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Cardinals' Passing Prowess Runs Aground Against a Near-Perfect Plan

By Jason La Canfora
Monday, September 22, 2008

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?"

Rogers's interception came one series after Fitzgerald's long catch made it 17-17, and embodied the overall approach. Springs was playing man on the right side of the field; Rogers was in zone on the other side, with Fitzgerald lined up wide, and rookie safety Chris Horton and Landry helping with responsibilities on Fitzgerald's side.

Reed Doughty had been caught too shallow on the previous series. He tried to jump a route and misread the play ("I was exposed," he said), so Blache benched him for the duration of the game, using Springs at strong safety for a few plays and turning to Horton in the nickel package.

Horton alertly picked up Fitzgerald's crossing route once Rogers released him -- "The scheme was to try to take him out of the ballgame, and that's what I tried to do," Horton said -- leaving Warner to either check the ball down or try slot receiver Steve Breaston 40 yards downfield. Rogers had the instinct to act like a third safety on the play ("My eyes just took me inside," he said), leaving his zone with Horton on Fitzgerald, sprinting toward Breaston, and catching the ball once corner Leigh Torrence deflected it, setting up the winning score.

"They got some plays on us, but we came back and adjusted some things and stopped them," Rogers said.

Blache began the game playing primarily cover-2, and was content to let the Cardinals run the ball with fewer players in the box. Tailback Edgerrin James pounded away on the ground, rushing 10 times for 53 yards in the first half, getting most of his yards with the safeties deep; Blache adjusted more manpower to the line in short-yardage situations, however, and drives stalled, while Fitzgerald and Boldin were largely spectators.

"They're going to beat you with Number 11 [Fitzgerald] and Number 81 [Boldin]," Blache said. "That's the poison."

With Horton an emerging playmaker, Blache also utilized a three-safety set, dubbed "Cobra," from the opening series but constantly changed the roles of the players within it. During one sequence early in the second quarter, Horton lined up deep with Landry, with Doughty in the slot. The result was an incomplete pass to Fitzgerald. On the next play Horton moved up near the line against a three-receiver set. It netted a sack. On third and long, Blache put all three safeties deep in a prevent shell, forcing the Cardinals to punt.

It was a winning sequence in a day full of them. Blache's secondary rose to another challenge, shutting down the Cardinals just as it did the Saints a week ago. With high-scoring division rivals Dallas and Philadelphia up next, the schedule will get no easier, with the opportunities to earn league-wide respect now coming weekly.

"After Dallas and Philly, people are going to have to start talking about us," Springs said. Saints quarterback Drew Brees "was number two in passer rating, and he left not in the top 10. Kurt Warner came in in the top two in passer rating. I don't know what he's leaving with, but after 200 yards, a pick and a couple of sacks, I don't think it'll be too good."

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