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Cardinals 34 Defense: Why Can’t They Ever Get It Right?

Syndication: Arizona Republic Rob Schumacher/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

I started responding to a much appreciated comment that AZ_C_F wrote on last week’s ROTB podcast —- and then about ten minutes into writing my response, it was getting long enough to merit a thread, or so I hope.

Here’s what AZ_C_F wrote:

... around the 1 hour mark to the 1 hour and 7 minute or so mark hearing the exasperation in Walter’s voice when he is talking about how the team is playing a 3-4 lately and not a single one of their linebackers are suitable for a 3-4.

Thanks for the listen and your comment, AZ_C_F.

The strength of 34 defense depends on the 4 linebackers, and yet —-

Not one of the four current starters fits the prototypical 34 LB mold---

OLBs Chandler Jones and Markus Golden are very good pass rushers, but they struggle with all the other aspects of playing OLB.

ILBs Jordan Hicks and Isaiah Simmons lack the consistent impulse to run downhill to the football so as to fight like crazy to rip their way through traffic. Both have struggled more than normal in pass coverage this year, although Simmons is ideally suited to cover TEs and RBs and even most WRs.

However, the 34 LB cupboard is not bare, imo, Zaven Collins is perfectly suited to play the MIKE ILB. Plus, the closest player on the roster to Haason Reddick at SAM OLB is Dennis Gardeck, whom the Cardinals, imo, should re-sign to a multi-year deal.

The Cardinals, since Steve Keim has been GM, have never, imo, understood the prototypical 34 LB roles and signed or drafted players accordingly. Keim likes tall and thick pass rushing OLBs who habitually give up contain and are a liability in pass coverage. Ironically, he drafted a superb 34 OLB in Haason Reddick, but the coaches didn’t play him there until his 4th year and Keim, for whatever mystifying reason, didn’t like Reddick well enough to try to re-sign him.

Whomever thought that Markus Golden and Devon Kennard could give the defense similar versatility and production as Haason Reddick, be it Keim or Joseph, or both, made a colossal misjudgment. By the way, the game winning TD that Russell Wilson just scored in Week 18 was a play that Haason Reddick took away from Wilson the last three games when he defended him. Reddick played textbook outside-in edge contain and rush technique.

Golden is a tenacious edge rusher, but he bites down hard on running plays, same as Chandler Jones, and, as we have seen in sheer frustration too many times, neither Golden not Jones (or Kennard for that matter) are an asset in pass coverage, because they lack Reddick’s speed and versatility.

Plus —- when Vance Joseph drops Jones, Golden or Kennard into the flat in pass coverage, none of them appear to understand the rules of zone coverage, the first and foremost of which is you have to prioritize covering the deeper man in the zone —- you can’t just stand there like statues (as they always do) and leave gaping gray-area holes behind you.

Opposing OC’s late in the season, knew precisely how and when Vance Joseph was going to drop his OLBs into coverage because every time he did, the opposing QB was able to recognize the mismatch and throw right over the top of the OLB statue for big gains —- Stafford, Goff, Wentz and Wilson did it repeatedly and it helped get all of them into a confident rhythm and groove.

On the inside of the defense, as we know very frustratingly by now, the Cardinals have not acquired a prototypical WILB since Darryl Washington. Trying to fit 1st round draft picks like S Deone Bucannon, OLB Haason Reddick and S Isaiah Simmons into an NFL role that was not their strength in college has not only been a miserable misuse of talent, it has created significant question marks about whether the team’s GM and the defensive coaches he picks know exactly what to look for in an NFL inside LB.

For those of you who rightfully give credit to Deone Bucannnon for his play as a rookie, the problem was Deone’s safety-esque body type was never going to hold up at ILB. Again, thinking that Deone could hold up physically at WILB exposed the GM’s and the coaches’ misunderstanding of what the position requires.

As for the MIKE, the best one Keim ever signed (per Bruce Arians’ suggestion) was Larry Foote, who was a tad under-sized, but had a fierce nose for the ball and great instincts. 2013 2nd Round draft pick, Kevin Minter and Jordan Hicks don’t fit the modern-day 34 MIKE mold in two ways --- they are not decisive, downhill finishers in stuffing the run and they lack the speed to cover RBs out of the backfield.

Zaven Collins can do both. And to Keim’s credit, he saw Collins’ sheer talent on tape which is why the GM immediately projected Collins as the starter --- but, after no team made an acceptable trade offer for Jordan Hicks, Vance Joseph and Billy Davis put the nix on the Collins projection, touting the ability to organize and make the defensive calls their top priority ---when, that could have easily been performed by Budda Baker from the safety position (until Zaven was ready to handle it), as it was when FS Rashad Johnson was here.

