At first glance through the stats, the Arizona Cardinals are another team with a solid defense and a very bad offense. On the surface, this holds true.
The Cardinals boast one of the better passing defenses in the NFL and one of the worst run defenses. Part of the pass defense rankings come from playing the CJ Beathard-led San Francisco 49ers twice and getting down early in games, leading to other teams running out the clock. Coming off of the bye week following a win may give the Cardinals some confidence and momentum heading into Arrowhead Stadium.
Waiting for the Cardinals will be the Kansas City Chiefs coming off yet another 30-plus point game against the Cleveland Browns. It sounds like the Chiefs’ offense will be without Mitch Morse, again, and potentially Sammy Watkins for this game.
The Chiefs have looked absolutely unstoppable on offense this year, often putting games away in the first half of football games.
Have the Cardinals been able to watch enough film and cook enough wrinkles to slow down the Chiefs offense? Do they have the playmakers to handle Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Kareem Hunt all while forcing Mahomes into mistakes?
Let’s head down into The AP Laboratory and look at some ways the Chiefs should attempt to keep flying high against the Cardinals:
Arizona Cardinals defense
The Arizona Cardinals are a unique team in that their base technically has a converted safety playing linebacker, Deone Bucannon, bridging the gap between base and nickel.
When facing heavy formations, 21 and 22-personnel, the Cardinals prefer to keep that base defense on the field relying on the speed of their linebackers to help in the passing game. The Cardinals will bring in extra defensive backs against spread formations but rarely do they go all the way to the dime and play with a single linebacker.
Their defensive front is four down linemen that are led by Chandler Jones at defensive end. The Cardinals use a rotation of defensive linemen to keep them fresh throughout the game.
Getting Tre Boston, who has missed the last two games, back on the back-end of their defense will push Budda Baker back into his slot cornerback role on most nickel sets. Rather than bringing out a third cornerback, the Cardinals prefer a three-safety look with Baker dropping into the slot when health permits.
The Cardinals pass defense isn’t awful, but it’s not as great as the numbers are implying.
Their pass rush is very dependent on Chandler Jones being a stud and hoping it’s a good, high effort Robert Nkemdiche game. That’s out of the question now that Nkemdiche has been ruled out.
Outside of those two, the pass rush is more by committee and accomplished with blitzes and stunts. While they don’t bring the heat as much as the Cleveland Browns did, the Cardinals will mix up their pressure packages and dial into them often.
Their coverage shells are multiple and they’ll mix in different zones and man coverage with the same personnel and same offensive alignments. The Cardinals look most comfortable falling back on zone coverage, Cover 2 being the most common.
Patrick Peterson is still incredibly talented and can limit one side of the field whether in man or zone pretty well, but the rest of the secondary has all had their lapses and mistakes along the way. The linebackers are where they struggle the most in coverage, as they are easily manipulated through routes flashing through their zones, being looked off by a quarterback or drawn out of position by play action.
If there was a team to challenge the Chiefs as the worst run defense in the NFL, it would be the Cardinals. Similar to the Chiefs, their defensive line is looking for single-gap control, then asking linebackers to flow and fill the remaining gaps.
The issues arise when these linebackers are slow to “fast flow” with a running back on zone runs. The linebackers are essentially playing from behind the running back the entire time. Running backs have far too much success hitting their aiming point on these runs without ever being forced to alter their path. Hasson Reddick and Josh Bynes can cover a fair amount of ground, especially the former, but they both move too far upfield before flowing with the play and take themselves out of it.
The secondary has been asked to stop a lot of big runs for the Cardinals, and while it’s a difficult task, they aren’t the best of tackling group either. The Cardinals do often play one safety down in the box on run downs, but there is still passive angles from both him and the deep safety too often.
How the Chiefs win
While the Cardinals have a better pass defense than many teams the Chiefs have faced this year, they shouldn’t present a unit that can flummox the Chiefs in any specific way. The Chiefs gam eplan, as boring as it sounds, is to continue doing the same thing they have done up until this point.
The talent gap between the two teams is large enough that the Chiefs should be able to have their way with the Cardinals.
They should have a big game running the football, specifically relying on their outside zone runs and simply beating the second level around the edge. Taking their running game to the next level, pulling not only backside but also frontside offensive linemen out in front of running backs is something opponents of the Cardinals have had success with this year as well.
When the Chiefs drop back to pass, they will need to first identify zone or man coverage.
The Chiefs receiving talent outweighs the Cardinals defensive back talent, so seeing man is about asking the Chiefs to win their matchups. When the Cardinals go into zone coverage, the Chiefs should look to exploit the soft spots of Cover 2 (corners and middle of the field).
A trick to force the Cardinals into their zone more often is to run the hurry-up offense, as it’s too difficult to match up with the Chiefs’ motion and alignments for multiple plays in a row. Finally, a big key will be Mahomes ability to manipulate linebackers and safeties with his eyes and draw them out of position both underneath and downfield.
The Cardinals run a lot of basic zone, which the Chiefs already have shown a knack to tear up, but to make it even more favorable for KC, the LBs are easily influenced. Whether play-action, eye manipulation, or RPOs the Chiefs should have success behind the hook zones pic.twitter.com/0E2IV1X3OA— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 8, 2018
Zone (player) manipulation
This is a more player-specific adjustment rather than a schematic one, although scheme plays a part and we’ll touch on that in a moment. This is something the Cardinals are prone to getting beat by.
The Cardinals’ defenders are prone to getting moved out of position by various forms of manipulation from run action off the snap, to routes flashing their zones, and even quarterbacks looking them off.
