Word of Muth: Scouting the Cardinals

Word of Muth: Scouting the Cardinals

by Ben Muth

Reading through the comments from last week, I picked up on the fact that the people demand NFC West breakdowns. The 49ers were particularly in demand, but the Seahawks got some love too. So, the next few teams we cover will all be from the NFC West (but we're not doing Seattle again, as I wrote about them last year). The plan is to go Arizona this week, St. Louis next week, and then San Francisco to round out the division.

In an ideal world, I would’ve done San Francisco first since they were the team people actually suggested. However, the last time I did a request for a Harbaugh-coached unit (the Ravens), I apparently picked a game that wasn’t indicative of the line’s performance for the season. So, I am asking any 49ers supporters to suggest what game(s) I should watch. If I don’t get any suggestions, I’ll just go with the NFC Championship. On a similar note, I need the last game the Rams played where both Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith were healthy. Those two guys took a beating from the media last year and I want to see what is going on with them, since they were highly regarded coming out of school.

With that bit of housekeeping out of the way we can move on to the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals are my favorite team and I do watch every game they play, but like most fans I typically watch the ball on Sundays. So, while I definitely remember watch Arizona’s Week 17 game against Seattle, it was nice to rewatch it with a focus up front. I covered the Cardinals in 2010, so I was already familiar with a few of the guys up front. One of those guys is Levi Brown.

When the Cardinals released Brown at the beginning of this offseason, I thought his reign of terrible in Arizona was finally over. Instead, Arizona re-signed him to a cap-friendly multi-year deal. I was shocked. Even more shocking was talk among Cardinals fans about how good a move it was. People claimed that Brown had put it together finally, and actually had a nice second half of the season. I was skeptical, but figured it was time to take a closer look.

Much to my surprise, Brown looked better in this game than in any game I broke down in 2010. He played with much better balance in the running game and wasn’t getting thrown off blocks as much. He also did a nice job sitting down on bull rushes throughout the game, a feat that was even more impressive considering he was matched up against Red Bryant for the majority of it. Of course, he still can’t pass off twists because he has no lateral quickness. He did allow a sack, although it was off a linebacker stunt and not a straight twist. Brown also gave back 20 yards in penalties. Still, this was best performance I’ve ever seen Levi Brown give. So there’s that.

Next to Brown was Arizona’s big offseason acquisition, Daryn Colledge. The former Packer was brought in to replace the retired Alan Faneca, and I think he made a positive impact on the offensive line. If I had to describe him in one word, it would be "steady." He didn’t dominate, but he did his job. I thought Colledge pulled really well when given the chance to, but with LaRod Stephens-Howling getting the start, Arizona ran much more outside zone than usual.

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Lyle Sendlein is still anchoring the offensive line at center. He played almost exactly the same as he did last year. He gets people going in the right direction and thrives in the grittiest aspects of the game: goal-line and short-yardage situations, comboing nose guards to middle linebackers, and things of that nature. (He did a nice job on Chester Taylor’s touchdown run.) He still can struggle a bit when he’s left in space, or when he has to reach a defensive tackle on his own. But overall, he’s an affordable veteran who is more than serviceable.

At right guard, Rex Hadnot probably struggled the most of anyone on the line. The biggest issue he had was getting his hands knocked down in pass protection: there were multiple occasions where Hadnot would land a decent initial punch before getting his hands knocked down by a defensive tackle. An even bigger problem was his failure to replace them quickly enough to recover. He gave up a sack, and another couple pressures on plays like this.

At right tackle, the Cardinals trotted out Jeremy Bridges. Bridges, along with Brandon Keith, has been rotating at the right tackle spot for the past two years. In this particular game, I thought Bridges played well. He probably had the best game of anyone asides from Colledge. Bridges also had the highlight reel block of the game, on a long run by Stephens-Howling in the first quarter.

Figure 1: 96 Weak

That block came on a basic weakside outside zone to the right. Seattle was in a hybrid alignment on defense. The front side (offense’s left) looked like a 4-3 Over with a walked up Sam. The backside (offense’s right) looked like a base 3-4. There are two ways to block a weak outside zone against a 3-4. One way is to fan it so that the tackle blocks the outside linebacker, the guard blocks the defensive end, and the fullback leads on the middle linebacker. Or you can stick to basic zone rules, which means you combo block the defensive end to the middle linebacker, and then have the fullback lead on the outside linebacker. A lot of teams fan it, because they don’t want a big collision between the outside linebacker and the fullback two yards into the backfield. The Cardinals didn’t, and it paid off when Arizona’s fullback delivered a nice cut block a yard deep in the backfield.

With the outside linebacker out of the play, it was up to the defensive end or the middle linebacker to make a play. Bridges blocked both of them. He took a good first step and got to the defensive end's outside shoulder immediately. Once he was there, Bridges did a nice job of ripping with his inside arm and leaning into the block to turn the shoulder. That allows Hadnot to get his helmet outside as well and hook the defender.

