The first chalkboard on third down focused on third and long situations. This one focuses on third and medium situations anywhere from 3rd and 4 to third and 8. This should provide a little more context for us to see what the Jets may do in similar situations this year. It's a critical area for defenses to cover. It's nowhere close to a gimmie first down, nor is it a situation where the defense would have to screw up royally to give away a first down. This is a situation the defense should expect to make some stops during a game, but not get upset if the offense gets a first down from this situation.
Let's get to it.
Let's start week two that had the Cards take on the cross town Giants. It's still the first quarter here and the Giants are faced with a 3rd down after a pretty lengthy drive that's taken them into Cards territory. The Cardinals line up and look to bring the heat with everyone lining up close to the line of scrimmage. It's a similar look to ones the Jets ran last year, line everyone in the box and let the QB guess who is coming and who isn't.
It's effective for the simple reason that you never know who is coming or what the design of the play is, unless you find a tell. In this case, the Cards bring six including the corner off the edge while dropping both OLBs.
Two of the outside LB'ers drop back into coverage and are charged with covering the guys coming out of the backfield or any middle route. Both drop back into what looks like a zone at first, but closer inspection shows that they were actually in man coverage. The responsibilities are shown below, including the linebackers. The safety is in cover one patrolling centerfield yet again.
Both of the OLB are looking for anything coming out of the backfield, but the one to the top of the screen picks up the crossing route as he's the nearest man.
What happens next is a bit of luck and a bit of strategy. Notice the corner coming in free, that's the strategy part. The Cards have a free rusher who his unblocked and is barreling dead at the QB. That's a perfect situation. Somewhat panicking, Eli goes to throw quickly, trying to avoid a sack that takes them out of FG range. At that time, his slot WR gets eaten by the field monster, falling onto the ground. Eli is already in the process of throwing the ball at the WR tripping and the pass is picked off.
Now some of you would look at this as a perfect result. That's true, but let's take the bit of luck out of it. Taking the stumble out of the play which lead directly to the INT, look at the LB'ers and the first down line. The WR would have had to catch the ball and evade two guys to get to the sticks. Yes, we've seen WR's run after the catch. We've also seen the Jets struggle mightily in open field tackling, but you'd expect one of the two to make a play to stop them well short of the sticks. Plus look at the other options Eli had. There are none. He threw to the only WR who was remotely uncovered. So his read was right. It was just a case of bad luck and good strategy by the defense.
You can see how much ground the WR had to cover and the LB positioning above. Notice the guys surrounding Eli. This is a perfectly played strategy. The defense forced the QB to throw quickly to the WR whose well short of a first down. It ends up working out a lot better than just forcing a kick, as the Cards took possession on the play. That's how you allow defense to win you games on Sundays.
A few games later, the Cards took on the Raiders. The first drive of the game could set the tone for the rest of the game if the Raiders could convert on third down. The Cardinals looked to prevent that on a third and six play, the first third down of the game. Again the Cardinals lined up everyone close to the line, but didn't use the same blitz we saw earlier. Instead they kept the corners on WR and let the big guys try to make the play up front.
Arizona blitzes 5, mostly lineman and interior linebackers. They play a game of hi-lo on the top of the picture as the safety covers the WR deep while the DB whose near the line of scrimmage sprints to the underneath route on the far WR. It looks to be a disguised cover two man, with everyone underneath getting a man including what looked like a blitzing OLB who ends up covering the TE.
You can see above how the DB is racing to get to the outside WR and provide man coverage underneath. The one safety ends up playing almost a soft man coverage against the one outside WR. That's partially because there were no other routes on that side of the field. He'd normal be in cover two while the other safety plays centerfield... albeit on the other side of the field.
Despite the pick play the Raiders ran in the middle of the field, the two defenders stick with their men, which works to Arizona's advantage. You can see unless the QB knew the defense perfectly and had the top WR as his primary target, there wasn't a lot open. The only pass on this particular play that could unravel the defense would be a quick pass to the far WR and hope he could get passed the safety for a first down.
Otherwise, it's a battle between the WR and DB's and the OL and DL. In this case, the defense doesn't make a mistake. Although the rush never gets close to the QB, there's no one open and the QB attempts to throw a bullet to the WR running across the middle of the field even though he's well covered.
The coverage was good. and the pass rush was stymied in this example. The result of the play was the punter coming onto the field as the pass fell incomplete. Unlike the last play, they didn't rush any DBs and instead ran a disguise that the QB didn't pick up leading to the offense failing to pick up the first down.
Let's go to a play that didn't work out real well for the defense until a player fumbled the ball away. The Cardinals were in a dogfight of a game with the Chiefs and its the third quarter. The Chiefs that year were a dink and dunk team and were faced with a 3rd and 4. The Cards played this conservatively only rushing 4 and dropping 7 into coverage taking away any long passes.
The pass rush never gets going and the Chiefs run a designed pick/spot play. The Cards play a cover 3 zone behind the 4 man rush, which can be exploited by running underneath routes. The offensive play idea is to get the TE open in some space and defeat a zone defense, exactly what the Cards are running. This is an example of your strategy backfiring.
You can see above that have 3 guys to cover with two defenders is a recipe for one getting open. Indeed that's what happens, as Anthony Fasano finds a hole in the zone big enough that Alex Smith can safely throw a pass without a real big chance of it being intercepted.
The funny part is it works out for the Cards anyway as the Chiefs fumbled the ball away nearly twenty yards later. You can see that had the WR just sat down, the first down was there. The Cards never got close to the QB and never got close to getting a pick. This play and strategy was a complete fail, even though they ended up with the ball.
It's important to note that this isn't a complete look at the Cards defense on third down and by no means do I expect the Cards to change strategy based on one play failing. What it does however show us is that Bowles loves to implement a lot of different strategies. One play he rushes the DB which forces a quick pass, another he rushes 5 but plays mostly man underneath with zone help above, and the last play was a 4 man rush zone defense. Needless to say, you can't pin down one style of defense on him because he likes to mix and match. I wouldn't be surprised this year to see any and/or all of these on Sundays this fall.