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What we learned from cardinals playing time sunday

Howard Balzer Avatar
September 12, 2023

When the Cardinals took the field for Sunday’s game against the Commanders, there were several intriguing decisions with the 48 players that dressed for the game.

With swing tackle Kelvin Beachum inactive because of a hand injury, the three backup linemen were tackle Jackson Barton, who was elevated from the practice squad, and center/guards Trystan Colon and Keith Ismael. The latter two were waiver claims on Aug. 30 that had minimal practice time.

Thankfully, the starting group played all 62 snaps, so none of the backups were needed, although Colon and Barton played four and three snaps on special teams, respectively.

Tight end Zach Ertz openly wondered recently whether he’d be able to play in the opener. Not only was he active, but Ertz played 48 snaps (77 percent). He was the most targeted player in the game for either team with 10 although his six receptions totaled only 21 yards (3.5 average.

Coach Jonathan Gannon said Monday, “He played a lot of plays. I’m sure there are some plays that he wants back, but I thought he did a really good job coming off that type of injury and not being full go there until the end of camp.”

After the game, Ertz said, “It’s been a long road. I really started to figure out toward the end of the week that it was more likely than not that I was gonna play, but there were still some question marks going into the game. But I felt like myself, I felt like I was able to get in and out of my breaks like I wanted to. Blocking was up to the standard that I want from myself. Overall, I just got to play better and we got to play better to win football games.”

It was notable that wide receiver Greg Dortch did not play any offensive snaps.

On defense, all six outside linebackers were active, while only five defensive linemen dressed as rookie Dante Stills was inactive. There was a significant snap-share in place.

Gannon said having a workable rotation is “huge” and added,I firmly believe in that. I learned that from Matt Eberflus, the head coach in Chicago. You want those big guys fresh, and you want to rotate them. If they have a jersey on game day, they have to serve a role and a purpose. A lot of those guys played on teams with a lot of snaps, so I thought they did a really good job.

“I think that the defensive staff; I told those guys normally that takes a little bit of time to hit your stride on how you want to get that right. We always set up a plan of, ‘Hey, we want this guy to come out with these many plays depending on how many plays are called in a game.’ A percentage of play-time if you will or number of plays, but we want to make sure this guy is in on 77 percent of third downs. Make sure this guy is in on 50 percent of first and second down. We want this guy in this package and this guy playing this in this package. That’s a hard job on game day honestly, and I thought it came out really well.”

Of the seven players claimed on waivers in the cut to 53, aside from Colon and Ismael, only safety K’Von Wallace was active and he played a significant role after being with the team for fewer than two weeks. It helped that Wallace was with the Eagles where Gannon and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis coached the last two seasons.

In 50 snaps (70 percent), the sixth most on defense, Wallace had seven tackles (four solo) and led the team with two passes defensed. He also nearly had two interceptions.

Gannon said, “He’s got to get some details ironed out a little bit with some of the new stuff, but he did a good job. He’s physical, he’s violent, he can cover, and he communicates well. I thought he did a good job stepping in. He’s another one like (quarterback) Joshua (Dobbs) getting here just however long ago stepping in and playing a lot of snaps. A lot of meaningful snaps and he made a lot of plays.”

Rallis was also impressed. “We knew with the familiarity he had that he was eventually going to play a big role for us,” he said. “But he did a great job getting here and getting caught up to speed fast. He did a great job of working on his own, studying his playbook and getting himself ready to play.

“He knows he has to keep getting more familiar with some of the stuff that we have, maybe some stuff that had changed from when he was last in this similar defense and keep improving on what he did op Sunday. But he did a good job as far as just being himself, tackled well and played violent and covered really well.”

Those negative yards

Gannon referenced those Monday when asked if the offensive issues were traced to Dobbs being new to the team.

“I don’t think it’s just Josh,” Gannon said. “I think it’s all of our guys operating a little bit better. The thing when I talked to you guys after the game that I didn’t realize; I kind of realized it but I didn’t have the concrete data was the negative yardage plays and that kind of set us back on some things. You’re playing the game on third-and-long all day, it’s tough.

“That’s a good defense. They execute well and they give you a lot of different things, so I think to help ourselves out we’ve got to eliminate some of the negative yardage plays.”

So, what can be done to minimize the 14 there were of the 58 plays in the game? He said, “It always is going to come down to execution. How we’re coaching it, and what we prepare them for. We think that this guy has to get blocked like this, but if he moves here what are we doing, so that’s coaching and playing. We’ve just got to make sure we’re on it a little bit more to negate some of those negative plays.”

On third down, the Cardinals converted only four of 14 opportunities and the 10 failures averaged 12.1 yards to go. The four successes were two, five twice and seven yards. The misses were seven, eight, nine twice, 11, 13 twice, 15, 16 and 20. In those failed third downs, there were six total yards.

