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Tactical Advantage: How the Arizona Cardinals Can Shock the San Francisco 49ers

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Tactical Advantage: How the Arizona Cardinals Can Shock the San Francisco 49ers
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One of the biggest, fastest, nastiest front sevens in the NFL leading the league's third-best scoring defense. A consistent power running game led by a veteran tailback. A huge, fast, strong, strong-armed quarterback who can beat a defense every way a defense can be beaten.

If that all sounds like too much for Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals to overcome, it isn't.

I didn't just describe the San Francisco 49ers, whom the Cardinals take on Sunday afternoon. I described the Carolina Panthers—whom the Cardinals just beat, 22-6.

Though the Cardinals are 11-point underdogs to the 49ers (per Bovada.lv, at the time of this writing), they have more than enough talent to achieve the upset, especially on defense.

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Colin Kaepernick has been surprisingly mediocre in 2013. From his incredible 2012 season, Kaepernick's completion percentage has fallen (from 62.4 percent to 56.1 percent), his interception rate has more than doubled (from 1.4 percent to 3.0 percent) and his average yards per attempt is down by a full yard (from 8.3 yards to 7.3 yards), per Pro Football Reference.

The 49ers' depleted receiver corps is struggling to get open, and the Cardinals boast a physical, ball-hawking secondary. Kaepernick, who still hasn't run for a touchdown yet this season, and tailback Frank Gore will be trying to plough through a stout Cardinals run defense. It's tied for second-best in the NFL, with just 3.3 average yards-per-attempt allowed, per Pro Football Reference.

It's hard to see how the 49ers will score many points on their NFC West divisional rivals—who, it's worth pointing out, have the same 3-2 record the 49ers do.

The only question is, can Palmer and the Cardinals offense score enough points to capitalize on their defensive advantage?

 

What's Working for the Cardinals

Let's take a look at how the Cardinals were able to move the ball and score against the Panthers—who, by the way, are allowing just 14.5 points per average game, 5.1 fewer than the 12th-ranked 49ers defense.

Bruce Arians pulled out all the stops early on, calling an end-around and a flea flicker (!) in the Cardinals' first 10 offensive plays. Unfortunately, the end-around went for a loss, and the flea flicker was intercepted—one of Palmer's three interceptions on the day.

The Cardinals were able to move the ball with more conventional plays, though. Once of their most effective weapons was shifty tailback Andre Ellington, especially on draws, inside runs and cutbacks. The Cardinals offensive line is far from dominant, but by doubling down at the point of attack, they were able to run on the stout Panthers front four.

Here's a great example of a perfectly executed draw:

Note the Cardinals personnel: one tight end, one tailback and three wide receivers. This is on a 1st-and-10, and the Panthers are matched up in a 4-2-5 nickel formation. They're expecting a pass, and at first blush, that's what they get:

Just after the snap, all three receivers and the tight end take off down the field, and Palmer begins a drop back. The Cardinals left tackle, right guard and right tackle all pass block as expected, and for the most part, the Panthers are buying what the Cardinals are selling: "pass." Note the circled members of the Panthers back seven, all still either dropping back or standing pat in zone defense.

Look what's really happening, though:

The Cardinals left guard and center are double-teaming Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole, drive-blocking him well past the line of scrimmage. As Cole is driven to the ground, left guard Daryn Colledge disengages to block Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Ellington follows his excellent blocking and picks up 11 yards on the play.

The Cardinals didn't just run with misdirection, though. At times, they rammed it down the Panthers' throat. 

Once again, the Cardinals have one tight end, one tailback and three receivers in. Split end Michael Floyd motions to the end of the line, drawing the Panthers secondary up close:

At the snap, Floyd blocks safety Robert Lester, who correctly read "run" as soon as Floyd motioned in. The 6'3", 220-pound Floyd wins that one-on-one matchup, though. Tight end Jim Dray joins right tackle Eric Winston in double-teaming defensive end Charles Johnson, while right guard Paul Fanaika and center Lyle Sendlein double-team defensive tackle Kawann Short:

The result was plenty of space for power back Rashard Mendenhall, who picked up four yards on the play.

The Cardinals used this strategy often, making up for their lack of power up front with side-by-side double-teams. Dray was used frequently as an inline blocker and (on a couple of occasions) an H-back, lead-blocking for Mendenhall or Ellington.

