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Comparing Cardinals’ Defense to the Bengals’ and Rams’

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Tennessee Titans Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

What I believe we may have learned about the Cardinals’ offense, for it to become championship worthy, the team needs:

  1. A stout running game —- with stronger blocking schemes and fundamentals.
  2. A stud WR to go opposite DeAndre Hopkins.
  3. Better, more consistent pass blocking.

Today, we will take a close look at how the Cardinals’ 2021 defense stacks up against the Bengals’ and Rams’.

Personnel comparisons (per 2021 PFF grades):

NT:

  1. 80.2 —- D.J. Reader CIN —- UFA/HOU
  2. 67.4 —- Greg Gaines LAR —- 2019/R4
  3. 66.4 —- Rashard Lawrence ARI —- 2020/R4

D.J. Reader is one of the prize free agents the Bengals signed this year. He has been an anchor of their defensive line. Greg Gaines and Rashard Lawrence are giving the Rams and Cardinals good draft value as 4th round starters.

DT:

  1. 93.5 —- Aaron Donald LAR —- 2014/R1
  2. 73.0 —- B.J. Hill CIN —- T/NYG
  3. 58.0 —- Corey Peters ARI —- UFA/ATL

Aaron Donald is arguably the most dominant player in the NFL. It’s extraordinary that an interior defensive lineman leads the league in QB pressures. Plus, he’s an iron man. As mentioned yesterday, the Bengals made a superb training camp deal when they traded C Billy Price to the Giants for DT B.J. Hill, who made the outstanding tipped ball interception of Patrick Mahomes that helped to lead the way for the Bengals’ upset win over the Chiefs.

Of course, the Cardinals were banking on 2020 UFA Jordan Phillips to dominate in the DT role, which is why they paid him $10m a year. Alas, due to another season of injuries, Phillips only logged 284 snaps, 14 tackles and 3 sacks for a 63.7 grade. 2019 7th Round pick, Michael Dogbe registered 17 tackles and 1 sack in fewer snaps than Phillips. Meanwhile, 2020 4th round pick, Leki Fotu, has yet to emerge as the kind of run stopper the Cardinals need in the middle. This is why the team continues to lean on Corey Peters, who admirably fought his way back from the torn patella tendon he suffered versus the Bills in 2020.

DE:

  1. 75.3 —- A’Shawn Robinson LAR —- UFA/DET
  2. 75.2 —- Markus Golden ARI —- T/NYG
  3. 66.6 —- Sam Hubbard, CIN —- 2018/R3
  4. 56.7 —- Zach Allen, ARI —- 2019/R3

Surrounding Aaron Donald with Greg Gaines and A’Shawn Robinson has helped the Rams boast one of the more physical defensive lines in the NFL. Sam Hubbard and Zach Allen are 3rd round value picks, both of whom have flashed pass rushing and TFL ability, but neither has been particularly consistent as yet stopping the run. Hubbard had a breakthrough year rushing from the edge with 12 sacks and 64 QB pressures. Allen mostly rushed from the interior and delivered on 4 sacks , 26 QB pressures and 1 interception. Markus Golden (75.2) had a strong season rushing the edge while leading the Cardinals in sacks with 12.

DE:

  1. 79.6 —- J.J. Watt ARI —- UFA/HOU
  2. 73.9 —- Trey Hendrickson CIN —- UFA/NO
  3. 70.7 —- Leonard Floyd LAR —- UFA/CHI

Before J.J. Watt’s shoulder injury, he was a dominant force up front versus the run and pass. Unfortunately, the depth behind Watt was not nearly sufficient or well developed enough to help the Cardinals defense hold up against stronger running teams and downfield passers. Trey Hendrickson was a superb UFA signing for the Bengals as he leads the team in sacks with 14 and QB pressures with 89. Leonard Floyd is solid versus the run and in rushing the edge. The last two years, Floyd has combined for 20 sacks and 125 tackles.

WLB:

  1. 82.6 —- Travin Howard LAR —- 2018/R7
  2. 49.7 —- Isaiah Simmons ARI —- 2020/R1
  3. 49.5 —- Cameron Pratt CIN —- 2019/R3

The surprise here is Travin Howard, a 2018 7th round pick. Again, the way the Rams have been able to develop their draft picks is the main reason why they can carry a handful of high paid stars under the cap and still boast a top tier offense and defense. Cameron Pratt has made some strides this season and appears to be improving at the right time. Meanwhile, the question remains to whether the Cardinals’ coaches can provide Isaiah Simmons with a role that fits his uniquely versatile talents to a tee.

