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Are there any bright spots on this Arizona Cardinals defense?

The defense has been bad this year—there’s no other way of putting it. But that doesn’t mean the defense doesn’t have any good players. Here are a few that have stood out this season.

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NFL: New England Patriots at Arizona Cardinals
Has Jalen Thompson overtaken Budda Baker as the best safety on the team—and the best defender, period?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The season started out promising enough for the Arizona Cardinals defense under new HC Jonathan Gannon and new DC Nick Rallis. In Week 1, the feisty-looking unit held the Washington Commanders to just 248 yards of offense, forced three turnovers, and racked up six sacks. Early returns on the new-look defense staff were encouraging.

But, as we found out, the Commanders weren’t a very good football team… and the Cardinals defense was a pretty hapless unit. The defense has basically been a sieve except for a few games here and there: we somehow held Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens in check in a Week 8 loss, harassed Desmond Ridder and the Atlanta Falcons in Week 10, and shut down the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 13 (aided, of course, but weather, delays, and Mitch Trubisky).

Other than that, the defense has given up 400+ yards five times, and 380+ three more times. Sandwiched around that Steelers game were perhaps the two worst games of the season: 37 points and 457 yards to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 12 and 45 points and 406 yards to the San Francisco 49ers last week.

The overall numbers are pretty ugly. See for yourself:

Cardinals Defensive Ranks

Stat Total Rank
Stat Total Rank
Points Against 26.9 31
Total YPG 358.9 25
Pass YPG 219.3 13
Rush YPG 139.6 31
Sacks 32 23
Takeaways 15 25

You might see that #13 pass defense and think, “Hey, that’s one bright spot!” But that ranking is a total mirage:

Cardinals Pass Defense Ranks

Stat Total Rank
Stat Total Rank
Pass Attempts 427 29
Completion % 69.6 31
Yards/Attempt 7.7 29
TDs 26 29
Passer Rating 103.8 31

We’ve faced the fourth-fewest passes in the league because 1) it’s so easy to run on us, and 2) we’re rarely ahead to force teams to pass. But when teams do pass against us we offer precious little resistance—QBs carve us up like a Christmas ham.

But have there been any bright spots on what has been one of the worst defenses in the league this season? Well, it depends on your definition of “bright,” but there have been a few players that stand out above the rest. I took a peek under the hood at the Cardinals PFF defensive grades and found a few players worth highlighting. Let’s take a look at each level of the defense and see who has graded the best. Remember that 60+ is average and 70+ is above average per PFF’s grading system. Which players have been bright spots, relatively speaking, on this much-maligned unit?

Key: Player (Overall Defense, Rush Defense, Pass Rush, Coverage)

Defensive Line

  • DT Ray Lopez (69.5 / 68.0 / 62.9 / 68.5)

Defensive line is a perfect example of a bright spot being relative. The anonymous Lopez (released by the Houston Texans and signed to the practice squad in September) is the only D-lineman to grade above the low-60s. Dante Stills and Carlos Watkins both grade in the low-60s and everyone else is in the 50s or lower, so Lopez looks like Aaron Donald next to most of them. He’s probably no more than a solid rotational piece, but hey, it’s something.

  • DT Leki Fotu (45.7 / 40.5 / 53.1 / 83.2)

Just kidding! Fotu has played poorly—hence the 45.7 grade. But if I asked you who had the highest coverage grade on the team, how many guesses would it take you before you said Fotu? 25? 30? 33? (That’s the number of players who have played a defensive snap for the Cardinals this season.) Who knows how PFF landed on that number—maybe he’s blown up a couple middle screens or something. But just thought that was a funny factoid.

Linebackers/Edge

  • ILB Krys Barnes (73.4 / 62.6 / 50.6 / 77.8)

Barnes has mostly been a fill-in player behind Kyzir White and Josh Woods, but he has vastly outplayed both of them per PFF. Woods is actually the last-ranked LB in the NFL (80th out of 80) and White has not been able to replicate the success he had in Philadelphia last season under Gannon and Rallis. Barnes has been adequate against the run but has excelled against the pass. He looks poised for a larger role with Woods hitting IR.

