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Exhibition enigma, Part II: What have we learned about the Cardinals defense this preseason?

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With so many new faces—and so little playing time for many key Cardinals—it’s hard to tell what we really know about the Cardinals’ new defense. Let’s find out what we’ve learned from the first three preseason games.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Arizona Cardinals
Patrick Peterson is primed for a big year in the desert.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With the loss last night against the Broncos, the Cardinals finished the preseason 3-1. A nice-looking record on paper to be sure, but it doesn’t mean anything. But just because the games don’t count, it doesn’t mean the preseason is entirely useless. These four games have given Cardinals fans and observers some useful intel into how the team will look in 2018.

So, let’s sort through the vanilla schemes, the limited playing time from the starters, and the statistical noise from the backups to figure out what we’ve learned about this team and how they’ll look in 2018. (Stats through the first three games only—I’m not including the stats from last night’s game for obvious reasons—courtesy of ESPN and The Football Database.) We covered the offense yesterday; today is defense/special teams. Let’s dive in.

The Secondary Has a Chance to Be Elite

If the offense is mostly a series of question marks, I’m excited about the defense—especially the secondary. Budda Baker has been flying around the field like a man possessed, Bené Benwikere has done nothing but make plays, and we all saw Patrick Peterson’s pick-six last week. He could be primed for a DPOY-type season in new DC Al Holcomb’s defense (although a CB hasn’t won that award since 2009).

The presumptive starter opposite Peterson, Jamar Taylor, hasn’t done much, but he’s experienced (38 career starts), and starting FS Antoine Bethea was one of our better defenders last season. Oh yeah, and we picked up Tre Boston during training camp. You know this is a deep, talented group when preseason playmakers like A.J. Howard, Deatrick Nichols, and Tavierre Thomas aren’t even locks to make the final 53. This unit has had 5 INTs and 12 pass breakups in the first three games and should continue to make big plays when the games start counting for real. With the Legion of Boom era over in Seattle, a new powerhouse secondary will be taking flight in the NFC West.

We Might Have Some Problems Stopping the Run

The front seven really got after the QB this preseason, racking up 11 sacks (and Hasson Reddick chipping in an INT for good measure) in the first three games. That bodes well for our depth (paging Vontarrius Dora and Cap Capi, if he makes the cut), considering Chandler Jones hasn’t played much and Markus Golden hasn’t seen the field as he recovers from his ACL tear.

But if there’s any reason for concern about Wilks and Holcomb’s new defense, it’s containing the run. Teams piled up 322 yards on 73 carries (4.5 YPC) and a couple TDs against us in those three games—and these slightly concerning numbers were a whole lot worse before we bottled up Dallas’s backups last week. I think our D-line will be fine if Corey Peters and Robert Nkemdiche are healthy (always an iffy proposition with Diche), but our LB corps may be the weak link on our defense as a whole. Josh Bynes is a JAG (just a guy), Deone Bucannon wasn’t the same player last year as he dealt with injuries, Jeremy Cash is out for the season, and Scooby Wright isn’t a guy you want pressed into meaningful duty. (Although Reddick and Gerald Hodges were solid this preseason.)

Run defense likely won’t be an issue in Week 1 against noted former Cardinal (haha) Adrian Peterson, but a visit to Los Angeles to face Todd Gurley looms in Week 2. Jordan Howard and Dalvin Cook are also on the early-season slate. Let’s hope Wilks and Holcomb can button these issues up by then.

Special Teams Could Be a Strength

If you want to get a drink thrown in your face, try mentioning the name Amos Jones at a Westgate bar before a game sometime. Special teams were a weakness throughout most of BA’s tenure, but Jones followed his boss out the door. Jeff Rodgers is in charge now, and special teams have already looked markedly better. Punter Andy Lee has been solid as ever, and the kicking game should be in good hands regardless of whether we go with Phil Dawson or Matt McCrane (another popular debate topic here on the RotB forums). The return game was always a sore spot under Jones, and that has looked drastically improved—13.5 yards per punt return and 24.7 yards per kickoff return in the first three games (compared to averages of 7.0 and 20.4 last season). Let’s hope that carries over to the regular season. (And let’s hope the opponent kickoff return average of 30.4 yards does not. Punt coverage has been outstanding though—4.3 yards per return.) Special teams have cost us games in the past. Maybe they’ll actually win us a game or two this year?

Final Thoughts

We didn’t see a lot of the starting defense this preseason (and we didn’t face a single starting QB either), but I have the utmost confidence in our defense in 2018 (even if we may struggle to contain elite RBs every now and then). I also think our special teams will be greatly improved, which will be a relief for Cardinals fans. Can these two units carry the team while our offense gets up to speed? Can it all add up to a playoff berth? That remains to be seen—and I’ll be checking back in next week with season predictions.

What did you think of the team’s defensive performance this preseason, Redbirds fans? Was the strong performance a mirage, given the competition, or a sign of what is to come? Are you concerned about the run D? Got any nicknames for the secondary? Let’s talk defense in the comments!