Why Cardinals own NFL's best deep-passing attack
[Editor’s note: This is the third installment in Senior Analyst Mike Renner’s “Teaching Tape” article series, which takes a look at the best positional units across the NFL.]
The illustriousness of the 2015 Arizona Cardinals’ aerial attack will likely be lost to the annals of history. Carson Palmer didn’t win the MVP, their yardage and touchdown totals were nothing special, and obviously the season ended on a low note, without a Super Bowl appearance, and with Palmer producing the lowest-graded passing performance we’ve ever seen in the playoffs.
What is lost, though, is the reality that Palmer’s regular season was perhaps the most impressive single season of any quarterback who won’t be in the Hall of Fame. It’s easy to look at Palmer’s raw stats and dismiss that notion. His 4,671 yards were only fourth-most of any quarterback last season, his 11 interceptions weren’t anything special, and his 63.7 completion percentage was right around average for the league (the same as Josh McCown’s).
What those stats don’t tell you is that Palmer’s yardage total came on the 13th-most attempts, as his 8.7 yards per attempt were the most for a full season since Aaron Rodgers’ 9.2 mark back in 2011. They also don’t tell you that no one consistently threw the ball deeper than Palmer’s 11.3-yard average depth of target. Palmer’s 2,923 yards gained before the catch were the most of any quarterback in the NFL last season by almost 200 yards, and his 5.4 yards before the catch per attempt (a mouthful, I know) was the highest figure we’ve ever seen in our nine seasons of charting. When a quarterback beats out seasons like Tom Brady’s 2007 and Aaron Rodgers/Drew Brees’ 2011, that’s saying something.
The Cardinals had a commitment to the deep-passing game in 2015 that was unrivaled throughout the NFL. And with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, John Brown, and J.J. Nelson at receiver, they had good reason to be. This isn’t schoolyard football, though, where everyone runs in a straight line and the quarterback heaves it up to his best friend (although four verts is still very much an NFL play). No, the Cardinals’ deep game is more like chess, with route combinations taking defenders away from the zones the quarterback wants to attack. Let’s take a look at exactly how grandmaster Bruce Arians designed one of the best offenses in the league a year ago.
The Cardinals’ downfield passing game starts with time. A deep crosser from the slot will take about 2.8 seconds to reach the middle of the field, while a 15-yard post will take about 2.6 to get to the breakpoint (average time to attempt in the NFL last season was 2.5 seconds). It’s generally agreed upon that you can only expect an offensive line to hold up for about 3.5 seconds on most five- and seven-step drops (three- and five-steps from shotgun, respectively). How the Cardinals extend that small window of time is through play action and extra pass protectors. If Palmer fakes it to the running back, defenses better believe he’s going deep. His average depth of target off play action jumped 3 yards to 14.3 yards downfield, and he finished second in the NFL with 10.8 yards per attempt off play action.
No amount of time in the world, though, will matter if the receivers can’t get open or the quarterback can’t read the coverage. What makes any deep-passing game click is a logical progression of routes, as well as a different option for every coverage you can throw at it. Let’s take a look at why Pistol Strong Right Stack Act 6 Y Cross Divide—outlined in this fantastic article series from Peter King that went behind the scenes with the Cardinals—is one of Bruce Arians favorite concepts.
This play uses both play action and max protection. Only three receivers go out on the route, yet it still has a little something for any defense it may face. It starts with the deep crosser, which shreds cover-3 and is easily the most consistently busted route in the NFL today. Against cover-4/6, there will likely be a defensive back running with the crosser all the way, but then the dig route coming underneath it will sneak behind linebackers sucked up on the play action. If it’s cover-1 (man), there’s the double move on the outside that should have more than enough time to sucker the defensive back and create space on the outside. Cover-2 or 2-man would likely give this play call the most trouble, but it’s an extremely unlikely defense for the Browns to play against the heavy offensive formation because, without bringing a safety down, they would have little chance versus the run. As King outlined, the play didn’t end up connecting, but the play-call did its job. Fitzgerald was absolutely wide open, and Palmer looked off the middle of the field safety and found the open man.
While play action is a great tool, a team can’t live solely off it and keep an offense at the level of Arizona’s. Only 20 percent of Palmer’s attempts came off play action last year. One main reason for this is 2-minute and end-of-game situations. In these situations, faking a run does nothing more for you than waste time and take a quarterback’s eyes away from reading the coverage, as the defensive line is rushing upfield no matter what. Without play action on passes targeted 15+ yards downfield, Palmer was still accurate on a ridiculous 55.4 percent of his throws (the average for the rest of the league was 46.5 percent). Let’s break down the three plays at the end of their matchup with Cincinnati that took Arizona 57 yards in only 38 seconds for the game-winning field goal.
Fourth quarter, 00:58 remaining, 1st-and-10 at Arizona’s own 16 yard line
The Cardinals run trips to the left, and the Bengals counteracted it with a spot-dropping cover-3. The key here is the interior stem from the inside slot receiver (No. 3) John Brown. This pulls Vincent Rey just slightly out of his zone and compromises the defense enough for the dig route to be wide open.
Fourth quarter, 00:42 remaining, 1st-and-10 at Arizona’s own 35 yard line
The Bengals learned their lesson after they got burned with their soft zone the play before, and instead play 2-man on this snap. It’s a much better call, as the routes run aren’t exactly man-beaters or great against cover-2 (a shallow crosser doesn’t have a “break” to create space, and deep posts from wide split will run right into safeties). Unfortunately for Cincinnati, Palmer finds the one route that is open, as Fitzgerald creates space on an out route with outside leverage.
Fourth quarter, 00:34 remaining, 1st-and-10 at Cincinnati’s 47 yard line
Yet again, the Cardinals work trips to one side, although this time it’s because they split five-wide. What this does is create leverage issues for the defensive backs. Because the defense is playing man with a “robber” underneath (defender playing in zone coverage underneath in middle of the field), they are all playing outside leverage to try and funnel the receivers to the robber. The robber simply can’t get underneath all three slot receivers (one on left, two on right), and so there is going to be an in-breaking route that he can’t “rob.” The Cardinals’ concept is simple, with Brown running a crosser and Fitzgerald running a skinny post over the top. All Palmer had to do was look off the robber.
The key is that all three passes are thrown right at the receivers break, and all are read to the perfect receiver. This was the Cardinals’ offense last season. No one was more committed to swinging for the fences, and no one hit more home runs.