The Flaws That Could Sink the NFL's Top Contenders: Part I
Arizona's all-attack defense, issues in Baltimore, and the Packers' brutal special teams
It’s that most wonderful time of the year: It’s time to figure out who is a real, legitimate contender and who are the pretenders.
Using RBDSM’s ‘Team Tiers’ as a guide, there are around 16 or so teams that have the potential to make a deep playoff run. 16! Half the league! Your eyes aren’t lying; it is indeed that kind of year.
This is the first part of a mini-run of pieces that will look at the flaws of those contenders. We’ll pair the Team Tiers with the current playoff rankings and a dose of intuition. I’ve paired it back from 16 because… well… we would be here until the playoffs.
The Broncos could make the playoffs, but as a legitimate contender? Nah. Ditto for the Saints, despite the excellence of Dennis Allen and Sean Payton (in that order). Out go the Dolphins and Browns, for obvious quarterback health and Dolphins-y reasons.
Much attention has been paid to the Cardinals flagging offense during their 3-4 stretch. That’s fair. But there are issues under the hood on defense, too.
The Cards’ all-out-attack style on defense demands the team force enough negative plays on first down to make the all-blitzing, all-pressure style worth the investment.
Over the past six weeks, they’ve conceded 20 explosive runs, which tags them at a 17 percent clip. That’s not great. But it is, essentially, baked into the model. It’s a self-inflicted boom or bust style. Vance Joseph, the Cardinals DC, has bought into the attack-on-first down philosophy as much as any coach in the league. And we’re not talking here about some rah-rah coach-speak or preseason talking points. We’re talking about the down-to-down schematics.
First down (all downs for Joseph, really) is the pressure down. It’s where he sends five and six-man blitzes, typically trying to swamp one side of the offensive formation. As noted earlier this season in relation to Wink Martindale and the Ravens, for a bunch of blitz-heavy coaches, third down is now a ‘safe pressure’ down. It’s on first down where they will flow extra bodies towards the line of scrimmage to try to force TFLs or negative plays in the run-game, or in the hopes of having an extra defender or two right in the quarterback’s face if the offense is looking to roll the quarterback out and hit a boot-action shot down the field.
Early down defense is how you wind up with a good third-down defense. A stack of attention is paid to third-down conversion percentage, but a defense is only as good on third down as it is at getting stops on first down. Early this year, no defense forced as many negative plays on first down as Josephs’ mob. It was true boom-or-bust stuff; They led the league in TFLs; they led the league in the number of explosive runs conceded (a run of 10-yards or more) through eight weeks, per Sharp Football Stats.
So great were they on first down that it fuelled everything else. Yes, they gave up more big runs than any defense in the league. But that was kind of, sort of the whole point. They would give up a big run, not an explosive pass play — over that span, they ranked second in the league in the number of passes or 20-yards or more, conceding just 16 in eight weeks. And they’d more than match those explosive runs with TFLs that would allow the defense to get and get off the field.
Through eight weeks, the Cardinals ranked 2nd in the NFL in Expected Points Added per Play (EPA/Play) on defense, a measure of the unit’s down-to-down value. They were 12th in the league on first downs, not extraordinary but good enough to power the late-down pressure packages.
Since week nine, though, things have shifted. They still have one of the worst explosive run rates on defense in the league (that same 17% clip, now 31st in the league) while the TFLs and stops have dried up. From week 9 to 15, they rank 24th in EPA/play on first downs, throwing the entire defensive structure off-kilter.
Just look at the past three games: They have conceded 45 percent of third downs, the 26th worst mark in the league. And that after hovering somewhere around the league’s top-five for the bulk of the season, driven by the early-down success and a tenacious pass-rush that dropped opposing quarterbacks at around an 8 percent clip a drive – the seventh fattest mark in the league. They did what defenses are supposed to do: Win the early downs, force third and longs, and then hit the quarterback. Easy.
But that has not been the case for the better part of two months. Their front has not been as versatile or amorphous as intended. Isaiah Simmons, he of Position-less Football Player fame, continues to struggle rolling downhill and at the point-of-attack. Everything is reactive, rather than instinctive. And rather than being a difference-maker in coverage, the kind who can switch onto any matchup threat the Cardinals please, he has become a liability.
When you add that to losing JJ Watt, the Cardinals are forced to toggle between two distinctive looks on early downs. Either they bring in all the big bodies – a 5-2 box with Jordan Hicks plus Simmons or Joe Walker at the second level – with a safety attacking the line of scrimmage from depth at the snap.
But such a look has proven unsustainable when teams look to throw the ball or boot out of running formations. When Arizona backs up and tries to get lighter bodies on the field to protect against early-down passes, they’ve been overwhelmed in the run-game:
That’s the consequence of a scheme-over-players style. Early in the season, Vance Joseph was elevating iffy one-on-one defenders thanks to his battery of pressures. Extra defenders flying towards the line of scrimmage made life easier for everyone in the run-game. Players were flying free to the ball almost at will. That was paired with the individual excellence of Watt, Chandler Jones, and the team’s safety duo: Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson.
Things held up well enough on the back-end for the Cardinals’ boom-or-bust style to flourish. The scheme elevated the peripheral players. The star players elevated the peripheral players. But with Watt out, things have come unstuck.
Now, when Arizona sends pressure, they’re about even in the run-game, but expose themselves to the pass. Players are not getting home with the same regularity, and opposing OCs are happy to keep in extra blockers to run two or three-man route concepts:
Even when Arizona has sent five or six-man run-blitzes, there hasn’t been enough quick penetration to justify the investment:
And when they try to sag off and rush with four, they don’t quite have the juice up front to get home. Joseph has tried to ramp up the zone-pressures even more, hoping that confusion alone can create some disruption.
When that works, it’s great. When not, you wind up with bog-bodied pass-rushers dropping out to spots that they cannot reach in time before the ball goes whistling past their head:
That’s just a couple of three techniques sliding out into hook zones to cover a tight end in the slot with a free access release. A fun whiteboard play that almost worked; in practicality: Yuck. Look at how Arizona wound up layering their first down defense – that’s two nose tackles in the middle chasing a tight end after the catch.
Joseph is managing the situation as best he can. Any other schematic alterations at this point would involve a more seismic overhaul. The players just need to make more players or else have someone in the front take a mini-leap as a get-off-and-go pass-rusher. Mainly: The second-level has to do a better job getting off blocks, disrupting the interior, and not out-leveraging themselves on five-man pressures.