The Jets were downright dreadful last year getting off the field. They were the 3rd worst team on third down, allowing 45.3% to be converted. Not stopping teams leads to a domino effect that makes it tougher to win. The more time the defense spends on the field, the less time the offense gets on the field to score. Plus if you can't get a big stop late in games, that leaves the offense less time to engineer game winning drives...or worse, lets a team run out the clock.
Arizona, whose offense was dreadful last season in the second half relied on its defense to win games or keep it close enough that the offense could score a TD. The Cards under Todd Bowles were respectable on 3rd downs, finishing in the middle of the pack in conversion percentage.
3rd and longs were always an interesting occurrence with Rex. During games the defense dominated, it almost always made a huge play. On days the defense struggled, 3rd and longs turned into 1st and 10's if not TD's. Now that we have a new man in charge, let's take a peek at some of the Cards' strategies on third down and long.
Let's start week one vs. the Chargers.
Early in the game San Diego is on its own 40. It is 3rd and 10. The Chargers line up with 4 wide and the running back next to Rivers. They line up with 3 receivers to the right of Rivers with the running back to the weak side along with another WR. Arizona lines up with 3 down lineman and 6 men in the box.
Check out the view from the end zone. I love the fact that they are playing an amoeba style of defense with an overload look. I'd love to see the Jets use this and blitz out of it with Coples, Mo, Sheldon and Williams/Snacks on the line. What makes this interesting is the blitzing scheme.
The Cards had a major stunt on with this scheme and were playing cover one behind it. From the way 94 reacts to get into his zone, it looks like everyone is in zone coverage underneath the deep safety with the drop zones right around the first down maker. This is cover one that protects the first down marker while adding some heat to the QB.
Up front, the Cards bring 5, and it's a simple play when you break it down. The rush includes the OLB, two of three lineman and two DB's off the edges. Only one DL is in coverage and covering a zone that the back would run an out route towards. In theory, the rush should make it to the QB before a WR beats the zone deep. If he does cut the route short to give the QB a target, the receiver would be stopped before the first down marker.
What actually happens: The rush just about gets to Rivers, but he managed to get the ball out before taking a crushing shot an instant after he throws the pass. Rivers attempted to semi-float a pass to Gates who ran a corner route. If not for a solid play by the cornerback it could have been completed. The Cards nearly had a pick, but just as easily, the pass could have been completed. The result of the play was incomplete. Bring on the punting unit.
I watched a few third downs from the first AZ/SEA game. The Cards were using at most a 5 man rush yet were making plays all over the field and keeping the score down. What interested me was this play: 3rd and 19 on the Arizona 28. Even taking a yard gain keeps the Hawks in long but manageable field goal range. The Cards play a straight up cover three and rely on 4 guys to make the play. The Cards switched to a 2 man line with 2 OLB'ers also providing a rush. Here it is from the end zone look.
There is no need for complex blitzes or dropping a lineman in a zone. I prefer this to Rex's three man rushes or two man rushes that leave a QB all day to throw. The zone behind it is pretty basic as well. It is a simple cover three. It has a pretty simple set up: stop the big play and use the lineman to make some issues up front so a WR doesn't have all day to find a seam. The 4 man rush should also provide some run support if that was the playcall.
Bowles trusted his lineman to cause some disruption and the rest of the defense to plug up the zones and stop any pass. Rather than go after the QB or play a defense that would resemble a prevent, the Cards played a strategic zone coverage that wasn't too conservative or aggressive for the situation. Below is a screencap of the play a few seconds after the snap.
The result: The line caused enough havoc to get Wilson moving. No WR got openm and Wilson took a 3 yard sack. That little 3 yard difference may have been enough to force a FG attempt that was blocked, saving points from being scored and more importantly giving the ball back to the offense..
Last game of the season it was the Cards vs the Panthers. The situation was 3rd and 7 from the 29. It's another longish 3rd down which the defense needs a stop. The Cards line up and immediately Cam Newton saw something he didn't like and changed the play at the line. It's a 6 man rush Cover one zone with man underneath. Everyone lines up close to the box which allows the Cards multiple options to blitz or play it safe. Here's what they did:
The rush is simple and straight forward. Put pressure on the QB. The defense behind it is even simpler. Man up front with the deep safety patrolling centerfield. Who was on the rush? Well two DL, 3 LB's and a DB. Another case where a DB gets thrown in.
What I love is that the rush never gets to the QB, but the play still works. What I love even more is that Cro makes a great play on the ball, knocking it away and almost coming up with a pick. Again, Bowles defense plays the goldielocks card just right here and doesn't get too aggressive or conservative to come up with the stop.
The point of this article isn't to show that the Cards were great on third down but show how Bowles uses multiple styles of plays to stop third down and long and isn't afraid to take chances or play it more conservatively depending on the situation. On one play he uses zone and a stunt underneath, another he drops 7 back and rushes four, and on the last play he rushes 6 and plays cover man coverage to force a quick pass.
It also reinforces the idea that Bowles will favor a 2-4-5 set up with two DL in the middle and two OLB on the edges. At least that was prevalent in the plays I looked at. Another thing: Bowles in a small sample size wasn't afraid to throw DB's at the QB, which means we could see a bit more of Pryor in the box and playing aggressive.
Well take a look at more situations and break them down in later editions, but felt this was a good start to get to know Bowles and some of the things he does.