Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Praising Arizona

The Cardinals haven't finished above .500 since 2009. That streak will end this season, and even if they don't make the playoffs, Bruce Arians and company are making their case as being the best-coached team in football. Here's why

By
Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·

Bruce Arians will not win a second straight NFL Coach of the Year award, but he deserves it. Sure, the Cardinals might not even make the playoffs, but no team has done a better job than Arizona at masking weaknesses and conjuring strengths.

The credit for the Cardinals’ 2013 success goes to Arians, an offensive connoisseur, and his hand-picked defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles. Other than Carson Palmer—who arrived with just 12 victorious starts over the previous three years—this is largely the same Cardinals cast that, before Arians was hired, had lost 30 of its past 48 games. Arians and Bowles have this team at 9-5, a record good enough for first place in four divisions, but merits only third in the mighty NFC West.

If the Cardinals upset the Seahawks on Sunday and the 49ers stumble against the Falcons on Monday night, Arizona would face the Niners in Week 17 with a playoff spot likely on the line. But regardless of what happens this week and next, Year 1 of the Arians era has been a roaring success. Let’s examine the best-coached team in football.

OFFENSE

As offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, Arians ran a two-tight end, play-action heavy system predicated on long dropbacks and deeper route combinations. He has continued this approach in Arizona, though not without tweaks to accommodate his personnel.

Arians no longer has an athletic, sack-shedding gunslinger like Ben Roethlisberger or Andrew Luck at quarterback. Instead, he has Carson Palmer—a decent-armed 33-year-old who knows how to perform in a messy pocket but lacks the mobility to escape one.

Messy pockets have long been common in Arizona. The offensive line’s best player has been Daryn Colledge, a well-rounded but mildly inconsistent left guard. For years the offensive tackle positions has been a revolving door, in terms of personnel and execution. This year, the left tackle duties initially belonged to Levi Brown who, on his best days, looked washed up. When Brown was dealt to Pittsburgh in early October, the duties fell to Bradley Sowell, who has overachieved but often still resembles the undrafted second-year pro that he is. At right tackle is Eric Winston, a shrewd-but-damaged eighth-year veteran who had remained unsigned for several months in free agency. Winston has been serviceable but not much more.

To aid his pass protection, Arians has used chip-blocks from running backs and tight ends. More importantly, he has gradually called more three-step-timing pass plays, especially early in contests, where he makes a concerted effort to get Palmer comfortable. Featuring a more conservative, quicker-paced passing attack early in games also gives the offensive line a chance to find its rhythm and see some of the defense’s pre-snap looks and pass-rush concepts (both on the field and through in-game aerial pictures). This, along with presumably keener classroom instruction from offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin and O-line coach Larry Zierlein during the week, has eradicated many of the mental breakdowns that once-plagued the Cardinals’ pass protection.

Sounder blocking obviously affords the skill position players better opportunities to do their jobs. Arians’ scheme makes those jobs easier by featuring mismatch-creating concepts like diversified formations, pre-snap motion and shifts, and transformative route combinations that distort coverage responsibilities. Below is a typical Cardinals play that illustrates a lot of these principles.

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A sharply defined system has helped several Cardinals find a new niche. Start with Larry Fitzgerald. His numbers have dropped, but his performance has not. The 30-year-old is just beginning what will prove to be a career-extending renaissance. In Arizona’s previous systems, Fitzgerald was almost always the X-receiver, meaning he often aligned by himself on the line of scrimmage. Under Arians, Fitzgerald has become the Z-receiver, aligning off the line, all over the formation and often in motion. This makes him more exhausting for defenses to focus their coverage, and it opens up unique one-on-one scenarios for others. It’s no coincidence that the drop of Fitzgerald’s numbers is commensurate with the rise of Michael Floyd’s.

Floyd, a 2012 first-round pick, has assumed the X-receiver role, though in this system, that doesn’t necessarily mean he always splits out wide on the weak side. He does, however, frequently run routes based off Fitzgerald’s routes. Many of them are downfield, which the lanky, long-strider is built for. Impressively, Floyd’s last 24 receptions have gone for a first down.

Tight end Rob Housler is becoming a more movable chess piece by the week. Twenty of his 34 receptions have come in the five games he’s played since the Week 9 bye, as Arians has called more tight end screens and back-side seam patterns.

If Housler is a bishop on the chessboard, running back Andre Ellington is the queen. The sixth-round rookie has sensational lateral agility, soft hands and good stop-start speed. Arians consistently has created matchup problems by using the future superstar (yes, SUPERstar) at wide and slot receiver, where Ellington’s route running is pristine. His backfield touches also have been diverse, with a variety of screens, draws, tosses and straight handoffs.

