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Cardinals’ Run Defense

Arizona Cardinals v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Do you think the Cardinals should play a heavier dose of 5 man fronts out of their 34 base defense?

I do.

What concerns me about the Cardinals’ unorthodox defense is —- when they are in 4 man fronts, how challenging it is for defending the run and for, as was glaringly missing versus the Rams on MNF, keeping contain.

The 4 man fronts allow for better pass coverage —- but versus the run, the Cardinals’ current 4 man front tends to run with the flow of the offensive line like a picket fence, but the linebackers spend more time moving sideways than going forward to the football —- meanwhile they leave the edges wide open to bootlegs and reverses.

At times, the defense looks like a 4-5-2 as in 4 defensive lineman, 5 safeties and 2 cornerbacks. particularly when the MIKE ILB looks like he is being used as a 2nd level safety in the middle.

It was interesting that when asked about winning NFC Defensive Player of the Week versus the Bears, Jordan Hicks said that “I made the plays that came my way.” Exactly. This answer got me thinking and compelled me last week to reach out to’s Kyle Odegard with these questions:

“Hi Kyle, it’s great to see Jordan Hicks get the kind of recognition and praise that he’s been getting this week --- from the NFL, his teammates and his coaches. That said, do you have a clear sense of why Vance Joseph raves about Hicks’ play, even though he is about the most unorthodox MIKE ILB in the NFL, seeing as he plays the position as if he is a 2nd level safety?

“So many of Hicks’ tackles are 5-20 yards past the line of scrimmage. His habit on running plays is not to key on the lead RB so that he can step up to meet the RB in the hole, it is to drift toward a gap where so often he doesn’t even try to fight through blocks, as he did when David Montgomery ran right past him for a 23 yard gain last week, and even after Hicks let the blocker tie him up without any resistance, after Montgomery ran by him, Hicks didn’t bust his butt after him. “

“The irony is that when Vance sends Hicks on blitzes, he is a downhill force of nature --- yet in basic running plays, his downhill gear is consistently in idle. What is your take on the way Vance uses Hicks? Also, did Steve Keim not consult Vance when Keim took Zaven Collins at pick #15 and appointed him the rookie starter at MIKE? Would love to hear your insights on this. Thanks, Walter”

Here was Kyle Odegard’s response;

Hey Walter. Haven’t watched too closely but I think the same thing is true of Hicks this year as it was last — high IQ player who isn’t great athletically. The Cards can cover it up this year with Isaiah, Jalen, Budda, etc. so having him out there directing traffic helps quite a bit. Much like Rashad Johnson in the past. Just my two cents.

I complimented Kyle on his Rashad Johnson analogy —- I think it’s very accurate, particularly seeing as Johnson was outstanding at directing traffic, but he was never a FS who relished the role of storming the alleys to make the kind of swift, hard-hitting tackles that Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson are hungry to make.

The question I would love to ask Vance Joseph, is whether he actually coaches Jordan Hicks to play like a 2nd level safety —- or whether Vance puts the top priority at the MIKE as the organizer and is willing to accept a lack of forward aggressiveness in trying to stop the run in favor of the communication Hicks brings to his teammates.

I would also like to know just how much Vance Joseph was consulted about the Cardinals’ decision to draft ILB Zaven Collins at #16, and whether he signed on to immediately naming him the starter at MIKE, particularly seeing as how much Vance prizes Hicks as his signal caller.

What excited me very much when the Cardinals drafted Zaven Collins was the thought of the Big Red defense becoming more aggressive versus the run and more athletic in pass coverage. It impressed me that Steve Keim saw this as one of the team’s top priorities and that he had identified, as so many of us fans have, of the struggles that Hicks was having at MIKE.

What’s also fascinating to me is that despite getting limited snaps at ILB, what Cardinals’ ILB has the highest run defense PFF grades on the team?

Cardinals’ Linebackers 2021 Run Defense PFF Grades

  1. Dennis Gardeck —- 78.2
  2. Devon Kennard —-73.7
  3. Zaven Collins —- 69.9
  4. Markus Golden —- 57.2
  5. Jordan Hicks —- 54.3
  6. Chandler Jones —- 38.1
  7. Isaiah Simmons —- 37.0
  8. Tanner Vallejo —- 31.0

These grades are an indication of whether the linebackers are doing the right things to defend the run, as in making the right reads, shedding blocks, running downhill to the football and consistently making stops.

