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Previewing the Arizona Cardinals' Six-Gun Offense

What sets the Cardinals' passing game apart? What sort of trouble might this pose for the Seahawks?

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Revenge of the Birds editor Shaun Church penned a great and insightful piece last year on Bruce Arians' proclivity for attacking deep. I highly recommend taking the time to read it to understand some of the logistics and rationale behind the aggressiveness. Church quotes Arians' introductory press conference in Arizona:

"We have six home runs on the play sheet every week, and we're not leaving any bullets unused."

Arians' approach previously paid dividends in Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, there being no functional quarterback or offense during his first offensive coordinator job with the Cleveland Browns. There's a method to his madness. It's not just unflinching aggressiveness, though he has that.

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Any team will take opportunistic deep shots when a defense gives them reason to. Most offenses are designed to provide a handful of opportunities to take a shot if one is there, during low-leverage situations. Much of that is worked into play design. The home runs Arians speaks of are deliberate shots. Designed shots.

The architecture of the plays themselves aren't unique or particularly sophisticated. One of the first things to note, is not patently obvious, yet really self-apparent: that an intentional deep vertical attack will primarily stand on vertical routes. There are a handful of double-moves, inside/outside leverage tricks, and the finer points of route running that are utilized to get receivers open. It's not a schemed-open offense, which only works closer in toward the LOS. Arizona doesn't need to scheme their receivers open. They wouldn't be able to capitalize on as many shot plays without them, no doubt.

The key factor in the home run-seeking Six Gun Offense is shrewd utilization of shot plays. Situational stuff. Setting up plays. Not as much what to call, but when to call it.

Let's look at some recent examples, explore what it might mean for Seattle. First, let's look at a big play that wasn't a designed shot play, but an opportunistic one, which Arizona still won't hesitate to try and capitalize on.

Q1 11:38 3rd-7 ARI 32

Opening drive. Palmer reads it presnap: misaligned safeties in a Cover 2 look. No surprise it turns into a Cover 1 Robber set, which makes this a one-on-one situation as the free safety took himself out of position for the play by getting into the coverage position called.

Palmer and the Cardinals deliberately look to go up & over defenses on 3rd down as defenses generally play to the sticks. Nelson hauls it in one-handed.

Calling Cover 1 Robber vs. a trips set inherently puts your safety at a disadvantage outside the numbers. Hopefully Kris Richard doesn't do that.

Q1 4:57 2nd-9 ARI 15

This is a designed shot play. It's built on situation and tendency: deep in their own territory, after a stuffed run gained half a yard, the risk of missing on a low-percentage shot and facing 3rd & 9 is palpable, and most teams avoid it. Since 1994, from an offense's own 15 or 16 yard line, the league has converted 3rd & 9 throws just 31.9% of the time. Out of those 279 pass attempts in this situation, only 31.4% were marked deep throws in play-by-play. Out of those 35 attempts, only 11 completions.

So teams don't attack deep in this situation very often. Which is exactly why Bruce Arians does.

(Oh and by the way, who's the leading passer in this situation since 1994? Yep. Carson Palmer.)

Cleveland doesn't expect Arizona to take a shot here. They play the sticks. Corners soft, safeties only 10 yards deep and reading run. Play action brings them both in, leaving the corners one-on-one. Michael Floyd in isolation burns right past Tramon Williams with ease. Palmer overthrows him, else this would have been a score.

Though missed, Arizona will pick up the 1st down on the next play. So it's not just the shot plays. The Cardinals' passing game is playing very well right now. The threat of a running game, no matter how effective, doesn't figure to pull Seattle's safeties in as much as other defenses. I'll explain why in a moment.

Q2 2:36 1st-10 ARI 20

"Players, formations, plays." That's what Brock Huard stresses that most coaches teach their defenses to watch for. So what do defenses expect when they see rookie interior lineman A. Q. Shipley report as eligible? And then align offset in the backfield?

Let's explore how multiple use of a single play can set up an opportunity for a shot. This is the opening play of the drive. On three occasions in two games has Shipley reported as eligible and align in this fashion on the opening play of a drive. On five occasions in three games has he done this, very early in a drive (within first three plays).

No shot is taken here. Palmer and the play's design seem intent on moving the safety over and targeting TE Jermaine Gresham on the backside, not seriously challenge deep. Palmer's deliberate midfield gaze and mechanical turn to throw to Gresham show he's working within the play's design. Incomplete, but the play unfolded as drawn up.

Shipley aligns offset for chipping duty in the backfield. Although I thought they might use this unusual assignment to call a slide assignment for the line, they haven't, which might speak to the intentions of this usage: not so much for additional pass protection but for imprinting a memorable play to then play off of.

Sure enough, not one to let you forget, Arizona runs the play on the following drive (now Q2 13:23). Ought Cleveland expect a roughly similar approach to the play, or ought they anticipate the changeup?

Running a play multiple times in a game to set up a shot play is nothing new, or particularly creative. It's not a shocking trick. But that's the NFL. Where two LB swapping coverage or a DB blitz counts as exotic, and where a slight permutation of a standard route is a wrinkle that can do real damage. It's almost funny how well this works.

