards.

Alford’s tackling in this game was also very impressive. He finished with 11 tackles, 9 of which were solos.

Another player of interest who stood out for the Falcons was then rookie OLB De’Vondre Campbell who got good pressure on Brady a number of times, nearly sacking him twice on excellent take downs. Plus .Campbell made a few very timely tackles. I think that similar to Haason Reddick, De’Vondre Csmpbell may be best suited to play OLB. I wonder if the Cardinals would consider re-sgning Campbell to play SAM OLB. I think he could be effective there, particularly seeing as his coverage of TEs was good last yearend he’s fast and athletic enough to cover RBs..

The Cardinals are going to sign another UFA CB —- the question is —- which one?

The three CBs who possibly make the most sense: Steven Nelson (PIT), Brian Poole (NYJ —Alford’s and Campbell’s teammate in ATL) and Richard Sherman (SF —- I think the Cardinals, with their newfound length and athleticism, are going to be much improved in zone coverages this season, when they mix it in with their press style man to man).

They key for Vance Joseph is to find ways as Bill Belichick and others have in creating clear passing down and distances so he can turn up the volume of the Cardinals ’potentially dynamic pass rush.

Recommended Videos:

Super Bowl LI

Shanahan’s Bread and Butter

How Belichick Took Away McVay’s Bread and Butter in Super Bowl LIII

  • What thoughts and/or questions do you have with regard to the Cardinals’ chances on defense this year?