Mendenhall didn't have an eye-popping day statistically (17 carries for 43 yards and a touchdown), but he picked up steam as the game wore on, pushing the pile on several runs like these, and was effective cutting back against zone stretches. He was most effective in the red zone, crucial for the Cardinals (who've moved the ball well but struggled to score).

Through the air, Palmer has been struggling—especially with interceptions. Palmer's thrown an interception on five percent of his passes this season; only Blaine Gabbert, Eli Manning and Geno Smith are throwing picks more frequently, per Pro Football Focus.

Against the Panthers, Palmer struggled to throw the ball downfield. He had just a handful of passes go over 10 yards, and almost all of them came from Palmer breaking down to get away from the rush and making something happen toward the sideline.

Palmer was generally effective throwing short and medium sideline routes; Larry Fitzgerald's biggest gain of the day came on the Cardinals' third snap, when Palmer shrugged off a sack and hit Fitzgerald on a comeback.

Arians drew up a lot of inside screens to help Palmer out, which were reasonably effective. Especially when the Cardinals ran four verticals with Dray and three receivers, Ellington was able to do some damage underneath.

 

What Isn't Working for the Cardinals

Pretty much any time Palmer threw deep, it went badly for the Cardinals. On the aforementioned flea flicker, Floyd had a step on his man, Palmer just waited far too long and threw it a little bit too short.

Arians was working overtime to get Palmer some open receivers deep, but Palmer kept making odd reads and poor throws, especially down the seam.

Here's a red-zone (-ish) play that exemplifies some of the problems Palmer and the Cardinals have had turning long drives into points:

The Cardinals are in an empty shotgun set, with no tight ends or backs, and five wide receivers. 

The Panthers are again in a simple 4-2-5 nickel alignment, though Kuechly is playing more of a deep "centerfield" a la the Tampa 2. Thomas Davis is up close to the line but will furiously backpedal at the snap to keep Fitzgerald in front of him.

Look at the three receivers to Palmer's left. They're a short square-in, a medium out route and a deep post. This is a very effective combination against a Cover 2, because it stretches the defense both horizontally and vertically. The inside corner will have to pass one of the two stacked receivers off to the safety, and the safety will have to either cover all the way to the sideline or all the way to the deep center of the field.

This next still is the exact instant Palmer decides to throw the ball:

Let's look at our triangle concept at the top of the screen. The underneath route is wide open. The inside corner is still backpedaling, not sure which of the two receivers he'll be responsible for. The safety is backpedaling, too, hoping to keep the play in front of him. In a split second, both of these receivers will make their break and come open.

But Palmer's already made up his mind: He's throwing it to Fitzgerald, whose route is in yellow. Note that Davis has gotten plenty of depth, and there's still safety Michael Mitchell to contend with. Here's a capture from the instant after the ball leaves Palmer's hand:

In orange are all the wide-open receivers and the big windows Palmer had to throw it to them. In yellow, the tiny window between Davis and Mitchell, and Fitzgerald's route to get there. Finally, here's a Palmer's-eye view:

We see Fitzgerald get his head around, but he's bracketed by Davis and Mitchell, who are both reading it all the way and already breaking on the ball. Fitzgerald makes a valiant effort, but Mitchell picks it off.

This play was a 1st-and-10, with 38 seconds left on the clock until halftime. Palmer had one double-covered receiver and four wide-open receivers, and he forced it to the double-covered guy rather than hit any of the others for an easy first down, or possibly more.

Instead of scoring a huge touchdown right before halftime, the Cardinals turned it over.

Arians drew up and called a play that worked beautifully—but he's got to make Palmer's reads easier and keep him away from throwing the middle of the field. If Palmer's throwing to the sideline, he can make sure he either completes the pass or misses out of bounds.

 

Following the Blueprint

Who wrote the book on how to beat the 49ers this season? None other than Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians' old team, the Indianapolis Colts.

The Colts, 10-point underdogs per Pro Football Reference, waltzed into Candlestick Park and beat the 49ers 27-7. The Colts used a balanced, two-man rushing attack and ideal matchup management in the passing game to dominate the ball. The Colts outstripped the 49ers by wide margins in first downs (23-14), total net yards (336-254) and time of possession (36:25 to 23:35), all per NFL.com.