Let's look at the end zone angle without the wacky commentary to witness Palmer play safety Ibraheim Campbell masterfully here.

Palmer looks to Gresham instantly, who actually cuts inside instead of out this time. As though that modest wrinkle were intended to help get Nelson open on a deeper cross, Palmer then looks to Nelson and triple-hitches the windup ala Bronco-era Peyton Manning to get Campbell to close on Nelson's route, leaving Fitzgerald alone with Donte Whitner, which you don't want if you're a Browns fan.

Unfortunately for Arizona, this is another incomplete. No matter; they'd pick up a 60-yard TD in the 3rd quarter. Another Cover 1 Robber set vs. deep routes outside both numbers meant someone would not have safety help. Palmer makes like Willie Keeler and "throws it where they ain't," and the contested catch resulted in the corner stumbling to the ground, leaving Floyd to jog into the end zone.

Earl Thomas has a lot of range, and he'll play center field most of the time, but Arizona has a formidable stable of receivers, and love to stretch that FS range. You may think Seattle might be dictated into using more quarters coverage than they like, but their trademark Cover 3 Boundary Lock shell allows more agility versus these attacks than your average Cover 3 shell.

"Boundary" refers to the shorter side of the field, also known as closed side of the field. This is in contrast to the field side, or open side. In this defense, the corners will make a call to Chancellor to "play it" -- play the coverage as though it's a pass -- or to "lock it" -- take more freedom in the run game and as the force defender on the boundary side. One reason Chancellor's mastered this position, and one reason why he's so valuable in getting the other defenders lined up, is that Virginia Tech used the same concepts while he played there. He converted from quarterback to cornerback to rover safety, picking up valuable information each time. The Center/Boundary/Field elements to coverage are not as mature in the NFL as they have been in college, mostly because the hash marks are wider. The default for Seattle is to lock it, but that may not be the case on Sunday night.

As for the use of Shipley as an eligible receiver, look for the Cardinals to actually use him as a receiver at some point. He's lined up eligible and served as a lead blocker only once so far, which scouting reports identified as an area of strength for him. I certainly expect to see him used as a lead blocker at least once against Seattle. It's only a matter of time before his frequent eligibility gets ignored and he's thrown to. Players, formations, plays.

Q1 14:49 1st-10 ARI 23

Here's the opening play versus Pittsburgh. How many times does a team take a big designed shot on the first play of the game? 188 deep attempts since 1994, fewer than the shots on 2nd & 10 from a team's own 15 yard line.

So Pittsburgh takes the field for the first snap of the game in nickel to match Arizona's 11 personnel. Arizona goes empty with Andre Ellington split wide and Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown in the slots. Pittsburgh initially lines up safety Mike Mitchell over Brown, but they blitz him, dropping a rusher on the other side after he feigns slot cover and creeps up to make a show of blitz. This is typical Pittsburgh, and 1st & 10 vs. an empty set seems like a pretty low risk time to call a zone blitz.

So Sean Spence will cover Brown, and that may have been the tell, given how he's lined up a yard deeper than Lawrence Timmons. With 3 eligible receivers to the open/field side, Palmer anticipated free safety Robert Golden would creep over to the strong side, and knew where to go. To the mismatch backup ILB against a speedster like John Brown.

*  *  *  *  *

Palmer is throwing the ball really well right now. Really, really well. The receivers are playing great. The protection is good. It's not just the play-calling. But it's almost surprising at times how easy defenses are making some of this. These aren't audibles. In many cases they're called before the drive starts.

During 2-minute drills the Cardinals have moved the ball down the field well. The absence of unexpected and advantageous situational shot-taking is apparent, as typical 2-minute ball takes over for both squads and the defenses are expecting a vertical attack anyway. But the situational anticipation demonstrated by the shot-taking is among the best in the league.

Most teams practice a broad array of situational football, and common behavior by many coaches have led many defenses to expect shot plays at certain times. One of the most frequent "surprise attacks" that rarely surprise anyone these days is a shot play after a big event such as a turnover, or after a long delay due to an official review, especially when germane to short-yardage play. Lower-risk situations, like, say, a 1st & 5 due to a penalty, after having already secured a first down earlier in a drive, has been one of the safest situations to go deep in, which is why it's subsequently been render a lower-success shot play situation.

Like the evolutionary nature of offensive & defensive innovation in scheme & play design, where rarely do dramatic and radical elements come in and engender drastic change, but rather subtle, nuanced modifications, or wrinkles, to what's recently become well-established and therefore expected -- this subtle but potent shift in when to call what has had many antecedents and is heavily predicated on commonality of what kind of proclivities the league exhibited before it. I can't say how unique & original Arians' approach has been, but I'm unaware of anyone else doing what he does. It's working so well I believe in some cases the Cardinals have thrown more than six attempts over 20 yards in a game several times. So maybe the Six Gun Offense isn't even as apt a name as it was last year.

At any rate, Seattle's coverage concepts not only remain more applicable and advantageous versus deep passes than that of many teams, it's what they're philosophically built to stop. Now I don't expect Seattle to shut this passing game down. If we're being honest Arizona hasn't just been the better team this year, they've been a much better team. But as for the situational aspects of the Six Gun Offense, Seattle can handle it. If they stick to their guns.