The Arizona Cardinals are one of only three remaining unbeaten NFL teams after Week 3 of the 2012 NFL season. The Cardinals defense and special teams play has stolen all the headlines for the team’s excellent start, but Kevin Kolb’s impact on the offense has been very significant also.
Kolb lost the quarterback competition to John Skelton in the off-season, but Skelton was subsequently injured against the Seattle Seahawks on opening day. Kolb came in to that game in the fourth quarter and led a game-winning touchdown drive.
Since then he has orchestrated victories against the New England Patriots, in Foxboro, and the Philadelphia Eagles, in Arizona, with two very different performances. Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt has asked a lot of Kolb in his first two starts this season, but each gameplan has been vastly different from the other.
Kolb was essentially a game manager against the Patriots, before carrying the offense against the Eagles. It is odd for a quarterback to take two completely different philosophical approaches in his first two starts of the season. I decided to take a look at the differences between Kolb’s first two starts and understand what the Cardinals asked of him and how he managed to carve out victories.
Kolb’s first third down attempt was a third and inches at his own 29.5 yard line. The Cardinals lined up in a running formation with a fullback and runningback in the backfield, a tight end to the right and a receiver to either side.
The Patriots have eight defenders in the box with a single high safety and a cornerback tandem hinting at zone coverage. Both corners have their eyes in the backfield while the four players in the box without their hands on the ground are all leaning forward anticipating a run up the middle.
As soon as the Cardinals got into position, they immediately shifted to a different formation moving skill players on both sides of the ball. This movement was designed to disrupt the defense opposed to an audible in playcalling because Kolb never actually settled under center to purvey the defense. Much like Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers did repeatedly last year, the Cardinals shifted formation and snapped the football while the defense was still reacting.
With the tight end dropping off the line of scrimmage to the right hand side, and the fullback moving into a tight end position to the left side, the Patriots look to swap their strong and weak side linebackers. They need to run across the formation in order to get into position.
The Cardinals have received the desired effect as Kevin Kolb snaps the ball before the linebackers settle. A gap in the defense is unveiled to the immediate right of the center. Only one defender can attack the space because two of the defense’s linebackers are moving in the wrong direction.
The Cardinals had called two running plays prior to that conversion. While it appeared a simple quarterback sneak, the decision to keep the ball in Kolb’s hands at this point, while still manipulating the defense to give him an easy read, was a well thought out decision because other coaches would have been tempted to try and take advantage of Larry Fitzgerald in single coverage on the outside.
Against the New England Patriots, in Foxboro, Ken Whisenhunt was very aware of keeping ahead of the down and distance markers. However even when they fell into obvious passing situations, Whisenhunt still stuck to his overall philosophy with Kolb.
On Second and 10, the Cardinals came out in a passing set. Kolb was flanked by two backs in the backfield, with two receivers to his left, Larry Fitzgerald in the slot, and one receiver to his right. The Patriots were in their base defense with four down linemen, three spread out linebackers and two deep safeties.
Whisenhunt’s screen pass worked to perfection as three of the four defensive linemen were taken out of the play because of the play design, while the other was blocked by the right guard. With the left guard, center and fullback breaking outside to block defenders down the field, the Cardinals were suddenly in excellent position to convert a t0ugh situation with a simple throw.
Kolb’s throw couldn’t be simpler for a professional quarterback, while his intended receiver, LaRod Stephens-Holwing, is a kick returner with more blockers in front of him than defenders. There is no chance that defensive lineman Kyle Love can catch him from behind in pursuit.
Sometimes the Cardinals’ best offense doesn’t feature Kolb at all. Sometimes they rely on the electric talents of kick returning cornerback Patrick Peterson. While the New York Jets have Tim Tebow running their wildcat, a player who can bruise defenders on every play and at times throw it deep, the Cardinals have Peterson who is a threat to hit a home run from anywhere on the field. Against the Patriots he showed off that speed.
Peterson is lined up at the quarterback position with a running-back, Stephens-Howling, lined up as the outside receiver to the bottom of the field. The Cardinals’ best blocking receiver, Fitzgerald is in the slot to the left with two other receivers across the formation and a tight end behind the line of scrimmage. The Patriots are in their nickel defense despite it being first and 10, but Stephens-Howling is still covered out wide by a linebacker.
