Cardinals Defense Making Big Impact

Arizona Cardinals LB Zaven Collins
Arizona Cardinals LB Zaven Collins
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

At the beginning of the season, if someone had told me that the Arizona Cardinals would be the lone undefeated team through the first six games of the year, I would have probably laughed until I died. The team looked good on paper, but the questions defensively were a large problem in the preseason.

Through six games, the questions have been answered emphatically. Before their tilt against Cleveland, the Cardinals were fourth in the NFL in total defensive DVOA, and third in defensive DVOA against the pass. After the victory, they are now second. While the Browns were missing a handful of starters on offense, including running back Nick Chubb and left tackle Jedrick Wills, the Cardinals made Baker Mayfield and the Browns wish they were filming Progressive commercials instead of playing the game. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has gotten so much out of this defense by putting his guys in their best positions to succeed.

For Arizona, it starts up front. In the game against Cleveland, the Cardinals were missing Chandler Jones, but were still able to create constant pressure and havoc on the Browns' offensive line. This was mainly due to the presence of J.J. Watt, who was acquired in free agency this year. While he's not the same player as he was in 2015, Watt constantly is a force in the run game due to his length and explosiveness.

JJ Watt making a run stop

On Sunday, Joseph did a fascinating job of creating pressure and designing blitzes. The Cardinals linebacker and defensive back corps are filled with speed, from star safety Budda Baker to linebacker Isaiah Simmons, and Joseph uses those players in creative ways to maximize their potential. Against Cleveland, Simmons was used primarily as an overhang defender, lining up outside the tight end and being used as a weak-side defender to run down plays. Simmons is much better at using his athleticism to chase down plays rather than taking on blocks, and if he's left unblocked, he can make an impact defensively.

Isaiah Simmons is out of this play, but makes the stop due to his speed.

Where Joseph and the Cardinals get really creative is on obvious passing downs. Joseph shows a lot of double A-gap pressure with Simmons and other Cardinals linebackers, but rarely does he bring both linebackers at the same time. Most times one linebacker is dropping as a defensive back blitzes from depth. The Cardinals would continuously get favorable matchups on these blitzes, and would force Mayfield (or in this case, Case Keenum) to panic under pressure.

Cardinals scheming up pressure with mugged up A gaps

The Cardinals almost consistently had a free blitzer or lineman in the Browns game. They would sometimes rush four or five defenders, but at the end of the play, Mayfield was either running for his life or on the ground already. On this sack, the Browns slid their protection to the left in order to account for Simmons, who was walked up over the tight end. However, Simmons had the tight end in man coverage and didn't rush, leaving Markus Golden with a free path to the quarterback.

Cardinals free rusher

The Cardinals will also put just one defensive lineman down in a three-point stance (most of the time it's Watt) with multiple defenders crowding the line of scrimmage. With only one lineman down, the Browns offensive line is forced to slide to the numbers, leaving Jordan Hicks one-on-one with a running back. Watt forces Mayfield to step up, and Hicks cleans up with the sack.

Jordan Hicks Sack

The Cardinals got constant pressure on the Browns and forced timely turnovers to shut down drives. That, combined with a high-flying offense with an MVP candidate who I already covered in a previous Any Given Sunday, has made this team dominant through the first six games of the season.

Where The Game Swung

Where the Game Swung: ARZ-CLE

Quarter Down Distance Description GWC
2 2 4 D. Peoples-Jones 57-yard Hail Mary TD -13.7%
3 2 13 B.Mayfield sacked by J.Watt, fumble recovered by D.Kennard 12.1%
1 3 21 C.Kirk 21-yard TD catch 11.6%
1 3 6 C.Edmonds 40-yard run 9.9%
1 4 2 B.Mayfield sacked by J.Hicks 8.9%

Outside of the Hail Mary at the end of the first half, this game was all Cardinals. The strip sack by Watt really stands out to me because it's a perfect illustration of how the day went for both teams. The Cardinals run Man-2, but the safety and the corner to the short side of the field pass off the dig by the backside receiver. To the field, the Cardinals are in "Lock" coverage, meaning the corners have their man regardless of whether they switch paths, like they do on this play. A great rush by Jordan Phillips pushes Mayfield out of the pocket, and Watt gets the strip sack.

JJ Watt Strip Sack


ARI -2.8% -31.8% 3.7% 32.7%
CLE -11.7% 0.1% 5.5% -6.3%
ARI -6.9% -28.8% 3.7% 25.6%
CLE -28.1% 12.6% 5.5% -35.1%

A strong performance here from the Cardinals defense. For Cleveland, this game felt like a series of unfortunate events swinging all together. Missing both tackles and the starting running back, and having a quarterback hampered by a shoulder injury created the offensive problems they had on Sunday. The Cardinals saw that and immediately took advantage. Cleveland will have to look for solutions to stay above water in an AFC North division that is very tough.

One thing that definitely went Arizona's way in this game, however: there were six fumbles, four by Kyler Murray and two by Baker Mayfield. The Cardinals recovered all six of them. They certainly can't expect to recover 100% of fumbles on a regular basis.

The Cardinals Excellence of Execution

While the group isn't exactly "The Best There Is, The Best There Was, and The Best There Ever Will Be," the Cardinals defense is embodying another Bret Hart nickname: The Excellence of Execution. The group is executing at a high level in the passing game and limiting explosive plays. They're third in defensive DVOA against deep passes and fifth in Sharp Football Stats' Explosive Pass Rate. The Cardinals have filled the field with speed along the back end and shored up their linebacker group to better defend the pass. However, they do dip to eighth in run defense DVOA, and Cleveland occasionally caught their linebacker group over pursuing. That should be helped by getting Chandler Jones back from a positive COVID-19 test. For the Cardinals to truly reach Bret Hart status among the NFL's elite, they'll have to continue to improve against the run while maintaining stellar play against the pass.


11 comments, Last at 21 Oct 2021, 9:15am

1 Undefeated AGS subject

Is this the latest in a season an undefeated team has been featured in AGS for winning?

11 Yes

6 $$$

The Packers were never a consideration.

Arizona showed the most interest and already had Hopkins who vouched for the team.


8 Annoying

In reply to by DIVISION

"Never a consideration"

Please stop talking

9 Interview with Watt.

In reply to by ImNewAroundThe…

I think I posted this right after Arizona signed him.

According to Watt, he never even considered the Packers.  Those are his words.

They never made an offer, either.

7 Secondary and D-line.

Last year, Vance Joseph had great secondary play but didn't have a great push up-front which caused him to blitz more than he wanted.

Now with Watt, Jones, Golden etc., he can be more selective with the pressure without being obvious.  JJ Watt in particular has been effective in blowing up plays at the line, allowing others to collect sacks. He's also great at those batted balls.  He's exactly what Arizona needed.  I hope Chandler Jones can up his play, because that will take the defense to that next level.

In the secondary, Jay Alford is finally healthy after a couple years and grading high in PFF.  One of the reasons Malcolm Butler retired is because he couldn't win a starting CB job on the team.  I would still like to see them get a top-end CB for depth but don't see many options out there. Basically, everyone is excelling in Joseph's scheme and it's the third year running it. 

Arizona has the best LB corps in the NFL, hands down.  Between Hicks, Collins, Simmons there is no group better at coverage and run-stuffing.  It's the main reason the Cards were able to shut-down Derrick Henry at Tennessee, then hold Cleveland to under 100 yards rushing last week.

As one of the few esteemed Cards fans here, I can proclaim it's great to be on top.

I only hope for continued health, mounting Rams losses, and never-ending DVOA love...




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