Week 10 O-Line Spotlight: Arizona Cardinals
Our first double-dip in the short history of this series, we’re checking back in with the Arizona Cardinals offensive line. As highlighted in this NFL Network/PFF collab video from a week ago, Arizona already had the worst grade in Pass Blocking Efficiency before surrendering five more sacks to Kansas City. They were beat on the edge throughout the game and their rookie quarterback had to get rid of the ball just to save himself from being mauled.
This all falls right in line with what we went over last month in the Week 7 O-Line Spotlight, and it sure doesn’t seem like the firing of Mike McCoy plus promotion of Byron Leftwich has done anything to help the problem of pass protection. Run blocking is a completely different story and is something we’ll delve into as we move along. And move along we shall to veteran right tackle Andre Smith.
Solid throughout his prior five weeks of action, Smith had a rough go of it against Kansas City’s athletic defensive ends. Outside linebacker Dee Ford just feasted on Arizona’s 10th-year vet, using speed to win from whistle to whistle. Twice on the same drive, Ford lined up wide and gave Andre no chance of catching up, forcing two different holding calls. Smith literally had to tackle Ford to save his quarterback.
(It’s 3rd & 33 because of a sack right before the 2-minute warning.)
Smith’s performance wasn’t a far cry from the 250-plus snaps he played prior to Week 10; his run blocking has been getting sharper while his pass blocking has declined. It’s been this way since his days starting full-time with the Cincinnati Bengals half a decade ago.
T Andre Smith allowed 6 pressures (3 hurries, 2 hits, 1 sack). Also, committed 3 penalties.
Earned a 79.5 run blocking grade, so not all bad
— PFF ARZ Cardinals (@PFF_Cardinals) November 12, 2018
Lately, the Cardinal’s offensive line as a group have performed much like their right tackle, with average or above-average run blocking and poor pass blocking. Pictured below are two graphs from the ever-valuable SharpFootballStats.com. This first graph shows Arizona’s ineptitude against the run through the first seven weeks of the season.
Pretty terrible, right? Red indicates below-average numbers. So yeah, they’re bad everywhere. Next is the same graph, but based only on their last two games.
The guards are still having problems, but the edges have been shored up, leading to usable weeks from David Johnson. Those had been few and far between in the first half of the season.
Justin Pugh was forced to leave the game in the third quarter due to an MCL tear. No stranger to coming off the bench in a backup role, fifth-year man Oday Aboushi finished the game admirably and will probably hold down the job. Arizona’s attempt to play Daniel Munyer when Pugh previously missed time did not go well. The Pugh-Aboushi right guard spot performed as well as anyone could have expected from a man who was placed on the IR after the game and his replacement fresh off the bench.
Rookie Mason Cole was drafted as the heir apparent to 32-year-old A.Q. Shipley, whose contract was set up on a year-to-year basis. Instead, Mason was thrust into the starting lineup from the season’s onset. He’s done his best to produce while developing. Below is a scenario where his instincts could use refining.
He (#64) begins by favoring the strong side of the line, even though it is already loaded up with not one, but two tight ends staying home to pass protect. The weak side of the line is matched up one-on-one. Whether miscommunication or uncertainty of assignment, there’s no need for Cole to help the right side. Right guard Aboushi and right tackle Smith are already double teaming #95 Chris Jones. Instead, #91 Derrick Nnadi forces left guard Jeremy Vujnovich into the pocket and disrupts Josh Rosen’s follow-through. (Props to Rosen. He still gets it where he wants it to go.)
Vujnovich had the toughest time among Arizona’s linemen on Sunday. Jones, the Chiefs’ disruptive, 6-foot-6, 310-pound defensive tackle had an incredible game against the guard, and it was clear the matchup would be tough from the beginning of the game. Vujnovich was beaten multiple times on the first drive, including a hurry allowed on the first pass play of the game.
As is the theme of this O-line, Jeremy didn’t blow anyone away with his run blocking, but he didn’t fail either.
Leftwich was not afraid to use Vujnovich as the pulling guard in the run game, creating holes and leading Johnson to the second level of defenders.
Vujnovich’s one-on-ones with Jones are what really set the tone, though. Jones kept him off balance and overpowered here as the Cardinals needed points on the board to avoid going into halftime down 13 points.
