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.
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.
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.
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.
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.