The defining moment of Super Bowl XL remains that touchdown pass that Antwaan Randle El threw to fellow wide receiver Hines Ward. Ward’s score helped the Pittsburgh Steelers seal a 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Then offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt received much of the credit for designing the play, while head coach Bill Cowher’s bravery was lauded by the franchise’s fan-base.
Often overlooked in that play is the impact of the team’s wide receivers coach, a coach by the name of Bruce Arians.
Arians would succeed Ken Whisenhunt as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator 12 months later, after Mike Tomlin took over the Steelers’ head coaching role and Whisenhunt filled the same position for the Arizona Cardinals. Arians helped his team back to the Super Bowl during his four years as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator, beating Whisenhunt’s Cardinals in the big game, but soon found himself unemployed once again.
Because of his previous work as Peyton Manning’s quarterback coach, Arians was offered the opportunity to become the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive coordinator under Chuck Pagano. Having already successfully aided the development of Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, Arians was tasked with fitting Andrew Luck into his new role as the Colts’ franchise quarterback.
Little did Arians know it, but he would quickly fill that head coaching role that had eluded him throughout his NFL career. When Pagano was diagnosed with cancer, Arians took over the mantle of interim head coach before guiding the team to an unexpected 9-3 record.
The spotlight had finally landed on Arians and he was receiving all of the credit that had eluded him in the past. Inevitably, a franchise came calling during the off-season to make him their new head coach. Coincidentally, that franchise had just fired Ken Whisenhunt,
For the second time in six years, Arians succeeded Whisenhunt to become the Arizona Cardinals head coach. Understandably, the lure of Arians for fans was his track record with quarterbacks under his guidance. However, when you look further into each scenario, there wasn’t a huge amount for Arians to really do in terms of quarterback development.
It’s not likely that Peyton Manning was going to be derailed or directed by any coach throughout his career. Andrew Luck was a special prospect, who proved to be a transcendent talent on the field who wouldn’t dramatically be affected by scheme or coaching. That just leaves Ben Roethlisberger, a player who was entering his fourth season when Arians took over in 2007 and someone who did his best work outside of a structured offense.
There are never any real certainties when it comes to coaching in the NFL, even less so when the position involved is quarterback. The talent available to you will often dictate how reputable you become as a coach. The Cardinals should know that as well as anyone, considering Ken Whisenhunt looked like a genius with Kurt Warner but was ultimately fired for his work with the quarterbacks who followed in his footsteps.
It’s essentially impossible to predict what Arians will be able to do with Carson Palmer or indeed Drew Stanton. Stanton and Palmer are both veterans with varied levels of experience on the field. Both have their positives and negatives, so it will be up to Arians’ coaching to get the best out of the position.
What is certain is the scheme that Arians will bring to Arizona.
Arians ran the same vertical offense in Indianapolis that he established his reputation on in Pittsburgh. With Andre Roberts, Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and his choice of Palmer or Stanton, there is no reason to believe that he will change his philosophy with the Cardinals. In both previous situations, his offenses had suspect offensive lines that were overcome by incredibly effective quarterback play and a commitment to running the football.
The Cardinals have similar offensive line problems, but they have made significant moves to improve the situation this off-season. Palmer proved in Oakland that he can overcome some offensive line issues and still be a relatively effective quarterback(and he didn’t have Larry Fitzgerald there), while a few key additions for the running-game should allow the offense to remain balanced.
Reuniting with his former feature back, Rashard Mendenhall, and adding the exciting duo of Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington in the draft will improve the running-back position, but it’s the presence of Jonathan Cooper on the offensive line that Arians will build his rushing attack on.
Cooper was the first offensive guard taken in the draft and the first taken in the top 10 since Chris Naeole in 1997. Even though many saw him as an inferior player to Chance Warmack, Cooper was always going to be the Cardinals’ preference between the two elite prospects because of his athleticism and fit in the scheme. Arians’ approach to the running game requires offensive linemen who can play in space and most importantly, at least one guard who can pull in different directions.
If you were to create a perfect prospect for that role, then Cooper couldn’t be too far off of it.
Cooper is 6’3 and over 300 lbs. Very little of his weight works against him, as he will immediately be amongst the most athletic players in the league at his position. Fortunately for the 23-year-old, the North Carolina offense he was a part of in college allowed him to show off almost every aspect of his athleticism.
Cooper in College
North Carolina ran a different offense to what Arians will run in Arizona, but conceptually the guard positions did many of the same things. North Carolina spread the field and ran some option plays with their quarterback, whereas Arians will use more three tight-end sets and tight receiver bunches to manipulate the defense and create space for his playmakers.
Cooper played left guard in college, he is circled in the above image. There is a tight-end to the top of the formation with three receivers to the bottom of the screen together.
By the time the ball has arrived in the quarterback’s hands, Cooper has already shuffled his feet and maintained his balance to be cleanly passed the left tackle’s outside shoulder. For a person of his size, that quickness and agility is very rare and valuable on the field.
If Cooper couldn’t pull of this initial move, then the whole play-design would need to be revamped. Because he can, the tight end lined up towards the top of the screen is able to clamp down on the defensive end, with the left tackle coming inside on the defensive tackle. Cooper is then part of the cavalcade moving down the field with the running-back and quarterback(who has the ball).
Instead of pulling Cooper outside of the left tackle, the other way to run this play would require the left tackle to move from his position, on the inside shoulder of the defensive end, to the outside shoulder of the defensive end, with Cooper doing the same move on the defensive tackle. That would free the tight-end to fill Cooper’s role as part of the blocking cavalcade for the quarterback.
