Breaking Down the Arizona Cardinals Tyrann Mathieu’s Forced Fumble Against Jared Cook of the St. Louis Rams

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Writing columns for BleacherRerport, FootballOutsiders and FootballGuys has taken up my time during the season, but on Fridays I will hopefully be able to break down one big play from the previous Sunday on Pre Snap Reads. This week, I’m going to start with a play that caught my eye for multiple reasons.

Jared Cook was a high-priced free agent addition for the St. Louis Rams this off-season. Cook immediately repaid the Rams’ faith in him as he came away with seven receptions, two touchdowns and 141 yards against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1. Although Cook had an incredible debut in St. Louis, the one play that caught my eye won’t be one that he wants to remember.

Just like the Rams, the Cardinals made plenty of investments this off-season. One of those investments wasn’t heavy in a traditional sense, but it was in many other ways. Former LSU defensive back and 2013 NFL draft prospect Tyrann Mathieu brought a lot of coverage, some controversial, when the Cardinals added him to their team this off-season. Mathieu was looked down upon for his off-field actions, his attitude and his projection to the professional game.

The attraction with Mathieu is his ability to create big plays. Something he was able to do in Week 1.

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Cook is lined up to the left of the formation in a tight end position. Tavon Austin is the closest Rams receiver to him in the slot, with Austin Pettis at the bottom of the screen and Brian Quick to the top. Jerraud Powers is lined up across from Quick to the top, with Patrick Peterson on Pettis at the bottom of the screen. Yeremiah Bell is the deep safety, with Rashad Johnson moving towards the line of scrimmage.

Mathieu is in the slot against Austin and Karlos Dansby is lined up over Cook.

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The Rams run a quick play action fake that allows their interior offensive line to get underneath the Cardinals’ defensive tackles. The fake also drags Johnson and the other inside linebacker closer to the line of scrimmage, with Cardinals’ right defensive end in position to be doubled-teamed by the running back and pulling right guard.

On the back end, the Cardinals are playing man coverage underneath to the right side of the field, with Powers playing off Quick to the top of the screen as he expects Johnson to play underneath. Bell is circled deep down the field because he is the one who initially makes the mistake in coverage.

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The Rams’ three receivers to the left of the formation are running straight down the field. This puts Bell in a tough spot as each of the defensive backs to that side are playing underneath their assignments. Bradford’s throwing position doesn’t give much away to Bell, and his eyes are looking directly at the safety.

As Bradford brings the ball back to throw, Bell guesses and runs towards the sideline thinking that he is going to throw to Pettis down the sideline. This is where Bell fails to recognise personnel and play to his team’s strengths. Peterson covering Pettis is a good matchup for the Cardinals, Dansby covering Cook is not.

Cook is running into the space that has been created over the middle of the field and has already beaten Dansby in space.

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Bradford throws a perfect pass to Cook, as he hits the tight end in stride while fitting the ball past Dansby. Bradford puts the ball in a spot that Dansby has no chance of getting to it.

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Because Mathieu was playing underneath with a safety over the top, he was able to turn his head quickly to the quarterback. This means that he was watching Bradford when he released the ball and was able to immediately react to the throw to Cook. However, when Cook caught the ball, the pair were level. Level in terms of the length of the field, but Mathieu had to close space on him before he got to the endzone so he was playing catch up from the start.

Incredibly, Mathieu wasn’t in the best position to catch Cook. Bell was. Mathieu was the one who showed enough drive and determination to accelerate back into a position to make a play on Cook however.

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Despite running at full tilt to catch up to Cook, Mathieu still has the power and accuracy in his arms to punch the ball free from Cook. It’s an exceptional play because it’s a play that your average, or even your good defensive backs wouldn’t normally make. Often players who earn the label of playmaker in the secondary can’t explain their ability to make plays. It’s labelled as instinctual.

On this play, Mathieu becomes a playmaker because he is determined enough, fast enough and strong enough to make a play in a situation where most defenders simply give up, like Bell did. Ultimately, Mathieu’s play doesn’t just save a touchdown, it also gives the Cardinals the ball to create a turnover.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

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