Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
21 Jan 2009
by Doug Farrar
There was a time, not too long ago, when the Arizona Cardinals' offensive line was not only the team's punchline, but a complete joke around the NFL. They ranked 29th in Adjusted Line Yards in 2004, dead last in 2005, and rose up to 23rd in 2006, their first year before former Steelers coach and Redskins Hog-in-Residence Russ Grimm took over the line under new head coach Ken Whisenhunt. The improvement continued in 2007, as the ALY numbers rose to eighth under Grimm. However, a regular-season drop to 30th in 2008 seemed to be emblematic of Arizona's problems -- a chronic inability to sustain drives on the ground and dictate to an opposing defense what they intended to do. Judging from what I saw in the NFC Championship game, there's a line turnaround in the postseason that's just as stark, and just as inexplicable, as everything else the Cardinals have done. What I saw against an Eagles defense that was as good as any against the run, especially in the second half of the regular season, convinced me that the Cards might just have a chance to pull off the Super Bowl upset.
On the first play from scrimmage against Philadelphia, the Cardinals ran from their own 20. The formation was tight to the right, with an offset I. The eagles brought Stewart Bradley on a blitz over center Lyle Sendlein. At the snap, Sendlein took Bradley, and left guard Reggie Wells engaged right defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley -- or so he thought. Bunkley, who was the pointman in those fourth-quarter stops against the Giants the week before, threw Wells into the line and tackled Edgerrin James after a two-yard gain.
Here, the Cardinals went with their base line against the Eagles' base front four. Three-wide set, shotgun, two backs. J.J. Arrington went in motion to the right to give a trips look presnap as cornerback Joselio Hanson cleared out of the box to adjust. As Kurt Warner moved to the right, tackle Levi Brown did a great job of keeping end Juqua Parker out of the backfield so Warner could hit Anquan Boldin on a quick pass in the right flat. Parker tried to beat Brown outside with pure speed, but Brown just engaged Parker and rode him right out of the picture.
Another three-wide, shotgun, two-back set for the Cards, and Philadelphia brought Bradley up the middle to blitz again, Sendlein took him at the line, withstanding the charge, and left tackle Mike Gandy was able to keep Trent Cole out of the circle for just long enough: Warner hit Larry Fitzgerald with a shallow cross from right to left. Cole couldn't get a hand on Warner thanks to Gandy, who has enjoyed an outstanding postseason so far.
Clearly, the strategy here was to exploit the short pass and keep the Eagles on their heels. On first-and-10 from their own 48, the Cardinals went four-wide, single-back, and Philly blitzed safety Quintin Mikell between Bunkley and Parker. Mikell is usually very good at getting to the quarterback on a blitz ("traditional" or zone), but he didn't have time here. As Sendlein slid to his left to take Bunkley, Wells pushed Mikell back. Mikell then had to recover and rush to his left, because Warner was looking to his right at Boldin and some open space. Bradley was fooled by James running left and over-pursued on the spy, leaving some room upfield for Boldin after Warner hit him on a quick screen. Another nine-yard gain, and it was starting to look systematic.
On second-and-1 from the Eagles 43, Arizona went offset-I, and Philly read run all the way. That they couldn't stop the first down was a sign of trouble to come. As Sendlein and Wells took out the tackles, Brown had Parker in a death grip outside right. Left defensive tackle Mike Patterson did a good job of getting free from Deuce Lutui, but the gap was still there -- just enough -- because fullback Terrelle Smith blew linebacker Akeem Jordan out with a great block as Jordan tried to fill it. This allowed James to power forward as Patterson was taking him down. It was a big three-yard gain for the Cardinals, Not only were they starting to establish the run in a key situation, they were doing it against a defense that had stoned better rushing attacks than theirs.
For the Eagles, it was about to get worse -- and more uncharacteristic. Having established a bit of physical dominance, Arizona started messing with the Eagles' heads. On first-and-10 from the Philly 40, another three-wide, shotgun set with two backs (well, sort of -- one of the "backs" was safety Antrel Rolle), and Rolle motioning to the right presnap. Play the pass, right? Erm, nope. As end Chris Clemons looked to stunt inside from right end, Warner took the ball and waited for the picture to develop. Cole came off the snap so fast, he pursued himself right out of the play, and Clemons' little inside move created a huge seam. Warner gave James the ball in the delay. All that was left was for Weeks to put a seal on Bunkley inside, and James ripped off a 16-yard run outside left. This was an outstanding example of the Cardinals using timing against a fast defense, and anticipating where the play could go.
First-and-10 from the Eagles 24, and that defense stayed home this time. No blitz; it was time to react to what had been a masterful drive. This time, James took the ball out of a single-back set and hit the left edge with great speed. On the left side, the Cards displayed a great example of hat-on-hat blocking. Tight end Ben Patrick, who had motioned to the left, dealt with Cole. Sendlein took Bunkley, Gandy blocked Jordan, and Wells hit the second level to engage Bradley. Bradley got loose to make the tackle, but not until James had gained another 12 yards. Nothing fancy about this play for a supposedly finesse offense, just sound fundamental blocking. Another power set in the next play brought running back Tim Hightower down to the Philadelphia 9 on a three–yard gain, at which point the Cardinals went back to the pass. With time to survey the field as the Eagles went with a base defense again, Warner hit Fitzgerald over the middle at the 4. Fitzgerald then pinballed off three Eagles defenders on the way to another amazing play, and Arizona's first touchdown of the day.
