Since the hiring of Bruce Arians by the Arizona Cardinals, fans and pundits alike have been awash with praise for the front offise and the staff that Arians has put together, with one small exception—defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
From the moment Arians was hired, it became apparent that, in spite of what many fans had hoped, former defensive coordinator Ray Horton would not remain. Early reports indicated that Bowles and Arians were always a package deal, and it quickly became clear that this was, indeed the case.
Horton and the Arizona Cardinals defense were one of the teams sole high points in 2012, and many had been pulling for Horton to get the top job—it would be hard for anyone to argue that he hadn't earned the chance.
It is not surprising, therefore, that fans are somewhat hesitant about what Bowles may do. On the face of it, it's a legitimate concern—Bowles is coming off an unsuccessful half-season as defensive coordinator in Philadelphia, using a 4-3 scheme very foreign to most Cardinals players. Furthermore, no team has made the playoffs since 2007 while Bowles has been in a senior coaching position.
But what do we really know about Bowles, the defense he intends to run, and what else can we figure out? Are the concerns about Bowles founded?
What Kind of Formation - 4-3 or 3-4?
For the last three years the Arizona Cardinals have been building a defense with 3-4 players in mind. Starting with their drafting of a true nose tackle, Dan Williams with their first pick of 2010, the Cardinals signaled in no uncertain terms that they intended to move towards becoming 3-4 team. With the hiring of Horton, that transition appeared to be complete.
Horton, a student of Dick LeBeau and his 3-4 zone blitz, moved the Cardinals to a 3-4 base when he was hired in 2011, and success followed quickly. Many fans were concerned that Bowles is a 4-3 coach, given his scheme in Philadelphia and that moving back a 4-3 system would be a significant step back for the Cardinals, in light of their personnel.
However, many people also forget that Bowles was a finalist for the Cardinals job in 2011 and reportedly "wowed" the team during his interview, only narrowly losing out on the job to Horton.
In 2011, the Cardinals had already signaled their intent to move to a 3-4 base defense, having already drafted Williams, alongside Daryl Washington and O'Brien Schofield to fit their intended system. Bowles, at the time, was assistant head coach and secondary coach for the Miami Dolphins, who ran, a 3-4 defense, and it was believed that Bowles intending to install a 3-4 system in Arizona if hired.
Since Arians hiring, and Bowles appointment, the pair have remained relatively non-committal on whether the team would use a 4-3 or 3-4 defense. Clearly, Bowles and Arians do not intend to run the same pure 3-4 system Horton preferred. This has lead many to assume that the team will make a wholesale switch to 4-3. However, the pair simply haven't said that, nor, would it seem, do they expect to. When they have been pinned down, they tend to use words like "hybrid" to describe their approach, which is exactly what I expect to see in 2013.
In a recent interview with Kent Somers of AZCentral team president Michael Bidwell offered the most forthright statement yet on the matter.
"It’s going to be effectively the same defense, but we’re going to use some different fronts," said Bidwill. “We’ll switch things around up front but we’ll still be a 3-4. We’ve got so much talent over there, we’re excited about continuing to be a great defense.”
At present, the Cardinals simply do not have the personnel to run an effective 4-3 base defense. While a few players like Darnell Dockett and Kerry Rhodes could get a significant boost in a 4-3 package, far more, like Williams, Calais Campbell, Daryl Washington and Sam Acho would be forced out of their preferred positions and techniques and would likely struggle, at least initially.
The Cardinals have significant pressing offensive needs and have no reason to spend early draft picks or waste cap space overhauling a working system and replacing perfectly good players who happen not to fit the new formation.
In a hybrid scheme, the Cardinals appear set to continue using the familiar 3-4 formation as a base, but introducing more 4-3 looks and concepts over time.
Certainly, some players like Dockett appear to have already been promised more playing time in their natural positions—3 technique in his case—indicating that the defense will look somewhat different to how it did under Horton, but a switch to a 3 technique for Dockett, and allowing him to utilize 1-gaps doesn't automatically result in an outright switch to 4-3.
As with any hybrid offense, expect the Cardinals to adjust on the fly depending on where, when and how they are being exploited by the opposing defense.
If they are able to read and respond to the opposing offense well, then expect to see a fierce combination of run blocking and pass coverage.
What About A System?
Under Horton, the Cardinals ran a variation of Dick LeBeau's zone blitz scheme. It worked in almost every circumstance—though was by all metrics somewhat sub-par against the run—and more than anything else, was really fun to watch.
Bowles doesn't come from LeBeau's school, and most recently used the Wide 9 system in Philadelphia, which also caused concern for a lot of fans. But again, people can likely breathe easy on that front too.
The Eagles wide 9 system was largely considered a failure in 2012, but that has little to do with Bowles. Bowles inherited the job, and the system, mid-season, and appeared unable to make a wholesale change once the season started, even though he would obviously have liked to.
There is no indication that Wide 9 is his preferred system, or that he would have carried it over, even had he stayed in Philadelphia. There is, frankly, no way he would ever dream of trying to implement it in Arizona.
Prior to his time at the Eagles, Bowles was a member of Mike Nolan's staff, and before that, Mike Zimmer's.
Nolan and Zimmer are both known for high tempo defense, with varied looks and a lot of pressure and confusion for offenses—in short, exactly what Cardinals fans are used to.
This is exactly the sort of system I expect Bowles to implement in Arizona. While it may not bear the name zone blitz, and the plays will have a somewhat different implementation and philosophy when compared to Horton, for the fans and players alike, it will feel familiar—evolution, not revolution.
Expect to continue to see pre-snap movement and adjustments. Expect the blitz to come frequently and from unexpected places. Don't be surprised to see two man fronts with just Campbell and Dockett lining up on the on occasion. And you can be sure you'll see safety's playing right up at the line and linebackers dropping back into coverage as well.
Yes, the plays called will carry different names. Yes, there will be change. Yes, we will see some positions tweaked and reworked, and yes, we will see a more varied front than Horton offered, to allow all players to have the chance to play to their strengths some of the time.
But this will not be a passive lame duck defense, it will still be based around aggression. It will continue to build on strengths of the Cardinals players, which in 2012 they proved was creating confusion, bringing pressure and making big-time plays each and every week.