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Does the defense have enough playmakers?

Local media have been concerned about the big-play ability of the Cardinals defense lately. Are they right?

NFL: Houston Texans at Arizona Cardinals
Markus Golden is better than you think.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Like many of you, I’m a regular 98.7 listener. Burns and Gambo is my personal favorite show, but they’re all good.

They’ve been talking a lot about the Cardinals this week (obviously), and I noticed a common theme: concerns about the defense and whether we have enough playmakers. Everyone seems to be wondering:

Where are the big plays going to come from?

With that in mind, I decided to take a look at our presumed starters and try to see who our playmakers are and whether we have enough. But what’s a big play?

For purposes of this article, I’m going to define a defensive “big play” as a sack, forced fumble, or interception. I’ll add up each player’s total from last season, divide it by their snap count, and multiply it by 64 (the average number of defensive snaps the Cardinals played per game last season) to approximate each player’s “big play per game” rate. I’ll also show each player’s career per-game number. Finally, I’ll include a relevant former Cardinal with their last year on the team and their career number as something to compare this year’s players to.

This is far from a perfect metric. A key tackle on 4th down, a tipped pass, or a hurry that forces a bad throw can all be big plays—but those are hard to quantify. But I think this is a good starting point. So let’s dive in. I’ll take a look at all three levels of the defense, starting with the D-line.

Note: All stats from Pro Football Reference.

Defensive Line

Cardinals DL Big Plays

Player Position Sacks FF INT Total Snaps Per Game (2021) Per Game (Career)
Player Position Sacks FF INT Total Snaps Per Game (2021) Per Game (Career)
J.J. Watt (2021) DE 1 1 0 2 341 0.38 1.17
Rashard Lawrence (2021) DT 0 0 0 0 219 0.00 0.00
Zach Allen (2021) DE 4 0 1 5 685 0.47 0.34
Calais Campbell (2016) DE 8 2 1 11 830 0.85 0.93
Corey Peters (2021) DT 0 0 0 0 363 0.00 0.28

So yeah… no a great start. On average, we got less than one big play per game from our projected starting D-linemen. (If you’re wondering, Leki Fotu clocks in at 0.34 last year and 0.20 for his career with his whopping 1 career sack and 1 career FF in 650+ snaps.) Granted, not everyone can be a future Cardinals Ring of Honor player like Calais Campbell, but those numbers are ugly.

On the positive side, J.J. Watt will almost certainly be much better in his second year in the desert (he can’t get much worse). He might be able to give us Campbell-like numbers… if he stays healthy. And Zach Allen is trending in a positive direction; hopefully he can improve on last year’s career-high 4 sacks. I wouldn’t expect much out of our DTs, though. I’d settle for close to Corey Peters’s career 0.28 from Lawrence and Fotu.


Cardinals LB Big Plays

Player Position Sacks FF INT Total Snaps Per Game (2021) Per Game (Career)
Player Position Sacks FF INT Total Snaps Per Game (2021) Per Game (Career)
Markus Golden (2021) OLB 11 4 0 15 682 1.41 1.03
Isaiah Simmons (2021) ILB 1.5 4 1 6.5 1005 0.41 0.49
Zaven Colins (2021) ILB 0 0 0 0 220 0.00 0.00
Dennis Gardeck (2021) OLB 0 0 0 0 94 0.00 1.68
Chandler Jones (2021) OLB 10.5 6 0 16.5 824 1.28 1.08
Jordan Hicks (2021) ILB 4 1 0 5 1054 0.30 0.29

Let’s start with the good news: Markus Golden is a helluva football player. I would never have guessed that his and Chandler Jones’s career big play rate would be so close. He probably played a bit over his head last season, but he should approach double-digit sacks again with an increased snap count (although he’ll certainly be less efficient). And Isaiah Simmons, as maligned as he has been, will almost undoubtedly be an upgrade over Jordan Hicks (assuming he mostly plays ILB). This is the most boring prediction you’ll ever read, but expect a career year from Simmons.

Now for the… well, not necessarily bad news, but Zaven Collins and Dennis Gardeck are basically both gigantic unknowns. Collins didn’t make a single “big play” in limited snaps as a rookie. Does that mean anything moving forward? No. But it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. And Gardeck is a total wild card. He had an absurd 7 sacks in only 94(!) defensive snaps in 2020, but didn’t make a single “big play” in 173 snaps while battling injuries last season. He will not approach that career 1.68 big play number this season, but hopefully he can chip in a half-dozen sacks and another big play or two.