  • OLB Dennis Gardeck (71.4 / 53.8 / 78.0 / 69.5)
  • OLB BJ Ojulari (66.2 / 52.0 / 73.2 / 64.5)
  • OLB Victor Dimukeje (68.2 / 58.6 / 69.8 / 66.5)

I’ll lump these three guys together since they’ve been similar players so far. They don’t do much in the run game but are decent in coverage when asked—and they really get after the QB. These three guys lead the team in sacks—Gardeck with 5 and Ojulari and Dimukeje with 4 each. This trio looks like the core of a decent pass rush, and I’m intrigued to see what they could do with stronger D-line play in front of them. Hopefully that will be the case next year.

  • OLB Zaven Collins (75.3 / 78.1 / 65.2 / 65.3)

Collins has had a funky year after being moved to the edge in the offseason. He hasn’t really done a ton as a pass rusher—he has 3.5 sacks, which is tied for third on the team with Dante Stills. Like the three guys above, he hasn’t been asked to cover much but has been adequate there. But he has—by far—the highest grade against the run on the team and is actually the highest-graded defender overall, just ahead of Barnes and Jalen Thompson. I wonder if the team considers moving him back to the ILB slot given his success against the run and Woods’ struggles/injury. Either way, I think there’s more to be told of Collins’s story.

Secondary

  • CB Antonio Hamilton (63.7 / 50.3 / 55.2 / 66.7)

Like D-line, cornerback is largely a wasteland. Five guys have played 300+ snaps: Marco Wilson, Kei’Trel Clark, Hamilton, Garrett Williams, and Starling Thomas, in order. Hamilton is the only one who even grades as average. Wilson has been a disaster—ranking 117th out of 119 CBs—and Thomas hasn’t been much better. Clark and Williams (in the 50s) have had rookie growing pains, but at least Williams’s play has been semi-encouraging. But the journeyman Hamilton has been the best of the bunch—and even then, he’s only been league average (61st out of 119 CBs). But you’ll take what you can get, I suppose.

  • S Budda Baker (67.1 / 67.5 / 51.0 / 65.8)

Budda will likely see his five-year Pro Bowl streak come to an end this season as he has struggled with injuries and poor play around him. He’s still been a solid player for the most part but he might be giving way to Thompson as the defense’s best player. Perhaps the new system is just more conducive to free safeties than strong safeties (remember how good C.J. Gardner-Johnson looked for the Eagles last year?)

  • S Jalen Thompson (73.3 / 57.5 / 73.6 / 77.8)

As mentioned above, Collins has been the team’s highest-graded defensive player, but it’s probably Thompson who has been the unit’s best overall player. He’s second on the team in tackles (52, 1 behind White), leads the team in INTs with 3, and has thrown in a 4 TFLs, a sack, and a FF for good measure. Nobody from this mostly god-awful unit should even sniff the Pro Bowl, but if anyone is deserving, it’s Thompson.

Final Thoughts

It’s clear that this team needs a massive infusion of talent on the defense, especially at the D-line and cornerback positions. It’s a good thing we have a ton of cap space and draft picks to start that process in the offseason. But we at least have a decent pass rush rotation and two solid safeties (if we don’t trade Budda). That’s a starting point.

For now, it’s your turn, RotBers. Vote for the Cardinals defensive MVP in the poll and let us know which other players have caught your eye on defense this season.

Poll

Who has been the Cardinals’ defensive MVP so far?

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    Budda Baker
    (25 votes)
  • 4%
    Zaven Collins
    (10 votes)
  • 10%
    Dennis Gardeck
    (23 votes)
  • 51%
    Jalen Thompson
    (111 votes)
  • 15%
    Kyzir White
    (34 votes)
  • 5%
    Other
    (12 votes)
215 votes total Vote Now