FYI —- I heard from a very reliable source here in New England that had QB Mac Jones been off the board at #15, the Patriots were zeroed in on taking Zaven Collins to be Dont’a Hightower’s successor as their 4-3 MIKE. They were so high on Collins that they were willing to stay put at #15 and risk losing out on Mac Jones.

For the role of play caller, you want a player whom you would never want to take off the field. Under Joseph and Davis, the Cardinals have had better athletes than Hicks to play at nickel LB, but Joseph and Davis insist on never taking Hicks off the field, even though they admitted last year that played him too much.

Jordan Hicks is a very good organizer and a charismatic communicator (who could wind up coaching a la Vance Joseph), but, as MIKE, Hicks is not one for rookies to follow by example, because he doesn’t play the position as aggressively as it requires. This, imo, has had a lot to do with why Isaiah Simmons has not progressed as quickly or well as expected. Heck, De’Vondre Campbell didn’t play well next to Hicks in 2020. More on Campbell later.

Hicks, more often than not lets the plays come to him ---where, to his credit, he does make his fair share of tackles. When set in forward motion, Hicks is an outstanding blitzer. He has shown fair improvement in zone coverage this year, but covering RBs or TEs man to man is still a very difficult assignment for him. Opposing teams see Hicks as a mismatch for their RBs which is why they throw a lot to to them out of the backfield (notice how Sean McVay picked on Hicks who was twice left in the dust by RB Cam Akers, for example),

At least this year Hicks had very willing “helpers’ and tacklers behind him at the CB spots (finally) and the two safeties have helped to cover up for some LB/RB mismatches. In fact, Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson covered up all too often for number of the Cardinals’ glaring deficiencies in the defense and in the ways it was improperly comprised and coached.

What does it say about the Cardinals’ defensive coaches to see MLB De’Vondre Campbell make 1st Team All Pro for his outstanding play this season?

Look at the disparity in De’Vondre Campbell’s PFF grades from his season in Arizona to this year in Green Bay and also compare his grades to Jordan Hicks’ the last two seasons.

  • Campbell 2021 with Green Bay 84.3 overall, 78.1 run defense, 90.4 tackling, 73.5 pass rush, 83.1 pass coverage
  • Campbell 2020 with Arizona: 48.0 overall, 48.3 run defense, 70.4 tackling, 51.1 pass rush, 51.5 pass coverage.
  • Hicks: 2021 with Arizona: 63.6 overall, 61.6 run defense, 71.0 tackling, 76.0 pass rush, 57.9 coverage.
  • Hicks 2020 with Arizona: 50.4 overall, 40.4 run defense, 68.0 tackling, 47.6 pass rush, 62.6 pass coverage,

There is only one way to interpret this enormous disparity —- coaching.

In 2020, Steve Keim said that his top UFA priority was to sign De’Vondre Campbell. Keim deserves strong credit for doing so —- but not only was Campbell poorly coached, early on he saw that he was a lame duck because when the Cardinals drafted Isaiah Simmons they immediately projected him as the team’s WILBOF. Campbell knew from day one that he would be “one and done” with the Cardinals. That had to be demoralizing.

Imagine if the coaches had decided to commit last season to playing Simmons at another more suitable position. Alas, they wound up getting little out of Hicks, Campbell and Simmons in a year where the team was one game away from making the playoffs.

This year, Keim identified Zaven Collins as the alpha downhill baller that the Cardinals have lacked at the MIKE, Again, Keim made the right assessment —- only Vance Joseph’s and Billy Davis’ response to committing to Zaven Collins was basically a “thanks, but no thanks.”

The disconnect between Keim and the defensive coaches is a red flag.

After the top UFA signee at CB, Malcolm Butler, said “thanks, but no thanks” to playing for the Cardinals, Keim made an astute move by signing Rasul Douglas and yet the defensive coaches failed to make an accurate assessment of Douglas.

Look at what the Packers have gotten from Douglas after they poached him off of the Cardinals’ practice squad:

Rasul Douglas (GB): Overall PFF grade: 73.5, Coverage Grade: 76.5

Byron Murphy (ARI): Overall PFF grade: 58.5. Coverage grade: 62.1

Robert Alford (ARI): Overall PFF grade: 66.99. Coverage grade: 68.5

Marco Wilson (ARI): Overall PFF grade: 48.6. Coverage grade: 47.8

The irony is that not only did Rasul Douglas make the key gam- ending interception versus the Cardinals, his 5 interceptions with Green Bay in 12 games is more than Byron Murphy’s (4), Robert Alford’s (0) and Marco Wilson’s (0) combined.

Like the old saying goes, “Why can’t we get players like that?”