Asking both offensive linemen to gain that kind of leverage is incredibly difficult because they would need to gain position before the defensive linemen can move forward at all. It also means that the quarterback most likely has a worse blocker leading him down the field, a tight-end instead of an offensive lineman.
Many offensive linemen at the next level can pull across the field, but once in space they will often struggle to locate defenders and maintain blocks in space. Cooper doesn’t struggle to find defenders in space because of his incredible athleticism, while his bulk allows him to maintain blocks and control the point of attack to create running lanes.
Here Cooper has maintained his balance, something that he does on most plays, and used his bulk to completely take the linebacker out of the play by using his momentum to push him past the running-lane.
On this play, Cooper is lined up at left guard again, but he shows off his ability to pull to the other side of the field.
By the time the ball has been snapped back to the quarterback, who fakes the hand-off to the running-back, Cooper is running past the right tackle and in line with the duo in the backfield. This again shows off his short area quickness and speed to be in place to make a key block, but this time he shows off another aspect of his game.
Being that big and moving that quickly should cost Cooper some of his body control, but it doesn’t because of his incredible athleticism. This allows him to sit down in his stance without losing his balance, in position to protect his quarterback.
With the linebacker hesitating because of the fake and Cooper’s footwork allowing him to quickly spread his feet for a solid base, the blitzer has no chance of making a play on the quarterback before he releases the ball. Without his body control and footwork, the defender could easily have slipped inside of Cooper and disrupted the quarterback’s throwing motion, or push him out of the pocket altogether.
Arians’ SchemeNot only does Arians look to use counters and sprint play-designs with pulling guards from both sides of the formation, he also often uses a tight end or fullback going in the same direction. With the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chris Kemoeatu earned a reputation as one of the better guards in the league because of this single aspect of his game. Kemoeatu was a good pulling guard, but overall not a very impactful player and a liability in pass protection.
Yet, because the Steelers ran these staple runs so often, he earned a reputation that was unbecoming of his actual performance.
In short, it’s hard to watch a Bruce Arians’ coached offense without seeing at least a couple of pulling guards…
This is a formation that will be more typical of the Cardinals’ offense. While Cooper is used to having his quarterback in the shotgun and the offense spread wide that stretches the defense to give him more space, Arians makes greater use of three tight end sets and fullbacks. This means that the defense is typically drawn closer to the line of scrimmage and there are less packages with more than four defensive backs on the field.
Here the Steelers have two tight ends and a fullback lined up in a tight formation. Heath Miller is directly behind the left tight end, with David Johnson in the backfield and Weslye Saunders in the other tight end position.
Because a defensive tackle lined up over the Steelers’ left guard, Kemoeatu, Roethlisberger had motioned Heath Miller to his position behind the left tackle. Miller then blocks the defensive end as the left tackle, Max Starks, picks up the defensive tackle who was lined up over Kemoeatu.
This frees Kemoeatu to pull across the formation with fullback David Johnson on his inside shoulder. Had Marcus Gilbert not been beaten in his block on the other defensive tackle, the Steelers would have had Kemoeatu and Johnson hitting a gaping hole with all defenders accounted for.
Because both he and Saunders fail to establish or maintain their blocks, Rashard Mendenhall has nowhere to go and Kemoeatu is unable to clear a way through against the bigger defensive lineman.
On this occasion, the defense played the run perfectly and simply executed better than the offense did. As a result, the play was limited to a two-yard gain. With better execution however, or a guard who could power the defensive linemen out of the hole using his momentum and body control, Mendenhall could still have been sprung into the secondary with just one defender to beat.
The other benefit to pulling guards come in the form of cutback lanes against undisciplined defenses.
Here, the offensive formation has one clear strong-side with a tight-end and two receivers to the bottom of the screen and one wide receiver to the top of the screen. When Kemoeatu pulls from his left guard position, the Browns’ linebackers all move towards the right side of the offensive line, because the Steelers have already repeatedly run over right tackle with this approach.
Because Kemoeatu was uncovered and the defensive end pushes down the field past the left tackle’s outside shoulder, a huge gap opens up in the defense where Kemoeatu has departed. Mendenhall’s awareness allows him to immediately recognize the breakdown and run into the secondary completely untouched.
Transition with Cooper
In order to get full value from Cooper’s impact, Arians will need to slightly adjust his scheme. The Cardinals aren’t a roster that is built for tight formations that feature a fullback and mobile blocking tight ends. By making that a staple of his offense, he will be moving away from the strongest parts of his team, his wide receiving corps.
Spreading the field for Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts, Michael Floyd, Ryan Swope and tight end Rob Housler is the best way for the Cardinals’ offense to put points on the board in a division full of tough front sevens. By spreading out the offense, the Cardinals wouldn’t only be putting more playmakers on the field, but also altering the shape of the front seven and creating scenarios that are more familiar to Cooper.
Cooper rarely, if ever, had to meet an NFL caliber linebacker in the hole on a pulling play in college. Having to meet players such as Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Daryl Washington, Kevin Minter, KJ Wright or Bobby Wagner in the hole and then push them out of a tight alley is something that Cooper hasn’t proven that he can do to this point. It is the one part of his game that isn’t a clear fit in Arians’ offense.
If they spread the field before using this type of run, then Cooper will have more space to work in and will have a greater chance of using that space to use any arriving defenders’ momentum against them. Just like he did in college.
It’s easy to see why it was Jonathan Cooper and not Chance Warmack who the Arizona Cardinals. It’s also easy to understand why he was the first guard to go as high as he did in over a decade. The value of interior offensive linemen may be overlooked by some, but the impact of an elite one can be incredible if used in the right way.
Arians should at the very least use Cooper the way his talents intended he should.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf