Heading into the 2018 season the Arizona Cardinals expected the defense to remain one of the best in the league. Through the first half of the season the defense has been spotty, giving up big gains on the ground and at times looking confused in pass defense. Defensively, the scheme and coaching staff have changed from a year ago but much of the talent on the roster remains the same. Today we take a look at the midseason grades for each position group on the Cardinals defense.
Defensive Line: C+
The defensive front has seen improvement with the return of defensive end Markus Golden to the lineup. Golden had missed the team’s first three games due while recovering a knee injury which shortened his 2017 campaign. His presence has helped take pressure off fellow pass rusher Chandler Jones. Jones leads the team with 6.5 sacks through the first eight games. Where the defense has struggled is maintaining gap integrity in the ground game. The defense is the fourth worst in total yards surrendered on the ground. Arizona is giving up 143 yards per game on the ground. Part of the issue has been injuries to defensive tackles Robert Nkemdiche and Corey Peters. The bye week has allowed much of the health woes to alleviate themselves, but time will tell just how prosperous the unit can become this season.
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Defenses switching schemes can work if the personnel is in place to fit what the new scheme requires. Unfortunately the Cardinals did nothing during the offseason to address the linebacker position. Head coach Steve Wilks brought over his 4-3 scheme from his time with the Panthers. Carolina has a talented group of linebackers headlined by Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson. Arizona has relied on a unit led by Josh Bynes and Haason Reddick. Reddick is in his second season and has needed to adjust to his new role as an undersized inside linebacker. Bynes has played well considering his lack of pedigree but has also struggled with his lack of size. Deone Bucannon has finally begun to see substantial playing time. At this time the linebackers are the obvious weak link on the defense but the unit isn’t expected to get any reinforcements moving forward.
The secondary is heavy on safeties. Wilks and defensive coordinator Al Holcomb stated during training camp that they would operate with multiple safeties on the field. Budda Baker has led the unit with his play as has veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson. Peterson is second on the team with two interceptions while free agent signing Tre Boston leads the defense with three. The secondary has led the Cardinals to give up just 224.6 passing yards per game on the year, good enough for seventh best in the NFL. Arizona’s defensive backfield will have their hands full during the second half of the season with games against the Chiefs, Chargers, Packers, Falcons, and Rams. The secondary will need to be up to the task if the Cardinals are to have any chance at success.
Special Teams: C
The Arizona kicking game has been a mixed bag through the first eight weeks. Kicker Phil Dawson has gone one for three from attempts 40 yards or more. However, Dawson has made all three attempts from inside of 40 yards as well as all 12 extra point attempts. Punter Andy Lee is averaging 48 yards per punt and has a long of 61 yards. Where the unit has struggled is in defending punts. Opposition is averaging just over 10 yards per return on punts, the fourth most in the NFL. Part of the issue has been the lack of hang time on Lee’s kicks but the unit has also struggled with missed tackles in one on one situations. Rookie Christina Kirk has primarily handled punt return duties and is averaging just under eight yards a return. Brandon Williams has primarily handled kickoffs and is averaging about 19 yards a return. Both players are slowly seeing their averages increase.
Steve Wilks is a first time head coach. Al Holcomb and Byron Leftwich are first time coordinators. The coaching staff have struggled to find winning game plans this season and has often drawn the ire of fans and the media. Mike McCoy ran the offense into a brick wall to start the season before his tenure as Cardinals offensive coordinator came to an end following a lopsided loss to the Broncos. Leftwich has led the offense to just one game thus far but the difference has been significant. Holcomb and Wilks continue to tinker with the defensive lineup in order to hide the holes on the roster. The staff is learning on the fly and it has been obvious.
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At the end of the day the defense remains the best chance for Arizona week in and week out. The unit led the way to the team’s first victory against the 49ers and did just enough to complete the season sweep over San Francisco. Arizona’s defense has kept the team in nearly every game this season despite spending significantly more time on the field than the offense. Through the first half of the season it is the defense which remains the backbone of the Cardinals and will need to stay that way to finish the 2018 season strong.