While the defense wasn’t great from an execution standpoint again this past week, the Chiefs still won comfortably. A couple of touchdown drive-extending penalties made the score look closer than it actually was.
As I stated in my defensive breakdown for last week, the Browns executed the blueprint to move the ball against the Chiefs defense.
This week, with the Cardinals coming to town, I’m taking a look at their offense to see what they’ve done best under new offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. We’ll highlight some of their deficiencies as well — 13.8 points per game doesn’t happen on accident — and get you ready for this week’s game against Arizona.
The Cardinals offense
Rookie Josh Rosen leads the Cardinals at quarterback. The No. 10 overall pick has had more downs than ups this year, averaging 179 yards a game and a paltry 55.6 completion percentage. The first game under Leftwich saw an uptick for Rosen, cresting 250 yards and throwing multiple touchdowns, both for the first time in his career.
At running back, Arizona features offensive focal point David Johnson. Post-injury in 2017, Johnson is not the same player that he was in 2016 when he amassed over 2,000 yards of total offense. He’s struggled to get much going on the ground — rushing for a paltry 3.2 yards per carry — or catching the ball out of the backfield, with a season-high of 41 yards receiving.
Leftwich has stressed his importance and stated his desire to feed Johnson in the second half of the year, but he’ll need better blocking and better decision making with his cuts to turn his season around.
The Cardinals trot out ageless wonder Larry Fitzgerald to lead their wide receiving corps. He’s struggled alongside most of the offense but also had an uptick in Leftwich’s first called game as OC — seeing his most catches and yardage of the season. Fitzgerald is a savvy receiver that will find holes in coverages and with a target uptick, he can do some damage. Opposite him is second-round rookie Christian Kirk. Not the biggest or fastest receiver, Kirk is a good route runner that has done well in a bad offense thus far, ranking second behind Atlanta’s Calvin Ridley in yardage amongst rookie wide receivers. Second-year man Chad Williams typically starts opposite Fitzgerald with Kirk in the slot, but Williams was wearing a boot while nursing an ankle injury, so Arizona might find itself thin at receiver this week.
Ricky Seals-Jones is to primary tight end for Arizona. A “move” tight end by nature, the Cardinals will line him up tight, in the slot and as an H-back to have him get open looks and good matchups against linebackers in coverage. He’s not much of a blocker, but his counterpart Jermaine Gresham definitely is. Gresham won’t get very many targets, and if he’s in the game, odds are good that the Cardinals are running.
The Cardinals offensive line has a lot of recognizable veteran names, with Andre Smith at right tackle, Justin Pugh at right guard and Mike Iupati at left guard. That hasn’t stopped them from being very poor in run and pass blocking. Rookie center Mason Cole especially has struggled to pick up protections and has allowed a ton of interior pressure. The Cardinals run between the tackles often, and the three interior offensive linemen have struggled mightily to move the pile. Left tackle D.J. Humphries has struggled throughout the year as well, but played well before the bye while protecting Rosen’s blindside.
How to defend
Getting Johnson in space
With the AZ OL blocking so poorly, look for Byron Leftwich to fabricate space for David Johnson. By going empty here, Rosen is able to throw a quick screen to Johnson on a smoke route. The OL is able to get all the way to the third level, and Johnson gets easy yardage in space. pic.twitter.com/6dOOFf0kgN— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 9, 2018
Johnson just can’t get anything going behind the Arizona offensive line. Former offensive coordinator Mike McCoy routinely had Johnson facing heavy boxes and running directly into the teeth of the defense over and over. Suffice to say, it didn’t work, and the team parted ways with McCoy after weeks of underperforming offense.
Even though Leftwich still isn’t able to get much going up the gut, he’s focused on getting Johnson out into space in other ways. One of those is shown above, by going into empty formations and throwing quick screens.
Johnson is lined up to the boundary out of a 3x2 formation, and he runs a smoke route. Rosen gets the ball out quickly, and the slot receiver gets out in front of Johnson’s man to block him. The ball is on Johnson quickly, and with a lineman getting up to the third level, Johnson has an easy double-digit gain.
The Chiefs will need to be very alert to where Johnson lines up this week, especially when he’s lined up out wide. The 49ers blitzed out of the slot on this play, taking another potential defender out of the mix. KC’s secondary will have to be alert and audible out of blitzes opposite Johnson out of empty and the front will have to be prepared for pursuit.
Cover 2 beaters
When Arizona moved the ball well in OC Byron Leftwich's first game, it was by giving Rosen some easier reads. The 49ers lean on their Cover 2 in the redzone -- similar to KC -- and the route distribution stresses the boundary safety in C2. Rosen reads it and hits Fitzgerald for 6 pic.twitter.com/s1ipXh2Ldo— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 8, 2018
As most reading this are aware, Sutton likes to implement Cover 2 coverage shells in the red zone, for better or for worse. Teams have exploited this to put points on the board, and the Cardinals are no different.
