Cardinals’ Jeff Rodgers always looking for an edge through special teams

Jan 6, 2022, 10:54 AM
(Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)...
(Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)
(Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

It’s early in the second quarter and the Arizona Cardinals, losers of three games in a row, could use a jolt on the road against the NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys.

Most Cardinals fans had no idea how that would come to light, but special teams coach Jeff Rodgers was ready to risk it all.

On 4th-and-2, Rodgers called for the fake punt, a direct snap to safety Chris Banjo, who then threw the ball in the vicinity of running back Jonathan Ward, giving him the chance to pull off arguably the catch of the year to keep the drive alive.

Eight plays later, Arizona cashed in for a much-needed touchdown to extend its lead to two scores.

It was just one of the latest showings of Rodgers’ creative mind at work in recent weeks, with the coordinator adding a number of wrinkles to Arizona’s game plan.

A lot of variables play into the decision to pull a fast one on the opposition. And for a trick play that might never see the light of day over the course of a season, it’s not something thrown in last minute, usually.

But unlike his defensive and offensive counterparts, whose primary focus is one side of the football, Rodgers has the unique perspective of having a hand in both, giving him a leg up.

“I know from preparation, when you play other people that are willing to do those things and put that on tape, they play you a little bit differently,” Rodgers said Wednesday. “I know what it’s like to play against another punt team that’s willing to do some of these things, and the practice time and the preparation time and the meeting time that you’ve got to commit in order to be prepared for that game, because we coach both sides of it.

“We always want to do things that create an advantage or provide our team with field position or an extra possession or whatever those things are. But it puts pressure on the other team that they’re prepared for it. … We’re not doing them just to do them hoping that they work. It’s gotta look good in practice, the times gotta come up in the game and you gotta stick to your plan. If it comes up, we want to call it.”

Fortunately for Rodgers and Co., that’s been the case of the past few weeks, beginning on Christmas.

Down 12-6, the Cardinals were in need of a shock to the system. They got just that from cornerback Byron Murphy on a third-quarter fake punt return.

After studying Indianapolis Colts punter Rigoberto Sanchez and his tendencies, the Cardinals had a plan.

Given the field position, the game situation and the fact Sanchez typically kicks punts of at least 50 yards to the right, the Cardinals knew they had a chance to flip the script.

With wide receiver Christian Kirk selling the return one way, forcing the Colts coverage team to follow, Murphy was on the other side streaking down the field to make a play on the ball. Think Willie Mays’ iconic overhead catch.

The cornerback made the catch and quickly reversed field, picking up 48 yards and handing the offense great field position. It went off without a hitch.

Three plays later, the Cardinals cashed in on the trickery with a touchdown to take the lead.

Despite the game ending in a loss for Arizona, it was a standout play that really helped swing momentum the Cardinals’ way.

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury gave Rodgers all the credit, adding it was a play from his days as the Chicago Bears special teams coordinator in 2017. Once again, it worked like a charm.

For Rodgers, it all boils down to right situation, having players capable of executing plays and above all else, trusting his personnel.

All Murphy had to do was work on his role in the organized chaos and make sure he was ready when it was go time.

While the corner’s play gave life at a time when the Cardinals needed it most as they attempted to knock off the Colts, Rodgers and the special teams unit doubled down a week later against the Dallas Cowboys.

Opportunity was afoot in Texas, with Rodgers pulling off a pair of special teams plays that gave Arizona an advantage he searches for on a weekly basis.

It all started with the fake punt in the second quarter.

Rodgers was the brains behind the operation but without Banjo and Ward — who are typically on punt team — being able to make a play, Arizona either hands great field position to a hot Cowboys offense or avoids the trick altogether.

In this case, being observant paid off.

“Chris has been here a couple years,” Rodgers said. “The DBs are always playing catch, you can tell who can throw and who probably shouldn’t throw by design. Jonathan obviously has a really good skillset. Again, it’s a position that he plays.

“We were aligned a little bit differently on the play from this week than we normally are but the last factor is to trust a player. If you don’t trust a guy, it’s not worth putting him in. I’d say those three players (Murphy, Banjo, Ward) have earned the trust of our coaching staff and specifically me.”

Outside of the fireworks, Rodgers’ second act of the afternoon may have been one of his cleverest.

With about four minutes left to play in the third quarter, the Cardinals’ stared at a 4th-and-2 look at the Cowboys’ eight-yard line.

Out came kicker Matt Prater but in a way none of us have ever seen, lining up as a wide receiver opposite pass catcher A.J. Green, who was left uncovered.

The confusion was apparent, with Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy forced to burn his first timeout of the second half. Mission accomplished.

It wasn’t until the fourth quarter when the real spoils of the trickery came. Looking to ice the game, Arizona turned to running back Chase Edmonds to run out the clock with just under three minutes to play. But on a 1st-down attempt, the rusher was seen losing his handle on the football at the play’s conclusion.

Although Edmonds was ruled down, a challenge flag seemed all but imminent. But with no timeouts, all McCarthy and quarterback Dak Prescott could do was sit back and watch as the Cardinals drained the remaining life out of AT&T Stadium.

Rodgers was playing chess. The Cowboys were playing checkers.

“There’s a criteria of things, about four different factors that we evaluate in a given week,” Rodgers said. “As it relates to that particular situation, all of them were met in terms of the things we’re looking at from an opponent standpoint, the time of the game, the area of the field. All of those things are factored in.”

It’s been on record just how important Rodgers means to the Cardinals’ overall operation, special teams and beyond. Kingsbury can’t say enough good things about him.

And it’s clear the organization feels the same, not only keeping Rodgers aboard after the failed 2018 Steve Wilks project but also making him assistant head coach when Kingsbury joined the ranks three years ago.

If there was ever a time to really understand his impact and see the value he brings to the coaching staff, it’s right now.

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