Background: Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Nick Rallis is introduced at the Cardinals facility in Tempe on Feb. 22, 2023. Nfl Arizona Cardinals Defensive Coordinator Nick Rallis Introduced.Joe Rondone/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK.
Last season, the Cardinals’ defense was 31st in the league in defending the opposing passers, registering a QBR of 98.2. Only the Raiders’ defensive QBR of 98.8 was worse.
Conversely, under DC Jonathan Gannon and LB coach Nick Rallis last season, their Eagles’ defense had the 5th best defensive QBR in the NFL at 82.4.
The minute Nick Rallis was hired by Jonathan Gannon to be the Cardinals’ new DC, he went right to work in trying to address the Cardinals pass coverage woes.
One of the Cardinals’ defense’s most conspicuous weaknesses was their inability to apply consistently solid pass coverage from the slot. As many of you know, this as been a bone of contention for me for years. I call covering the slot “cracking the code.” If you can’t cover the slot...you can’t compete for a Lombardi Trophy.
It was absolutely mind-boggling for the past four years to watch the NFC West slot receivers, like Cooper Kupp, Tyler Lockett, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Christian McCaffrey have their way with the Cardinals’ secondary versus sloppy man coverage and soft zone schemes —- and yet, year after year —- make no serious personnel and/or scheme adjustments to address such a glaring deficiency.
Last season, perhaps still uncertain of where and how to play 2020 1st round pick Isaiah Simmons, Vance Joseph decided to use Simmons as the team’s primary slot CB. Simmons is a superior athlete, but his lanky frame makes it difficult for him to flip his hips and redirect his feet on a dime in order to “recover” from the slot. Simmons is made to order for covering TEs. But, asking him to cover quick-twitch slot WRs is not the definition of “putting the player in the best positions to succeed.”
Then, as was evidenced last year down the stretch during the Cardinals gut-wrenching 25-24 home loss to the LA Chargers, Joseph was asking Simmons to cover RB Austin Ekeler on one play, then WR DeAndre Carter on another and then, with the game on the line when the Chargers chose to go for the 2 point conversion with the score 24-23 Arizona, Simmons was assigned to cover TE Gerald Everett on a play where Simmons first had to key on a potential off-tackle run and then find Everett who niftily took one step to the outside and then slid to the inside where a path was cleared by the twin receiver to his side, making it an easy pitch and catch conversion and leaving Simmons exasperated.
The fact that Simmons was assigned to such a variety of receivers during that game and others was very troubling.
The only solace for the Cardinals in their inability to cover the slot was knowing that Budda Baker, who has a knack for covering up his team’s defensive deficiencies, would be able to take the romance out of wide open quick slants or crossers. Jalen Thompson has also been able to make receivers hear footsteps from time to time. But, this also comes at a price, because if the safeties are having to key on slot WRs, then it puts them as a disadvantage for providing third level help on go patterns and deep post routes. Defending deep passes was also a defensive weakness under Joseph —- but it all goes back to not having a dependable slot CB.
Slot CB Additions:
- 2023 UFA CB Rashad Fenton —- Atlanta
- 2023 R3 CB Garrett Williams —- Syracuse
- 2023 R6 CB Kei’Trel Clark —- Louisville
- 2023 CFA DB Kendell Brooks —- Michigan St.
- 2023 CFA CB Quavian White —- Georgia St.
These five DBs have the kind of versatility that Jonathan Gannon and Nick Rallis covet, especially because of their ability to play slot CB.
While the Cardinals believe Garrett Williams has the ability to thrive in the slot, he rarely if ever played the slot at Syracuse. The strength oof his game with The Orange was in off the ball coverage on the perimeter where he has excellent instincts and a nose for the ball.
Lindy’s 2023 NFL Draft Preview also projected Williams as good fit in the slot, in addition to having value on the perimeter. They comped him to former Steeler Bryant McFadden —- “McFadden came into the league in 2005 with quality size and speed but spent most of his time playing at a high level in the slot. While Williams offers versatility to play inside and out, a similar overlap of skills could make him produce at a similar level as McFadden.”
Conversely, Kei’Trel Clark saw a copious number of reps at slot CB (252 last season) and was a highly productive inside/outside CB for the Louisville Cardinals. Coincidentally, Lindy’s comp for Clarke is Avonte Maddox, who was JG’s best slot CB in Philly. “Clark isn’t quite as polished as Maddox was coming out of Pittsburgh, but the blend of twitch and energy will be enticing, despite his tiny frame. Maddox has started 36 games over his five years as a pro, but injuries have led to missed time almost every year, and Clark could face similar concerns due to his frame.”
In Nick Rallis’ system, he prefers to have his boundary CBs play off the ball in man and zone coverage. The belief is that off ball coverage allows the CBs better and quicker reads on the QB. Rallis wants ball hawks who can force the run and bust up screen with pure aggression and tenacity.
