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2022 Defensive Scheme/Personnel Adjustments

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

Background: Oct 24, 2021; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph against the Houston Texans in the first half at State Farm Stadium. Nfl Houston Texans At Arizona Cardinals

Vance Joseph has said all along that his defense of choice is to combine a fierce pass rush with a steady diet of press man-to-man coverage.

In light of the Cardinals’ defensive woes down the stretch over the three year span of Vance’s tenure in Arizona, he might continue to convince Steve Keim that he doesn’t have the personnel to play to his strengths.

After year one, Steve Keim conceded as such, despite the fact that Joseph inherited a defense that included Corey Peters, Zach Allen, Rodney Gunter, Chandler Jones, Terrell Suggs, Brooks Reed, Jordan Hicks, Haason Reddick, Budda Baker, D.J. Swearinger, Byron Murphy, Jalen Thomson, Patrick Peterson and Tramaine Brock.

Budda Baker and Chandler Jones were the only two players who had commendable seasons. Only three weeks into the 2019 season, Steve Keim said on Arizona Sport Radio, “our stars have to start playing like stars.” Weirdly, it wasn’t talent that was holding the defense back, it was the effort and the ability to execute the schemes, as far too often, it appeared as if the defense as playing at half speed.

One could argue that the 2019 defense had considerably more talent than the offense, and yet the defense gave up 415 yards (31st) per game and 28.8 points per game (28th), while the offense put up 341.7 yards (21st) per game and 22.6 points per game (16th).

While the Cardinals’ defense under Vance Joseph has made improvements over the past two years...

Fast forward to the team’s last 6 games when the NFC West title and a high seed in the playoffs were on the line —- and take a look at the defensive numbers:

  • Rams (Home - L) : 356 yards, 30 points QBR Stafford: 139.2
  • Lions (Away - L): 338 yards, 30 points QBR: Goff: 139.7
  • Colts (Home - L) 346 yards, 22 points QBR: Wentz: 113.0
  • Cowboys (Away - W): 301 yards, 22 points QBR: Prescott: 105.8
  • Seahawks (Home - L): 431 yards, 38 points QBR: Wilson: 110.7
  • Facts: (1) Cardinals were favored in all of these games; (2) every opposing QB had a higher QBR in those games than Kyler Murray; (3) going 0-3 at home Cardinals while giving up 90 points and an average of 377 yards per game; (4) just one more win in this stretch would have won the NFC West for the Cardinals and a home game in the playoffs.

It felt like a return to the defense’s first seasons woes where their soft zones were picked apart, where they couldn’t stop the run where and had a difficult time getting off the field.

Thereby, it felt like going back to square one with Vance Joseph and his staff.

Playoff Game:

  • Rams (Away - L): 375 yards, 34 points QBR Stafford: 154.5 (QBR Murray 40.9)

The troubling realities of the Cardinals’ defense in this game:

  1. Despite the inspirational return of J.J. Watt, the defense gave up 140 yards rushing and to his credit, Watt did his part.
  2. The Rams were able to exploit glaring man-to-man mismatches with Marco Wilson on Odell Beckham Jr. , Byron Murphy on Cooper Kupp and Jordan Hicks on Cam Akers.
  3. When faced with mismatches he doesn’t like, Vance Joseph resorts to playing soft zones. The zones he played versus the Rams back in the Cardinals’ Week 4 upset win over the Rams in Los Angeles were far more effective because the Cardinals’ pass rush was much stronger with J.J. Watt getting pressure up the middle and Chandler Jones and Markus Golden getting pressure from the edges —- which caused Matthew Stafford to misfire more than normal —- and when Stafford did connect with his WRs, the Cardinals put a licking on the receivers.
  4. The Cardinals last two 1st round picks, Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins, two of the team’s most gifted and physically impressive athletes, spent much of the game standing next to each other on the sideline.

Like some, or perhaps even many of you Cardinals’ fans, I was fully expecting the Cardinals to make a change at defensive coordinator, at linebackers coach and perhaps with the entire defensive coaching staff.

What we saw down the stretch from Vance’s defense in these significant games was unacceptable.

One has to wonder whether the timing of Vance being invited to interview for the Dolphins’ head coaching job and Brian Flores’ lawsuit versus the NFL for racial discrimination created the perfect storm for which Vance Joseph and his assistants were able to hold on to their jobs —- that is, except for defensive line coach Brentson Buckner who was first being linked to college jobs and then wound up being signed to join Doug Pederson’s staff in Jacksonville.

I would bet that Brentson Buckner could add some valuable insight as to what was going on with the Cardinals’ defense. Of course, we likely will never hear it from him. But, to be perfectly frank, it would seem that Buckner is now in a better situation with the Jaguars.

