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Time for a Defensive Intervention

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

Here is further proof of how woefully unprepared Vance Joseph had his defense versus the Rams, not only in play recognition, but in key personnel decisions.

Four years into the job, one would think that by now Vance Joseph and his players would be keenly aware of and even locked into defending Sean McVay’s bread and butter plays.

Earlier in the week, we discussed one of McVay’s pet plays: the jet sweep to Cooper Kupp.

There was no play recognition here at all by the Cardinals’ defense. To make matters worse, the Cardinals did not have their best 11 defensive players on the field at this critical early juncture of the game, when for three games in a row the Cardinals’ opponents were scoring with relative ease on their first quarter possessions of the game. Moreover, Vance Joseph had put players like CB Jace Whittaker, DT Leki Fotu and LB Ben Neimann in positions where they were least likely to succeed.

If you know Sean McVay’s bread and butter plays, then you know that the next time around in a similar situation using the same formation and sprint motion for Cooper Kupp to his left, then you know that McVay would likely call:

  • his patented off-tackle play (that has a cutback option) for RB Darrell Henderson Jr.
  • the tight end “slip screen” to Tyler Higbee

Have a look at what happened:

The fact is, while the Cardinals did a better job of shifting their ILB (Neimann) and FS (Baker) with Kupp’s motion, there is absolutely no play recognition by Jace Whittaker, who, once again didn’t chase Kupp in motion. Whittaker should be keying on TE Higbee so that he can get to Higbee on the pass —- otherwise —- this is an easy chunk yard play.

What is so especially annoying about both of these gift plays the Cardinals gave the Rams is that when Jace Whittaker did not chase Cooper Kupp on either occasion, it told the Rams that the Cardinals were in zone coverage —- and of all the Cardinals’ defenders whom Vance Joseph had to choose from —- Jace Whittaker, at his size and strength, is about the least likely to be able to establish decent contain on the play or aggressively snuff out the play from his zone responsibility in the flat.

Jace Whittaker’s value is as a man-to-man slot CB versus small, quick receivers.

While Whittaker did not anticipate the play, to his credit, he at least tried to keep contain in order to turn the play toward the inside help —- but —-as for the inside help —-the ILB had too far to travel having shifted toward Kupp —- the CB to that side, Byron Murphy, turned his back to the play in covering the WR to that side (which in zone is a big mistake —- from his deep third zone, Murphy needed to backpedal and keep everything in front of him so that he could react quicker to the play —- thus, he winds up in no man’s land —- and therefore, the only other defender to stop the ball was SS Jalen Thompson, who makes a good tackle, albeit after a hefty 26 yard gain.

It is such a rip-off to the team that Isaiah Simmons wasn’t on the field in Jace Whittaker’s place and was only used in 33% of the Cardinals’ defensive plays. This game versus the Rams, the defense didn’t have to cover a stud TE like Travis Kelce or Darren Waller —- Tyler Higbee and Ben Skwronek are solid players, but certainly not elite —- and yet look at what Vance Joseph’s defense allowed to these two TEs:

  • Ben Skwronek: 4 targets —- 4 receptions —- 66 yards —- 16.5 ave, —- long of 32
  • Tyler Higbee: 4 targets —- 4 receptions —-61 yards —- 15.3 ave. —- long of 26

This is thoroughly inexcusable. Combined, this is the same TE production the Chiefs got versus Joseph’s “great plan” for covering Travis Kelce with an array of different defenders.

What’s even worse is the relative ease in which Skwronek and Higbee were able to get open, particularly on screen passes that Stafford could complete, even side-armed, any time he wanted.

Look at this:

How often do you see the Cardinals lay a chip block on a DE like this from Skwronek? And look at how easy it was for Skwronek to spring open after pancaking JJ Watt. Credit Zach Allen for getting pressure on Stafford and Jace Whittaker and Budda Baker to combine on the tackle, but, just as it was for too many of Josephs’ soft zone plays, this was too little too late..

Not only has Cardinals DC Vance Joseph been messing with some of his players’ heads, he’s been messing big-time with GM Steve Keim. Not just this year —- but for years.

Cases in point:

