Word of Muth: Marked Improvement
by Ben Muth
It's been a while since the Arizona Cardinals have been the focus of "Word of Muth," but after a three-point loss to the self-proclaimed best team in the NFL, I figured they deserved a little attention. Arizona was looking good early, until two Max Hall interceptions were returned for touchdowns. Ken Whisenhunt went to Derek Anderson, who turned a 17-point deficit into a four-point lead.
It wasn't meant to be however, as the Buccaneers scored one final touchdown to regain the lead for good. Despite the loss, the Cardinals offense looked as good as it has all year. And if Arizona can cut back on the turnovers they will once again contend for the NFC West crown.
A big part of Arizona's success (35 points) has to be attributed to the improvement of the offensive line. The last time I wrote about them, there were several breakdowns that led to a disjointed performance. This time, the line was both consistent and effective.
Alan Faneca in particular played much better this Sunday. He was sound in pass protection and did a really great job in the running game. He looked especially good when he was pulling on Power plays. This is exactly the kind of performance the Cards were looking for when they signed him this offseason. As far as the other interior guys go, Deuce Lutui and Lyle Sendlein, I almost feel like I can cut and paste what I said the last time about them. They flew under the radar with solid work throughout the game, though Sendlein did miss a key block on a screen in the red zone. It killed the drive, and those are the plays that really stick with you after close losses.
Of all the offensive linemen I've watched play this year I think Brandon Keith has improved the most. I was really concerned after the preseason and first couple of games (the Chargers game being the low point). He gave up a couple of sacks and even more hits and looked almost lost in the process. But he has since found his rhythm and has become a serviceable starting tackle. His pass protection has improved dramatically, and his run blocking has remained strong.
His bookend has not fared as well. Levi Brown was beat early and often in this game. In fact, the only consistent pressure that the Bucs really got came from over the former Nittany Lion. Brown struggled with outside rushers all day, which is a problem considering he's an offensive tackle. The most disturbing thing for Cards fans is probably that Brown looked too slow to do anything about it. It's one thing if your technique is a little dodgy, because that can always be fixed, but it's hard to imagine Brown getting any faster as the season goes along. It may have just been an off day, but I've noticed a couple of those from Brown this season. It's getting to the point where Russ Grimm may look elsewhere.
Levi Brown's wasn't the worst performance on Sunday however. Chris Myers struggled calling this game, particularly at big moments. But I thought color man Brian Billick was actually a little worse. Before I go off on my poor announcing tangent on Billick, let me say I have found him to be very insightful in the past. I freely admit he knows more about the game of football than me. In fact he has probably forgotten more about this sport than I'll ever know. That being said, one of things he forgot is how to deal with two edge rushers in slide protection (Zinger!).
|Figure 1: Hall's First Pick-Six|
On Max Hall's first pick-six, the Cardinals had a play action pass called with a full-slide (to the left) protection up front. The Buccaneers brought a safety blitz to the offense's right. Because the right tackle (Keith) had a three-technique, he had to slide down immediately to block him. That meant that both the defensive end and the blitzing safety were unaccounted for by the offensive line. Now, when you run a full-slide protection the first thing you address is how you are going to pick up any edge pressure. There are three ways teams pick up these blitzes.
1. You can keep your tight end in to block, and have a running back responsible for any blitzer.
2. You can keep both running backs in and have the fullback chop the end and the halfback pick up any other rushers.
3. You can keep in just one back for the end and beat any blitzers with the throw.
The Cardinals decided to keep one back in and send everyone else out, not my personal preference, but certainly a viable option. The reason I don't like this option is it leads to more hits on the quarterback, which leads to more of those ridiculous quarterback hit montages the networks show so much. I'd love to calculate the number of hits in those montages that are from naked bootlegs and plays where the hot rusher comes. It'd be ridiculous.
Since the Buccaneers brought the extra man, it was Max Hall's job to dump off the pass to H-Back Ben Patrick -- waving his arm because he knew he was hot -- in the flat. Hall didn't see the blitz though and got hit right as he released it, leading to the interception and touchdown by Geno Hayes (seen here with abbreviated Billick commentary).
Brian Billick proceeded to rip into Beanie Wells for the next 90 seconds, making sure to point out that this is the reason Tim Hightower has been starting over him. What's funny is that Wells is pretty much blameless on the play. There were two free rushers for him to choose from and he chose the inside guy, which is usually correct. But since the outside rusher was coming with so much speed, it probably would've been better to take Sean Jones (the outside rusher).
Of course, that's the kind of thing that looks obvious on TV and impossible to tell during the game, so I'd give Wells a pass. And besides, Max Hall was taking a hit either way. But Billick saw it differently. Apparently he didn't want to put the blame on fellow BYU alumnus Max Hall, so he attacked the Buckeye.
I don't want a second consecutive column to end on a sour note (defense last week, poor announcing this week) so I'm going to write about a play I really enjoyed. It was the good old-fashioned Trap play. Now, I'm usually not a fan of the play in today's NFL (copyright Ron Jaworski) because defensive tackles are too big and too technically sounds to be able to run it effectively anymore.
The only time you can really do it is in an obvious passing situation when a defensive tackle will only be thinking about pressuring the quarterback. The problem then is that you have to run up the middle on third-and-long, which even in the best-case scenario is dicey. So, how can you run the trap play effectively and in a decent down and distance situation?
Well, if you're the Arizona Cardinals you get creative with the formation. It was second-and-2, and the Cardinals came out in 11 personnel (one running back on tight end). What made the play, though, is that they offset the tailback over the left tackle. This formation screams pass, since usually you offset a single back for protection purposes. From an offset position, the back can make his reads and get into the routes quicker. It's a trick that a lot of West Coast Offense teams will use. The problem with the formation is that it's tough to run the ball out of because the backfield motion/timing will be all screwed up. When defenses see this formation, they immediately think pass. If you're a defensive lineman, this means pass rush.
|Figure 2: The Trap Play|
Now, that you have the defense where you want them, you can run one of the most basic and notorious plays in all of football. The blocking starts on the right side, where the guard (Deuce Lutui) gives a little flash set to kick-start the three-technique's pass rush (basically a pump fake, but for pass blocking) and then climbs to the middle linebacker. To Lutui's left, Lyle Sendlein blocked back on the nose tackle. Alan Faneca pulled and tried to kick out the three-technique that is now up the field, because he thinks it is a pass play.
This is where the Trap name comes from, as you have hopefully trapped the three-technique so far up the field, that it becomes an easy block for the pulling guard. Both offensive tackles climbed up to the second level to block the outside linebackers lined up over top of them. The nice thing about this play is that, because it hits the hole so quickly, you don't need to block the defensive ends. The Cards blocked the right defensive end just because they had a tight end in, but they didn't really need to.
I assume the Cardinals have a kill package for it -- a kill package is another play or couple of plays they run if there is a safety rolled up, or it looks like a blitz is coming. But here they got the look they wanted. Despite that, and the fact that everyone made pretty decent blocks, the play only went for about five yards. The three-technique read it just in time and tried to slice under Faneca. He clogged the hole enough to prevent a touchdown. Still, it was a five-yard run for a first down and a cool throwback to a well-designed play that will always have a small role in football.