Defensive Backs

Cardinals DB Big Plays

Player Position Sacks FF INT Total Snaps Per Game (2021) Per Game (Career)
Player Position Sacks FF INT Total Snaps Per Game (2021) Per Game (Career)
Byron Murphy (2021) CB 0.5 1 4 5.5 967 0.36 0.19
Budda Baker (2021) S 2 0 3 5 1037 0.31 0.24
Jalen Thompson (2021) S 0 0 3 3 987 0.19 0.14
Marco Wilson (2021) CB 0 2 0 2 748 0.17 0.17
Patrick Peterson (2020) CB 0 0 3 3 1096 0.18 0.23
Tyran Mathieu (2017) S 1 1 2 4 1053 0.24 0.33

A few interesting things to note here. Both Budda Baker and Byron Murphy were pretty reliable playmakers last season—their big play rates were both right around the career number of the Honey Badger, a noted big play machine. Both were also well above their career average—can we expect continued growth in this area from both players? They’re both still young (Baker is 26, Murphy is 24). I like where they’re trending.

There’s a bit to be concerned about with the other two guys. Don’t get me wrong—Jalen Thompson is a very good football player. But he has just 4 picks in 3 seasons for a minuscule 0.14 big play rate. You often hear people decry Baker’s lack of big plays, but that criticism fits Thompson more. Perhaps he can follow in his fellow safety’s footsteps and increase his number of big plays—all 5 of Baker’s career INTs have come in the past two seasons. And if you needed another reason to be concerned about Marco Wilson as our CB2, this is it. Granted, he was a mid-round rookie thrust into starting duties unexpectedly, but he did not have a good—or even mediocre—rookie season. He was bad. He’ll get better, but by how much, and how soon?

Final Thoughts

Add up the numbers from all of our 2021 starters, and we had a little over 5 “big plays” per game (5.28). Can we equal or better than number in 2022? Let’s do some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations.

Cardinals Projected 2022 Defensive Big Plays

Player Position Per Game (2022) Notes
Player Position Per Game (2022) Notes
J.J. Watt DE 0.9 Regression toward career number
Rashard Lawrence DT 0.25 Similar to Corey Peters
Zach Allen DE 0.55 Assume slightly positive growth
Markus Golden OLB 1.1 Slightly better than career number
Isaiah Simmons ILB 0.55 Slightly better than career number
Zaven Colins ILB 0.3 Similar to Jordan Hicks
Dennis Gardeck OLB 0.6 Close to half of Chandler Jones
Byron Murphy CB 0.35 Repeat of last year’s production
Budda Baker S 0.35 Close to Honey Badger numbers
Jalen Thompson S 0.25 Slight uptick in production
Marco Wilson CB 0.2 Not expecting much
Total 5.4 Slightly better than last year

While this is far from a best-case scenario, it is on the optimistic side. Watt might not be able to regain his past form. Allen might regress. Gardeck could struggle. The entire defensive backfield could fall off from last season. But I think this represents a fairly reasonable projection… and it’s right about the same number as last season.

So: Does the defense have enough playmakers?

I think you can count on Watt (when he’s healthy), and Golden, who’s better than you think. Simmons has a chance to really improve. Baker and Murphy have already improved. That’s five guys who have a chance to make a game-changing play every week.

Beyond that… we have two solid guys who don’t really wow you with big plays (Allen and Thompson), two complete question marks (Collins and Gardeck), and two likely below-average starters (Lawrence and Wilson).

Will this group be able to create enough big plays to keep us in games while we weather the DeAndre Hopkins suspension? If Kyler gets hurt again? Will they be able to get off the field when we really need to in big games? Will this defense actually be able to win us a game or two if the offense sputters?

I’ll admit: I actually feel a bit more confident in this unit that I did before I started researching and writing this piece. Vance Joseph has worked magic with flawed units in the past, and I think he can do it again. I don’t think this’ll be an above-average defense, but I’d settle for average. I think that’s achievable.

As long as Watt stays healthy. And Simmons and Collins improve. And we get *something* out of the likes of Lawrence, Gardeck, and Wilson. (Not to mention bench guys like Fotu, Cameron Thomas/Myjai Sanders, and Devon Kennard… plus whoever plays slot CB.)

That’s a lot of ifs. But I think this defense has a chance to be better than a lot of people expect.