By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub
PHOENIX (CBS) — Shortly after we passed over a sliver of Oklahoma and a tiny corner of the Texas panhandle, flying 38,000 feet above eastern New Mexico, the Green Bay Packers were left with one last shot at prolonging their postseason journey.
Aaron Rodgers, who had arched a prayer to the end zone to beat Detroit a month earlier during the 2015 regular season, was about to offer up another with his final breath of regulation at Arizona in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.
Meanwhile, as Episode 7 of NFL Films’ “All or Nothing: A Season With The Arizona Cardinals” unfolded from the iPad on the seat tray before me, the head coach on the home sideline had to quickly come to a decision.
“You wanna give him a shot at the ‘Hail Mary’ or go get him?” a wired-for-sound Arians asked his defensive coordinator James Bettcher.
An answer wasn’t required.
“Go get his a–,” Arians ordered in the Southern drawl he’d adopted during his four decades in the college and pro games.
The Cardinals could have dropped all but a few defenders into coverage, layering the goal line and beyond to guard against a jump ball and protect their 20-13 lead. Instead they rushed seven, leaving only four defensive backs against three receivers.
Arians’ aggressiveness on defense was consistent with his oft self-professed credo as an offensive play caller: “no risk it, no biscuit.” Just two-and-a-half minutes earlier, he’d chosen to throw rather than run on second down, only to see a clock-stopping incompletion give Green Bay precious extra seconds with which to rally.
Each risk went unrewarded.
Allowed one last turn, Rodgers rolled away from the rush barely enough to heave a high-hanging 41-yard pass toward receiver Jeff Janis, who leaped between Arizona’s Patrick Peterson and Rashad Johnson to grab it. With no time left, Mason Crosby kicked the extra point to force overtime.
The Cardinals survived, needing only three plays and 65 seconds of the extra session to score the winning touchdown. Afterwards, Arians made no apologies for playing it his way and going against conventional thought.
“Most teams play the prevent,” he said. “That’s what Betch was going to play. I said, ‘Hell no. Blitz him.’”
Eight months later, Arians returns to University of Phoenix Stadium to coach again in the season opener vs. the Patriots. Don’t expect a changed man.
Or a different style of defense. Not with first-time starter Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback playing without injured Rob Gronkowski and Nate Solder. One, as you know, is an all-world tight end who often dictates how opponents set their coverages. The other, as you’re also well aware, is the left tackle on a line that’s also minus longtime right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and recently acquired guard Jonathan Cooper.
Of course, considering the personnel up front, one might think Arizona wouldn’t need to devote extra rushers to create pressure. Opposite banged-up New England, the Cardinals will line up recent additions Chandler Jones and Robert Nkemdiche.
Jones recorded 36 sacks in four seasons in Foxborough before the Pats traded him in the offseason (for Cooper and a second-round pick). He’s listed as an outside linebacker in Arizona’s base defense and expects to shift to end when an extra defensive back is inserted. Nkemdiche, the 29th overall pick in this year’s draft, was a two-time All-SEC lineman at Mississippi.
You might think that adding them to the mix with Calais Campbell, a Pro Bowler the last two seasons, eliminates the need for extra rushers from the second level. But that’s not how Arians thinks.
“I’m not happy unless we’re blitzing,” Arians said, as quoted in a June 14 story by Kyle Odegard on the Cardinals team website. “If we’ve got four good ones, why not send five or six?”
Under Arians, Bettcher and previous defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, now the head coach of the New York Jets, Arizona has blitzed more than every other NFL team since 2013. Last season, per Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders and ESPN.com, at least five Cardinals rushed the passer on 45 percent of opponents’ dropbacks. The rest of the league’s blitz-rate was 30 percent.
What separates the Cardinals isn’t’ just how often they blitz; it’s when they do it.
“They bring five rushers out of their base defense a good percentage of the time,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. “I wouldn’t say they are a heavy sub-blitzing team (when employing five or six defensive backs), or they haven’t been.”
Schatz’s analytics substantiate Belichick’s analysis. During the 2015 regular season, Arizona blitzed more on first down (.463) than third down (.437).
And although Arizona’s schemes aren’t extraordinarily sophisticated (“I wouldn’t say this is the most exotic blitz team we’ll ever see though,” Belichick added), Garoppolo’s had very little in-game experience diagnosing blitzes of any complexity. After all, he’s appeared in just 11 games and attempted 21 passes in two pro seasons.
On Sunday Jimmy will have to anticipate which Cardinals are coming after him, relay the necessary adjustments to his teammates and quickly find his ‘hot’ receivers, all while avoiding the kind of mistakes opposing quarterbacks were prone to make in 2015, when Arizona forced 33 takeaways and produced six defensive scores.
Communication will be critical. It will also be complicated simply by the game’s setting.
With University of Phoenix Stadium’s retractable roof expected to be closed on a 100-degree night in the desert, it should be extremely loud. We all remember from the Pats’ AFC Championship loss last January in Denver how advantageous crowd noise can be for a defense.
Following that defeat in which Broncos defenders repeatedly seemed to time the snap while beating their blockers off the ball, then-Patriots center Bryan Stork was heavily scrutinized. No longer with New England, his role is now occupied by David Andrews.
When questioned about Andrews last month, Belichick cited the youngster’s growth in several subtle-yet-significant aspects of his position. Among them is the wherewithal “do some things with the cadence.” Such things will be needed Sunday night. Andrews has to help his teammates get in sync with the snap, while making sure the Cardinals aren’t.
In addition, extra blockers — be they tight ends or running backs — must have Garoppolo’s back. Literally. Just as important as those positions making plays as pass receivers is their ability to provide pass protection. That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised to see the least discussed back in preseason, Brandon Bolden, log a lot of time trying to pick up the blitz.
On their last visit to Glendale, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman were two of the many stars in a Super Bowl XLIX triumph over Seattle. This time around they are two of the three receivers (along with rookie Malcolm Mitchell) who missed much if not all of the preseason due to health reasons.
Amendola is rebounding from knee and ankle surgeries. Edelman is coming off a foot operation. They’ll need to consistently get open, opposite a secondary headlined by Pro Bowlers Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu.
And how. Because Arians isn’t about to stand back and watch his defense sit back on Sunday night.
“If you have guys that can run and get after the quarterback, why not send them all?” Nkemdiche told the team’s website.
The rookie uttered those words way back in June, showing that it doesn’t take long to understand the Arizona approach. For the Cardinals and their coach, it’s all or nothing.
Bob Socci is the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.