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It starts at the top: The problems with the defense run deeper than Vance Joseph

Let’s face facts: The Cardinals defense is one of the worst in the league. Is DC Vance Joseph partially to blame? Certainly. But he’s not the only reason the defense has been abysmal.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals
Everyone thought Patrick Peterson would stabilize the secondary upon his return. Instead, things have gone from bad to worse.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Cardinals enter their bye week at 3-7-1, a record that can largely be blamed on the defense. You know the stats by now, and they’re brutal—any which way you look at it, this is a bottom-5 unit, one of the very worst in the NFL. It seems like every week they cost us a game that the offense played well enough to win. The defense is as painful to watch as the offense is entertaining.

It’s been a problem for two years running now. How did we get here? Yesterday, Andy Kwong discussed defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s culpability. He’s certainly part of the problem, but I think the issues with this defense start higher up in the organization than that. Let’s look past Joseph’s poor playcalling, alignments, and schemes and see what else might be at play in this defense’s utter collapse.

Strenuous Schedule

It’s always easy to blame the schedule, but just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s not a potentially valid point. Through 11 weeks, the Cardinals have faced 7(!) offenses ranked in the top 10 of the league in YPG: Baltimore (#2), Seattle (#4), San Francisco twice (#5), Tampa Bay (#6), Detroit (#8), and Atlanta (#10). New Orleans at #14 (with Drew Brees back) and Carolina at #18 (albeit with Kyle Allen) are also solid offenses. The only poor offenses they’ve faced are the Giants at #24 and the Bengals at #27. Now, you can of course argue that those top-10 offenses are partially ranked that high *because* they faced the Cardinals defense, but Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jameis Winston, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, and Drew Brees is still an incredibly tough slate of opposing QBs. Things don’t get a ton easier after the bye with a rematch against Russell Wilson still to go, but Jared Goff is having a down year, Mason Rudolph is unimposing, and Baker Mayfield has been a mess for the Browns (although he’s been heating up a bit lately). We’ll see if the secondary can get right a bit once the schedule eases up.

On-Field Leadership Void

In years past, the Cardinals defense has had strong on-field leaders like Adrian Wilson, Karlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, and Patrick Peterson. Guys who would bark at you if you were misaligned, would pull you aside if you made a mistake, who would hold the rest of the defense accountable. Those days are long gone. Obviously, Peterson is still here, but he was nowhere near the field for the first six weeks as he served his PED-related suspension. Then when he returned to the field, he was carved up by Emmanuel Sanders of all people. His credibility in the locker room and on the field has to be severely compromised at this point. And looking at the rest of the team, there doesn’t really seem to be anyone who has stepped into that leadership void. Chandler Jones has never really been that guy—he’s in the Larry Fitzgerald/David Johnson mold. Jordan Hicks and Terrell Suggs are new guys. Budda Baker is still a young guy. Corey Peters is a respected team captain, but he’s just not quite on the same level as previous D-line leaders like Dockett and Campbell. Overall, this unit just seems to be going through the motions with perhaps a lame duck DC on the sideline and no one to hold them accountable on the field. This unit needs to identify a new leader fast.

Draft Miscues

GM Steve Keim’s draft failures have been well documented. Not counting this season’s class of rookies, since Keim took over as GM prior to the 2013 draft, just five offensive players he has drafted (from 2013-2018) are still with the team: D.J. Humphries and Johnson from 2013, and Christian Kirk, Mason Cole, and Chase Edmonds from last year. That’s… not great. But how about defensive players? Just three players from that timeframe remain on the roster in 2019: Rodney Gunter from 2015, and Budda Baker and Haason Reddick from 2017 (and Reddick’s days appear to be numbered). To build a defense, you need to hit on players and get them to second contracts, not keep whiffing on high draft picks (Robert Nkemdiche, Brandon Williams, looking like Reddick) or letting the good ones walk (Tyrann Mathieu, Markus Golden—understanding there were injury concerns with both players at the time). And that’s not even mentioning the long list of mid-round guys—it’s Rodney Gunter and a bunch of guys who never amounted to anything. The late rounds are a wasteland. The jury is obviously still out on this year’s class, but early results are mixed at best—Byron Murphy has been up-and down, Zach Allen has been hurt, the Thompson Twins have made little impact. This draft futility has led to Keim trying to patch holes year after year through trades, waivers, and free agents. He excelled at this approach early in his tenure—we all remember the “Keim Time” salad days—but those early successes seemingly convinced him that he could do it every year. As we’ll see below, that has very much not been the case.

Free Agent Failures

Steve Keim undeniably had success early in his tenure with his “Keim Time” signings, especially on the defensive side of the ball—John Abraham, Dwight Freeney, Antonio Cromartie, etc. But as the pieces of those great mid-2010s Cardinals defenses started to fall off for one reason or another (Dansby, Mathieu, Golden, Campbell, Tony Jefferson, Rashad Powers, Jerraud Powers, even guys like Kevin Minter), Keim was seemingly confident he could replace them off the trash heap. He had some successes after those initial years—Antoine Bethea was a nice player for us—but way too many of the “prove-it” guys were simply unable to do so. He brought in JAG after JAG at linebacker and safety (Tyvon Branch? Gerald Hodges?), lost any and all touch at finding pass rush help (although Suggs has been… fine this season), and the cornerback spot opposite Patrick Peterson has been a running joke for years. Robert Alford was supposed to finally be the solution, but he broke his leg in training camp and might not play at all this year. And other than big-money signing Jordan Hicks (who has had serious issues in coverage), most of the rest of this year’s veteran defensive acquisitions have been busts as well. Darius Philon was released due to a legal issue. D.J. Swearinger was released due to poor play/effort. Brooks Reed has played just 78 snaps. Tramaine Brock? Meh. Later acquisitions like Cassius Marsh, Jonathan Bullard, and Zach Kerr have fared better, but they are hardly impact players. Again, this is not how you build a competitive defense. I keep hearing that Joseph has talent to work with, but does he really? The depth chart is mostly composed of other teams’ castoffs—Keim hasn’t been able to find any treasure in other men’s trash. He needs to focus on finding his own treasures instead.

Final Thoughts

This defense has been bad—impotent, putrid, horrific—but it hasn’t been set up for success. A tough schedule, a lack of on-field leadership, years of poor drafting, and trying to plug holes with spare parts has led to an ineffective, listless, talent-deficient unit.

That’s not to absolve Vance Joseph of blame. Far from it. In fact, you can add my voice to the growing chorus of people calling for him to lose his job. I wasn’t a fan of his hire in the first place, and he has quickly proven that he’s not the right man for the job.

But the problems with this defense run deeper than the man in charge of its on-field performance. The players themselves surely deserve a good heap of blame. A lot of them just aren’t good enough, and their supposed leaders (I’m looking at guys like Peterson and Swearinger before his release) have let them down. But even more than that, this unit is just poorly put together in the first place, and the only man to blame for that is Steve Keim.

He was somewhat inexplicably given a chance to rebuild the team after last year’s 3-13 disaster, and he’ll likely have another couple years in charge as he coasts on his status as “the man who drafted Kyler Murray.”

He *does* get credit for that though, as well as bringing in Kliff Kingsbury and somehow stabilizing the offensive line and running game. So maybe he can fix the defense, too. I’m not holding my breath given the results of the past couple years, but he’ll have his chance. And maybe he can really do it—just as long as he realizes it’s well past “Keim Time.” It’s time for a different approach to building a defense.