It’s no wonder why the Cardinals are struggling to defend the run when all four of the starting linebackers’ run defense grades are below average. Plus the only defensive interior player who has an above average run defense grade is J.J. Watt at 62.9.

This much is clear —- the Cardinals are not going to stop any running game worth its salt —- with a 4 man front and linebackers who don’t run downhill to the football.

It is imperative that the Cardinals drop down an extra interior lineman to make it a 5 man front. Not only does this load up versus the run, a five man front actually helps the edge players because it allows them to set the edge and provide much needed contain, while giving them the best angle in which to get off the ball and rush the passer.

We have seen that the Cardinals’ defense is at its best when they manufacture consistent pressure. That’s Vance Joseph’s calling card as a defensive coordinator.

But, defensive coordinators can manufacture pressure versus the run as well.

It is due time for Vance Joseph to manufacture run defense pressure.

The key tweak the Cardinals need to make is to get the interior three into gaps with the express intent of creating inside penetration. Enough of the picket fence. Penetration is the best possible way to slow down a RB and to make him think twice about hitting the hole at full speed.

So, not only do the inside linebackers have to start shifting into forward gear while keying on the RB, the linemen up front need to do the same.

Wondering whether Vance Joseph has used his inside linebackers as second level safeties in the past, I looked up the run defense grades of his ILBs when he was with the Broncos —- and look at this:

  • 2017: Todd Davis —- 83.3; Zaire Anderson —- 78.2
  • 2018: Todd Davis —- 70.6; Josey Jewell —- 70.0

  • 2021: Jordan Hicks —- 54.3; Isaiah Simmons —- 37.0

OK —- if Vance Joseph is not going to move Jordan Hicks because he’s the signal caller, then at least he needs to start playing Zaven Collins, the best downhill ILB on the team. Insert Collins next to Hicks as the WILB and slide Isaiah Simmons over to SAM OLB.

The Cardinals need greater athleticism on the edge, which is why I and others were miffed as to why the Cardinals moved on from Haason Reddick. But, now the Cardinals can solve the lack of athleticism on the edge by shifting Isaiah Simmons over to SAM OLB on early downs? How about using Dennis Gardeck on the edge at WOLB on early downs? That could help keep Chandler Jones and Markus Golden fresh for pass rushing out of the nickel.

Or — if you want to keep Isaiah Simmons at WILB, how about playing Zaven Collins on the edge at SAM? Who knows? Maybe he takes to it, the way Micah Parsons has with the Cowboys.

I have also been wondering whether Jordan Hicks would be better at SAM OLB versus MIKE ILB. He has a great attitude and in press conferenced he is articulate and exudes confidence the way Vance Joseph does. And, this year he’s been playing better in pass coverage. But, why is he so tentative versus the run? Is it him or the scheme or both?

It makes no sense at this point in the season to keep a physically imposing and athletic player like Zaven Collins on the sidelines —- especially where he and the rest of us have to watch opposing teams run for chunk yard plays over and over.

It would be one thing if the Cardinals’ run defense was doing its job.

It isn’t doing the job, by a wide stretch. Per PFF, the Cardinals have the second worse run defense in the NFL.

The Cardinals have been opportunistic in creating turnovers, particularly on the road, which has allowed them at times to overlook their deficiency in defending the run.

Vance Joseph has been getting outstanding play from his secondary. Their energy and physicality is impressive!

Imagine if that kind of energy can be infused up front and at the linebackers positions in their approach to stopping the run. JJ Watt brought it. But now the Cardinals need the defensive linemen and linebackers in the box to start bringing the heat.

With the playoffs on the horizon and very good running teams like the Colts (#2 in NFL ) and Cowboys (#6 in NFL) ahead on the schedule, the Cardinals need to step up —- as in stepping forward versus the run, not sideways or backward, The Lions, with their big, physical offensive line is 17th in the NFL. The Seahawks are 22nd and improving now that Rashad Penny is making a splash.

Opposing teams believe that they can run at will on the Cardinals and dominate the time of possession.

The question is —- will the Cardinals prove otherwise?