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Cardinals’ Pass Coverage Issues

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Arizona Cardinals Michael Chow-USA TODAY Sports

Background: Nov 27, 2022; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons (9) reacts after Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) scored a touchdown during the fourth quarter at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Michael Chow

Apparently, Vance Jospeh must have thought coming into the Chargers game that his defense would be able to stop pro Bowl WR Keenan Allen’s patented motion out passes by having one of the CBs chase the motion through traffic in man coverage.

The Chargers’ first easy 3rd down conversion of the game featured Keenan Allen motioning to his right with CB Antonio Hamilton trying to chase him through the second level. Hamilton didn’t get through fast enough, so QB Justin Herbert was able hit a wide open Allen for an easy conversion.

Once was bad enough...but twice?

The Chargers scored their first TD on the same play, only with the motion going to the left this time. On this occasion the Cardinals had CB Trayvon Mullen in chase mode. The result was predictable: it was an easy, wide open, gift-wrapped TD.

On this week’s Red Rain Podcast, I explained the best way I know of to defend that motion out pass —- it’s to bring the safety to the side of the motion down to cover the WR, while the CB inverts into the vacated safety slot.

By the time the Chargers ran the play a third time, Budda Baker came down and the switch was made. Once Justin Herbert saw Budda coming down to play Allen, Herbert went to his #2 option instead.

At this time I would like to introduce you to Marcos Labrada (@PancakesSoul on Twitter) who is writing excellent film analyses of the Cardinals on http://AZSPORTSUNDERGROUND.COM, the website for Arizona sports that Joe Comeau and Kyler Burd recently created.

This week on Twitter, Marcos posted two excellent analyses of the Cardinals’ pass coverage issues late in the game, starting with the out pass TD to RB Austin Ekeler and finishing with their successful 2 point conversion on the zig zag slant to TE Gerald Everett.

The TD from Herbert to Ekeler

  • Notice the Chargers (once again) have WR Keenan Allen motioning to his left. Budda Baker goes to cover Allen, who doesn’t even run a hard route, knowing he is a decoy —- the play is designed to go away from him.
  • The coverage overall from the Cardinals on this play was pretty solid. Ben Niemann and Jalen Thompson applied sticky coverage on the flow routes to the right.
  • The issue here is that Isaiah Simmons is a second late in running to cover RB Austin Ekeler from out of the backfield. To Isaiah’s credit he busted his butt to try to catch up in time to break up the pass, but Ekeler had maintained being a step ahead nd Justin Herbert threw a perfect dime. Isaiah delivered a good, hard tackle, but Ekeler was able to get the ball inches under the pylon.
  • Thus, the “read” was a second late and the “react” part was pretty good.
  • This is a tough play for Isaiah because his first responsibility is to stuff the run. Herbert does a very good job taking the snap from under center and acting like he’s handing it off to Ekeler, but Ekeler is already off and running with the intention of beating his man to the pylon.