MLB:

  1. 62.5 —- Jordan Hicks ARI —- UFA/PHI
  2. 58.8 —- Logan Wilson CIN —- 2020/R3
  3. 42.6 —- Troy Reader LAR —- 2019/CFA

Jordan Hicks complied an impressive number of tackles while playing the MLB position like a safety. While he has his fair share of struggles in pass coverage, his forte is rushing the QB up the A gaps, this year to the tune of 4 sacks and 17 QB pressures. Meanwhile, the Cardinals, for the second year in a row, relegated their 1st round draft pick LB (Zaven Collins) mostly to the sidelines. Logan Wilson has stepped up his game during the playoffs and while every team knows that Troy Reader is the weakest player on the Rams defense, it’s hard for any team to exploit him thanks to how stout their run defense is up the middle (the opposite of the case in Arizona when J.J. Watt is not on the field).

OLB:

  1. 89.9 —- Von Miller LAR —- T/DEN
  2. 68.2 —- Chandler Jones —- T/NE
  3. 67.0 —- Khalid Kareem CIN —- 2020/R5

What a coup it was for the Rams to acquire Von Miller at the trading deadline. The Rams gave up a lot pf draft capital to get him ( 2022 2nd and 3rd round picks), but hey, Miller has delivered big-time in helping the Rams win the NFC. Chandler Jones started the season with an electric 5 sack performance in an upset win over the Titans, but could only manage 5.5 sacks and 41 QB pressures the rest of the season. Khalid Kareem is a 6-4, 256 pound edge linebacker the Bengals are in the process of trying to develop.

LCB:

  1. 85.2 —- Jalen Ramsey LAR —- T/JAC
  2. 75.0 —-Chidobe Awuzie —- UFA/DAL
  3. 66.9 —- Robert Alford ARI —- UFA/ATL

Jalen Ramsey is one of the premier CBs in the NFL, but is not having quite his best season to date. Chidobe Awuzie is yet another of the excellent free agents the Bengals signed in the off-season. Robert Alford was the Cardinals steadiest, most consistent CB until he was knocked out for the season because of a torn pec. Problem was the Cardinals had lost Rasul Douglas to a PS poaching and had traded away 2021 6th round pick Tay Gowan. And no CB help whatsoever was provided by Steve Keim at the treading deadline, for the second year in a row.

SS:

  1. 76.3 —- Von Bell CIN —- UFA/NO
  2. 68.5 —- Jalen Thompson ARI—- 2019S/R5
  3. 59.3 —- Nick Scott, LAR —- 2019/R7

Von Bell is another great UFA signing for the Bengals, whom they have had for a couple of years now. Jalen Thompson emerged as one of the Cardinals’ defensive MVP candidates in light of his inspired and aggressive tackling. Nick Scott is giving the Rams solid play at a position of need this post-season, offering good value as a 7th round pick.

FS:

  1. 65.5 —- Taylor Rapp LAR —- 2019/R2
  2. 65.4 —- Jessie Bates CIN —- 2018/R2
  3. 64.6 —- Budda Baker ARI —- 2017/R2

Budda Baker and Jessie Bates are two of the most aggressive and dynamic Pro Bowl safeties in the NFL. Taylor Rapp, another 2nd round pick, was making good strides this season before getting injured.

RCB:

  1. 60.8 —- Eli Apple CIN —- UFA/SF
  2. 59.5 —- Darious Williams LAR —- W/BAL
  3. 49.6 —- Marco Wilson ARI —- 2021/R4

Rebuilding their secondary with UFAs Awuzie,, Eli Apple and Mike Hilton was a priority for the Bengals and they deserve kudos for these key additions to their defense. Darious Williams is not having nearly as strong a season as he had last year, but, when right, he’s a pesky ballhawk. The Cardinals got good value for trading up to draft Marco Wilson in the 4th round of the 2021 draft, as he brings an aggressive style at a position of need.