DEFENSE

Coming into this season, no one knew whether Todd Bowles would be a conservative, coverage-oriented defensive play-caller or an aggressive, pressure-oriented one like predecessor Ray Horton, who had a meritorious two-year stint in the dessert. Turns out, Bowles is more aggressive than Horton. It has been not just with blitzes—which, according to STATS Inc., the Cardinals have used on 33.6 percent of snaps this season, second only to the Raiders—but also base defensive concepts. Horton ran a true 3-4, with defensive linemen responsible for two gaps. Bowles has instituted an attack-focused one-gap scheme to better capitalize on the ferocious strength and initial quickness of Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell. Both Pro Bowl-caliber defensive ends are having arguably the best seasons of their careers. And the Cardinals as a unit rank No. 1 against the run.

Dockett and Campbell are not the only veterans who are flourishing. Thirty-two-year-old Karlos Dansby, who was tossed aside by the Dolphins, has been terrific in a scheme where he’s often asked to read-and-react downhill, rather than change directions in space. At outside linebacker, free-agent afterthought John Abraham has had every bit the impact that his 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles suggest. The 35-year-old plays the weak side just like he did in Atlanta, but instead of spearheading a four-man rush, Abraham is often part of a five- or six-man pressure concept, which usually creates mismatches for him off the edge.

Then there’s Tyrann Mathieu, whose 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign was truncated by a torn ACL in Week 14. Bowles, a former defensive backs coach, casted the third-round pick in two perfect roles: slot corner in nickel, and free safety in the base 3-4. Bowles capitalized on Mathieu’s range and uncanny football instincts with man coverage concepts out of different looks, but where the youngster shined brightest—and most unexpectedly—was on blitzes.

Really, blitzes are where every Cardinals defender has shined. Having a true shutdown corner like Patrick Peterson—who often plays “Cover 0 man” against the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver—lends Bowles tremendous freedom in pressure designs. In a clear mark of being well-coached, this defense’s best execution has come from its staple pressure tactic: the Fire-X blitz.

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The 2013 Cardinals seem destined to go down as one of the most overlooked winning teams in NFL history. Perhaps that’s another sign that they’re well-coached. After all, the only time coaches truly captures the headlines is when they make questionable late-game decisions or butt heads with stars. All Bruce Arians and his staff have done is fully maximize their resources in the first year of what’s essentially a franchise rebuilding project.

themmqb.com

35 comments
KurtBoyer
KurtBoyer

I mean the Cardinals are having a miracle season, how could any team be 9-5 with such a glaring lack of talent. Their defense only has Karlos Dansby, Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, John Abraham, Tyranne Mathieu and Daryl Washington on it, and they only have a former Pro Bowl QB throwing to a Hall of Fame WR on offense. Absolutely no talent at all. 


Translated, this article states that since none of the above players are Dallas Cowboys or Green Bay Packers, the writers don't know who they are since they never pay attention to them. Thus, the players are less talented whether they actually are or not.

JJ72
JJ72

Still can't understand why the top performing coaches keep getting over looked.  Jim Harbaugh in SF and Pete Carroll in Seattle are as good as they get.  I grant you that Arians deserves to be in the discussion and has less to work with, but part of a coaches job is to build a team, not just motivate what is there.  No one has done that better than Carroll who inherited a 5 and 9 team when he took the helm.  Harbaugh took an underachieving SF team and helped them reach their potential while building for the future with good recruits.  Sure both coaches have solid rosters, but there is a reason they do and that should not be so easily shrugged off.

SeanPower
SeanPower

They have done a really good job this year...lost a couple of close games. They've gotten a lot out of Palmer. I'm happy for their fans. Matthieu was a very good pick and played like a vet...they will be tough to contend with.

PhillyPenn
PhillyPenn

Truth be told.... I wanted the Eagles to hire Arians over Kelly.  As it turned out, I think I was wrong and Kelly will be just fine.  But I'm glad to see Arians (a guy with Philly roots) doing so well.  

KeysSteven
KeysSteven

Crowded field for NFL-COY13, more matter-ful than MVP race (?): Carroll, what a tremendous job he's done, Reid at KC, ditto, Payton resurrecting his Saints, Rivera getting off hot-seat and Cam back on track, Arians (don't know why but the glasses work on him), John Fox coming back from heart-valve surgery (oh my gosh), honorable mentions to Philbin (we'll wait on the investigation), Kelly, J. Harbaugh (after early L to SEA & IND), Trestman (with Cutler out), even Belichick working with what he had, though, 'Tom Terrific II' is mas importante.