This isn’t something specific to the Cardinals, but their linebackers and safeties, in particular, were manipulated multiple times in the games we watched down in The Lab.
Cardinals in C1 man with a banjo call to the far side. The Broncos' WRs release confuse the Cardinals and end up with 2 DBs on 1 WR, the CF drives on the open WR based on the miscommunication abandoning his zone for the long TD. Keenum's eyes pulled the S down to the dig. pic.twitter.com/Jf3wMHg58E— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 9, 2018
The Denver Broncos run the Mills concept here against the Cardinals, who, based on pre-snap alignment, are likely in man to man with a single-deep safety. Utilizing the play-action and the stacked formation to the far side of the field creates not only confusion for the defense but also generates a free-release for the post receiver.
The shallower, inside breaking dig route appears to be quite open based upon a miscommunication in the secondary. To cover, the center field safety drives on where the dig will come open, in a large part due to Case Keenum looking at the dig route at the back of his drop.
Unfortunately for Arizona, Keenum could also see the deep post in behind the now vacated deep zone for an easy long touchdown.
Patrick Mahomes has been very adept at moving safeties and linebackers this year with his eyes and that should continue in this game.
The Chiefs should also implement a lot of play-action, mesh concepts and RPO looks to further influence the Cardinals defenders.
Cover 2 weak spots
The Cardinals default to a spot-drop Cover 2 Zone often when pressed by an aggressive offense. The Chiefs need to identify when a rolled-up safety will drop back to a deep half and attack the known holes in a Cover 2 defense.
Spot drop Cover 2 out of Arizona against the Vikings, easy to attack the corners and MOF. Anytime a team shows a bunch of spot-C2 vs the Chiefs, Kelce is often targeted on both seams and corner routes the Cardinals will have a hard time matching up with that. pic.twitter.com/Fuei3rnlAR— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 8, 2018
The common weak spots of a Cover 2 Zone are the intermediate/deep middle of the field (between the hashes), as long as you can hold the deep safeties and the corners/turkey hole just over the cornerbacks’ zone.
The Chiefs have had success attacking these spots in games this year that they faced a lot of Cover 2 (Pittsburgh especially) and if Arizona can be forced into playing Cover 2 a lot, it could get messy quickly for them.
Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins should be able to make quick work in these areas of the field as the Chiefs dial up Cover 2 Zone beaters.
To help persuade the Cardinals to play their spot-drop zones, the Chiefs should use man-beating concepts (mesh, slants, digs, etc.) and allow their superior skill-position players to put the Cardinals’ coaching staff on their heels.
Another way to directly influence their defensive play calls is to utilize an up-tempo offense.
The hurry-up offense is another way to manipulate the defense into the coverage you want. Rather than try to read alignment, match-up, and keep up with offenses on back to back plays they tend to play zone when offenses go hurry up. pic.twitter.com/QXbEV9q52B— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 8, 2018
Following a moderate gain, the Minnesota Vikings hurried up to the line of scrimmage and lined up in a pretty basic 2x2 set, but rather than trying to match personnel based on alignment the Cardinals defaulted to zone coverage.
No defense in the NFL wants to run multiple plays in row, specifically chasing the same player with no break.
With the speed of Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce, going up-tempo should help the Chiefs nudge the Cardinals into a favorable defensive call.
Tried and true rushing attack
The Chiefs haven’t been relying on the outside zone rushing attack as often this year but this is a game in which it should become the staple again.
The stretch concept of outside zone takes advantage of both over-pursuit as well as slow processing. If all defenders crash hard outside, the running back is taught to cut the ball upfield or to the backside of the play.
If defenders are slow to flow with the running back, the run is designed to run in a straight line outside the tackle. The Cardinals allow the latter to happen often as linebackers are constantly stuck in traffic.
The Cardinals front 7 plays fast but comes with them running out of position. Here both LBs inside the OTs end up sucked forward trying to shoot gaps allowing both front side DL to get combo blocked. Backside pursuit was sound bu no there was no fast flow to turn the play back. pic.twitter.com/VZ9LwJX2Da— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 9, 2018
The best-case scenario for outsize zone run defense is you get penetration by the defensive line, limiting the running back’s reads—one linebacker flows quickly to force the running back’s hand.
The backside linebacker then flows slower to mirror the running back and clean up the play they just have to avoid climbing blockers. The issue for the Cardinals there is no one adept at reading their keys quickly enough to be that faster-flowing player and force the cut.
The Chiefs should be able to get Hunt outside and isolated on defensive backs and that’s been Hunt’s money-zone this year.
The Cardinals have struggled to fast flow with outside zone this year, LBs are either shooting early gaps or slowly following the RB allowing blockers to reach them easily. The addition of the pin-pull blocks, or any outside pulls, only exacerbate the issue for them. pic.twitter.com/X4DB0qQAGT— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 8, 2018
To really take advantage of slower identifying linebackers, a team can add quick (play-side) pulls from the offensive line to the outside and get even more second level blockers outside.
The Chiefs have utilized these quick pulls often this year already, but a heavy dose of these pin-n-pull type of plays should be in order.
The bottom line
All of this—the player manipulation, outside zone runs, quick pulling and attacking of zone weak spots—is a more basic game plan, but it should be all that’s needed for this matchup.
Most of this is nothing new for the Chiefs, this game plan is very similar to what the Chiefs already do in their base offense.
The Cardinals may try to come out with some specific designs to slow down these base concepts, but the Chiefs simply match up against the Cardinals very well from a schematic and personnel standpoint.