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ESPN’s Bowen: Bruce Arians one of NFL’s most creative playcallers

Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians calls a play during the second half the NFL football NFC Championship game against the Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

Since Bruce Arians arrived in 2013, the Arizona Cardinals’ offense has steadily evolved into one of the NFL’s best.

In 2013, the Cardinals ranked 12th in the NFL in total offense while scoring 23.7 points per game.

The numbers dropped in 2014 to 24th in offense with just 19.4 points per game, but that can be attributed to injuries at quarterback. It was believed that, heading into 2015, a healthy Carson Palmer would lead to big things for the Cardinals’ offense.

Indeed.

Last season the Cardinals ranked first in the NFL in total offense while scoring 30.6 points per game. They set all kinds of franchise records, and scored fewer than 20 points just four times in 18 games.

Arizona’s offense was easily a strength, with an effective running game supplementing a dynamic and sometimes unstoppable passing attack.

The Cardinals were led by a talented group of players, yes, but their offense would not go the way it does without Arians. The coach has earned a reputation for being an aggressive and quality coordinator, and in an Insider piece, ESPN’s Matt Bowen listed Arians as one of the five most creative playcallers in the NFL.

Arians is an aggressive playcaller, and with his receiver personnel, the Cards love to test opposing defenses vertically. As a defensive back, you better bring your track shoes when Carson Palmer targets John Brown, Michael Floyd and J.J. Nelson. Oh, and don’t forget about Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson, who caught 36 passes out of the backfield as a rookie. Add in the movement, the bunch formations, the stack looks and the clean releases — that’s a long day of work to try and limit this offense. And when Arians wants to run the rock, the Cards will reduce the formation and hit you in the mouth with players who aren’t afraid to block, Fitzgerald included.

Bowen highlighted a play in the Cardinals’ Week 11 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday Night Football.

It came early in the third quarter, and Palmer — following a fake handoff to running back Chris Johnson — stepped up in the pocket and found J.J. Nelson deep down the field. The throw was on the money, and the rookie held off the defensive back just enough to reach the end zone for a 64-yard touchdown reception.

The play’s design, Bowen noted, illustrated how Arians finds ways to expose whatever coverage a defense lines up in. In this case, having Fitzgerald run deep down the sideline occupied the closest safety, which then allowed the speedy Nelson to run free down the middle of the field as the other safety was unable to make up ground.

Given the max protection off play-action, the bait set by Fitzgerald and the speed of Nelson, this is a prime example of Arians scheming his opponent — a true deep shot to beat the coverage. And Palmer tosses this ball more than 50 yards in the air before dropping it right in the bucket to Nelson.

Bowen went on to note that Palmer’s play dropped off in the playoffs, but that does not erase what he and the Cardinals were able to accomplish during the regular season. He added that Arizona’s offense “tests defenses consistently with the creativity in the passing game and the physicality to run the ball.”

And that’s just how Arians, GM Steve Keim and the rest of the organization drew it up a few years ago.

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