All the same, now that it is clear that the Cardinals are not going to throw a Hail Mary at a defensive savant like TCU legend Gary Patterson or J.J. Watt’s former DC Roneo Crennel, let’s examine the kind of adjustments that Vance Joseph and his staff will likely need to make in order to get the Cardinals’ defensive ship afloat and sailing.

Personnel Matters:

The obvious disconnect in terms of personnel between Steve Keim, Adrian Wilson, Quentin Harris, the pro and college scouts and Vance Joseph and his assistant coaches has to stop.

Vance insists that he wants to play press man coverage behind a fierce, relentless pass rush, well then, let’s take a look at the current personnel to see which players fit best at what positions and what Vance Joseph’s top priorities should be in adding a few key pieces in free agency (what’s left of it) and the 2022 NFL Draft.

Note: these lineups are written up as “best fit” suggestions —- to be clear, no one knows just yet what the plan is for Isaiah Simmons.

Base 3-4 Starters (2nd teamers in parentheses):

SAM OLB : Isaiah Simmons (Devon Kennard)

LDE: Zach Allen (Leki Fotu)

NT: Rashard Lawrence (Leki Fotu)

RDE: J.J. Watt (Michael Dogbe)

WOLB: Dennis Gardeck (Markus Golden —-save him for 4 man rush in sub packages)

SILB: Zaven Collins (Nick Vigil)

WILB: Tanner Vallejo ( Nick Vigil, Joe Walker)

LCB: Jeff Gladney (Breon Borders)

SS: Jalen Thomspon (James Wiggins)

FS: Budda Baker (Deionte Thomspson)

RCB: Marco Wilson (Byron Murphy)

4-2-5 Nickel:

LDE Markus Golden (Zach Allen, Devon Kennard, Victor Dimukeje)

LDT: Zach Allen (Rashard Lawrence, Leki Fotu)

RDT: J.J, Watt (Michael Dogbe)

RDE: Dennis Gardeck (J.J. Watt)

NLB: Isaiah Simmons (Nick Vigil)

NLB: Zaven Collins (Tanner Vallejo)

LCB: Byron Murphy (Breon Borders)

NCB: Jeff Gladney (Jace Whittaker)

SS; Jalen Thompson (James Wiggins)

FS: Budda Baker (Deionte Thompson)

RCB: Marco Wilson (Nate Brooks)

Suggested Scheme Adjustments:

  1. Stopping The Run —- change the philosophy up from “stacking to occupy 2 offensive linemen to “storming the gaps” —- the best way to bottle up the run is to get to the RB as early as possible —- perfect example: how J.J. Watt and Zaven Collins got into the backfield to deter Derrick Henry,
  2. Press Man Coverage —- acquire as good a press man CB as you can find, like UFA Bryce Callahan or Auburn’s Roger McCreary —- and assign him to the likes of Cooper Kupp, Deebo Samuel and Tyler Lockett. Seeing as to how much Jeff Gladney struggled in the slot as a rookie in Minnesota and how Byron Murphy has struggled in the slot the past couple of seasons, the Cardinals and Vance Joseph would stand a much better chance to comepte in the NFC West, if they had these matchups:
  3. Rams: * Kupp (Callahan or McCreary) —- Robinson (Gladney) —- Jefferson (Wilson)
  4. 49ers: * Samuel (Callahan or McCreary) —-Aiyuk (Gladney) —- Jennings (Wilson)
  5. Seahawks: * Lockett (Callahan or McCreary) —- Metcalf (Gladney) —- Eskridge (Wilson)
  6. Pass Rush: Split time inside and outside for J.J. Watt. Get Dennis Gardeck back to his 2020 form off the edge. Keep Markus Golden fresh by taking him out of the base and using him as the designated edge rusher in the nickel and dime packages, Fire up Zach Allen, Rashard Lawrence, Michael Dogbe and Leki Fotu to give the Cardinals a formidable inside pass rush.
  7. Zone Coverage Philosophy: teach it properly this year because the defense has the athletes to make zone defense a strength. The tendency has been to have the players stay in their designated areas and have them watch the QB’s eyes with the purpose of converging on the ball as quickly as possible and to punish the WRs/TEs/RBs on catches so as to intimidate (which Budda and Jalen do oh so well). This tendency tends to work better earlier in the season, but in time offenses know how to exploit the intermediate to deep gray areas. Therefore, make the adjustment of having each zone defender pick up the first receiver in his area and cover him man to man until he can pass him off to a teammate when the receiver runs into a new area of the zone (if there is no teammate in that zone —- you stick with your man). The other significant rule is, if no receiver is in a defender’s area, the defender must “peel” backward to help close the intermediate/deep gray areas. What a number of teams do is give their two safeties the freedom to keep their eyes on the QB and make breaks on the ball, but the other 5 defenders in the zone should be playing the receivers in their areas.
  8. Goal-line and Short Yardage Defense: this has been one of Vance’s and the players’ best strengths —- the only adjustment needed is making sure that the cover men have a clear understanding of their assignments so that they can do a better job of creating leverage and create quicker, speedier recoveries on double moves.

