The most encouraging defensive improvement the Cardinals have made over the past two weeks has been at the second and third levels of their pass coverage.
Up until the past two games the Cardinals had a team pass coverage grade in the high 40s, which ranked them #31 in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus.
Yet after the past two weeks, the team pass coverage grade has climbed to 51.7.
The improvement is particularly significant because up until recently, one perhaps had good reasons to be concerned about the front office’s decision to hire a defensive-minded head coach—- who cut his teeth as a defensive back coach —-in light of the fact that after 6 games, his pass coverage with the Cardinals had been so alarmingly inept.
Thankfully, in light of the last two games, Jonathan Gannon and his DC Nick Rallis (aka Batman and Robin) have now proven that they have the ability to run a successful secondary school.
A significant part of the credit for the Cardinals’ improvement has been Budda Baker’s return from the IR, Garrett Williams’ return from the NFI list, the emergence of waiver wire claim Starling Thomas V (pictured above) and a suddenly prolific array of cover linebackers.
Coming into last week’s home game versus the Baltimore Ravens, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ offense, which has been opened up brilliantly by their new OC Todd Monken, were boasting a top 3 passing attack in the NFL.
During the Ravens’ stunning 38-6 rout of the then roaring 5-1 Detroit Lions, they amassed 357 passing yards at a whopping 17.0 average per catch (21) and 3 touchdowns. Lamar Jackson’s quarterback rating (QBR) in that game was a near perfect 95.8.
Fast forward to the Ravens’ game versus the Cardinals last week and the Ravens’ passing game was limited by the suddenly sticky Cardinals’ defense to 157 yards at an average of 8.7 yards per catch (17) and 1 TD, while Lamar Jackson’s QBR plummeted to 39.5.
Essentially the Cardinals were able to cutie half all of the Ravens’ key passing game stats that they amassed versus the Lions —- in fact in many cases, by well more than half.
Look at the Cardinals’ individual coverage grades last week:
- 88.5 —-Josh Woods —- 45 snaps
- 86.2 —- Starling Thomas V —- 17 snaps
- 77.2 —- Dennis Gardeck —- 30 snaps
- 75.4 —- Zaven Collins —- 42 snaps
- 72.2 —- Budda Baker —- 65 snaps
- 70.4 —- Garrett Williams —- 36 snaps
- 70.4 —- Jalen Thompson —- 64 snaps
- 55.2 —- Kyzir White —-59 snaps
- 54.1 —- Marco Wilson —- 59 snaps
- 46.3 —- Antonio Hamilton Jr. —- 54 snaps
Those are —- by far —- the highest collected individual pass coverage grades of any game this season for the 1-7 Cardinals.
The irony is that Kyzir White’s forte at ILB thus far in his career has been in pass coverage —- and Antonio Hamilton was not only the Cardinals’ highest graded cover CB last season at 69.4, up until this game with the Ravens, he had been the highest graded cover corner on this year’s team (for players of over 150 snaps) at 64.5.
As by now we well know, the CB who has struggled the most week after week has been starting RCB Marco Wilson. His pass coverage grades have plummeted from 61.2 last season to 39.6 this season. While anxious and fed-up fans have been clamoring for Gannon and Rallis to start another player at RCB—- apparently the Dynamic Duo is intent on keeping Wilson on the field for the vast majority of the defensive snaps. Interestingly, Wilson’s best pass coverage game this season (74.2) was against the Cowboys this season —- during the team’s lone win.
Meanwhile, once promising 6th-round pick Kei’Trel Clark has been left twisting in the wind. Last week he was a healthy scratch, finding himself for the first time this season on the game inactive list.
In fact, Kei’Trel Clark hasn’t played a snap since being yanked out of the Rams’ game after giving up a 49-yard bomb in single coverage versus Cooper Kupp, that was without any free safety help —- and then minutes later giving up a 13-yardout-pass TD at the pylon to Kupp while having to shade inside leverage because of no immediate linebacker or safety help to his side.
As I have been arguing ever since, at this point in Kei’Trel Clark’s young career, expecting his to hold up in single coverage against Cooper Kupp, on an island, with no safety help, is preposterous. Kupp routinely beats CBs who are given safety help, which he did so spectacularly as MVP of Super Bowl LVI.
When one compares Kei’Trel Clark’s effort and disposition to Marco Wilson’s —- Clark’s tenacity and aggressiveness is apparent, while Wilson looks demoralized and especially penalty prone (his 4 penalties lead all Cardinals’ defenders —- while Clark has only 1).
One would hope that as the season progresses, the coaches will give Clark a second chance to prove his value.
According to Jonathan Gannon, Clark will get some PT:
Starling Thomas V is aggressive in jumping routes, as we saw versus the Ravens. Not only that, did you see the big tackle he made on Rashard Bateman to keep him 3 yards from converting a 3rd and 8? His tackling grade in the game was 72.5. And his overall grade of 84.0 was the highest on the team.
So proud of Starling Thomas V@starling__4— Just Win Management Group (@JustWinMGMT) October 22, 2023
From going undrafted a few months ago to making his first NFL start at corner today. It’s a testament to his relentless work ethic & perseverance #LetsWinTogether #MDFNATION pic.twitter.com/3ngEtaywUd
Garrett Williams is smooth and especially savvy for a rookie. His versatility as a nickel CB and 2nd and 3rd level safety is just what the Cardinals have needed. Budda Baker sums up the package of skills that Garrett Williams brings to the Cardinals talent here;
Look at the outstanding read and help Garrett Williams gave on this play versus the Seahawks, in picking up his first NFL interception:
Garrett Williams would've been a 1st round pick if it wasn't for the injury. Could end up being a major steal.— Erimus Sports (@ErimusSports) October 25, 2023
Be a major plus for this season if he can settle into the secondary #BirdGang https://t.co/3F7SQtpZn4
Being able to use Garrett Williams at slot CB has, at times, enabled Nick Rallis to use Jalen Thompson as a box safety. Jalen had a big game versus the Ravens. Here Nick Rallis highlights one the biggest stops the defense made in the game:
"That's what Cardinals Defense is all about. That's who we are." pic.twitter.com/U1Cqnubt0e— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) November 1, 2023
Box safety is where Jalen Thompson can be a dominant force opposite Budda Baker.
As for Budda Baker, it is exciting to think that Monti Ossenfort and Jonathan Gannon have now understood why Budda Baker is the key to turning around the Cardinals’ defense. Feast your eyes on this one of Brian Baldinger’s breakdowns:
You just know that the Cardinals were getting phone blitzed by teams this past week for trade offers involving Budda Baker.Yet...
To add to the encouraging improvements the Cardinals made on defense last week, it feels especially auspicious and encouraging to think that Budda Baker, 27, in his 7th season with the Cardinals with 5 Pro Bowls and 3 NFL All-Pro team nods , looks like he could remain the alpha baller in Arizona for years to come.
And now that the Cardinals’ secondary school is in full session, a salient argument can be made that Professor Budda Baker is worthy of a life-time tenure.