The first six weeks of the NFL season are in the books, and already some stats are beginning to emerge. One of the most surprising, however, is that the Arizona Cardinals entered their game against the Oakland Raiders as the only team without an Interception, in spite of three different QBs splitting time under centre. And although the Cardinals finally threw their first pick during this game, we take a look at this curious anomaly.
If, prior to the season, I had told you that after 5 games, a team would still be without an interception, you would perhaps not have been too surprised—a number of NFL QBs are known for their accuracy and lack of turnovers. If I had told you that that team would be the Arizona Cardinals, you would probably be surprised—Bruce Arians is known for airing it out multiple times each game, which while effective, can lead to more than a few turnovers. If I would have said that they would have done this in spite of three different quarterbacks taking snaps under centre, you would have almost certainly called me a liar.
Yet, that is exactly the situation the Cardinals, and the NFL found themselves in coming into their Week 7 matchup against the Oakland Raiders. In spite of Arians’ pass oriented, big play offence, which calls for multiple high-risk shots down the field each game; in spite of Carson Palmer’s dubious career interception rate—he had 152 interceptions in his 140 career starts coming into the game; in spite of injuries which have limited starter Palmer, and knocked backup Drew Stanton out of the game; and in spite of having to finish their game against the Broncos with 4th round rookie Logan Thomas, who averaged 1 interception per game during his career as a college starter; the Arizona Cardinals had somehow managed to avoid putting the ball in their opponents hands, at least through the air.
Many will call this a simple fluke, a statistical anomaly that was unlikely to hold up much longer. Others will note that while the league average for interceptions is usually around one per game, these are not evenly distributed, and most QB’s will go multiple games without a pick, and then throw multiple picks in a single game when the opposition have their number. Still more will argue questions about the starter mean that opposing defenses has less game film to watch, less tells for each QB, and in some cases, don’t even know which QB they are preparing to face which makes game planning much more difficult.
However, after five games, and a 4-1 start, perhaps it was more than just a statistical anomaly. Perhaps there was something more to it than that.
Even their first interception on the season against Oakland came from a bobbled pass which fell into the lap of active NFL interception leader Charles Woodson, and was too hard to pin entirely on the quarterback.
In many ways, it started with the improvements to the Cardinals offensive line. The addition of Jared Veldheer and dramatic growth of right tackle Bobby Massie, the Cardinals O-line has simply done a much better job of keeping their QBs upright. Yes, they still have a long way to go—whenever two QBs go down with injuries, you have to question if the offensive line has done its job properly—but the improvement is impossible to miss. Palmer’s injury appears to have happened on a scramble play, and Stanton’s injury came at the hands of Von Miller, one of the toughest pass rushers in the game.
In general, however, the offensive line is giving the QB just a little bit extra time to make their reads and choose their plays, and limiting the amount of times their passers are forced to make throws while being hit, or on the run.
Next up is the continued incremental improvements to the Cardinals running game. It’s unlikely the Cardinals will ever be a run-first sort of team under Arians, and in spite of his continued insistence that the Cardinals want to utilise the run more, the team still ranks 30th in the league in rushing yards coming into the Raiders game, with an average of just 85 yards per game.
However, these numbers are really only part of the story. Firstly, a lot of those carries come from Andre Ellington, a real home-run hitter, and player that the Cardinals opponents simply cannot ignore. Last season, Ellington averaged 5.5 yards per carry, the best among all starting running backs in the league, and teams have been forced to key in on him in 2014. While his 2014 average is only a fraction of last seasons numbers—3.8 yards per carry average—this too has had a positive effect.
Opposing defenses have no choice but to commit extra men to stop Ellington, who is also a real threat catching passes out of the backfield—as his 81 yard TD catch from Logan Thomas proved—meaning that their are fewer free players to key in on the quarterback and try to cut off his passing lanes.
Although he has yet to rush for more than 100 yards in a single game this season, many of his yards come on screen passes out of the backfield, which are effectively disguised rushing plays.
Of course, in addition to this, their is also the receiving corps the Cardinals have. Larry Fitzgerald, while undoubtedly on the down side of his career proved against the Redskins that he still has what it takes to succeed at the top level in the NFL, and reminded teams they cannot ignore him. On the opposite side of the field, Michael Floyd is routinely making the sort of catches which made Fitzgerald famous, and speedster John Brown is really exposing opposing secondaries, and burning them for big gains.
Finally, is the teams discipline, play selection and coaching the Cardinals have committed to. Prior to their game against the Redskins, the Cardinals were one of the most disciplined teams in the NFL.
In the first four games of the season, the Cardinals really managed to limit self-inflicted wounds through penalties and unnecessary losses. Doing this really keeps the Cardinals from having to force the ball too often, which often leads to turnovers. Additionally, the Cardinals appear to have learned that sometimes taking the sack for a short loss is preferable to committing the turnover.
To complement this is the fact that the Cardinals play selection is really benefiting the quarterback. Arians calls for shots down the field multiple times each game, but has managed to do this at the right time, at times when doing so does not put the team in real danger of committing turnovers. Although relatively few of these shots have been successful, doing so keeps defences honest, spreading the field, and forcing them to play the Cardinals game.
Bruce Arians, assistant head coach Tom Moore and the Cardinals coaching staff seem to have opposing defences summed up, and have exploited this to great effect on their way to 5-1.
This is an underrated team, but certainly one to continue to watch.