Defensive Personnel Needs (Priorities):

  1. Best possible press man CB who can play inside in the slot or outside on the opponents’ best WR. Only Jeff Gladney has that skill/technique consistently in his bag as of yet, but Vance should have all his CBs practice their press techniques every day. Gladney is best in press on the outside where he dominated at TCU. When the Vikings tried him in the slot, he struggled a lot. Check out his play in the slot on this video:

2. Adding an edge rusher. The Cardinals have three good options in J.J. Watt, Markus Golden and Dennis Gardeck. However, to add another edge rusher to the rotation would be wise, especially seeing as it would be great to have J.J, Watt rush as much from the inside as from the outside —- plus, with regard to the fact that Watt and Golden are in the final years of their contracts.

3. Add a run stuffer at DT. Rashard Lawrence made huge strides at NT last year. Zach Allen came on strong as a gap penetrator late in the season last year, Michael Dogbe, despite his lack of size, is one of the strongest tacklers on the squad and is crafty versus the run and getting inside pressure. What the Cardinals really need is for Leki Fotu to take his game to the next level. If Fotu, who has tremendous untapped potential, can do that, the need at DT is not all that pressing. Now, if one of the Georgia slobberknockers Jordan Davis or Devante Wyatt somehow slides to #23, one couldn’t argue with the Cardinals tabbing one of them.

4. With Tanner Vallejo, Nick Vigil, Joe Walker and Zeke Turner all in contract years, it may be wise for the Cardinals to draft a WILB.

10 Defensive Favorites at #23: (in alphabetical order, and dedicated to Flash87 who requested this) for those players who might have a chance to still be on the board:

  • Leo Chenal, Edge, Wisconsin
  • Lewis Cine, S/CB, Georgia
  • Jordan Davis, DT, Georgia
  • Daxton Hill, S/CB, Michigan
  • Jermaine Johnson, Edge, Florida St.
  • Boye Mafe, Edge, Minnesota
  • Roger McCreary, CB, Auburn
  • Trent McDuffie, CB, Washington
  • David Ojabo, Edge, Michigan
  • Devonte Wyatt, DT, Georgia

5 Defensive Favorites at Pick #55:

  • Nick Bonitto, Edge, Oklahoma
  • Kyler Gordon, CB., Washington
  • DeMarvin Leal, DE, Texas A&M
  • Jalen Pitre, S/CB, Baylor
  • Perrion Winfrey, DT, Oklahoma

5 Defensive Favorites at #87:’

  • Marcus Jones, CB/S, Houston
  • Derion Kendrick, CB, Georgia
  • Zyon McCollum, CB,, Sam Houston St.
  • John Ridgeway, DT, Arkansas
  • Channing Tindall, OLB/ILB, Georgia

Your turn —- what suggestions do agree and disagree with? And, as always, what are some of your own? For example, do you think Vance Joseph should scrap the 34 in favor of making the base a 4-3? I think there is a strong argument that he should:

  • LDE Zach Allen
  • LDT Rashard Lawrence
  • RDT Leki Fotu
  • RDE J.J. Watt
  • LOLB Isaiah Simmons
  • MLB Zaven Collins
  • ROLB Dennis Gardeck
  • LCB Jeff Gladney
  • SS Jalen Thomson
  • FS Budda Baker
  • RCB Marco Wilson

Hey Flash, offensive faves: (in alphabetical order)

Top 10 at #23:

  • WR Treylon Burks, Arkansas
  • QB Matt Corral, Mississippi
  • WR Jahan Dotson, Penn St.
  • G Zion Johnson, Boston College
  • C Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa
  • WR Drake London, USC
  • WR Chris Olave, Ohio St.
  • T Trevor Penning, Northern Iowa
  • QB Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
  • WR Jameson Williams, Alabama

Top 5 at #55:

  • RB Breece Hall, Iowa St.
  • TE Trey McBride, Colorado St.
  • WR John Metchie III, Alabama
  • RB Kenneth Walker III, Michigan St.
  • WR Christian Watson, North Dakota St.

Top 5 at #87:

  • WR David Bell, Purdue
  • TE Jake Ferguson, Wisconsin
  • G Dylan Parham, Memphis
  • WR Alec Pierce, Cincinnati
  • WR Jalen Tolbert, South Alabama