Cardinals' Passing Prowess Runs Aground Against a Near-Perfect Plan
There were no secrets behind the Arizona Cardinals' success in the early weeks of this NFL season, no ruse or cunning involved in their ascent. They were attacking defenses with a monstrous receiving duo -- Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin -- and daring teams to stop them.
Quarterback Kurt Warner is 37 but resembled his MVP form. Fitzgerald and Boldin each ranked in the top seven of the league in receiving yardage. The mission was clear to the Redskins' defenders and coaches: disrupt the synergy among these three players.
Save for one big blunder, on Fitzgerald's 62-yard touchdown reception that tied the score late in the third quarter, Washington executed defensive coordinator Greg Blache's game plan with precision. Warner threw for just 192 yards in the Redskins' 24-17 win, with the Cardinals resorting to a ground-based attack for much of the game, as Washington smothered downfield routes and Blache concocted a bevy of defensive looks to derail the passing attack.
Blache installed a plan that called for ultimate versatility, playing one, two or three deep safeties, playing man-to-man on certain matchups within a zone umbrella, swapping personnel, occasionally putting a linebacker in the slot for coverage. He may not have called a perfect game, but he came close enough.
"We repped that the whole week in practice, giving them different looks to keep the quarterback guessing," free safety LaRon Landry said, "so they can't get in a rhythm seeing the same thing over and over. We did a great job in the game plan, and we had a great week of preparation that helped us get turnovers and win the ballgame."
Defensive end Jason Taylor led the linemen's attempts to disrupt the timing so vital to Warner's success, Carlos Rogers turned the game with an interception and 42-yard return in the final quarter, and the quick-strike Cardinals were largely plodding, with Fitzgerald's touchdown their only play of 20 yards or more. Blache's touch was everywhere, whether he was rotating his linemen in the heat or using Taylor as a linebacker on one play.
There were, however, two constants.
For virtually every play, cornerback Shawn Springs was matched in man coverage on Boldin, playing him tight at the line and trying to disrupt his timing before he got in routes. Boldin (6 feet 1, 217 pounds) caught just two balls on Springs -- Springs deflected and nearly intercepted one -- and Boldin's touchdown came with Fred Smoot defending him, as Springs switched to the other side of the field with Cardinals deployed in a spread formation near the goal line.
"Going into the game I thought, personally, I could blank him," Springs said of Boldin.
And Rogers, thriving in his surprisingly quick recovery from knee surgery that ended his 2007 season, was given the task of guarding Fitzgerald, who is more explosive, with Blache and secondary coach Jerry Gray toggling between man coverage on Fitzgerald and having Rogers play in a zone about eight yards off the line with help over the top from a safety, usually Landry.
The players were primed on tendencies -- Fitzgerald (6-3, 220) gets fed the most on first down; Boldin pops up more on third down and in the red zone -- and braced to play an array of coverages. Often there were multiple elements at play within the same play, with corners and safeties first setting themselves to appear in one coverage, then switching to another.
"We gave them different looks on the same play, yes," Blache said. "That was one of the reasons we were able to get Warner late in the game on one of the sacks. We tried to create something where he was uncertain what he was seeing. Was it man or zone?"