The 2 Point Conversion Game Winner from, Herbert to Everett

  • Notice how complimentary and chock-full of decoys the Chargers’ passing plays are.
  • The first thing that draws you attention is Austin Ekeler going in motion to his right as if he’s going to try to duplicate the TD.
  • This time Zaven Collins is assigned to him and Zaven does a very good job of getting to Ekeler, but like Allen on the last play, Ekeler knows that he is the decoy.
  • Let me remind everyone that it’s no given that this is going to be a pass play. It bears mentioning because again, Isaiah Simmons needs to be mindful of his run stuffing responsibilities, especially after Zaven Collins left the middle to cover Ekeler. Meanwhile Jalen Thompson filled inside for Zaven.
  • Notice that Keenan Allen is in a classic “twin” “rub” formation with TE Gerald Everett to Keenan’s inside. The classic rub play would be to have Allen rub interference inside with Everett running the out pass. You know, the old criss cross, where the QB hopes one of the receivers springs free.
  • In this case, Trayvon Mullen, who is assigned to Keenan Allen applied good, sticky coverage —- but the key is that Jalen Thompson double teams Allen, giving Isiah Simmons no inside help on Everett’s clever zig-zag.
  • The problem for Isaiah once gain is being a step too late in play recognition. That, and being too deep into the end zone to be able to cut off the out pass —- which caused him to over-react to Everett’s initial zig to his right. Had Isiah been able to line up in press coverage with Everett, he would have had a much better chance of breaking up the play.
  • This is why defensive coaches often talk about “selling out” at the goal line on defending either the run or the pass. The reason is how difficult it is for an outside linebacker, even as athletic and rangy as Isiah Simmons. to be able to defend both the run and the pass.
  • If I were coaching Isaiah and we saw this play on tape, I would tell tell him that once the RB vacates the backfield, then he could come up hard to press Everett right at the snap.
  • To the Chargers’ credit, not only was the play design very clever and well decoyed with Ekeler and Allen (2 decoys on this play), this was a very risky throw in light of how good Zack Allen and JJ Watt are of getting their hands up —- even at 6’6”, Justin Herbert leads the NFL in batted passes.
  • Notice that JJ Watt is directly between Herbert and Everett, but was a tad too late getting his hands up. Knowing JJ, he is kicking himself in the butt like crazy after watching the tape.

The Solution?

First of all, I think that with more and more experience and with better coaching on press and leverage techniques, Isaiah Simmons could get to the point where he could cover any receiver in the NFL. Isaiah is that talented.

Do you recall the play where Isaiah was assigned to WR DeAndre Carter and made a superb breakup of a pass to him in left corner of the end zone? Isaiah Simmons can cover guys all over the football field.

One of the issues as I see is how frequently Vance Joseph switches coverage matchups. In Isaiah’s case, it’s not easy covering a RB one play, a TE then next and a WR after that. Keeping regular coverage assignments allows your cover men to accustom themselves to their man’s route trees and tendencies, so that by the 4th quarter they can have their man pretty much figured out.

Why Vance keeps moving assignments as much as he moves his personnel in and out is mind-boggling. He has created a revolving door that the players have to cope with. With regard to juggling personnel, this frustration got a little attention:

In conclusion, if the Cardinals were to hire a DC who stresses continuity, pass rush lane discipline, contain priorities and sticky, form tackling, fundamental pass coverage, they would be better prepared for early and late game plays like these.

Furthermore, for several years now you have been hearing me plead for the Cardinals to finally acquire a bona fide slot CB who can cover the likes of Tyler Lockett, Deebo Samual, Christian McCaffrey and Cooper Kupp.

You might recall that this past year I was campaigning for Trent McDuffie (Washington) and Roger McCreary (Auburn).

What you want to look for is a striking combination of quick feet, speed, fluid change of direction and playmaking instincts.

  • Trent McDuffie (KC) 75.7 PFF grade with an 81.0 coverage grade.
  • Roiger McCreary (TEN) 623,6 grade with a 62.9 coverage grade.

Covering the slot has become so valuable to playoff caliber teams that in today’s NFL, an excellent slot CB is highly deserving of a 1st round pick.

Byron Murphy has played much better this year having been taken away from the slot. In previous years, he was giving up out pass TDs at the pylon on a fairly regular basis. I never understood why Vance Joseph tagged him as a slot CB. in the first place, seeing as how he was so good as a small cushion CB and run forcer at Washington.

In 4 years, Vance has yet to develop a slot CB, nor has he emphasized doing so.. This year, after Jace Whittaker struggled early on, Vance has been putting his best athlete, Isaiah Simmons there because he must feel like he has no other viable options.

Although I would be intrigued to see Marco Wilson and Antonio Hamilton get snaps at the slot. They have the quick feet and aggressiveness to be pretty good at it.

Moral of the story?

Give us a GM and DC who value the slot CB position.

*Note: I have invited Marcos to join me for a special “Bye Week” Red Rain Podcast, next Wednesday. We will pick up this discussion from there.