Word of Muth: Cardinal Problems
by Ben Muth
The Arizona Cardinals gave up a touchdown on the first drive of the game. Then they returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown only to have it called back for holding. The game actually got worse from there. No individual offensive lineman was as bad as the 41-7 final score would lead you to believe, but none of them were great and their breakdowns came at different times during the game. On one play four guys would execute their assignments (that sounds very CIA-ish), but Brandon Keith would inexplicably step down inside when he was supposed to block an outside rusher, Sean Weatherspoon, and give up a sack. The whole was less than the sum of its parts.
Let's start with the offensive tackles, who were not very good. Levi Brown and Brandon Keith struggled with speed on the edge in the passing game. This was a particular weakness of Keith, on whom defenders were able to run the hoop at will. "Running the hoop" refers to a big hoop made of PVC pipe that defensive lineman always run around during practice. It's a drill that teaches them to dip their shoulder and maintain a tight arc around an offensive lineman to the quarterback.
The defenders were successful for a couple of reasons. First, I think the noise of the Georgia Dome was an issue for the right tackle. On multiple plays Keith had what I call radio delay, when you move a half-second after the ball is snapped. It's tough to notice if you're not looking directly at someone, but if you are looking for it, it suddenly becomes glaring. By being late off the ball, he is removing one of two advantages an offensive lineman has. Those two advantages are:
1. Offensive players know exactly when the ball will be snapped.
2. Offensive players know where the ball is supposed to go and can step accordingly.
Keith's other big problem, the ability to stay square to the line of scrimmage, was a problem for Brown as well. This doesn't mean you have to keep your shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage the entire play, but you should turn gradually. You want to get two kick-slides in before you start turning your shoulders. (In o-line lingo, a kick-slide is a step backwards with your outside/back foot followed by a small slide with the inside/front foot. It's the basic footwork of all pass sets.) Once you start turning your shoulders, you want to keep turning them slightly until you reach the depth where you think the quarterback is setting up. At that point it's all right to have your shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage.
The basic idea is that, after the first two steps, you want your back numbers facing the quarterback at all times. The problem with turning too quickly is that, when you do, you tend to step underneath yourself, making it all but impossible to get any width, shortening the distance to the quarterback.
The first time I re-watched the game I thought the column was going to be about the decline of Alan Faneca, mainly because he didn't look good early in the game. In fact, he looked washed up. But as the game went along, Faneca found his stride and rebounded well. Faneca's performance as a whole wasn't terrible, but there were enough mistakes early to hurt the flow of the offense. For example, he gave up a quarterback hit on a play where a receiver was open deep, causing Anderson to underthrow him. On another play, Faneca got shoved into the backfield causing a short loss on an otherwise well-blocked running play. And those two missteps were enough to stall a drive early in the game.
The two most consistent performers on the o-line were Lyle Sendlein and Deuce Lutui. Sendlein put forth a solid if unspectacular effort. He was always blocking someone and generally stayed on his feet. This may seem fairly pedestrian, but you'd be surprised how often guys get tripped up or wander in space without engaging a defender. Sendlein did a nice job of being active.
Another thing I took from this game is that Deuce Lutui is a very strong man. There were multiple occasions where Lutui simply bench-pressed guys to the turf. This seemed to happen more when he got his hands on guys at the second level. The problem was, he had a much harder time getting to these guys because he was often a little late getting off defensive linemen and getting to the linebackers on that second level.
There were two problems for the Cardinals offense that were much bigger than the offensive line: penalties and incompetence on third down. Arizona didn't convert a single third down in the game, which would have been normal in the 1990s, but not in the Whisenhunt era. The penalty issue actually had little to do with the linemen; the only penalty the big fellas committed was a five-yard penalty on Levi Brown for lining up too deep, which the Falcons declined anyway. The problems on third down had to do with everyone on the Cardinals offense -- and offensive staff. Generally speaking, the Falcons plan on third down involved bringing heavy pressure and making Derek Anderson get the ball out. Anderson was able to throw quickly (he was only sacked twice) but was usually inaccurate.
The Falcons greatest weapon was the Double A-Gap blitz. (The A gap is the gap between the center and the guard on either side. Double A-Gap pressure means that the defense is bringing two defenders through the A gaps.) It's a simple enough blitz to run that was brought into vogue by the late Jim Johnson of the Eagles. Most protection schemes generally try to get big on big, or offensive linemen on defensive linemen. That means running backs are usually responsible for linebackers. When a defense sends two linebackers into the A gaps, it forces the offense to make adjustments. How the offense adjusts depends on factors like what protection scheme they're running, whether the quarterback is under center or in shotgun, and how much confidence you have in your running backs ability to pass protect. The Cardinals had a hard time with this look and it was big part of their downfall Sunday.