When Stephens-Howling comes across the formation the linebacker follows him to hint at man coverage. This leaves Fitzgerald alone on the outside with a cornerback in off coverage and a safety even deeper.
The fake to Stephens-Howling drags the second and third level defenders of the Patriots’ defense to the right side of the field. That leaves Peterson running to the left with three blockers for three immediate defenders.
Peterson is forced wide because the Cardinals fail to seal the edge with their interior blocking. Had the play been properly executed, the Cardinals would have had a superstar kick returner in space against one out of position defender. Instead, Peterson’s space is taken away from him by one missed block.
A combination of Larry Fitzgerald’s excellent blocking on the outside and Peterson’s phenomenal speed to evade the first defender, results in a 20+ yard gain for the Cardinals to move them close to scoring position.
Teams can’t consistently rely on the wildcat from drive to drive, but a consistent sprinkling of it from game to game can be enough to keep defenses off balance.
Against the Patriots, the Cardinals moved Larry Fitzgerald around the formation to make him an easier target for Kevin Kolb. Fitzgerald even lined up in the backfield at one point in that game. At home against the Eagles however, the Cardinals put Fitzgerald in position to excel by making him a focal point of the offense with a variety of routes.
Kolb had a fantastic all-around day against the Eagles and he carried the offense to a big lead in the first half. Unlike against the Patriots, the Cardinals primarily used the running game to close the game out opposed to sustain the offense. The offense relied on Kolb who showed excellent poise, accuracy, arm strength and consistently made good decisions.
Ken Whisenhunt may have seen something during the week, because Kolb didn’t need to earn his trust early in the game either.
At the beginning of the team’s second drive of the game, the Cardinals were backed up in their own redzone on Third and 15. Instead of running the ball or throwing a screen pass, Kolb was placed in an empty set with five wide receivers.
This was telling, because the Philadelphia Eagles have arguably the best defensive line in football and definitely a more talented overall defense than the New England Patriots.
Kolb was immediately under pressure, but kept his eyes downfield looking for a potential first down pass, opposed to immediately checking down to a wide open Fitzgerald. This could be considered reckless, but Kolb remained under control throughout the play.
After stepping up in the pocket, Jason Babin manages to attach himself to Kolb. The above image appears to be a guaranteed sack, but Kolb still understands that Fitzgerald is available underneath in space.
With a basketball pass that Kolb makes as he is falling to the ground, he somehow ships the ball to Fitzgearld who gains another four yards. It doesn’t seem like much, but the playcall in itself was a signal of intent while the extra four yards allowed the punter to escape his own endzone.
Kolb wasn’t just throwing the ball short however. He made multiple big throws to receivers over the middle and topped off his day with an excellent touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald deep.
Often people think that throwing deep passes to Larry Fitzgerald is simple because he is Larry Fitzgerald, but on this occasion Kolb’s throw had to be precise…and it was.
On First and 10 at the Philadelphia 37, Kolb is lined up with a receiver to either side, a tight end to the right, in front of an off-set I in the backfield. This is a formation that has the Philadelphia Eagles thinking run and each of their linebackers are leaning forward before the ball has been snapped.
The Cardinals are in a max protect set with only two receivers leaving the formation. This, and the offensive line’s(and fullback’s) aggressive approach, draws three Eagles’ defenders out of position to evacuate their zone responsibilities.
Kolb is forced to hold onto the ball to allow his receivers’ routes to develop. By the time he gets to the top of his drop and has carried out play-action however, he only has a moment to survey the field before Trent Cole knocks him off his spot.
The play was designed to attack the middle third of the field. The Eagles are in Cover three with one defender occupying the area that Andre Roberts and Larry Fitzgerald are attacking. Roberts runs over the linebackers and infront of the safety, Kurt Coleman, to draw him downfield. Fitzgerald then runs past Coleman and angles his run away from Nnamdi Asomugha who is responsible for the outside right third of the field.
Kolb makes the right read as he zones in on the safety’s movements and throws an excellent pass over his head. However with the number of players in the middle of the field, Kolb puts a little bit more on the ball than necessary to make sure he clears the defender.
If the Arizona Cardinals are going to replicate the San Francisco 49ers’ success from last season by riding a strong defense to the playoffs, then Kevin Kolb will need to be a smart quarterback on the road and a big play one at home.
So far, so good.