Nickel CB:

  1. 72.4 —- Mike Hilton CIN —- UFA/PIT
  2. 60.1 —- David Long Jr. LAR —- 2019/R3
  3. 59.5 —- Byron Murphy ARI —- 2019/R2

Mike Hilton has handled the slot CB position with aplomb. David Long Jr. has come up with some big plays in recent weeks, like his Johnny-On-The-Spot pick-six on Kyler Murray. Byron Murphy‘s season went the exact same way the Cardinals’ did, superb for the first half and shaky down the stretch.

Imagine if the Cardinals had signed CBs Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton instead of Malcolm Butler.

Both Awuzie and Hilton signed for highly affordable. long-term deals, both with team-friendly guaranteed money figures:

Awuzie: 4 years / $24M / $6M g-ted

Hilton: 3 years / $21.75M / $7.5M g-ted

Had the Cardinals addressed the elephant in the room all off-season, by trading or releasing Chandler Jones, they could have easily signed OLB Haason Reddick and CB Mike Hilton with the $15.5M they could have added to the cap, plus they could have used the $6M they gave to Malcolm Butlel to acquire Chidobe Awuzie on a 4 year deal at $6M a year. Because of the low guaranteed money in Awuzie’s and Hilton’s contracts the Bengals gave themselves an easy out after this season if they want to move on from either or both. Both look good to stay, don’t they?

The Cardinals should have moved on from Patrick Peterson in 2019 (turning down a 1st round pick and WR Nelson Agholor from PHI) or 2020 to recover $12.5M, they should have moved on from Chandler Jones and his $15.5M this past off-season and this year they should do something about the $15.5M they could recover on D.J. Humphries’ contract.

But history says, the Cardinals will ask D.J. to take a pay cut or agree to a team-friendly extension —- which he will likely decline. It could be, as Yogi Berra says, “deja vu all over again.”

Team Defensive Rankings:

Overall:

  1. 85.9 —- LAR —- #1 NFL
  2. 66.7 —- CIN —- #15
  3. 62.4 —- ARI —- #23

Run Defense:

  1. 86.4 —- LAR —- #1 NFL
  2. 49.4 —- ARI —- #21
  3. 47.7 —- CIN —- #23

Tackling:

  1. 83.9 —- LAR —- #12 NFL
  2. 53.9 —- CIN —- #21
  3. 50.9 —- ARI —- #24

Pass Rush:

  1. 86.6 —- LAR —- #1 NFL
  2. 77.0 —- ARI —- #9
  3. 67.2 —- CIN —- #21

Pass Coverage:

  1. 77.9 —- CIN —- #10 NFL
  2. 74.6 —- LAR —- #12
  3. 59.1 —- ARI —- #22

Special Teams:

  1. 90.9 —- CIN —- #4 NFL
  2. 85.8 —- ARI —- #13
  3. 80.4 —- LAR —- #20

The defensive ranking confirm how dominant the Rams are, how middle of the pack the Bengals are and how below average the Cardinals are.

What’s amazing about the Rams is how often do you see a #1 defense in stopping the run and a #1 defense in pass rushing? Ever? Plus —- the Rams’ defensive domination comes in a year where the Rams lost their outstanding 2020 defensive coordinator Brandon Staley (HC LAC) whom they hired in 2020 after the gutsy decision to let go of Wade Phillips.

With Phillips in 2019 the Rams had the #6 rated defense. But look at this:

  • 2018 Phillips: #4 NFL
  • 2019 Phillips: #6 NFL
  • 2020 Staley: #1 NFL
  • 2021 Morris: #1 NFL

This is what good teams that aspire to be great do —- they make coaching moves that can help make the team better and stronger. And they develop and maximize the production of their personnel, the younger players and the veterans.

2021 Arizona Cardinals

Below Average:

  • tackling, run defense, pass coverage
  • run blocking, pass protection
  • development of draft picks
  • home record (3-5)
  • wins after bye week (2-4)
  • playoff performance (0-1)

Above Average:

  • pass rush, safety play
  • passing game
  • special teams
  • road record (8-1)
  • record (11-6)

I want to leave this question to you ROTB—- now that you have perused these comparisons and contrasts of the Cardinals to the Super Bowl teams the last two days, what kind of changes to the team’s front office, coaching staff and player personnel would you think would be wise, if any at all?

You go first. I will chime in at some point.