By Dan Durkin–
(CBS) Cardinals coach Bruce Arians deploys one of the league’s most aggressive aerial attacks, which will be on display when they face the Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday.
Arians’ coaching roots trace back to Tom Moore, as the two worked together on the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive staff from 1998 to 2000. Moore was the coordinator and Arians the quarterbacks coach when they welcomed a rookie quarterback by the name of Peyton Manning into the league. Moore now serves on Arians’ staff in Arizona as an assistant head coach and offensive consultant. Arians also spent time working under current Tennessee Titan coach Ken Whisenhunt in Pittsburgh.
Prior to taking the top post in Arizona, Arians had stints as an offensive coordinator and an interim head coach. But his offensive philosophy has blossomed in Arizona into a vertical attack out of spread sets that puts constant strain over the top of a defense. His schemes are designed to get all five eligible receivers out into routes — frequently operating out of empty (no-running back) sets — typically using a three-level stretch concept on the frontside with a built-in deep shot on the backside.
The Cardinals are armed with three highly skilled receivers — Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown — with different styles and skills sets who can threaten every passing zone. They also have an experienced quarterback in Carson Palmer who quickly progresses through his reads and has still enough arm strength to make every throw.
Last season, Floyd’s 17.9 yards per catch average was second in the league, while Brown’s 14.5 yards per catch was 25th and the second-best for a rookie. A second-year speedster out of tiny Pittsburgh State, Brown’s quickly becoming one of the most dangerous vertical threats in the league.
This example comes from the Cardinals’ Week 8 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles last season.
Trailing 20-17 late in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals come out in 11 personnel in an empty set, doubles exchange formation with stacked receivers. Brown is on the backside of the 3-by-2 set, highlighted in yellow.
Notice the reduced splits by both groups of bunched receivers. This affords them the ability to run both an inside- or outside-breaking route, giving the defensive backs less information to key in on prior to the snap.
The Eagles respond with nickel personnel in a 4-2-5 alignment, playing Cover-4.
(All images courtesy of NFL GamePass)
On the frontside, the Cardinals run a curl-flat concept, a common Cover-3 beater, designed to stretch a defense horizontally and put the flat defender in limbo. On the backside, Brown is initially lined up as the No. 2 receiver with running back Andre Ellington as the No. 1. Ellington runs an in-route, while Brown runs a slant-and-go (sluggo) route in between the deep cornerback and safety.
The backside route combination combined with Brown’s sheer speed is what makes this play work.
Cornerback Cary Williams is responsible for the deepest vertical threat outside, thus his initial read is the No. 1 receiver (Ellington). Safety Will Allen is responsible for the deepest vertical threat up the seam, so his initial read is the No. 2 receiver (Brown). But with Ellington running the in-cut, he becomes the responsibility of the underneath zone defenders and Brown becomes the No. 1 receiver.
Williams gets caught spying inside just as Brown heads vertically on the go route.
Brown’s speed is too much for both defensive backs, who were a split-second late on their reads. They can’t recover quickly enough, and Brown splits them for a game-winning 75-yard touchdown.
The Cardinals called a similar play on their second play from scrimmage last week in their 31-19 win over the Saints.
Last week against the Packers, the Bears played primarily Cover-2 man coverage. Chicago was rarely tested vertically by Green Bay, which won’t be the case this Sunday.
Safeties Antrel Rolle and Adrian Amos will need to be quick with their post-snap reads, but they can’t afford to guess. Any misstep against Arizona could result in a big play over the top.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.