When the quarterback is in shotgun, it becomes a little easier to adjust, because there is still enough time and distance for a running back to pick up an A gap linebacker. If the quarterback is under center, or there are no running backs in the protection, then the offensive line must account for the extra defender. That's actually the key to the entire blitz. The linebackers are so close to the quarterback before the snap that the running back doesn't have enough time to get to the linebackers, so the line is forced to pick up the extra defender. This is ideal for the defense because one of two things happens: You either get a mismatch with a running back blocking a down defensive lineman, or you end up with a defender coming free and unaccounted for. Both situations happened on Sunday, and defenders in Derek Anderson's lap all game.
What makes this so worrisome for Cardinals fans (me included) is that the pressure wasn't caused by mental breakdowns. Rather, the pressure resulted from a scheme that created matchups that the Cardinals didn't win. The Cardinals had to let guys go off the edge because they didn't have enough blockers. When Tim Hightower had to block Jonathan Babineaux, Derek Anderson was unable to find an open receiver in time or deliver the ball accurately enough to hurt the overly aggressive Falcons defense.
I hate to talk about the past, but delivering the ball quickly and accurately is what Kurt Warner hung his hat on. The Cardinals will continue to see this blitz until they prove they can beat it. We'll have to see what adjustments Whisenhunt and his staff can come up with to deter teams from gambling like this.
The Falcons' TED defensive line twists also caused problems for the Cardinals. A twist is when two players exchange gaps, forcing them to twist -- most play names are self-explanatory. A "TED twist" means that the defensive tackle goes first, and then the defensive end loops around. By doing this you hope to pick the offensive linemen onto each other. There are two components that go into stopping any twist: blunting the penetrator and recognizing the looper. The problem the Cardinals were having was recognizing the looper.
During the course of a game, you begin to get a feel for the man you are blocking -- how quick he is, how fast he is, what he does well and what he doesn't do well. When a defender rushes differently than he has been all game, it is important for a the offensive lineman to recognize it.
Here, the Falcons' defensive ends would rush really hard straight up field for three steps before looping inside of the defensive tackle. On non-twists, the Falcon ends would run the hoop rather than rushing straight up the field. So, when Brown and Keith noticed that their defenders were running directly up field, instead of toward Derek Anderson, they should have been alerted that something was up and turned inside to pass off the game (game is a synonym for twist; stunt would also work).
But Arizona's tackles were consistently too late in recognizing the stunts and therefore were constantly getting picked by the defensive tackles and offensive guards. So, when the defensive end would loop inside, no one was able to pick him up. The only exceptions came when the Cardinals were sliding into the game. On these occasions, the center was able to pick up the looping defensive end. Even then, it took three guys to block two.
We'll end on a positive note, by discussing a successful play for the Cardinals. In fact, maybe the Cardinals' two best offensive snaps came on the Stretch BOSS play. The play is a version of the stretch play, ran to a tight end side, where the fullback is responsible for the strong safety. BOSS stands for Back on Strong Safety -- it's a simple game folks. They ran it out of their own end zone for about 12 yards and a first down, but we're going to look at Tim Hightower's touchdown run.
The Cardinals came out in an I Formation with Stephen Spach at tight end, plus wide receiver Steve Breaston tight like a tight end and Larry Fitzgerald split out to the left. The Falcons looked like they were misaligned on the opposite. Atlanta's defensive end was lined up in a five technique (a five technique is when a defender is lined up on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle) and its outside linebacker, in this case rookie Sean Weatherspoon, was lined up inside of him. The Falcons also didn't have any defensive backs in a position to provide outside force. If the Falcons weren't misaligned, then their players certainly faced an uphill battle from a positioning standpoint.
However, as much as the Falcons did wrong, the Cardinals did right. It started at the point of attack with Brandon Keith, yes the same guy who's received the most negative attention in this column. Keith did a great job of getting to the play side defensive end's outside shoulder. In fact, he did such a good job of pinning the defender inside that Deuce Lutui was able to take over the block, allowing Brandon Keith to climb to the second level and knock down Curtis Lofton, the Falcons middle linebacker. The other key block was by Stephen Spach. Because Jamaal Anderson (really wanted to make a dirty bird joke here but couldn't come up with a good one) was lined up in a five technique, Spach was able to go immediately to the second level and throw a textbook cut block, right on Weatherspoon's outside thigh pad. Combine all that with a nice kick out block by Reagan Maui'a on the safety, and Tim Hightower is off to the races. It was a rare bright spot in a long day for the Cardinals.