  • Two years ago in Carolina, with Budda Baker out for the game, Joseph decided to start Curtis Riley, a street free agent, who has just joined the team a couple weeks earlier. Here was an excellent opportunity to turn to Isaiah Simmons, the most versatile defender in the 2020 NFL Draft and yet Joseph plays Riley after a couple weeks of practice ahead of Simmons. You might recall, that Riley was getting exposed in pass coverage big-time during that 31-21 loss. It was ugly. And you can’t really blame Riley.
  • Last season in Week 18 with a chance to win the NFC West at home versus the 6-10 Seahawks, with Robert Alford out for the season, again, instead of turning to Isaiah Simmons and his positional versatility, Joseph elected to start CB Breon Borders (another street free agent recently added to the roster) vs. Russell Wilson and company. Predictably, Borders (34.9 coverage grade) struggled big-time with Russell Wilson keenly targeting him and gave up 2 TDs during the Cardinals’ extremely disappointing 38-30 loss to the Seahawks.
  • A week later in the playoffs, Joseph’s benching of Isaiah Simmons created a rift between the coach and the player. It was a totally unnecessary and horrible untimely distraction for the defense that took some of the attention and excitement away from the heroic return of JJ Watt.
  • This season, Isaiah Simmons, under Vance Joseph is now a part-time player who plays less than 50% of the snaps, in favor of giving higher numbers of snaps to Jace Whittaker and the combination of Nick Vigil and Ben Neimann. This is absolutely insane.
  • Last year and this year with Zaven Collins —- Joseph defied Keim’s intention to have Collins, the unanimous 2020 1st Team All-American ILB and winner of the Bronco Nagurski Award winner as the best defensive player in college football, be an immediate starter at MIKE ILB. After a year of yo-yo-ing Collins in and out of the games, Joseph agreed to start him, only now he’s no longer playing steady reps at MIKE in favor of playing Nick Vigil and Ben Neimann. This makes no sense.
  • This year the Cardinals drafted 3 edge players, two in the 3rd round. Yet, Cameron Thomas has been given a paltry 8 snaps in 3 games, while the Cardinals’ most promising pre-season edge rusher, Myjai Sanders, has not even been activated for a game as of yet.
  • Bob McManaman of azcentral, in consulting with Myjai Sanders, reported yesterday: “Sanders has gone through a wave of thoughts and emotions, but smartly is just trying to control what he can control. Sanders said, ‘I’m just waiting for the opportunity and the right time and make sure when I get in, I’ll have my role on the team. I’m just practicing hard every day and being ready for that role.’ ”
  • Sauce Gardner and Myjai Sanders were the best players on a dominant Cincinnati defense the past three years. Sanders is a gamer—-if only the coaches wouldn’t get in his way.,
  • Meanwhile the Cardinals’ edge rushers have 0 sacks in 3 games. DT JJ Watt has the team’s only 2 sacks.
  • Last week Joseph refused to play Trayvon Mullen who has been with the team for a month now. Inexcusable. He could have made a huge difference and significant talent upgrade..

Disturbing Pattern:

Vance Joseph plays less talented players ahead of promising draft picks —- as if to say to Steve Keim —- this is your fault.

Time for a Defensive Intervention:

If you are Steve Keim, how can you sit by and watch this debacle unfold day after day and game after game? How much more humiliation and demoralization should the Cardinals young, promising defensive players have to take? We watched the Chiefs give 6 rookies meaningful defensive snaps during their impressive 44-21 win in Week 1. Then, per usual, we watched the Rams start Derrion Kendrick, another of their yearly rookie mid-rounders (6th round) in their 20-12 win this past week.

If Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim don’t want to let Vance Joseph and ILB coach Billy Davis go at this time (for whatever reasons), then the least they can do is conduct an intervention.

If it were up to me and I was the GM, I would explain to Vance Joseph that this is your starting lineup (with “next man up” at each position):

  • LDE: Markus Golden (Cameron Thomas)
  • LDT: Zach Allen (Leki Fotu)
  • RDT: JJ Watt (Michael Dogbe)
  • RDE: Victor Dimukeje (Myjai Sanders)
  • LOLB: Isaiah Simmons (Ben Neimann)
  • MILB: Zaven Collins (Chandler Wooten)
  • ROLB: Dennis Gardeck (Jesse Luketa)
  • LCB: Trayvon Mullen (Christian Matthew)
  • SS: Jalen Thompson (Josh Thomas)
  • FS: Budda Baker (Chris Banjo)
  • RCB: Byron Murphy (Marco Wilson)

Short Yardage and Goal-line:

  • DE Devon Kennard in
  • ILB Tanner Vallejo in
  • DT Antwaan Woods in

Make predetermined man-to-man matchups/assignments and stick with them so that the coverage can get stronger and stronger as the game goes on. Play a far more steady diet of man coverage, the old “hat on a hat.”

This Week Vs. CAR

  • LWR D.J. Moore (Rashard Higgins) —- Byron Murphy
  • RWR Robbie Anderson (Leviska Shenault) —- Trayvon Mullen
  • SWR Shia Smith (Terrace Marshall) —- Jalen Thompson
  • TE Ian Thomas (Tommy Tremble) —- Isaiah Simmons

Alternate Dennis Gardeck and Isaiah Simmons as blitzers to create immense pressure on Baker Mayfield. Let’s get the team first sack from the edge —- and more.

Having two outstanding athletes like Gardeck and Simmons at OLB should be a huge help in working contain and busting up screens before they get started. Cardinals have to stop getting torched on the perimeter.

Keep as much continuity as possible. Let the players dig in to win their assignments.

GMs have the power to dictate the personnel and preferred assignments.

Is it too much to ask a defensive coordinator to put the team’s best 11 players on the field, give them sound assignments, make the style of play aggressive, and keep them on the field as much as possible?

Weird that one would ever have to ask (or have to tell) an NFL DC to do that.