Ourlad’s currently lists Antonio Hamilton and Marco Wilson as the starters at LCB and RCB respectively. But, in order to earn the starting jobs under the new coaching staff, Hamilton. and Wilson are going to have to prove they can be dependable run forcers and screen busters, in addition to playing commendable man and zone coverage.
2022 Tackling Grades for Cardinals CBs:
- Isaiah Simmons: 63.0
- Antonio Hamilton: 59.4
- Byron Murphy: 56.8
- Christian Matthew: 50.1
- Marco Wilson: 38.9
- Trayvon Mullen: 27.5
This is unacceptable. And it is not going to fly with JG and Rallis.
The best tackler in the current Cb room is Rashad Fenton....by far. 2022 was an anomaly for Fenton, as he suffered through a groin injury in training camp and then a hamstring injury that caused him to missed a number of games after the Chiefs traded him to the Falcons.
Rashad Fenton’s tackling grades:
- 2022: KC/ATL —- 56.2
- 2021: KC —- 90.5
- 2020: KC —- 87.8
- 2019: KC —- 86.2
Yesterday the Cardinals added CB Bobby Price (6-3, 208) whose forte with the Lions in limited snaps was his tackling and physical brand of football. Price’s tackling grades: 2022: 75.2; 2021: 69.3. Cardinals’ assistant GM Dave Sears knows Price well from their days with the Lions. The question is —- can he cover well enough to warrant consistent snaps in Arizona?
The team also added another physical CB in Dylan Maybin (6-1, 190) who had 19 snaps on defense with the Vikings in 2020 and earned a 75.1 tackling grade.
If Nick Rallis does not get the kind of run forcing and off ball coverage from a number of the CBs on the roster, would it be out of the question for Rallis to try Isaiah Simmons at boundary CB? Simmons is physically suited, virtually to a tee, for how Rallis wants his boundary CBs to play. I could see Rallis giving Simmons as shot at boundary CB.
Linebackers Who Can Cover
Here is another aspect of defense that Nick Rallis stresses —- he wants linebackers who can flat-out cover. This is why JG and Rallis are so high on UFA addition Kyzir White (6-2, 234). White is a converted safety who thrived in JG’s weak side LB role. Throughout his 5 years career with the Chargers and Eagles, he has scored consistently in the mid to high 60s in pass coverage while being a consistently reliable tackler.
if you heard Nick Rallis rave about 5ht Round pick Owen Pappoe (6-0, 225), not only is he one fo the fastest (4.39) ILB prospects in the NFL, he used his speed and athleticism to earn an outstanding 77.2 coverage grade this past season at Auburn. While Pappoe took most of his snaps (687 snaps) at ILB, he also played 92 snaps in the slot. To earn that kind of coverage grade in the SEC is auspicious.
Rallis has been giving UFA LB addition Josh Woods (6-1, 230) a good deal of reps at ILB during OTAs. Woods has not graded well at any facet of ILB during his career, but he’s only had 173 career snaps. Perhaps, Nick Rallis sees something similar in Josh Woods to what he saw in T.J. Edwards (6-1, 242) .Under Rallis tutelage, look at the improvements Edwards made, grades-wise, over his two seasons with JG and Rallis:
- Edwards’ 2020 coaches: DC Jim Schwartz, LBC ken Flajole
- Edwardsa; 2021-2022 coaches: DC: Jonathan Gannon; LBC Nick Rallis
- Overall Grade: 2020 (Shwartz DC) —- 66.5; 2021 —- 75.5; 2022 —- 81.6
- Run Defense Grade: 2020 —- 62.6; 2021 —- 76.6; 2022 —-79.0
- Pass Coverage: 2020 —- 63.6; 2021 —- 68.9; 2022 —- 78.4
Man, talk about player development. T.J. Edwards was a 2019 undrafted free agent. What a phenomenal job JG and Nick Rallis did with him. This off-season, Edwards signed a 3 year deal with the Bears for $19M with $12M guaranteed.
The Cardinals signed an undrafted free aent ILB who could be one of the team’s top surprises in training camp:
- Marvin Pierre (6-1, 222, Kent St.)
- Kyle Soelle (6-2, 232, Arizona St,) whom the coaches like a lot.
This young man’s leadership is off the charts. The Cardinals’ coaches like Soelle a lot.
ROTB Question of the Day:
Whom do you see starting for the Cardinals at:
- RCB: _________________________________________
- LCB: _________________________________________
- NCB: _________________________________________
- ILB (opposite Kyzir White): ________________________________________
- RCB: Rashad Fenton
- LCB: Garrett Williams
- NCB: Kei’Trel Clark
- ILB (opposite Kyzir White): Owen Pappoe
Like the KC Chiefs on defense last season, I believe the Cardinals will play the rookies from day one.