After Hadnot was engaged with the down lineman, Bridges escaped to the second level and not only blocked the linebacker, but knocked him down. If that wasn’t enough, he kept running and got in the free safety’s way too. On one play, he essentially blocked three guys, and knocked one of them to the ground. Not too shabby.

Before I go, I did want to plug one outside project I did last weekend. Matt Waldman, who contributes the Futures column here, put together a fun offseason exercise for a few of the most talented football writers on the web. He assigned values to every player in the NFL and asked us to build a roster while remaining under the allotted amount of points. I had a lot of fun with it and was happy with how my team came out. (Yes, there may be a Stanford alum or two on the team.)


21 comments, Last at 12 Jul 2012, 11:29am

6 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Cardinals

Alex Smith good? It's amazing how being terrible your whole career can cause people to give you a cookie just for being mediocre - he was 13th in DYAR (behind several guys who didn't play complete seasons) and 14th in DVOA (with an abnormally low INT rate that no one should be surprised to see go back to normal in 2012.) I think your statement should be "Alex Smith and Levi Brown are relatively competent? The Mayans were right."

3 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Cardinals

This 49er fan would not have a problem with using the NFC Championship game for the niners assessment. Seems like a good idea, there aren't many tougher tests than that front four. My recollection is that the line did OK but nobody get open apart from a couple of plays by Vernon Davis. I'm not sure how accurate that will prove to be as I was becoming increasingly cale-eyed as the game progressed.

5 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Cardinals

Comparing Saints preseason to Saints playoffs might be sort of interesting.
Taking a look at the Raven's game might be worth it, that game there were many plays where every single rusher came through untouched. It sounds like an exaggeration.. I wish it was!
The Lions game I think you had already broken down the wham play, that was a pretty interesting game for line play I thought. I think there's some truth to saying that Harbaugh found a good way to block Suh and that other teams copied this and it limited his effectiveness last season, he failed to adapt.

The niners also played the Giants twice so that could be interesting to see the adjustments they made.
I disagree with Karl regarding the Saints front four; each player is just decent, and the whole line put together is OK.

Watch the Ravens game (what went wrong?)
Watch the Giants games.

8 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Cardinals

I wouldn't watch the niners-ravens game for evaluating line play. It was a short prep week with a cross-country trip against the most complex blitz schemes in the league, making the play probably less representative of niners o-line overall. I think the suggestion of watching either giants game is good. I think Pitt may also be interesting, but my recollection is that they went into "protect the lead" mode in the 3rd quarter, so there's really limited good football there. I think the 2nd seattle game may also be interesting, just because of the quality of that defensive line.

4 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Cardinals

Had no idea Levi Brown improved that much. 'Course I didn't watch many games with the Kolb/Skelton experiment at QB.

Really like the article you put together for Matt Waldman's RSP Writers Project Team. Awesome breakdown of offensive/defensive systems and vulnerabilities. Not sure I'm down with the NFL expanding to Greenland, but can see this offense pushing around the Steeler's or Raven's defense in the cold.

7 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Cardinals

Id actually like to see the 49ers vs cowboys game. I felt it was one of the few games that the offenses and defenses of both squads played pretty well overall. Now granted this was all the way back in week 2 and many things probably changed since the.

The nfc champ feels like too much of an extreme- how about the Pitt game instead?

9 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Cardinals

I would also like to see a breakdown of the ravens game. Even if it is not representative of the season as a whole, I am curious what went wrong and how it could be fixed.

Thanks for the analysis and thanks for asking for input as well.

15 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Cardinals

To me, what I take away from those "big-blitz" problems is that Harbaugh, in general, was scheming and giving our OL an advantage, but against those big blitzes it turned into a series of basic man-on-man battles, which we couldn't win.

Against the big blitz, sometimes when you successfully run outside it leads to big gains, which I think the niners were able to hit a few times. If they hit one or two more, then that changes the game a lot.

Later on maybe they adjusted a little bit too by putting Vernon in the slot. smith was playing better and beating the blitz by throwing the slant to Vernon.

10 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Cardinals

The NFCCG is no good. Iupati got his ankle rolled up on early and the hologram known as Rachal had to come in at LG. Bummer. The Divisional game against the Saints would probably be the most indicative.

14 Scouting the 49ers

Appease your readers. Cover an interesting new divisional rivalry with the SF/Seattle game in week 16.

18 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Cardinals

When you look at Smith, try to make sure to find a game that he was healthy, although you may have to go back to 2010 to find one.

19 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Cardinals

Tweeted you this as well Ben, but I think the last game that Saffold and Smith both played all of was week 4 against the Redskins. Saffold was absolutely dreadful that day, easily the worst I've seen him play. Week 2 against the Giants might be a better game (as the Week 3 one against the Ravens was over after in the first quarter).

20 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the Cardinals

Red Bryant has 2 sacks in 33 career games. I don't see how shutting down his rush can really be all that impressive.