Good call on Bruce (there are no easy games in the NFL) and nice title, too, Andrew.

TroyBoy
TroyBoy

I love this article, because not only is it a very rare look at my favorite team, but it is an educated look as well. I usually cringe when national writers chime in on the Cards, because invariably they look at some stats and use surface impressions to share uninspired, ignorant opinions.


As for the trolls who want to downgrade the Cards and make "9-7" comments, the NFC West is arguably the toughest top-to-bottom division in football. They may go 9-7; it would still be a successful season in my book. Arians took over a team that has had a good defense but an offense in disarray literally since Kurt Warner retired. Arians and Steve Keim made sweeping personnel changes and added a slightly above-average QB and have four more wins than all of last season. You can argue relative strength of schedule and make snide "ref-blaming" comments all you want to, but this is an impressive one-season turnaround.

SeanStott
SeanStott

LOL  Cardinals


The same team whose head coach blames refs for losses?


Sunsetparadise
Sunsetparadise

But they're still going to miss the postseason and end up at 9-7.

Davehall
Davehall

Come on MMQB! You guys do any research? The Cards will finish the season 9-7. Just another average team. They have had the easiest schedule and beaten only 2 teams that are over .500. ( Panthers in week 5 ) Even playing their pansy schedule, they barely gotten past teams like the Bucs and the Texans. Nobody cares about awards and praises for average teams, especially one that won't even make the playoffs. Do some homework before writing crap like this.

JesseReynolds
JesseReynolds

@JJ72Complete difference in both situations and your summary skims over too much. Harbaugh walked onto a VERY talented team that was being completely misused by the last head coach. The defense was already very good and the offense had the pieces but needed a coach who knew how to fit them together (3 first rounder on the line??).
Seattle went 7-9 back-to-back seasons and often only won a game or two on the road, being almost completely reliant on their awesome home field advantage. Now they are finally emerging as a power and should remain so despite a potentially messy salary cap situation (I say they let Sherman go, SEA seems to make CBs).

Arizona was predicted to be last in the division and out of contention for another few years. Even Cardinals fans were mostly pessimistic on the season. Arians has done a phenomenal job and is the second best coach in the NFL this year behind "the Hood" who's team is winning despite a MASSIVE slew of injures to key players. As much as I can't stand the Pats and Belicheck, you have to respect his ability to get the best of no names and backups.


PhillyPenn
PhillyPenn

@KeysSteven Carroll has a lot to work with so I'm not sure about him being COY.  Agree on Reid, he's done a great job.  Ditto with Rivera and Payton (NO season last year shows how much the missed him).  Fox?  I don't think you get COY for off the field stuff.  Kelly has to get more than honorable mention, the Eagles were 4-12 last year. Rivera: agreed. Harbaugh is good I guess they've overcome some serious injuries.  Honorable mentions to Trestman well deserved.  Belicheat?  Sorry, I'm not giving him credit for anything.  All-in-all?  Nice job by you.

JJ72
JJ72

@TroyBoy No question, the Cardinals deserve recognition even if they do lose out to Seattle and SF.  Unlike other teams in the conference the Cardinals have to play the top two conference teams twice and you are right to point out how tough that is.  In another division the Cardinals probably already made the playoffs with two easier games to finish out. 

austex34
austex34

@SeanStott Show me where Arians blamed the refs??  He blamed his team for the loss, not the refs.

JJ72
JJ72

@SeanStott Refs are human and they can beat you.  Good teams over come it, mediocre teams embrace it, and poor teams grumble constantly about how unfair it all is while doing little to change it.  There still need to be better controls over some rather blatantly poor officiating.  Seems to me that the league is doing a better job of review but not much else.

VaeVang
VaeVang

@SeanStott

He blamed his own team for the loss because he understood that if you played good ball, those penalties wouldn't have mattered.

But he acknowledged that the Refs did indeed seal the loss with their inconsistency for calls.

Sorry but when you've got Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin AND Philly sports articles saying that the Eagles got by because of Referees? I'm pretty sure that says that the Eagles literally got away with it lol.

