The Arizona Cardinals may be the worst team in the NFC after just two weeks of the season. Arizona followed up their disappointing loss to Washington with a dumpster fire performance against the Los Angeles Rams. The Cardinals struggled in all three phases of the game and the final score was the proof. Sunday was a tough loss for Arizona. Today we take a look at what went wrong against Los Angeles and look for answers.
Where is David Johnson?
One of the storylines heading into the season was the return of talented running back David Johnson. The all-purpose back missed nearly the entire 2017 after a wrist injury. Johnson has an amazing combination of speed, quickness, vision, and deceptive speed which makes him dangerous from anywhere on the field. Through two games however, Johnson has carried the football just 22 times in 2018. Johnson has also added six receptions.
Part of the issue for Arizona’s offense has been the lack of touches for Johnson. Early deficits lead to a more pass focused offense. For most running backs it would be the kiss of death. For Johnson however it should be an opportunity to show his pass catching prowess. Yet Johnson has been targeted just 11 times in the passing game. What is happening to the dual threat runner?
Against Los Angeles the Cardinals focused on Johnson on the game’s first couple of drives by running on early downs. The Rams defense keyed on Johnson from the start and held the running back to just 48 yards on 13 rushes. The problems came with the exclusion of Johnson in the passing game. In total, Johnson was targeted just twice, catching one pass for three yards. Not much of an offensive weapon there.
While the Rams often used bracket coverage on Johnson to start the game, Wade Phillips soon backed off the game plan and focused more on clogging the underneath routes. Johnson was primarily used as an extra blocker during passing situations to either chip before going out into the flat or as the personal protector for quarterback Sam Bradford. Unfortunately, using your best offensive weapon as a blocker is not the most sound strategy.
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Whether the team is trailing or ahead, Johnson needs to be the focal point of the offense. In the first two games just two of Johnson’s runs have been outside of the tackle. Perhaps the argument could be that the outside runs are not possible due to issues with run blocking. Or perhaps the scheme is too rigid when it comes to running the football. In either case the answer is to mix up the usage of Johnson and move him around the field.
Push the Ball Downfield
Bradford has completed just one pass longer than 20 yards this season. The quarterback has completed 37 of his 61 passing attempts for a 60.7 percent completion rate. However, Bradford has totaled just 243 yards through the air this season. Through two games Bradford has averaged just four yards per attempt. That isn’t per catch, that is Bradford throwing the football about four yards every time he lets it go.
Bradford has a strong-arm. He has typically been an accurate quarterback. However, the offense has suffered from a lack of open receivers. The wide receiver group has been Larry Fitzgerald and a group of guys. It is not worth listing as the unit has been nearly invisible so far this season. Of Bradford’s 37 completions, just 15 of them were to a wide receiver. Fitzgerald has 10 of those while the rest belong to rookie Christian Kirk.
On Sunday the Rams were not challenged by the Arizona passing game. The secondary kept passes underneath and funneled everything towards the middle of the field. The linebacker corps clogged the passing lanes with zone coverage. For an offense which predicates itself on getting the ball out quickly and allowing receivers to make plays, the Cardinals were unable to find a rhythm against the tough Rams defense.
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Arizona needed to take shots over the top. They needed to find a way to back off the secondary. Yet even as the pass protection was solid, Bradford rarely looked downfield. Even a simple use of both Johnson and rookie Chase Edmonds in the backfield would help open up passing lanes. Either or both running backs can take a linebacker or safety into the flat. Throwing in J.J. Nelson or Chad Williams on deep routes would give Bradford options and likely an open receiver. However, the Cardinals instead ran shallow crossing and out routes instead, typically ending in a two or three yard gain.
Where is Chandler Jones?
The last few seasons have featured an attacking Arizona pass rush. Chandler Jones led the league in sacks in 2017. Markus Golden recorded 16 sacks in 2016. Through two weeks the Cardinals have five total sacks from four different players. On paper the tally looks like a solid performance for the unit. However, the Cardinals are struggling to get consistent pressure from their talented pass rush. Jones has been relatively quiet this season. On Sunday he accounted for a single assisted tackle.
One reason for the lack of production have been the schemes from opposing offenses. The Rams often used running back Todd Gurley or a tight end to chip against Jones coming off the edge. Los Angeles also shadowed a guard to provide inside assistance for the tackle taking on Jones. The game plan was to slow down and disrupt the rhythm of Jones when rushing the passer.
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A possible second reason for the struggles could be the switch on defense from James Bettcher’s 3-4 alignment to the 4-3 favored by head coach Steve Wilkes. It may be too early to fully dissect, but the switch has definitely caused some issues on defense. In Bettcher’s defense Jones often found himself on an island against the offensive tackle. This was due to the defensive end playing even or just inside of the tackle’s inside shoulder. The alignment forced the guard to push outside to cover the end and leave the tackle to take on Jones. If there was a blitz coming inside it would force the guard to choose between the end or the blitzer. These types of games typically allowed Jones to speed around the end or overpower a tight end or running back to get to the quarterback.
Under defensive coordinator Al Holcomb, Jones plays a defensive end. He is on the line and is not frequently used outside of coming off the left side of the offense. The alignment has also allowed opposing offenses to use their guard to protect against an inside rush from Jones while the tackle can cheat to the outside. This type of change for a pass rusher may seem subtle on film, but the change in matchups make a huge difference in production. Holcomb needs to either send in the blitz to create pressure or find new ways to use Jones via stunts or moving the pass rusher around the line of scrimmage.
Whose Man is That?
Patrick Peterson has been solid on defense. The veteran cornerback has been effective on the outside even with the switch in coverage scheme. Holcomb’s defense primarily runs zone coverage in the secondary with the cornerbacks often covering ground 10 or more yards downfield and the underneath covered by the linebackers and extra safeties. Peterson collected an interception on Sunday, hauling in a Jared Goff pass on the sideline for the Cardinals’ lone takeaway.
While Peterson looks comfortable on the field, cornerback Jamar Taylor has struggled. Taylor has often looked lost in coverage as he attempts to decide when to take a receiver and when to pass them along. The issues with adjusting to the new system is not exclusive to Taylor. The pass coverage as a whole outside of Peterson has struggled. On Sunday the Rams found success throwing underneath and in the intermediate range. Most of the space was caused by receivers like Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks running deep and pulling the corner and safety with them. This left Cooper Kupp and Gurley wide open underneath and resulted in large chunk plays for the Rams offense.
Goff completed 24 of 32 passes for 354 yards against the Cardinals. He averaged 11 yards per attempt including a 57 yard deep completion to Cooks. Of the six Rams players who had a catch, only tight end Tyler Higbee finished with a catch under 15 yards. However, Higbee’s lone reception went for a touchdown in the red zone. The Cardinals pass defense have gone from formidable to laughable in a matter of two weeks. It has done so while playing confused and passive football, struggling to make decisions in the secondary
More Questions than Answers
Arizona has started the season 0-2 and have looked terrible on offense and not much better defensively. Wilks and the coaching staff have stated a need to reevaluate the entire roster and see which players can step up. This is not something a team usually deals with just two weeks into the season. The Cardinals have holes all over the roster and those weaknesses have been on display.
Coach Wilks revealed his desire to scale back the offense during the weekly press conference. It will be interesting to see what this means for a unit that has accounted for six points and under 400 yards of total offense. The defense is searching for someone to step up in the linebacker room and finding a way to tighten up coverage in the secondary. There are more questions than there are answers. It doesn’t get any easier for the Cardinals as they welcome a talented Chicago Bears team coming off a Monday night victory against the Seahawks. Stay tuned for a preview of the matchup and what to expect on Sunday.