The question is, how will this line do against Pittsburgh's ungodly defensive front? Probably better than expected, with some notable vulnerabilities. For all their improved ability to power-block, I have seen that really good speed-rushers give their tackles fits; there were times when Cole was so fast off the edge, Gandy couldn't even get his hands up in time to block. This is where James Harrison comes in, and we'll talk more about him very soon. The Cardinals did a great job of using Philadelphia's aggressiveness against them. But if the Eagles present a challenge, the Steelers are something far more vexing.
A lot of people who tune into Super Bowl XLIII are going to assume that with Ed Reed out of the picture, there's only one elite safety worth watching in this game. Hardcore Arizona Cardinals fans, and long-time Football Outsiders readers (we're assuming there are a few more of the latter than the former) know better.
If the Steelers' last Super Bowl was about winning one for Jerome (and was it ever...), there's a feel-good story on the other side of the ball this time. Cardinals strong safety Adrian Wilson. Selected in the third round of the 2001 draft by the Cards, Wilson excelled in the three-year Dave McGinnis era, got even better in the three-year Dennis Green era, and has maintained his place on the All-Underrated team through the first two years of the Whisenhunt age. He has been a smart, aggressive, effective defensive player for defenses that did little to nothing around him. Few current Cardinals understand, as Wilson does, how long the journey has been. And against the Eagles last Sunday, he gave America a crash course in Adrian Wilson 101.
It's not that Wilson isn't penalty-prone -- he jumped on a blitz from the right edge on Arizona's first defensive play of the game, and caught a declined offside penalty for his efforts. Wilson led the NFL among non-linemen with three regular-season offside calls. But it took two plays from that jump for Wilson to show his value for the first time. The Eagles had second-and 6 from the Arizona 35, and they went with a shotgun set, four receivers tight, single back. Tight end Brent Celek ran a little out along the line of scrimmage. Donovan McNabb threw him the ball, and Wilson zoomed in from linebacker depth. Celek didn't stand a chance -- Wilson just plowed over him for no gain.
Wilson is best as a pass-rusher and run-stopper. He's not violently fast like Troy Polamalu is; there are times with Polamalu when I fear more for his safety than for the guy he's trying to tackle. Wilson seems to think and tackle more like a great outside linebacker. He zeroes in on his man, takes a straight, smooth line, and big hits happen. Celek found this out the next time the two men met up close.
With 40 seconds gone in the second quarter and third-and-10 for the Eagles at the Arizona 35, McNabb threw a swing pass to Celek out of a bunch left formation. Celek showed his athleticism by hurtling linebacker Gerald Hayes in an attempt to gain extra yardage, only to be stopped dead in his tracks by a closing Wilson after six yards. I can imagine that getting hit square on by Wilson when you're flying through the air feels even worse than when you're on the ground.
Of course, the two plays where Wilson put his stamp all over everything were the McNabb sacks. The first came with 12:10 left in the third quarter. Down 24-6, Philly had third-and-8 at the Arizona 47 on the seventh play of the second half's opening drive. Wilson was up on the right defensive edge, came through completely unblocked, and blew McNabb up from the blind side. Sack, fumble, Arizona recovery, drive over.
Just about four minutes later, with 7:20 left in the third quarter and the Eagles at their own 39, Wilson shot through the middle for his second sack. As the left side of Philly's line slid left, and McNabb was forced to stay in the pocket by the oncoming Bert Berry, Wilson shot that center gap, evaded Brian Westbrook's blocking attempt, and brought McNabb down at the 31 for an eight-yard loss.
It's easy to understand why Wilson was so emotional after the game that took him to the Super Bowl -- he's been through it all with this team. He chose to stay on through all the losing seasons and false positives, signing a five-year extension in December of 2004. For a number of years, he has played at a level that makes him among the best at his position, but he's done most of it anonymously in the name of a team that few could be bothered to respect. Now, with that respect finally on the horizon, it's a good time to take a minute and appreciate the man who waved the flag for excellence in a lonely desert.
There are a couple more things about Super Bowl matchups I want to explore in further detail, though time has run out right now. One is the fact that Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison has done what he's done despite an apparent lack of holding penalties called on the offensive linemen who face him. Specifically, there was a multigame stretch, extending from the Steelers' 23-6 win over the Redskins on November 3 through the fourth quarter of their 31-14 loss to the Titans on December 21, when no holds were called against Pittsburgh opponents on non-special teams plays. That's a six-game run, plus three quarters. I detailed the weirdness in this December 20 FO Mailbag about opponent penalties. Kind of odd to have no called holds in line against the NFL's best defense? Certainly.
In fact, the holding call in the Titans game came against receiver Brandon Jones. If you wanted a call against an opposing lineman, you'd have to move ahead to the regular season's final week, when the Steelers decimated the Browns, 31-0, and guard Scott Young was flagged twice. In the divisional win over the Chargers, two offensive holds were called, and both came against Pittsburgh: one against Heath Miller, and one against Santonio Holmes. Last Sunday's AFC Championship game saw a break in the logjam when left tackle Jared Gaither was flagged early in the fourth quarter. This was the first time since that Redskins game when a lineman facing Harrison was called for holding, which seems ridiculous no matter how you slice it.
It will probably seem even more ridiculous when I actually have time to go back to the Conference Championship and study Harrison's performance, which I'll do through the next week in preparation for (drums, please...) the First Annual Cover-3 All-Stars article. I'll be breaking up the best players as I saw them through the year in a dual-conference extravaganza that should threaten the stability of the Word Count feature in Office 2007. Harrison will obviously be on the AFC team, and I'll use that opportunity to get a more detailed analysis together.
Until then -- Mike Gandy, eat your Wheaties. You're going to need them.
30 comments, Last at 27 Jan 2009, 7:07pm by Spielman