The 14 third downs totaled 34 yards, while Dobbs was 5-for-9 for 30 yards (62.2 passer rating) with a net of 16 thanks to 14 lost yards on sacks.

Poor production on first down often leads to difficult third downs. After one game, the Cardinals rank 28th in the league on first down with an average of 3.08 yards per play and they gained 74 yards on 24 plays. By contrast, the defense ranks ninth, allowing 101 yards on 30 first-down plays (3.37 average).

On 11 first-down running plays, the Cardinals totaled 24 yards with five for minus-nine yards. Dobbs was 9-for-12, but for only 50 yards on first down with one play for minus-one yard. The fourth-quarter aborted snap that was a turnover is one of the 24 first-down plays.

“One of the things that kind of made it hard on us were those negative plays,” offensive coordinator Drew Petzing said Tuesday. “I think just trying to correct that and find ways from a schematic standpoint to put guys in better positions to be successful and certainly focus on the execution, as well, as we go into next week.”

When asked specifically about the issues on first down, Petzing said, “Success on first and second down is a big part of the plan. It’s got to be a focus for us as an offense, as a staff as we move forward into this week. Definitely going to emphasize that.”

Good defense, decisions that pay off

Meanwhile, when asked how encouraged he was by the play of the defense, Gannon said Monday. “All three phases win games I would say, but what I was really pleased about was the tackling. A lot of times going into Week 1, if you don’t have a lot of exposure tackling that’s always kind of an issue—are your guys ready to tackle? I thought we didn’t have a lot of missed tackles and I thought they did a good job with that. As far as being in the right spots and things like that, I thought we were pretty good. We need to get better because I thought we left some plays out there from an execution standpoint on defense we’ve got to get cleaned up on the back end and the front, all 11.

“But like I told them, I said, ‘I liked how we flew around. I liked how we attacked the ball. We took the ball away which was good. We got off on third down when we needed to.’ I joked about how we get off on third down, then they had the penalty, and as a defensive guy I’ll take the penalty and (have them) punt it. I don’t want to play another third down, but at the time where the field position was and the weather, I put the defense back out there and I said in the headset, ‘Make me right there.’ I think we sacked him there and that ended up being another 10, 15 yards of field position.”

He was right about the sack, but the change in field position was even better. It was third-and-15 from the Commanders 42-yard line when quarterback Sam Howell ran for nine yards to the Cardinals 49. However, left guard Saahdiq Charles was flagged for holding and Gannon accepted the penalty, moving Washington to the 32-yard line. Outside linebacker Victor Dimukeje sacked Howell for a 7-yard loss, so the change in line of scrimmage was actually 26 yards.

Gannon said of Dimukeje, who played 25 snaps (35 percent), “He’s tough in the run game. He sets violent edges, he’s physical, he’s got some rush (both) inside and outside, and he can drop in coverage. He had the one punch-out (on a forced fumble recovered by linebacker Zaven Collins). That was a great play after two explosives (19 and 17 yards). They got down I think into the high red zone (the 19-yard line), and we took the ball away there. He’s a good player. I honestly expected that from Vic.”

Fellow edge rusher Dennis Gardeck said of Dimukeje, “I think a lot of it is just opportunities. He’s been a great pass rusher for us, but it’s nice to see the opportunities coming and him capitalizing on those opportunities. He made a huge leap from Year 1 to Year 2 (2021 to 2022) and he’s continued on that trend, so it’s nice to see him have his success.”

Rallis said, “Vic’s the same guy every day when he shows up. He comes to work and he’s a team-first guy. I love his game because he sets great edges in the run game. On pass downs, he can rush on the edge, he can rush inside and he’s smart and athletic where you can use him sometimes if you need to drop him.

“So Vic definitely embraces competition. He shows up for work every single day. He’s a great teammate to outside ‘backers, everybody on the team. I’m pleased with what he’s done.”

The Cardinals had four defenders play all 71 snaps (safety Jalen Thompson missed one) and one was rookie cornerback Kei’Trel Clark. He didn’t get the big play he hoped, but helped limit the Commanders’ top three receivers to a combined 12 receptions on 16 targets for 125 yards and no touchdowns.

Rallis said, Obviously, there’s things he needs to improve. I thought when it was time to get on a guy and cover, he did fairly well. He was connected with people and so I was impressed with that. When it was time to be one-on-one, he was there to be able to make plays on the ball and just keep building from his performance on Sunday.”