The best part of Vance Joseph’s system is how he employs the safeties —- and how he dials up pressures. Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson are the defensive MVPs, hands-down. The irony is however, Budda and Jalen are the downhill tacklers that one would wish the ILBs were.

My biggest question heading into the Wild Card playoff game versus the Rams was whether Vance Joseph could come up with a competent game plan versus Sean McVay’s offense. As so many of you know, for the last three years I have been lamenting Vance’s inability to come up with a competent plan just to defend McVay’s bread and butter off-tackle play and all of the play action he runs off that play.

I was hoping like crazy, as you may have heard on my Red Rain and ROTB podcasts last week that this time Vance would have the team prepared and that he would scrap his soft zones in favor of applying sticky man coverage on Cooper Kupp, OBJ, Van Jefferson and Tyler Higbee, so as not to give up the preposterous number of 20+ yard wide open chunk yard receptions versus Vance’s soft zones that he gave up to Jared Goff and Russell Wilson.

You can just imagine then what I was feeling when on the Rams’ very first play from scrimmage, Sony Michel galloped untouched for 37 yards on McVay’s patented off-tackle play.

Throughout the game, my biggest fears about Vance Joseph’s misuse of personnel and his lack of preparation were confirmed. The coach is incorrigible. He just keeps doing the same old thing, expecting different results. It’s no wonder why the Cardinals have faded down the stretch the last three seasons—- not only does the offense get stale and predictable, the defense is even worse. This defense is a QB’s dream come true. Just ask Jared Goff.

Then, to see and learn that Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins were total non-factors in the Wild Card game, spending more time on the sidelines than on the field —- any acceptance of that reality is completely inexusable.

Steve Keim said he felt bad for Vance Joseph during his first year with the Cardinals because Keim felt he hadn’t given Joseph enough talent on his side of the ball. I didn’t agree with Keim’s assessment —- after all, how many former Pro Bowlers and NFL 1st, 2nd or 3rd round draft picks were on that defense? Terrell Suggs, Chandler Jones, Corey Peters, Haason Reddick, Jordan Hicks, Patrick Peterson, D.J. Swearinger, Dre Kirkpatrick, Budda Baker, Byron Murphy and Zach Allen.

The problem was Vance Joseph couldn’t get the “stealing” veterans to play hard and the run defense and pass coverage were horrible.

Over the past couple of years, Steve Keim has tried to add to the team’s talent on defense, and yet Vance Joseph and his coaches haven’t done even remotely enough to maximize the talent that the coaches were given.

Think of this —- after the Cardinals shocked the Rams in Week 4, just about everything the Rams did after that game was in preparation to re-gain their edge over the Cardinals:

  • Sean McVay went back and put an added emphasis on his bread and butter plays —- knowing Vance Joseph has never stopped them.
  • They added WR Odell Beckham Jr. because of the matchup advantage it would give them with Kupp, Woods , OBJ and Jefferson versus the Cardinals’ suspect CBs —- which could now force the Cardinals to rely more on their CB3 and CB4.
  • Then they added Von Miller to create a rush triangle versus Kyler Murray, with Aaron Donald up the middle, and Von Miller and Leonard Floyd to the sides and Greg Gaines to be ready to clean up on Kyler if he tried to duck under Miller.
  • On top of that, DC Raheem Morris and the defensive coaches, took full advantage of the predictably limited route trees that Cardinals ran with A.J. Green, Christian Kirk and Rondale Moore, which is why CB David Long Jr. was in such close proximity to Rondale Moore, on Moore’s outlet route, which put Long in perfect position to pick off Kyler Murray’s inexcusable, desperation gift-wrapped duck.

Therefore —- what the Cardinals need to do this entire off-season is to counter and have an answer for all the moves the Rams made to try to win the NFC West.

The Cardinals’ number one priority, imo, is hiring a new defensive coordinator. Vance Joseph has proven that he is no match for Sean McVay. Joseph has also proven that no matter kind of talent the GM gives him, he does not know how to take full advantage of that talent. Simply put, the coach doesn’t breed confidence in his players.

Vic Fangio is a 34 guy. What a coup it would be for the Cardinals if they were to sign him.

Put it this way, if the Cardinals don’t have a competent defense that can challenge and frustrate the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Jimmy Garoppolo and Matthew Stafford (plus next year the Cardinals play Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins and Jalen Hurts) and all of the NFC South QBs (Brady, Ryan, NO-TBD, CAR-TBD), then any realistic hopes of the Cardinals making a Super Bowl run are quixotic and moot.

It hurts to arrive at this conclusion, because I feel the same way about Vance Joseph as I do about Jordan Hicks —- they are superb, charismatic men of character, yet, alas, they lack precisely what it takes to run a championship-level 34 defense.