Though Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has famously branded his new Colts offense the "No Coast Offense," it's a melange of the old Peyton Manning offense, Arians' work with Luck last season and Hamilton's work with Luck at Stanford.

In the running game, the Colts did quite a bit of what the Cardinals regularly do: mix up a shifty back (Ahmad Bradshaw) with a power back (Trent Richardson) with draws and power leads. The Colts frequently lined up a tight end as an H-back and used him as a lead blocker, as the Cardinals occasionally do with Dray.

The Cardinals will have an extra advantage against the 49ers, who often use a 2-4-5 nickel alignment in passing situations. If the Cardinals use their double-team draw (as diagrammed above) against a two-man front, it could be lethal.

In the passing game, the 49ers cornerbacks are both more physical and aggressive than the Panthers'. However, in that 2-4-5 front, the 49ers rely heavily on their middle linebackers for coverage—especially when, as they often do, both outside linebackers sneak to the line and blitz.

While Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are hardly schlubs, they don't have the lateral speed and coverage ability of a cornerback. Watch how Hamilton and the Colts capitalized on this:

Here's the 49ers in that 2-4-5 alignment, with both outside linebackers ready to blitz. The 49ers are in the midst of a shift, with Bowman calling out a coverage switch and the defensive tackle shading over. The result is an effective 4-2-5 nickel, with Willis, Bowman and all three cornerbacks playing man-to-man, and the safeties playing Cover 2 behind.

Let's look at this from a Colts perspective:

At first blush, the Colts appear to be in an empty shotgun set, with five wide receivers. All the way to the left of the formation, though, is Bradshaw, and in the slot next to him is Darrius Heyward-Bey. On the right side of the formation is a tight end, Coby Fleener, flanked by two receivers.

Bradshaw is a non-factor; he's not getting open against a cornerback. The two outside receivers to the right will run a go route and an out-and-up. Fleener will run a medium comeback, and Heyward-Bey will drag across the middle.

Watch how this plays out:

Note how the route combinations all clear out space for Heyward-Bey's drag route. Willis is a great athlete, and Heyward-Bey has not been the impact receiver the Colts had hoped for when they signed him. Still, that's a speed mismatch, and Hamilton drew this up perfectly. Let's see the field from Luck's vantage point, as he releases the ball:

Heyward-Bey has flown past Willis, and we see Fleener already setting up to block Bowman out of the play. Luck has a huge window to throw to, and Heyward-Bey takes this one 19 yards, almost all the way to the goal line. This whole play is designed to take advantage of the 49ers coverage schemes, and Luck really only has one read here.

These are the kinds of plays Arians needs to draw up for Palmer: Designed not to get multiple receivers open, but to get one receiver really open. The 49ers are aggressive enough to be predictable, and that's something that can be taken advantage of.

If the Cardinals want to work Patrick Peterson into the offense, this would be a perfect role for him: running intermediate drag routes and running the 49ers middle linebackers ragged.

 

Easier Said than Done?

Of course, all this is easier said than done. Palmer is not Andrew Luck, and it remains to be seen if Ellington and Mendenhall can "thunder and lightning" as well as Bradshaw and Richardson did.

The Cardinals offensive line is weaker in pass protection than the Colts', so that could be another area of concern; if Palmer doesn't have time to set up and throw, he often struggles.

Still, the 49ers have suffered enough key injuries (on both sides of the ball) that their bite doesn't quite match their bark. If the Cardinals can put up 22 points against the Panthers, they can put up more against the 49ers.

If the 49ers continue to play a lot of two-man fronts, the Cardinals should be able to double-team both tackles, to great effect. If the 49ers continue to be aggressive in the pass rush and play a lot of tight man, the Cardinals have the personnel and offensive creativity to get receivers open and move the chains.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

I'm so confident the Cardinals have a tactical advantage in this matchup, I even picked them to win in our B/R Expert Consensus Picks. Not only was I the only B/R expert to pick the Cardinals, I was the only media expert out of 92 tracked by Pickwatch to pick the Cardinals.

I might be crazy, but on Sunday, Bruce Arians might make me look crazy like a fox.

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