Quit crying, even true Eagles fans know that they got bailed out by Refs. I'm sure you do too, and thats why you're so butthurt lol.

drindt2
drindt2

@SeanStott Typical Eagles fan, saying things that typical Eagles fans say.. Comments like yours make me want to youtube Bill Burrs rant.

benhameen
benhameen

@Sunsetparadise thought they wers gonna end up 9-7 ????

drindt2
drindt2

@Sunsetparadise Crazier things have happened. They are not technically eliminated as of yet. I for one hope you are wrong, but it's very plausible that you could be right. We'll see.

bartt
bartt

@Davehall So, about the Cardinals finishing 9-7...and being "just another average team"...Care to elaborate, Dave?

benhameen
benhameen

@Davehall needs to brush up on his football knowledge

austex34
austex34

@Davehall SMH, you're the idiot who needs to get his facts straight.  The Cards have had the 7th toughest SOS.  The Chiefs are dead last.  That aside, you speak as if any team has a choice as to who is on their schedule.  You play the hand you're dealt.

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

@Davehall Blasting MMQB for not doing any research.  Look up the Cards strength of schedule before spouting off.


Pansy schedule.  Ha!  More like pansy comments from you since you've completely missed the boat.  The facts are the opposite of what you said.

VaeVang
VaeVang

@Davehall

Teams with a win rate lower than .500 =/= an easy team.

Or maybe you need to be slapped with some sense. FranklinMint is right to begin with.

But you DO realize the Cardinals started the season with (Obviously) a new Headcoach, a new Defensive Coordinator, a new QB, players playing out of their positions, Offensive Scheme and Defensive Scheme.

And if you've watched any Cardinals game, it's taken the Cardinals half a season to finally start to click. That's what you've been seeing the past few games.

You can claim that they're playing against weak teams (which they've got the 6th hardest schedule anyway) all you want, but in the end, with almost a complete different look as a team, I don't care what team it could have been, 9-7 with that big or significant changes is impressive in general.

FranklinMint
FranklinMint

@Davehall You're dead wrong on strength of schedule. The Cards have had the 6th toughest schedule in the NFL so far, behind the Texans, Bucs, Giants, Rams, and Falcons (notice how AZ has the only winning record in the bunch, BTW?), . And the only reason they're likely to finish 9-7 is their tough division - 5 of their 7 losses would be in division with that finish. They'd be wiping up the floor in half of the other divisions and fighting for first in the rest other than the AFC West. 


Go sell your low-information claptrap somewhere else and leave the knowledgeable talk to those more prepared for it.

JJ72
JJ72

@JesseReynolds@JJ72 Arians has done a great job but most of the pieces were already there for him.  Still, he does deserve to be in the discussion.  What he has done is impressive.  My point is that Carroll built his team patiently through great drafts and select free agent signings.  Harbaugh put the SF pieces together.  Those teams are solid because of good leadership and that leadership should get credit instead of being over looked for being too successful.

JJ72
JJ72

@PhillyPenn@KeysSteven Carroll built that lot from a 5 and 11 team the year before he took over.  That's what good coaches do.  Wasn't that long ago that draft pundits couldn't figure out his strategy and were giving the Seahawks poor grades only to eat their words.  How quickly we forget.

KurtBoyer
KurtBoyer

@austex34@JJ72@JesseReynoldsArizona was picked to finish last for the same reason they always are -- too many historians & lazy researchers in the media. They do have a lot of talent.

azcardfan88
azcardfan88

@austex34@JJ72@JesseReynoldsYou can tell folks that do not follow the Cardinals.  Austex34 is right on the money.  Don't forget a new GM and their #1 draft pick got hurt in preseason and on IR.

austex34
austex34

@JJ72 @JesseReynolds Most of the pieces where in place? More than 1/2 the roster was gutted and replaced by new "pieces".  And at key positions too.  QB, RB, OL, LB, CB and FS.  Arizona was picked to finish dead last in the division.  While Carroll has steadily built his team, Harbaugh's was mostly in place when he arrived.  A move at QB being the most significant, and obtaining Boldin.  Outside of that, he walked into an extremely talented team.


JJ72
JJ72

@PhillyPenn@JJ72@KeysSteven To date Carroll has not been implicated in spy gate scandals.  New England clearly was cheating.  Seattle has been hurt by the suspensions far more than marijuana could ever help them.

JJ72
JJ72

@PhillyPenn@JJ72@KeysSteven Carroll has built more than a QB.  True Wilson has been great but the strength of the Seahawks has been defense and depth, and that defense was built by Carroll.

PhillyPenn
PhillyPenn

@JJ72 @PhillyPenn @KeysSteven Yeah, but remember that Belicheat was a  lousy coach in Cleveland with no QB.  Then he goes to NE and gets Drew Bledsoe and Brady.  And voila!  he's a genius all of a sudden.

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