The Arizona Cardinals defense has been solid for the better part of the decade. Whether it has been Todd Bowles or James Bettcher, the unit has been productive. The Cardinals over the years have referred to “Protecting the nest” on defense. In 2017 the offense often sputtered and needed the defense to fix any problems. Today we take a look at the numbers for Bettcher’s bunch and how the year shaped up.
Running Into a Wall
The Cardinals finished the season with eight wins and eight losses. The offense was putrid through most of the season, but the defense held strong through most of the year. It can be said that numbers never lie, but the truth is that numbers never paint the whole picture. The defense finished sixth in the NFL in total yards surrendered at 4,975. Arizona’s defense smothered opposing offenses. To further break down the yardage numbers, Arizona allowed 310.9 yards per game, and 4.9 yards per play. The per play number put the Cardinals at the third spot behind the Jaguars and Vikings with 4.6 yards per play. The Cardinals defense played 14 more snaps than the Jaguars and 51 more snaps than the Vikings.
Being a top 10 defense in yardage means stopping the run and suffocating the airways. The run defense ranked sixth in the NFL, allowing just 1,434 yards, at 89.6 yards per game. That is a per attempt average of 3.5, good enough for third in the league. It is telling that a team successful against the run would have their inside linebacker lead the team in tackles. Karlos Dansby finished the 2017 season with 74 solo tackles and 21 assists. As a unit, the Cardinals had seven players finish with 40 or more tackles and two more with 30 or more.
Stopping the run leads to long passing situations. The Cardinals struggled a bit more in this aspect but still finished middle of the pack with 3,541 yards through the air. They ranked 14th, but managed to give up just 221.3 yards per game. The main issue for Arizona was giving up chunk yardage late in the game when in the lead. The defense would go into a soft zone coverage to minimize deep passing and give up the yardage. When operating in an aggressive fashion. Bettcher’s unit disrupted the quarterback and blanketed receivers. The defense finished ranked 12th in the NFL with 15 interceptions. Antoine Bethea claimed five of those, playing his best season in recent memory in his first season in Arizona.
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The interceptions demonstrate the talent in the secondary for Arizona as the pass rush was average at best. The Cardinals ranked 18th in the NFL with 37 sacks on the season. Nearly half of them, 17 to be exact, came from Chandler Jones. The outside linebacker was a pass rushing demon who produced without significant assistance from the opposite side. The highest sack number outside of Jones was Olsen Pierre’s 5.5. No other player reached three sacks for the season.
Leaks on the Ship
The Cardinals defense is a bit of a statistical anomaly. In terms of yards, the unit rank as a top 10 defense in the NFL. However, when looking at points surrendered, the team ranks 19th with 361 points scored by opponents. In the real world the only thing that matters is the scoreboard. The Cardinals have surrendered an average of 22.6 points per game. In the red zone, opposing offenses scored at an alarming 58.7 percent rate. That puts the unit in the bottom 10 in the league. It is difficult to win games when giving up points at better than coin flip odds when inside of the 20 yard line.
Taking a look at the numbers it becomes interesting to see that the Cardinals offense gave up four touchdowns from turnovers. The 28 points are direct scores off of fumble or interception returns. Adjusting the numbers for the defense, the Cardinals would have given up just 333 points with an average of 20.8 points per game. The adjusted points total would place the Cardinals defense in the top 15 in the NFL for both total points surrendered and points per game. In the end the defense were behind the proverbial eight ball due to the offense’s inability to score and move the football. It is easier to score on a tough defense when taking over in the red zone than taking over at your own 20 yard line. The Cardinals defense held the line as best it could, at least one unit protected the nest.