Late in the game against the 49ers, Arizona found themselves in the red zone. They dialed up a Cover 2 beater, with Fitzgerald as the strong No. 2 out of the Cardinals 3x1. Fitzgerald runs a post route, with the No. 3 running a curl in the center of the field. On the weak side of the formation, the tight end runs a corner route, pulling the boundary safety to the sideline and opening the middle of the field more for Fitzgerald.
It’s a great play-call, manipulating the 49ers safeties and preventing the middle hook defender from gaining more depth and robbing the route. Sutton’s tendency to run Cover 2 at the goal line can be exploited by Arizona, giving Rosen the ability to “hit the hole” in the coverage shell and give him an easier read. If Sutton can switch it up with some varied looks, forcing Rosen to read more of the field and hold the ball a little longer, the Chiefs safeties can have time to react and close on the Cardinals routes.
By showing pressure, dropping, then looping the edge defender back through the A gap, the Niners found a TON of success. Sutton and the Chiefs should be able to exploit the lack of communication on the OL this week with Chris Jones and Dee Ford on stunts. pic.twitter.com/dTiVotJmXO— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 8, 2018
The Cardinals line just isn’t very good. As I previously mentioned, they don’t clear holes well in the run game, and they’re 30th in pressure rate in the passing game, according to Football Outsiders. The offensive line is getting beat by traditional rushes plenty of times, but they have especially struggled against stunts in pass protection.
The 49ers showed a lot of pressure, forcing a rookie center and the Arizona offensive line to communicate and call protections as players shifted and dropped into coverage, or rushed from unexpected locations. The play above shows pressure from the linebacker over the right guard. Off the snap, the linebacker drops into coverage, while the 1-tech attacks the weak A and the 5-tech attacks the strong B. The right guard watches the linebacker drops, then turns to help with the 5-tech. However, nobody communicates the strong edge looping around the backside of the 5-tech, and it’s a free rush lane for a pressure. An early throw from Rosen keeps it from being a sack, but it’s an incomplete pass.
The AZ offensive line is poor, and they consistently mishandle stunts/twists. The field apex shows rush, which freezes the LG, the RG doesn't see the stunt, and the C disengages his blocker to pursue the free rusher, allowing a big hit from his man. Absolute confusion up front. pic.twitter.com/wRqyNGidbi— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 8, 2018
This is just complete confusion on the front, as the 49ers space out their rush and bring pressure from the boundary. It’s an overload to that side of the, with three of the four rushers coming off that side. The field apex lines up line he’s going to rush, then drops to cover Johnson out of the backfield. The left guard never looks him off to find work to the boundary.
As the 49ers loop around, the right guard doesn’t see the stunt, and the center tries to save a big hit on his quarterback. That only succeeds in him releasing his defender, who then comes up with the sack.
Quite simply, the Arizona offensive line is going to be influenced greatly by the Chiefs running stunts, showing pressure and bringing rushers from the second level — even without blitzing. Sutton currently throws these types of “change-ups” at an offensive line just under 37 percent of the game. That’s already a fair percentage of the passing snaps, and we’ll see if that number increases this week.
The bottom line
This just isn’t a very good offense.
I think the tweaks that Byron Leftwich is bringing to the squad will definitely help them to move the ball better and put Rosen into a more comfortable position, but I also think the real barometer of that success will be how they’ve changed by the end of the season.
The Chiefs don’t have to get fancy to beat the Cardinals on this side of the ball. Rosen will make a few pretty throws, but he’ll be under duress from Dee Ford, Chris Jones and a returning Justin Houston for most of what matters in this week’s game. The crowd at Arrowhead will only exacerbate the poor offensive line communication, as well.
In the secondary, the Cardinals will likely try to feed Fitzgerald early and often. The Chiefs cornerbacks have been pretty good this year, and they’re on a bit of an uptick lately. Look for the Chiefs to throw some match looks at Rosen that rob underneath routes to Fitzgerald and Kirk. We could be in for a multiple-INT game for the Chiefs first team defense.
In the end, Johnson and Seals-Jones are the only players that should truly scare Chiefs fans. Johnson just hasn’t been himself, and the Chiefs poor run defense should be able to bottle him up — as long as they don’t have to stay in their base.
Seals-Jones could find success in the middle of the field, but as the third or fourth option on the offense, he’s likely not going to be enough of a focal point to “beat” the Chiefs defense.
I’m definitely looking forward to charting some Charvarius Ward, Tanoh Kpassagnon, and Ben Niemann snaps at the end of this one.