It’s December 14th and the Arizona Cardinals have the 13th best (total) defense in football.
It’s December 14th and the Arizona Cardinals are allowing 23.3 points per game, which also ranks 13th overall in the NFL.
How can this be?
Lets start by recognizing the fact that Cardinal defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has greatly outperformed expectations. An argument could also be made that, while head coach Kliff Kingsbury has struggled in recent weeks, Joseph has picked up the slack to keep this Cardinal team competitive.
And unlike Kingsbury’s offense, Joseph is doing this without a number of key defensive starters.
Not that anyone needs a reminder, but Joseph lost All Pro OLB Chandler Jones early in the season to a torn bicep. Jalen Thompson, a promising second year safety, has been a complete non factor due to nagging ankle ailments. Once considered a plus defender, CB Robert Alford has never played a down of football for Joseph. Front seven staple Corey Peters tore up his knee last month and fellow defensive linemen Jordan Phillips and Zach Allen have both spent time on IR.
That’s not to mention the fact that this unit was already hurting for talent prior to this season, especially when compared to the vaunted Arizona Cardinal offense.
Jordan Phillips and Devon Kennard, two “marquee” free agent signings for the Cardinals, have been massive disappointments yet Joseph has soldiered on. The often ridiculed DC has his unit statistically ahead of some defensive minded teams like Buffalo, San Francisco, Tennessee, and Denver.
And that’s being done in perhaps the toughest division in pro football.
The season is not over and the Cardinals are still fighting for their playoff lives but that’s only because of how well this defense has played recently. The victory on Sunday against the red hot New York Giants was mostly won because the Joseph led unit allowed a season low seven points.
Dan Arnold says Budda Baker addressed the team recently. Arnold says the defense had renewed energy in practice.— Mark McClune (@MarkMcClune) December 13, 2020
Outside of one scoring drive, the Giants offense was completely neutralized by Joseph which in turn allowed Kyler Murray and company to finally find their groove en route to engineering 26 points.
A group of ragtag front seven defenders, led by reclamation project Haason Reddick, completely harassed Giant QB Daniel Jones in the tune of eight sacks (five by Reddick) and 11 quarterback hits. Dennis Gardeck played eight total snaps on Sunday and secured two sacks in the process.
Dre Kirkpatrick was a complete afterthought prior to the season, fielding limited interest from the rest of the NFL. Yet following another season ending injury to incumbent starter Robert Alford, Joseph revamped his secondary on the fly and acclimated the former Bengal into one of the staples for his defense. An argument could be made that the former first round pick has been the Cardinals most consistent cornerback this season.
Joseph isn’t perfect and many Cardinal fans are still hung up on his lackluster product from a year ago in which Arizona fielded one of the worst defenses in all of football. Credit to Cardinal GM Steve Keim, however, as the front office recognized Joseph’s need for an influx of talent to make the unit work. Retaining Joseph was also the right move when you consider Arizona wasn’t shouldered with the task of implementing yet another defensive system during a worldwide pandemic that would limit offseason team activities.
Fast forward to now, and save for a couple outlier performances (Miami, Buffalo), the Cardinal defense has looked more than competent on many of Sundays.
Sure, we would all like to see him utilize certain young players more often. Isaiah Simmons’ development has been grossly slow played to the point where it’s likely cost the defense more times than not. Byron Murphy is too talented of a player to only see the field 40-50% of the time. Yet the maturation process of players like Budda Baker and the aforementioned Reddick are a credit to Joseph’s ability to elevate those with talent.
Don't underestimate Joseph’s impact on players like Reddick, who was once thought of as a bust, now playing at a high level. Those kinds of efforts will absolutely draw rave reviews from Keim, making his 2017 draft class look all the more competent.
That alone should give Cardinal fans hope that Joseph is able to do the same with the likes of Simmons, Murphy, Jalen Thompson, Zach Allen, Rashad Lawrence, and Leki Fotu.
As the Cardinals enter the homestretch of the season, in which two victories likely puts them in the playoffs for the first time in a half decade, Joseph’s unit couldn't have picked a better time to begin peaking.
Through all the personnel turmoil and exterior noise, Vance Joseph has a chance to reestablish himself as a quality defensive coordinator around the NFL. At the very least, he’s done enough to warrant a third year in the desert come 2021.