"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
30 Dec 2010
by Ben Muth
It's funny how much you can learn from local talk radio. Before I came home for the holidays, I thought the Cardinals were a struggling team that had a lot of holes to fill. I thought they had a terribly inconsistent defense that was prone to giving up long drives. I thought they lacked dynamic talent at the offensive skill positions with one notable exception. (If I have to tell you the exception, you probably are at the wrong website.) And I was almost positive their quarterback play had ranged from just below mediocre to Dan McGwire (and usually closer to McGwire).
Luckily, I turned off the radio and learned just how wrong I was.
Turns out the defense is not the problem. After all, they've scored roughly 317 defensive touchdowns this year (all estimates given by sports radio callers coming home from a night game). Never mind that they aren't any good in conventional statistics, ranking in the bottom half in passing yards, rushing yards, total yards, and scoring. They aren't faring much better in defensive DVOA -- they're ranked 22nd.
At the skill positions, fans are quick to point out Steve Breaston had 1,000 yards receiving when he was healthy last year. Sure, he was playing in the slot where he was only asked to run seams, screens, and digs (the Randy Moss route tree) against linebackers and nickel backs, but it was 1,000 yards nonetheless. Not to mention the dynamic 1-2 punch of Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower at running back. The fact that neither of these guys has ever had a breakout year in the NFL is arbitrary. It's only a matter of time before they turn into a southwest version of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones.
Even though I was apparently wrong about every other facet of the Cardinals, I was pretty sure my assessment of their quarterback play was at least in the ball park. I was wrong. Well, at least half wrong.
It turns out that Derek Anderson does stink. John Skelton might be very good -- it's just that we have no idea because he hasn't had any time to throw. In fact here are some comparisons I've heard in the last couple of weeks: a faster Ben Roethlisberger, Jeff Garcia with a stronger arm, and a bigger Rich Gannon. According to Red Bird nation, the only thing those guys had that Skelton doesn't is a competent offensive line. The Cardinals are only a mediocre offensive line away from being back in the playoffs. In fact, sports radio will show that is the only absolute certainty in is all bad teams have bad offensive lines.
With this new information in hand, I was tempted to skip this week's game against the Cowboys and write an article about which offensive linemen should benched, who should be cut, and who should be executed this offseason. But since I was getting paid, I decided to watch the Cardinals offensive line play, and I discovered they didn't play that poorly.
As I watched them play, I remembered that the Cardinals offensive line had actually played well all year. They've played better than any other offensive line I've covered all year -- I know, the Steelers, Cowboys, and Redskins aren't great comparisons -- but would probably be considered the worst. The offensive line becomes the scapegoat for all losing teams' fans.
The Cardinals interior offensive line is not great, but it is solid. Alan Faneca is not the player he once was, but he is still a capable offensive lineman. He is technically sound enough in pass blocking to make up for any speed he's lost over the years. He also has a knack for always engaging a defender. This sounds easy, but you'd be surprised how often players, especially when pulling, seem to glance off defenders without ever really locking up. Once Faneca does engage, he doesn't run his feet like he used to do in order to sustain blocks or get pancakes. But he usually does block them long enough to create a lane for the running back or force the defender to try to make an arm tackle.
Deuce Lutui and Lyle Sendlein seem similar to me. Maybe it's because they've both been in Arizona for a while and I just lump them together. Or maybe it's the fact that both are relatively inexpensive parts that do their jobs well, if unspectacularly. Both men are better run-blockers than pass-blockers, and both only struggle when they face quicker defensive tackles for an entire game.
Most of Lutui's errors come against wide three-techniques or slanting defensive ends in the passing game. Basically, any time he has to deal with a lot of space between him and the rusher on drop-back passes. Like most centers, Sendlein struggles to pass block against quick nose tackles (or bumped down defensive ends in nickel situations) one-on-one. The good news is that both players' most glaring faults are pretty small, and they are easy to conceal by staying out of third-and-long situations. I'd be surprised if all three interior offensive linemen weren't brought back next season.
At the beginning of the year, I thought Jeremy Bridges was atrocious. He struggled in the preseason, then proceeded to play worse when the games counted. When Bridges turned in perhaps the worst performance by any player this year, against the Chargers, I was puzzled at how the Cardinals thought he could be a starting tackle.
As the season wore on, Bridges began to improve. His pass blocking went from atrocious to passable, and his run blocking went from solid to very good. He still opens his hips too much in pass protection (turns them parallel to the sideline), which results in him getting beat around the edge, but I would say he is a legitimate starting NFL tackle at this point.
The same cannot be said about Levi Brown. I'm not going to discuss Brown much except to say that I do not think he will be the starting left tackle for the Cardinals (or anyone else) next year.
It takes a while for any team to find its style of play. One thing that has helped the Cardinals offensive line as the year has gone on is Ken Whisenhunt's willingness to adjust his play calling to fit the personnel. Max Hall, Derek Anderson, and John Skelton aren't Kurt Warner, and they weren't making reads as quickly as Warner did. The result was a lot of sacks, and even more hits. However, Whisenhunt has started keeping in more blockers, has used five-receiver sets less often, and has generally simplified the offense. The results have been mixed, but at least he's giving his quarterbacks a chance now.
One successful instance of this strategy was the long touchdown pass to Andre Roberts. The Cardinals went with max protection, keeping both running backs and the tight end in to block. The protection they used was a half-slide protection. On the left side, the tight end, Stephen Spach, and Levi Brown were responsible for the defensive end and the Sam linebacker, Igor Olshansky and Anthony Spencer, respectively.
|Figure 1: Andre Roberts touchdown|
Since Spencer was on the line of scrimmage at the snap, Spach had to set to him right away in case he blitzed. Once Spencer dropped out into coverage, Spach went back inside to help Brown. Faneca was the only offensive lineman who had to block someone one-on-one, and he did so effectively.
The center and the right side of the line were responsible for the gaps to their right. Since the Cowboys didn't blitz the Mike or the Will linebackers, Arizona ended up with three offensive linemen on two defenders. Reagan Maui'a blocked to the right, and he was responsible for any defensive backs coming off that side, or any extra edge rushers (sometimes defenses will send two guys off the edge). Since no one blitzed to his side, he helped Bridges with a chip block. Beanie Wells just had to take a play fake to the left and check for any blitzing defensive backs before releasing for a check down. Cowboy safety Gerald Sensabaugh blitzed through the B gap, but Wells met him and kept him off of Skelton.
Because of the safety blitz, Andre Roberts was left one-on-one with Michael Jenkins. Jenkins was beat badly for Skelton's first touchdown pass. This is called a shot play, because every so often an offense needs to take a shot.
When you have Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, just about every play you call has the potential to go deep; but when you have a rookie, you have to call specific plays that encourage a deep throw. Plays like this one are designed so that Skelton can take his drop and look down the field at his only two receivers to see if either one has single coverage. If they do, he lets it loose. If not, he checks down Wells or runs. Since the safety blitzed, Wells couldn't get out for a check down, but it didn't matter -- Andre Roberts was open deep.
6 comments, Last at 03 Jan 2011, 11:04am by Barfolomew