Snap chat

In addition to Dortch not playing on offense, some other things that stood out from the chart below:

Wide receiver Zach Pascal only played five snaps on offense, but played 20 of the 27 on special teams. … Running back Keaontay Ingram carried the ball on five of the seven snaps he played and totaled minus-4 yards. His first four attempts were for minus yardage and he then ended his day with a 6-yard run. … Undrafted free-agent running back Emari Demercado played three snaps and seven on special teams.

Rookie edge rusher BJ Ojulari, who was slowed in camp by an offseason knee injury, played 12 snaps (17 percent) and only one on special teams. … Cornerback Christian Matthew tied for the team lead with 23 special-teams snaps, but didn’t play any defensive snaps, while cornerback Antonio Hamilton Sr. played 19 on special teams and only five on defense. … Let’s not forget Swiss Army Knife edge rusher Jesse Luketa, who played 18 snaps on defense (25 percent), 20 on special teams and four on offense as a fullback. … The team’s former Swiss Army Knife, Isaiah Simmons, comes to town with the Giants Sunday. In his first game Sunday night, Simmons played 15 snaps (26 percent) and had one tackle.

Charting the snaps (snaps/percentage; starters in bold)

*Indicates player that did not play from scrimmage, but participated on special teams

OFFENSE (62 snaps, 17 players)

Quarterbacks: Joshua Dobbs (62/100)

Did not play: Clayton Tune

PUP: Kyler Murray

Running backs: James Conner (52/84), Keaontay Ingram (7/11), FB Jesse Luketa (4/6), Emari Demercado (3/5)

Wide receivers: Michael Wilson (56/90), Marquise Brown (52/84), Rondale Moore (42/68), Zach Pascal (5/8)

Did not play: *Greg Dortch

Tight ends: Zach Ertz (48/77), Trey McBride (23/37), Geoff Swaim (18/29)

Inactive: Elijah Higgins

Offensive linemen: LT D.J. Humphries (62/100), LG Elijah Wilkinson (62/100), C Hjalte Froholdt (62/100), RG Will Hernandez (66/100), RT Paris Johnson Jr. (62/100)

Did not play: C *Trystan Colon, T *Jackson Barton, C Keith Ismael

Inactive: T Kelvin Beachum (injured), T Carter O’Donnell, T/G Ilm Manning

Reserve/injured, eligible to return: G Dennis Daley

DEFENSE (71 snaps, 20 players)

Defensive linemen: DE Jonathan Ledbetter (41/58), DE L.J. Collier (37/52), DE Carlos Watkins (33/46), NT Kevin Strong Jr. (31/44), NT Leki Fotu (17/24)

Inactive: DE Dante Stills

Linebackers: ILB Kyzir White (71/100), OLB Zaven Collins (42/59), ILB Josh Woods (39/55), OLB Dennis Gardeck (28/39),OLB Cameron Thomas (26/37), OLB Victor Dimukeje (25/35), ILB Krys Barnes (19/27), OLB BJ Ojulari (12/17)

Did not play: ILB *Ezekiel Turner

Inactive: ILB Owen Pappoe

Reserve/injured, eligible to return: OLB Myjai Sanders

Defensive backs: S Budda Baker (71/100), CB Kei’Trel Clark (71/100), CB Marco Wilson (71/100), S Jalen Thompson (70/99), S K’Von Wallace (50/70), CB Antonio Hamilton Sr. (5/7), S Andre Chachere (3/4)

Did not play: CB *Christian Matthew, CB *Kris Boyd

Inactive: CB Starling Thomas V

Reserve/non-football injury, eligible to return: CB Garrett Williams

SPECIAL TEAMS (27 snaps, 32 players)

LB Ezekiel Turner (23/85), CB Christian Matthew (23/85), LB Krys Barnes (22/81), WR Zach Pascal (20/74), LB Jesse Luketa (20/74), LB Victor Dimukeje (19/70), CB Antonio Hamilton Sr. (19/70), CB Kris Boyd (18/67), LB Dennis Gardeck (12/44), WR/RS Greg Dortch (11/41), K Matt Prater (9/33), P Nolan Cooney (9/33), LS Aaron Brewer (9/33), TE Geoff Swaim (8/30), RB Emari Demercado (7/26), LB Josh Woods (6/22), LB Cameron Thomas (6/22), S Andre Chachere (6/22), TE Trey McBride (5/19), G Elijah Wilkinson (4/15), C Hjalte Froholdt (4/15), G Will Hernandez (4/15), T Paris Johnson Jr. (4/15), C Trystan Colon (4/15), DT Leki Fotu (4/15), S K’Von Wallace (4/15), T Jackson Barton (3/11), DE Jonathan Ledbetter (3/11), DE Carlos Watkins (3/11), S Budda Baker (3/11), DE L.J. Collier (2/7), LB BJ Ojulari (1/4)

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD

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