The sack that set the tone for Arizona’s last meaningful drive came on 1st & 10 from their own 40-yard line. The Chiefs deployed seven men into coverage so Arizona would eat up clock, and the defense still got to the quarterback repeatedly. The obvious penetration is Ford again getting around the outside, but try to focus on Jones (#95). It takes him three pumps of the legs to beat Vujnovich. The guard can’t even land palms on his assignment. Allen is too quick. A chip shot from Johnson doesn’t faze him on his way to laying the quarterback on the turf.
D.J. Humphries is a joy to watch in run blocking. This is backed up by Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards to the left tackle’s direction, in which the Cardinals rank seventh, by far the team’s highest ranking. Pro Football Focus’s grades agree with the assessment of Arizona’s improving run blocking, thanks in large part to Humphries’ increasing crispness.
#AZCardinals run blocking has improved significantly the last couple of weeks
Weeks 8-10: 69.8 run block grade (5th best)
Weeks 1-7: 50.1 run block grade (30th)
— PFF ARZ Cardinals (@PFF_Cardinals) November 12, 2018
Just like his right tackle counterpart, though, there are holes in Humphries’ pass blocking game, to the detriment of his young quarterback’s development. While Ford was making hay on the right side of the line, Justin Houston was making his presence known on the blind side.
Above, you’ll see Humphries get deep to compensate for Houston’s speed. It gives the pass rusher pause, but he still gets in Rosen’s face to prevent a full follow-through. Impressively, Rosen almost connects with Fitzgerald in the end zone anyway. This isn’t an egregious whiff on the part of the left tackle, but it was the sort of outcome that showed up throughout the game.
The other side of the coin is what happens when Humphries can’t get deep enough to compensate for Houston’s speed. He must turn his entire body as Houston gets around him, and Rosen is hit as he releases the ball. At the end of the gif, Andre Smith gets dumped right into the screen, beaten by Dee Ford on the other side.
Fortifying the Nest for Josh Rosen
It’s not common to find a top-quartile run blocking team so bad at pass protection, but it happens. See Cleveland. A shared thread between these two teams is their tackles getting overwhelmed by athletic defensive ends and outside linebackers.
The Cardinals design runs where Larry Fitzgerald seals the edge. He does so below against free safety Ron Parker. It’s not an atypical look and could be used in pass protection to avoid conventional max-protect lineups.
In October, head coach Steve Wilks said, “The personnel is not going to change, so we have to find ways within the system and the scheme to help (Rosen) out.” His team has now allowed 18 sacks in the last four games. Granted, the Chiefs’ defense is a different unit when you have a terrorizer like Justin Houston at full health, but it doesn’t excuse non-stop pressure on your rookie quarterback.
As much as Leftwich would love to imitate his mentor Bruce Arians, the tools are not here to test deep safeties with circa-2016 long balls. That’s not to say they never will be. Arizona’s core of Rosen, Johnson, Christian Kirk, and Ricky Seals-Jones is something to build around. And hell, maybe Fitzy won’t retire after all. The running scheme they are using is working and will look even better when their quarterback becomes able to hold the ball for more than 2.5 seconds.
Just like half of the league, Arizona will try to find an NFL-ready offensive tackle in April’s draft. Unlike those other teams, the pride of Phoenix is practically guaranteed to land a top-5 pick. Jonah Williams (Alabama) is being projected to San Francisco at No. 2 overall in early mock drafts with Yodny Cajuste (West Virginia), Dalton Risner (Kansas State) and David Edwards (Wisconsin) rounding out the offensive tackles likeliest to go on day-one. Though Arizona could use help on defense, their best route to becoming respectable again is to help their young quarterback survive and improve an offense accruing only 236 total yards per game (worst in the NFL) and allowing four sacks a game.
There is hope when the Cardinals run scripted plays to begin halves. On Sunday, their first two drives looked like this:
- 12 plays, 75 yards, TD 6:01 Time of possession
- 12 plays, 61 yards, TD 7:12 Time of possession
Rosen and Co. were overcoming pressure and moving the sticks with consistency. But the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. The rest of their nine drives combined for 45 plays, 118 yards, zero scores, and an 18:34 time of possession. They are simply not a complete offense yet.
At tight end, Jermaine Gresham isn’t running routes—which probably isn’t a terrible idea—but the Cardinals also have Seals-Jones, who can’t block for the run (yet). Which player takes the field is an immediate tip-off to defenses when their offensive line already needs all the help they can get.
In conclusion, expect more of the same for the remainder of this season: decent rushing performances from Johnson against a soft schedule, bumps in the road for Rosen, and more losses for the team. Projecting forward, watch for some additions to Arizona’s front line before deciding if Rosen will be a two-quarterback staple in 2019.